Thursday, July 16, 2020

How I went from dissertation to book: escaping blank pages, part 1

I shy away from blank pages as a writer - all that empty space, and me with nothing to say…! Blank pages are harder to face the more the filled pages will eventually be judged, such as when I wrote my book proposal, and the greater the number of blank pages it feels like there are, as when I first sat down thinking “I’m going to start my book now.” Last time I mentioned that I’ve looked for ways to, in effect, make the page less blank. I’ve also looked for ways to make it feel like I have fewer blank pages in front of me, by breaking big projects up into lots of small tasks. In what follows I want to tell you how I did this with my article, my book proposal, and the process of moving from dissertation to book.

My article argued that an apparently wonky technical thing - how employers secured their liability for employee injuries under workers' compensation laws - created big incentives for employment discrimination in the early 20th c. US, and that this transformed lots of large companies. It later became a revised chapter in my book. To write the article I used an article by Margot Canaday, author of the fantastic book The Straight State, as a template. Her article was about the GI Bill and its ramifications for gay and lesbian people. I picked it because I knew it well and liked it a lot. I didn't want to spend time finding an article as a template, partly just to save time. I also knew myself well enough to know that if I looked around and found something new I would be distracted by the ideas in it - I would be busy thinking about article’s contents and what I thought about them, rather than about the article’s structure. I also picked Professor Canaday’s article because her work was broadly the general type of work I wanted to do - I wanted my article to be an example of a broadly similar approach to history - but my article and hers were not really on the same immediate subject matter. That way I could think of it entirely as a model to work from and not think about its content.

Having settled on an article to use as a model, I made a quick reverse outline of her article. I discussed in my second blog post how I reverse outlined a draft of my dissertation. My reverse outline of Professor Canaday’s article was less involved but it was the same basic exercise: what were the sections, what kind of work did each one do, and what kinds of paragraphs were there in the sections (say, narrative account, historiographic scene-setting, summary of argument, presentation of evidence, contribution to argument, something like that). This gave me a finite to-do list. Instead of an article-length stack of blank pages, I had paragraph-long blank spaces, which were far less intimidating. Where my reverse outline of Professor Canaday’s article said there was a vignette, I wrote a vignette. Where there was a summary of the historiography relevant to the article, I wrote a summary of the historiography relevant to my article. Where Canaday had a summary of her argument, I wrote “[paragraph summarizing argument goes here]” because I was still figuring out my argument. (I went back late in the process after thinking and writing a lot about my sources and filled that in.)

This way of proceeding gave me a decent draft of the article that friends, colleagues, and mentors could read for me. I revised in light of their feedback then submitted it, got a very demanding but largely positive set of reviews that required pretty major revisions which changed the contents and structure a lot.

I followed a similar process with my book proposal. Several colleagues kindly shared their proposals with me so I had a sense of some different possibilities. Ultimately my first draft was modeled on the structure of Karen Tani's proposal (for her excellent book States of Dependency) which she generously shared with me. I picked this for similar reasons to why I picked Professor Canaday's article as a model for my own article, and also because I wanted to submit my proposal to the same press that published Professor Tani’s book. Again the process worked similarly: where there was a narrative account of something, I wrote a narrative account related to my subject, where there was a summary of the chapters, I wrote a summary of the chapters for my book. As with my article, my proposal changed in response to feedback I got on the draft, but writing the draft this way was very effective for me. It shifted my perspective from ‘I have a proposal-size stack of blank pages and no idea what to write on them’ to ‘I have a clear to-do list consisting of writing prompts,’ which made the pages less blank. It also made the tasks my to-do list much shorter and actually actionable, in contrast to the beginning when my to-do list said ‘write a draft book proposal.’

When it came to beginning my book manuscript, I copied my chapter overviews from my proposal into new files. I planned for the book to have nine chapter-equivalent units - an intro, three numbered chapters, an interlude, and three numbered chapters, a conclusion, and a coda. I created nine files, one for each of those parts of the book, and I pasted into each one the parts of the book proposal that were relevant to that planned part of the book. I called these ‘raw material files.’ As I mentioned in a previous post, I cultivated a habit of spending a short session most work days doing free writing - writing rapidly to brainstorm and think through ideas. Periodically if I noticed one of these free writes was relevant to one of the parts of the book, I put it in the relevant raw material file.

With that set of files in place, I next copied my dissertation and printed it out on paper. I decided to start with chapter one. I had written my dissertation chapters all out of order and want to try writing my book in order, planning to write the introduction later. I reread the summary I’d written of chapter one in my book proposal, did a quick free write on the point of chapter one, looked over the dissertation table of contents to see which parts related to chapter one of my book (my dissertation had a different organization than my book). I guessed that parts of the dissertation introduction and first two chapters would go into chapter one of my book, so I skimmed those parts of the dissertation. In that skim I reread it looking for the seeds and raw material for the book I planned to write. (Credit where it’s due, I did this on the advice of Laurie Matheson from University of Illinois Press, who kindly had a long conversation with me about my work in 2015. In that conversation I said I eventually planned to read the dissertation to look for what I should cut out to trim it down for a book. She suggested instead that I read the dissertation and look for what pieces I wanted to keep in order to serve my future book. That proved invaluable advice for me.) Everywhere I found something that served chapter 1, I wrote a 1 in the margin. At the end I did another quick free write.  Then I pasted the relevant dissertation sections/paragraphs and the freewrite into my raw material file for that chapter.

This left me with a copy of the dissertation with some holes in it, which helped me later when I went back to the dissertation - having broken the dissertation somewhat I was less tempted to fall back into its structure. This also left me with a large disorganized set of notes for chapter one.

Next I took the paragraph or two that I had summarizing chapter one and made that into an outline. I numbered each sentence in the summary, reread the summary, did another free write about chapter one, then printed out my raw material file. I looked at the first point in my outline then skimmed my raw material writing a 1 for everything that went with that first point. Then I did another free write about that part of the chapter and put that under item 1 as well. Then I read sentence 2 in my outline and similarly skimmed for material related to that part of the outline, punctuated by free writing and so on.

I proceeded this way for what felt like a long time, in small increments, while busy with teaching and parenting. It felt like an overly complicated process and I was impatient while doing it, but I found that it worked very well for me because, as I said, it meant I had very few blank pages and I had many tasks. I also found I could do different kinds of tasks with different degrees of mental energy. Writing when tired was excruciating (and teaching a 3-3 load with two kids, and not long afterward, three kids, meant I was constantly tired every day, certainly by 10 or 11am), but skimming a few pages of my raw material file and looking for things that went with a specific outline point was something I could do while tired. It also worked very well in very short chunks of time - ten and twenty minutes here and there. Spreading the work out into small intervals like that also meant I was constantly thinking about bits of my book, so I often had ideas that I could capture in the morning free writes I was doing.

As previously, I’m going to split this post in two here to keep the length down. In this first part I talked about how I sifted the dissertation to find raw material for the book and how I organized that raw material. In part two I’m going to talk about how I worked with that raw material to begin producing the book.

- Nate Holdren