What I learned writing my first book

It’s here! Using Context in Information Literacy Instruction is finally available! I can’t believe it!

In honor of its release, I was inspired by the Five Things posts that appear on Chuck Wendig’s TerribleMinds blog to reflect one some of the lessons learned writing my first book project.

Book proposal wtf

Writing a book was something that had been on my mind for a while as a distant sort of “someday” goal that I would go back to and play around with every now and then. So when an editor from ALA Editions approached me after reading an article I’d published in C&RL News to see if I had any ideas for a larger project, I had a few ready to pitch him. Eventually, we settled on one that seemed viable, a follow-up to and expansion of some of the ideas I’d originally published in “Research is an Activity and a Subject of Study” a couple of years before.

He asked me to write up a proposal to share with his colleagues.

Now, because I’d been thinking about writing a book for a while, I had some sense of what a proposal was and what role it played in the publication process. But somehow I was not ready for some of the questions on the forms he sent me, which asked everything from what the book was about (easy!) and its title (?) to how many words I expected it to be (??) and how long it was going to take me to write (???).

I had…no idea how to answer any of that. So I consulted with a mentor who is much more experienced with book writing than I am and she gave me two recommendations. First, she said it was better to ask for more time than I thought I would actually need both because writing a book takes longer than you think and because it’s better to ask for too much time and not need it than not enough and end up submitting late. Cool. The second recommendation was to estimate the word count at something like 100,000-150,000 words.

This seemed reasonable. But when I asked the ALA editor who was working with me about length, he told me they were looking for books around 50,000 words. Oops. Luckily, I was able to correct that before submitting the final proposal.

I also asked for two years to complete the manuscript.

Apparently this estimated time frame was the subject of some debate at the meeting where my proposal was discussed. I got the impression, based on what my editor told me later, that asking for two years was a bit outrageous. But I did it because I’d never written a book before and didn’t know how long it was going to take me. And also because I had a six month sabbatical coming up where I knew I would need to be focused on other things.

I ended up taking a little over one year to complete the manuscript.

Lockdowns can be good things, sort of

If you’re wondering how I finished my entire book almost a full year ahead of schedule, I would like to tell you that the answer has something to do with my remarkable work ethic and time management skills. Actually, I will tell you that, because in some ways it does.

But really it’s because of COVID.

My book proposal was accepted in late March/early April 2020, just as the world was shutting down due to the pandemic. I suddenly found myself working from home with fewer assigned projects to work on than usual as we all struggled to adjust to our new reality. After the initial shock wore off, I became one of those people who used routine as a way to remain productive and thus keep my fears and anxieties at bay. Part of my routine was to work on my book for at least an hour every morning. Once my sabbatical started and my time was more or less fully my own, it became more like an hour and a half or two hours.

The reason I was able to devote so much time to this one project is because I had very little else to do. Seriously. I’d had all these big plans for my sabbatical, both work-related and not, but with everything shut down, I was pretty much trapped at home by myself 24 hours a day for a full year. Under these circumstances, I was able to get a full (very rough) draft of my book done by the end of December 2020 and submit the final manuscript (after it had been reviewed by a trusted colleague) by April or May.

Word count, lol

I mentioned earlier that thing about word count.

When my mentor estimated 100,000 or 150,000 words as the appropriate length for a book project, I didn’t think much of it. I’ve done National Novel Writing Month. A hundred thousand words didn’t sound THAT much harder than 50,000.

So when my editor told me that the target length was more like 50,000, I was actually a little disappointed. How could I possibly fit all of my ideas into such a reduced length?

What a sweet summer child I was.

It turns out writing 50,000 words in 30 days (as NaNoWriMo requires) is relatively easy because, you know, those words don’t have to be good. Writing 50,000 words that are actually good? About ideas that I normally only write about in 10-20 page articles?


I can’t even tell you how much I ended up sweating that word count, especially in the early going when I was struggling to write chapters that were more than 2,000 words long (when my target was 5,000, if the book was going to end up as long as it needed to be). Now, I understood that just because I’d said the book was going to be 50,000 words didn’t mean I was married to that number. If it ended up being shorter, it probably wouldn’t have been a huge deal.(1) But if I’d turned in something that was only half the length of what I promised, that seemed like it would be a problem. A problem that would be hard to fix since it’s always more difficult to add to something that’s too short than cut down something that’s too long.

The word count was a struggle the whole way through but what eventually helped was that I realized that I didn’t have to be concise in quite the same way as I did when I was writing an article. An idea that was only a sentence in an article could be a whole paragraph in a book. Paragraphs could become pages. Realizing I had more freedom to discuss my ideas in more detail helped me find ways to stretch things out while (hopefully) not making them sound too padded.

Sharing is caring

About two months after I started working on it, my editor asked to see the first couple of chapters. Because I was a first-time book author, he wanted to make sure everything was on track before I got too far into things. And, I assume, to ensure that I was capable of producing the work I’d promised in a timely manner.

Sharing these chapters with him was utterly terrifying. Not because my editor is a mean person. Not at all. But because I’d made some choices about the tone and organization of the book and I wasn’t sure how those choices would be received—I was fully prepared to be told I needed to change everything. I also may have had some lingering scars from my peer review experiences and didn’t have a sense yet of the ways in which the editing process is different from peer review. More about that in a second.

His reaction turned out to be much more positive than I was expecting. He made a few suggestions and basically told me to keep doing what I was doing.

So I did. Until the manuscript was more or less complete, I was the only person who saw any of it.

Then it came time to share the first few chapters with a different editor. I also decided, since I had some time, to send the full draft to a trusted colleague for an early review.

If I thought showing any of this to someone the first time was terrifying, this was something else again. Because by then I’d put almost a year into writing this thing and even though my confidence level in how good it was could swing wildly from one day to the next, I felt pretty committed to what I had come up with and I knew I was going to be heartbroken if these early readers told me it was terrible.

The same feeling happened again when I was working with the copy editor.

And again when I got the page proofs.

And I’m sure it’s going to happen again when people actually start reading the thing.

I can’t speak to that last part quite yet, but every time the book went through another stage of the editing process, I was reminded again of something about writing and publishing a book that’s utterly different from writing and publishing an article.

Being supported rather than torn down

Peer review is something of a blood sport. Not every reviewer treats it that way, but even the ones who don’t tend to act like the goal of the process is, at times, to prove that they’re smarter than you (the author) and that you’re not as good as you think you are.(2)

I’ve been so scarred by peer review that I fully expected the book editing process to work the same way: that it was the editors’ jobs to tear down or poke holes in whatever I had written. To tell me it wasn’t good enough for ALA Editions.

Now, obviously, part of the editing process is about giving feedback on things like content and form and I definitely received that. But at every stage, I was surprised all over again how supportive the editors were. Unlike with peer review, I really felt like this was a team of people who really wanted my project to succeed.

For some reason, this was especially surprising at the copy editing stage. Not because I’ve ever had a bad experience with a copy editor, per se, but because I know that as a writer I have a lot of bad habits and having my work copy edited felt like it was going to shine a big spotlight on those habits. It did, but not in a bad way. Instead, it was more like a conversation. One where the goal was to make sure my writing still sounded like me…just a smoother version of me. I was really happy with what we ended up with.

So now it’s time to put it out in the world and see what happens. And maybe decide what I’m going to write next. 😊


(1) Technically, I think I ended up around something like 45,000 words. I can’t remember if that includes the appendix or not.

(2) A peer reviewer actually said that last part to me once in the second round of reviews for one of my articles.

One thought on “What I learned writing my first book

  1. I see you have gained a lot of experience by writing your first book. You have shared with us all the things that you have learnt while writing a book in this article. I have also learnt a lot from your experience of book writing. Thank you for sharing this article with us.

    Liked by 1 person

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