Featured Member: Textbook author shares how to maintain enthusiasm, organize production process

Robert ChristophersonRobert W. Christopherson is Professor Emeritus of Geography at American River College (1970-2000). He is the author of the leading physical geography texts in the U.S. and Canada all published by Pearson Prentice Hall. He and his nature photographer wife Bobbe have completed twelve expeditions to the Arctic and Antarctic regions since 2003, gathering information and photos for his books, Geosystems, 9/e, Elemental Geosystems, 8/e, Geosystems Canadian Edition, 4/e, and Applied Physical Geography, 9/e.

Here Christopherson shares some of the secrets to his success, including the value of building an integrated web for your work, maintaining enthusiasm, and organizing for optimal production.

Geosystems TextbooksTAA:  As the author of the market-leading physical geography textbook series Geosystems, how has enthusiasm for your work played a role in your authoring success?

Robert Christopherson: “The key to having genuine enthusiasm for the work is the degree to which it is integrated into your teaching, your work, and your life. Authoring is an isolating task by its nature—analogous to lighthouse or fire-lookout duty. I feel it is best to set the work in a full virtual web for a connected sense in which the book is a kind of focal point. This connectedness supports the author and sets a base on which true, sustainable enthusiasm is built. I joined TAA in 1989, where I met other authors in the same boat with similar experiences—this was invaluable to my career! With my books in hand, I was able to teach from my text for the balance of my classroom career. Teaching in the classroom crucible helped build the text, and the authoring work enhanced my teaching methods—show, discuss, apply—a synergy that fueled more confidence and therefore more sustainable enthusiasm.

Enthusiasm goes beyond the field of study, or the contract in hand. Rather it is rooted in embracing all aspects of the task. Adrenaline rush, royalty dreaming, ego inflation, and even a printed edition, cannot fuel or sustain the enthusiasm needed for the heavy lifting of authoring over a long haul.

As I mentioned above, there is an on-going attempt at integration among elements in my work, forming a supportive web. The constant challenge is to keep a singularity of sorts in mind, integrating purpose, work, knowledge, beliefs, the craft, expeditions, teaching, and the text project—all together. I think genuine enthusiasm arises from the emotional support of thinking of such a supportive web surrounding the focal point.”

TAA: Is your enthusiasm fueled mainly by your subject matter, or by the writing process as well? How do you integrate your research and writing processes?

RC: “All of the above, certainly, enthusiasm flows from the wonder of words and infinite possibilities as writing is a true creative art. Writing and editing feel like working with oils or watercolors or clay modeling, as you create something on a blank page. However, the craft is just a tool of expression for research-informed text and art construction—outline, text, and art programs, caption manuscript, pedagogy, and compositing.

Again, feeling the full web of variables helps support the work overall. Simply sitting down to a blank page to ‘write my book,’ is a poor approach. I’ve talked to authors that wrote the manuscript and then added the figures, arts and photos as an afterthought, as opposed to integrated in the work. In a holistic approach, the arts, photos, key terms, key learning concepts (behavioral objectives), and more, are all in place before the first word is typed. When you actually begin to compose the words, the work is supported and surrounded by the web you build and maintain. The caption manuscript should be crafted in its own document, with both documents open on screen, as you choreograph the balance of words. Ah, there is that feeling of enthusiasm!

I use large broadsheets of paper on which I interpret, synthesize, record, and extract material during research, especially in the first edition of each text. These sheets end up with lines, connections and highlights, and are set on the console that surrounds my keyboard and monitor. I compose the early drafts from these elements. I find this more effective; it allows my view of the whole as opposed to note cards.”

TAA: At times when you have lost enthusiasm for your writing, what have you done to regain your momentum and focus?

RC: “I admit to reaching moments of fatigue from long hours, vexing production issues, and the like, but have not experienced a loss of enthusiasm for the work. In the web analogy I constructed above, if someone felt a loss of enthusiasm, I imagine it is caused by losing sight of the ‘big picture,’ of setting yourself in one compartment of the task, out on a loose thread in the web. Solution: reconnect all aspects of the work to what you are stuck on at the moment. In your minds eye, have a virtual audience of earnest students in the writing studio. Your work is helping those students learn, i.e., change behavior!”

TAA: Authoring multiple books and editions successfully requires extreme organization and critical thinking. Discuss the key aspects of your method to the production madness.

RC: “I have developed five key aspects to my production process:

1) Thoroughly organize your computer desktop for the project with folders by chapter for manuscript, photo research (including cover, part and chapter opening photo candidates), reviews, drafts, production, etc. Engage in text design and have a folder as design iterations develop. As production begins, have folders for page proofs (1st, 2nd, 3rd pass pages). Update a full contact list for all the publisher’s people on your project; make a goal to have no ‘mystery’ people on your final copyright page—actively work with them and contact them.

2) If this is a later edition of the work, maintain a physical and an electronic ‘Preparation File’ from the day the last edition is completed, containing possible leads, new research, satellite images and photo leads, source contacts, etc. Important source materials are relevant papers you hear at your professional meetings.

3) Take a copy of the Brief TOC and draw in vertical columns to enter submission dates for text msp., art msp., 1st, 2nd, 3rd pass pages, final page proofs, etc. Here you record the dates you submitted each item for reference. This is your essential TOC progress-tracking chart! This is an invaluable reference, so all can be held to deadlines and not just the author.

4) Keep a surveying eye open for late-breaking events, discoveries, findings, and research in your field for items to add to the text. I have a bottom-of-the-page short feature box called ‘GeoReports,’ previously ‘News Reports,’ that accommodate such items, three or four per chapter. Or, if possible, work such currency into the chapter text.

5) Engage in every step of the process and not just the text and art and caption manuscripts. Make sure production knows you are a full-court-press author. In first-pass page proofs, really read at a granular level and examine call-out placement for figures, compositing and layout, and avoidance of end-of-chapter blank pages, or ‘air’ on pages. A great benefit to layout is accomplished if you place in the art manuscript the sizing you want for figure elements (width x depth). If you do not guide sizing, people that have no idea what is important will do it, sometimes with quite random results.”

TAA: Do you have any tips for setting up a writing workspace that can help increase organization and production?

RC: “My professorship was at a college that had a rule about producing copyrighted materials on campus, stipulating a 50% share in royalties. For this reason, I always maintain a home office in which to work. The weekend, vacation, holiday recess, and summer writing ‘golden hours’ take you away from the family, whereas a home office merely takes you down the hall. A writing studio signals to all that you are serious and the work is real.

Customize the work space with built-in desks, a surrounding console for your computer monitor and key board, filing cabinets, shelves, bulletin boards, etc. My present writing studio is what is supposed to be a second bedroom with bath and closet. I took out the shower doors and set a floor in that space and have a bookcase there. The closet has shelves on two walls for storage and journal library, although electronic subscriptions is slowly freeing up that space. I have a large copy machine that is used less and less in this era. I recommend a sound system, satellite radio, television, communication (telephone and headset)—many different tasks require total silence whereas others allow for an old movie or music in the background. Avoid the ’desert island‘ feel to your salt-mine cell—make this a creative, personal space, a true writing studio—call it that!

Over many decades, I built such writing studios in garages, closets, and corners of great rooms, storage sheds on a patio, all before the availability of a spare bedroom. Working at dining room tables, or somewhere in front of the family, is not fair to you, the family, and is especially damaging to the work. Work with your accountant or enrolled agent and always deduct the cost of this writing studio, and its share of household overhead (as a percentage of floor space); place on your BFS Schedule C. I feel my writing studio is a critical component in my psychological stance in the face of climbing the mountains and slaying the dragons of authoring tasks!

As an author, I am a student of the discipline and a student of the process; therefore I truly feel I am a work in progress. The work seems to have an infinite horizon, ownership of it or claiming the right way to do it, is a silly assumption—please know this as you read my words…..the path continues!”

About Maureen Foerster

Director of Institutional Memberships & Meetings / Newsletter Editor
Text and Academic Authors Association