Posted on

Textbook writing advice for new authors

Dear “New” Author,

Here’s some textbook writing advice I wish an “old” author had given me. It’s simply a scrambling of pointers based on learning the hard way – through mistakes.

Book and Supplement Copies
Buy copies of your competitor’s books and supplements. Every executive editor has access to “the list” that identifies titles and the estimated numbers of these books selling in your market. They don’t like to share this list, but they should tell you the top three competitive books. Another great resource for books is the publisher booths at your annual association meeting. All the books are there for viewing and available at discount prices. Regarding supplements, it’s best that you don’t write these. Publishers hire people just to write them. It’s too much to write a major textbook and the supplements. Trust me on this. But if you have to write them, request supplement desk copies your publisher has created for their other textbooks, and the closer to your book, the better. The editor is right; forget about the supplements until the text is completed. They have the option not to print your book until the very end and all writers should know this gruesome fact.

Getting Started
The extended table of contents is your road map. Don’t start without it. Make sure you have covered what’s important in the field and compare it to the TOC of your competitors. It should not be over 30 chapters since a semester is 15 weeks and 2 chapters per week is maximum load for students. Fewer chapters are better, but it all depends on the field and chapter length. Get other faculty in the field to review it to make sure the order aligns with how most of them teach the course or else even if it’s a good book, they may not adopt it. Listen to a gifted editor’s advice…they really know.

Don’t just start writing. Follow the TOC and subdivide it within the chapter with headers. Realize that editors will mark your submitted manuscript with [H1], [h2], [h3] and [h4] headers, and or you could do it for them.

[h2] Header Two
[h3] Header Three
[h4]Header four (italicized)

Chapters should be comprehensive of any given topic and should flow from header to header in a step by step linear upward format of learning. This might be hard for right brainers, but these are the textbooks that sell. However, if you are too much left brain, it will be dry. You can get away with “random” in class, but not in a textbook. A topic sentence should start each paragraph, and a starter paragraph should start each major section explaining to the reader the headers that will follow. Transition sentences are needed to keep it flowing. Otherwise, it’s chop chop and the book may get chopped. There is a razor’s edge in writing that is a high rope balancing walk for all writers.

The Book
All publishers have a book of rules for submitting a manuscript. I read it, but it was horribly dry and what really helps is seeing a sterling manuscript chapter sample.

Find Book Length
Do not start until you have an estimated book and per chapter page number expectation from the editor. Ask how many illustrations (tables, figures, pics) they want per chapter. Better yet, ask how many signatures (see Page Control document) they are estimating for the book length. Book length often approximates the competitors books. A chapter in my field is approximately 30-60 double-spaced typed pages (1” margins; includes chapter questions, references and tables; but not art or figures). Start with your favorite chapter, the one where your heart is at.

Header Fill In
My system is to I look through my research materials according to the outline of headers and start filling in bullet points under the appropriate headers. This is content filling. The next round is combining that information with my head knowledge through my writing ability. The last round is weaving these bullets together through polished writing. The 2nd, 3rd and 4th+ drafts follow where I move material around until it all makes sense.

Do the references as you go and not later…ever. If possible, cut and paste directly from index source to avoid mistakes. Never list references numerically in the text or revisions are a nightmare. Go alphabetical and number them. Take some time to select the right style that’s easiest to edit. The editor may already have their style in mind so find out what it is before you start.

I have used EndNotes a few times, but they got removed during production. I have not figured this one out yet. Despite potential mistakes, EndNotes is the best option. The slow method for references during revisions is to:

  • Remove all discarded references in the reference section (double-check that any dropped references are not cited in the text elsewhere),
  • Add new references alphabetically (that are numbered sequentially),
  • Add new references to the text by last name (name) and not by #.
  • Avoiding spaces, commas in the ( ), allows you to double-click on it (a block covers it) and just type in the new ref #s without erasing.
  • Print it out the ref section single spaced to cut down on the page #s,
  • Place the new set of numbers to the left of the old numbers or new ref marked “x,”
  • And then cross ref off as you go through all the “(“.
  • Go through the tables and figures to make sure you get those too.
  • Using your “eye” is not recommended.
  • Big hint. NEVER cite references as they appear sequentially in the text because text gets moved around, cut, added, etc. My editor has two monitors so she can do the references as she goes. However, unless you number them first, you may accidentally add those that have been dropped, but not erased from the list.

They call it art – Figures, Tables, Pics. For each one, you’ll need a “[Insert Figure 19.2 here]” bolded, and on a separate line. Boxes will start with [Start Box here] & end with [End Box here]. Tables and Terms follow references, but Figures and Pics are submitted in a separate file. Label each one Fig 1-1, Table 1-1, Pic 1-1 according to the required style (or each one has to be changed).

Very important: You need permission for all art pieces if they are not yours. All tables need permission unless you create one from text and then you have to say “adapted from” if it’s close to someone’s original text or table. Make a note as such under each table because the editors will ask 3+ years later. More important: You must keep a copy of the Permissions Form with each art piece. Don’t rely on the publisher because they change art permission companies, publishers get bought and sold and these important papers somehow get lost. KEEP A COPY. The author is primarily responsible for this permission so get a copy from them if you are not doing this. Be aware that new permissions are required with each new edition, unless a lifelong permission was
obtained the first time. During revisions, they go through ART and PERMISSIONS either by chapters or at the very end. Ask for the former, or be prepared for a fast turnaround load at the end of the project that is barely bearable.

Filing System
Create a file cabinet with a file for each chapter. Divide each chapter file into:
1-Edits (your edits and important notes);
1-Chapter (manuscript versions)
1-Proofs (once the wonderful day arrives; keep the marked up copies although all this is
going digital so keep files electronically);
1-Reviews (reviewer comments; these are for the book’s success);
1-Art, Keep the art in the order found in each chapter. Label each one Fig 1-1, Table 1- 1, Pic 1-1.
1-Sci REF (Science references), Keep all the references in alphabetical order with a “LAST NAME” Year in the top left corner of each article.
1-Gen REG (General references).
The number “1” is for edition 1 (Ed1) and you repeat this method with each edition. Use the publisher’s abbreviation and edition number of your book for your files. After publication, ask the editor in advance for a disc containing the entire book (Word chapters and PDF art) so you are ready for the next edition in 2.5 or so plus years.

Electronic Copy
Use initials of book as that’s what editor’s do and then a number for the version (XY1)
XY1_Master Plan. This is for your schedule and important papers.
XY1_Original Chapters (you want a clean copy)
XY1_Original Art (clean copy)
XY1_New Chapters
XY1_New Art (make changes using Adobe sticky notes, etc.)
XY_Emails (editors/writers)
XY_Emails (content)
XY1_References. To store abstracts, PDF articles, etc. by chapter numbers.

Time Management
Pick your best 4 hours a day and write on those 5 days a week. You can do more hours as long as it is not writing, but that’s just me. Doing more may burn you out. Summers or sabbaticals are best. I kept a log of my hours per chapter (dated) so I knew how long it took and what to expect next time. It also let me see that I was making headway because writing is slow work and you often don’t see the results. It’s best to have your alone time and space. Take weekly rests and yearly vacations. Don’t push through.

Get a deadline date from the publisher for the first 3 chapters and the entire book. Divide the number of chapters by the number of given weeks to see how many chapters they are asking for per and week and month. See if it is reasonable. Ask your editor for a “schedule” so you can both keep on track. Some publishers leave the job to the author and it can go in limbo without a self-generated calendar.

Chapter Check
Give the first chapter to the editor and ask for content and format feedback corrections.

Chapter Reviews
The editor sends out 3 chapters to 3 or more faculty for review. They take 3 or so months to get back to you with feedback. By that time you are down the road and all their revisions may have to be incorporated into what you’ve already done. The second review comes back and the process repeats itself. Be ready to be frustrated.

Get a schedule for the revisions and realize that publishers tell you at the last minute when they want a revision. It’s usually every 2.5 years. For every revision, 1) obtain a copy of the book on disc (Chapters in Word [not RTF]; Art in PDF), and 2) put aside a copy of the previous edition for “marking up.” I place the last edition in the beginning of my filing cabinet for easy access. Read and mark up the book chapters prior to doing the references that are saved for the last minute to get the latest years in there. If you don’t need the “latest” references, you’re in luck because you can start revising anytime and it won’t be a rush job. For a revision, I need 6 months for 30 chapters and 3 of those months are over the summer when I’m off. On my 5th edition I finally hired a “writer” that I found at the American Medical Writer’s Association to help me update my 30-60 references per chapter. If you don’t, you’ll burn out and that’s why the authors change on books as the editions increase in number. Some authors drop out. People with graduate degrees know how to research the literature best, but that’s not a guarantee so I give them one chapter to do as a test. The going rate is $50+, and I asked for at least 6 references every hour inserted into the text and reference section (plus copies of the abstracts or articles), no more than 3 hours per chapter, with an invoice every 3 chapters (includes start/end times listed per chapter). If you leave them at their own discretion, the bill may be big.

Author’s Agreement
Don’t let any other writers/editors work on the manuscript without a signed author’s agreement stating that their work is a “work for hire” and mark each check the same. This avoids other workers from claiming your authorship and/or royalties. An informal agreement template is attached, but this has not been reviewed by an attorney.

For all writing, I swivel my Dell monitor so that it is vertical and increase the zoom so one page fills my 24” flat screen (reduced glare) monitor. A secondary monitor on the right allows me to work on the internet, other documents, or side-by-side manuscript comparisons.

Some costs are tax deductible for a given number of years, after which you have to have some writing income to continue the deductions.

Hope this helps,
Author Amy (working on this instead of my 5th edition)