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Think of yourself as a writer

Authors need to understand the process by which their manuscript will be evaluated and take that into account when they submit. If a smart recent college graduate can’t decode what your book is about, you’re in trouble.

When I graduated from college I hoped to land a job working on a dude ranch in Wyoming. Instead, I fell into a career in scholarly publishing, acquiring books for Oxford University Presses. I realize now that as an editor I didn’t pay nearly enough attention to the prose. I cared more about the ideas than about how well they were expressed, at least that’s what I told myself. It wasn’t true.

I would stand over the credenza to choose which of the many long-ago-submitted manuscripts I was going to tackle next. I liked manuscripts with subheads that helped to signpost the argument. Some looked inviting—they got me interested at the first sentence, and I kept reading while I walked back to my office. However, the ones with paragraphs that went on forever, their page-long sentences cobbled together with semicolons, told me the authors didn’t give a hoot about my experience as a reader. Giant blocks of quoted material suggested the author was unwilling or unable to think independently. If the first few sentences contained heaps of words that no one ever spoke out loud, I knew I’d need a cup of coffee. Those were the manuscripts I left for later. Sometimes it would be months before I would get to them. Many months.

Do yourself a favor before you submit your next manuscript to a publisher. Shrink it by 50 percent and scroll down the text on your computer screen. What does the visual presentation tell readers before they even start to read? Does it look like midtown Manhattan, all tall buildings and packed sidewalks with no breathing space? Does it look like a suburb, every paragraph exactly the same? Does it look like the plains, arid and vast? What are you conveying by the way you’ve chosen to structure your prose? Are you aware, even, that you’re making such choices?

You have fewer than 50 pages to get the editors’ attention. Your job is to make their job easier. What are you arguing? Why should anyone care? The editor is going to have to write copy to convince others at the press that it’s worth publishing. Ideally, in doing so, he or she should be able to lift sentences and paragraphs from the manuscript. Your sentences and paragraphs. The introduction is where you bring the readers in; you have to entice them to come with you for the next 400 pages. (If your manuscript is 800 pages, I’m sorry, but you need to cut it.) Do you start with a declarative sentence, as if pronouncing from Mount Olympus, but say something obvious and bland? Do you make reference to complicated ideas in shorthand and cant? Is it clear to the reader, from the outset, why your topic warrants a book?

There are a zillion good ways to start a book well, and even more ways to do it badly. There are no rules, no secrets, no standard formats. What you have to do is make sure that no matter who picks up your manuscript for a first read, the importance of its argument will be clear. And remember, the argument is not the same as the topic. A book that is purely descriptive is unlikely to be published. Someone has to need to read it. Pointing out what is “interesting”—to you—is never enough.

Given the economics of publishing, lots of people will need to read your book. No one can afford to publish monographs for tiny scholarly niches. Increasingly, books have to reach across disciplines to warrant publication. Make sure your prose is not shutting out readers.

We don’t talk about the writing unless it’s surprisingly good or shockingly bad. Until recently it never occurred to me that a manuscript could be rejected on first pass simply because the prose wasn’t good enough—even though I did exactly that thousands of times.

Everyone knows that you have to have a good argument, do solid research, make an important contribution to one or more fields. But you also have to think about the writing. So my big insight of late is that I never thought of my authors as writers, because most of them didn’t present themselves that way. That’s a problem. If you are writing a book, you should think of yourself as a writer, and write accordingly.

Rachel Toor is an associate professor of creative writing at Eastern Washington University, in Spokane. Her Web site is
Excerpted from an article that originally appeared in The Chronicle of Higher Education.
TAA sponsors an academic authoring workshop presented by Rachel Toor entitle “Book-worthy: How Smart Academics Write To Get Published”. Learn more about TAA’s workshop program