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Textbook project multi-tasking: An interview with Karen Timberlake

Karen and Bill Timberlake
Karen Timberlake and her coauthor husband Bill.

Karen Timberlake has been writing chemistry textbooks for over 35 years, publishing more than 50 texts including subsequent editions, and support manuals. She is a Professor Emerita of Chemistry at Los Angeles Valley College, where she taught chemistry for 36 years.

Over the years Timberlake’s name has become associated with the strategic use of pedagogical tools that promote student success in chemistry and the application of chemistry to real-life situations. More than one-million students have learned chemistry using texts, laboratory materials, and study guides written by Timberlake.

Here Timberlake discusses her approach to textbook authoring and her strategies for managing multiple projects.

Timberlake Basic ChemistryTAA: What is your approach to textbook authoring?

Karen Timberlake: “When I started writing my first text book in the early 1970s, I had no idea of an approach to writing. In fact, I had a contract; I had written a set of behavioral objectives for a text, but not a chapter. Prior to that time I was changing the way I taught the general, organic, and biochemistry class by introducing nursing and health applications to chemistry topics. Because such applications seemed to interest the allied health students, I read nursing texts, respiratory therapy texts, and attended the nursing classes. My goal in writing a GOB textbook was to have a health application for every chemistry topic that I taught. My choice of a writing approach was to ‘talk’ to students as though we were in class. The benefit of ‘talk writing’ was the development of a comfortable reading level for students. This has remained by writing approach for the last 40 years.”

Timberlake ChemistryTAA: Do you have any writing or publishing advice that you can share with fellow authors?

KT: “Early in my writing experience, I learned that I could accomplish quite a bit of work by having a chapter or two of my manuscript or edited manuscript or pages with me. I do some writing while waiting for my dentist, waiting for our son at hockey practice early in the morning, on an airplane, or on a trip. I would find 30-45 minutes and work on a chunk of a chapter. Rather than thinking that I had to have several hours to sit down with a chapter, I broke that chapter into mini-writing goals. Then I would manage to complete one of those in that short space of time. By doing that several times, I could get a full chapter done. Regarding my regular schedule, on a typical morning, I sit down at the computer and continue with work into the afternoon, but I keep my schedule flexible so I can go to tennis or the gym or take care of my grandchildren.”

TAA: You have authored many texts, which translates to a multitude of revisions and editions. Do you have any tips on staying organized and working efficiently?

Timberlake Intro ChemistryKT: “I work on one of three textbooks every year. The process of a new edition begins with manuscript preparation in the fall. Early in my writing career, I was able to finish the text manuscript and then work on the study guide, instructor’s manual, test item file, and lab manual. Today, the schedules for all these writing projects are overlaid and I learned to multitask. Actually, I assign short goals to all the work so that I feel I have accomplished a part of one before I move on to another. There are times that I receive three different sets of pages at the same time. I have to admit I am a bit fanatical about staying on schedule. If I am behind schedule, I find I get frustrated, which impacts my ability to be creative and to complete projects. As a result I turn in projects that are complete but could use a bit more polishing because I know that I accomplish that when edits and pages come in.

I also take my current writing projects with me on all trips we take. With technology today, it is possible to download and upload pages all over the world as soon as production posts them on the ftp sites. This allows me to keep up with the progress of a text or a supplement.”

TAA: What is your experience with author collaboration?

KT: “In my writing career of 40 years, I have collaborated only with my husband, also a chemistry professor. I write the first draft of a chapter or part of a chapter. Then my husband reads it over, making corrections, asking questions, and adding comments. Using his suggestions, I go through the chapter again and fine tune it. Then we look at the topics and add figures or photos. We write Sample Problems to illustrate the problem solving involved with the topics, and write problem sets that follow each section as well as at the end of chapter.

Our collaboration on the text continues into dinner time. Whether we have dinner at home or go out, we often discuss some aspects of the text or some new things we want to try and add. I take a pencil and some paper with me because we often write down new ideas and features for a text we are working on. At times getting out of our offices is a helpful way to relax and our collaboration helps us develop new approaches to what we write.”

TAA: How has your use of pedagogical tools evolved?

KT: “When I started writing, learning goals were about the only pedagogical tools we used. Today, we incorporate much more pedagogy including a review of key math skills, activities to do at home, and photos that apply chemistry to everyday topics that are part of the student experience. We design figures and diagrams that graphically illustrate a topic, and utilize a macro-to-micro art program that shows the atomic structure of everyday items.

At the beginning of a chapter, we are now listing the chemical concepts necessary for chapter readiness and where they can be found. At the end of each chapter, we have a set of problems that focus on the major concepts in that chapter, followed by additional questions and problems, and set of more challenging problems. Every two or three chapters, we include a combining ideas problem set that contains problems that utilize all of the topics in the preceding chapters. We try to make sure we address the transitions between topics that give students difficulty. Our progressive approach using a variety of pedagogical tools for different learning styles helps students bridge the gaps that might otherwise impede further understanding. If we can reduce the anxiety that comes with learning chemistry, we feel we provide a more positive and successful learning environment.”

TAA: What do you value about your TAA membership?

KT: “We value our friendships with other TAA members knowing that we all go through similar experiences with writing our textbooks and understanding the publishing process. Our contacts with TAA provide much support and ideas to help our writing and improve our texts. We appreciate the staff at TAA and how they identify current topics of interest and concern to authors, which are very helpful to all of us.”