Textbook Writing 101: An Interview with Michael Spiegler

Michael Spiegler

Michael Spiegler

Michael Spiegler is a professor in the Department of Psychology at Providence College. A successful textbook and academic author for more than 40 years, he is the author of 16 textbooks, including Personality, now in its 8th edition, and Contemporary Behavior Therapy, now in its 5th edition, both of which have been groundbreaking as textbooks and in redefining essential conceptual perspectives in their fields. Spiegler has also authored a professional book, 14 book chapters, and 21 articles and has delivered more than a 120 professional presentations.

As a sponsored presenter in TAA’s workshop program, Spiegler offers a textbook authoring workshop entitled Textbook Writing 101. Here he shares some of his textbook writing insights and tips.

ContemporaryPsychotherapies ContemporaryBehaviorTherapyTAA: How did you get started writing textbooks?

Michael Spiegler: “The stimulus that launched my textbook writing career was an inquiry from a publisher’s sales rep about writing a textbook in personality psychology. Besides seeking textbook adoptions from professors, sales reps are the primary source of initially recruiting textbook authors. In my case, the solicitation came indirectly. I was in graduate school when a publisher’s sales rep said to my dissertation advisor, ‘We are looking for a new textbook in personality psychology and wondered if you could recommend someone who might write it.’ Typical of my advisor’s bravado, he responded, ‘Do you want the best person?’ When the sales rep answered ‘of course,’ my advisor simply said, ‘You are looking at him, but there is one proviso. I need to write it with one of my graduate students.’ I was the graduate student he had in mind, and I jumped at the chance. I enjoyed writing and in my mind writing a book was the ultimate in writing—but writing a book is something that just a few very talented (other) people did and therefore not something that I ever expected to do. I guess I was wrong, and therein lies a lesson for aspiring textbook authors: don’t underestimate what you are capable of doing.”

TAA: What is the first piece of advice you have for an academic who is considering writing a textbook?

MS: “Know what you’re getting into. Writing a textbook is a challenging and rewarding endeavor that involves a large investment of time over an extended period. It is not for everyone, and it is important to have an idea about whether you possess the personal and professional prerequisites for textbook writing, have sound reasons for wanting to write a textbook, and have a realistic picture of the commitment in time and energy that it will entail. Because of the importance of these considerations, I typically begin my Textbook Writing 101workshops by covering each of them in some detail.”

TAA: In terms of getting started with a project, what is your square one?

MS: “Get started. One of the advantages of writing a book is that there is so much to write and so many tasks to complete (e.g., finding and reading resources, developing special features, and creating illustrations). If you are having trouble getting started— initially or at any time in your writing—just choose a section to draft or rewrite or a task to work on.”

TAA: What advice do you have about the writing process in terms of organization and scheduling?

MS: “There are two types of organization—ideas and resources—which must come in that order. Begin with a clear picture of where you are going and while working on the details, always keep the picture in mind and where the pieces fit. Typically, the introductory chapter outlines what the reader can expect to find in the book, which is why it has to be finalized once all the other chapters have been written. However, writing a preliminary draft of the introductory chapter at the outset will focus your writing. This rough draft is written knowing full well that the contents of the book will change somewhat (and maybe a lot) over the course of writing, which is inevitable because writing a book is an evolving process and product.

Once you know where you are going, you will know what resources to gather (a task students can help you with). The key to organizing resources is to have a system for keeping track of them, knowing where to put your hand or mouse on a given resource when you need it. Also, if your textbook includes references, be sure you document the citations as you make use of them rather than waiting until the end, which inevitably will lead to the vexing and sometimes unanswerable question: ‘Where did that idea or quote come from?’

As for scheduling, the most important rule is to set up uninterrupted and undisturbed writing times (not answering phone calls, emails, and knocks on the door). Find the time of day and length of writing periods that work best for you. Write at least several times a week—more frequent writing periods keep up your momentum, continuity, and trains of thought.

TAA: What do you consider to be the dos and don’ts of writing a textbook proposal?

MS: “Do start with a clear vision of what you want to write and how it is different and
better than existing texts. For the latter, make honest comparisons with your book’s existing competitors. Provide sufficient details (e.g., tentative table of contents with chapter titles and major sections of each chapter) so that the editor and reviewers can see more than a vague idea of what your book will look like. Sell the editor on your book project by describing its essence in a 30-second ‘sound bite’ (50–100 words) that gets at what is special/different and why it is needed. (Writing such a ‘sound bite’ is one of the exercises I use in my textbook writing workshops.) Let your passion for the book come through in your proposal. Make it interesting and fun to read. Because of the importance of a textbook proposal, it is a major topic in my textbook writing workshops.

Don’t avoid my advice for the dos.”

TAA: Can you share some important lessons you have learned?

MS: “Continue being open to learning about textbook writing and improving your writing in general. Not only have I been writing textbooks for more than 40 years, but for almost half that time I have been helping others write good textbooks through workshops, presentations, and courses. Still, I continue to learn from other textbook writers (picking their brains and looking at their textbooks to get ideas for pedagogy, expression, and features) as well as from the questions participants in my workshops ask (as Anna in the ‘King and I’ says, ‘by your pupils you’ll be taught’).

The rewards of textbook writing must come from the process and not the end product. Sure, it feels great to finally see your book in print, but that source of satisfaction is hardly sufficient to sustain you through years of work that must be satisfying in themselves.”

TAA: What is your philosophy on textbook pedagogy?

MS: “A textbook is first and foremost a teaching tool, a learning resource for students. The biggest challenge and what I find most rewarding about textbook writing is translating classroom teaching techniques into textbook pedagogy. In fact, that is the topic of my discussion session at the 2013 TAA conference this June in Reno. The session will examine common classroom teaching techniques—such as lecture, discussion, debate, Socratic dialogue, and active learning exercises—and explore how they can be adapted for a textbook. The adaptations draw on one’s creativity—thinking outside the box—and writing skills. For example, it would seem that lecturing, the most popular form of teaching in college classrooms, would seamlessly adapt for a textbook. Record a lecture, transcribe it, and, voila, you have text for your book. Not so. What is communicated in a lecture comes not only from words but also from paralinguistic cues such as tone, volume, and pacing as well as a host of nonverbal cues such as facial expressions and body language. Incorporating those critical communication variables involves skillful writing. That challenge and others will be discussed in my session in Reno.”

TAA: What do you enjoy most about textbook writing?

MS: “It combines my enjoyment of writing and my passion for teaching.”

TAA: What do you value about your TAA membership?

MS: “The opportunity to meet, collaborate with, and, in some cases, develop close friendships with interesting, talented, and creative colleagues from diverse fields who are interested in something I am passionate about. I also value the noncompetitive openness to sharing and helping that is a hallmark of TAA.”