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Textbook development: 5 Tips for controlling length

You might be informed by your copy editor that your textbook manuscript is too long. Say, for example, your copy editor has returned five of your chapters marked as seriously over length. Instructions say to reduce length by the equivalent of three manuscript pages per chapter. Reading over the manuscript, barring a word here or there, you believe there is simply no way you can cut without destroying the brilliance and integrity of your exposition. You ask if the book can just be made sixteen pages longer. The answer, categorically, is no, because of the cost. What should you do?

1) Scour for wordiness and tighten your prose.

Especially look for strings of unnecessary prepositional phrases, unnecessary qualifying remarks, disclaimers, and elaborations. Change every sentence to active voice.

2) Search for paragraphs you can drop.

Especially drop a paragraph whose source citation is more than ten years old, unless this source is an essential classic. Also ruthlessly drop paragraphs that are in any way tangential or disgressionary. Then consider dropping extra examples and applications, shortening them, or substituting more economical ones.

3) Check that you have the prescribed number of pedagogical features and chapter elements.

Choose the best ones and then combine, condense, move, or drop any extras, however good they are. Consider repurposing the best of them for use in your ancillaries or supplements.

4) Where possible, condense and convert portions of narrative into a figure or table.

A figure or table may be able to replace twice as many lines or more of narrative text.

5) Where possible, drop long figures or tables and preserve the content in condensed or summarized narrative form.

For example, “Research clearly shows that sleep deprivation has a negative effect on productivity in the workplace (Smith, 2014)” may easily replace a graph occupying one-third of a book page.

Ask your editor for suggestions or assistance in reducing length. Especially identify and discuss any dropping of whole topics or headings and sections. Your TOC is already out in the marketplace, and the editor may have reason to believe that a proposed cut will undermine your product in its market. Elements that are essential to the publisher’s book plan must be retained, because this is the plan for marketing, advertising, prompting, and selling your work, already underway.

When working with a copy editor, avoid delivering a surprise for final manuscript. If in taking matters into your own hands you have exercised poor judgment, editors may not have time to fix it. They are required to hand off your manuscript to the compositor or packager by a certain date regardless of its readiness. If your product is significantly not ready, it may be cancelled or postponed at great loss to all.

When a book goes into pages, the compositor first performs a cast-off–a detailed length estimate based on the number of words per line and lines per page in relation to the page design. If your book is found to be overlength at the production phase of publishing, it is in trouble. You may have to drop chapters, cut appendixes, lose figures and tables, or make other painful radical changes. Dropping topics at this stage will require repaging your chapters and table of contents and making up new proofs, adding greatly to the cost of production. Changing the design to accommodate more words is not a solution for a number of reasons, even if changes to design specs were permitted at all, mainly because of the unbudgeted extra cost. Even then, there is only so much anyone can do with the absolute limit of a physical page. Working in harmony with editors to deliver a manuscript of the correct length is best by far.

Writing and Developing Your College TextbookThis is an excerpt from Mary Ellen Lepionka’s new book, Writing and Developing Your College Textbook: A Comprehensive Guide, now available for purchase.  Subscribe to our email list and we’ll send you a 17-page sample of the book.

Mary Ellen Lepionka of Gloucester, MA is a retired publisher, author, editor, textbook developer, and college instructor with a Master’s in anthropology from Boston University and Ph.D. work at the University of British Columbia. In 1990 she worked in higher Mary Ellen Lepionkaeducation publishing as a developmental editor of college textbooks, principally for Houghton Mifflin and Pearson Education. Between 2002 and 2011 she established Atlantic Path Publishing as a retirement business and published two editions of Writing and Developing Your College Textbook and related titles. She presently is an independent scholar writing a history of Native Americans on Cape Ann.