2018 Textbook award-winning insight (Part 4): What they wish they had known before they started, writing advice
Recently we reached out to winners of the 2017 TAA Textbook Awards and asked them to answer some questions about their textbook writing. The first installment in this four-part series focused on why they decided to write their textbook, and how they got started. The second installment focused on what they do to boost their confidence as a writer, how they fit writing time into their schedule, and what software they use. The third installment focused on which pedagogical elements in their textbook they are most proud of, and what involvement they have had in marketing their book.
This fourth, and final, installment in the four-part series focuses on what they wish they had known before they started, and advice for other authors.
Q: What advice can you share with aspiring textbook authors?
Courtland L. Bovee, co-author of the 2018 Textbook Excellence Award winner, Excellence in Business Communication, 12e: “In order to be successful, don’t rely exclusively on the publisher. Take the initiative in marketing your textbook. Consider the marketing measures I’ve taken to promote my books.”
Joseph Feher, author of the 2018 Textbook Excellence Award winner, Quantitative Human Physiology: An Introduction, 2e: “Be prepared to be alone a LOT. The main thing about writing is the application of the seat of the pants to the surface of the chair in front of the computer. Beyond that: know you stuff and know your audience. My text will absolutely not work with medical students. It is designed for its audience, Biomedical Engineers, and is next to useless with any other audience. I took a LOT of time to read current journals using PUBMED as a search engine. So, know your material and know your audience, and be prepared for a lot of work. Don’t be in love with that cute phrase you used. Just make it clear and forget about being poetic. If you can write something in fewer words, do it. Many of my students have said to me that the text is like me talking to them. They can ‘hear’ my voice when they are reading the text. I think that is the best compliment they could give me, because that is exactly what I tried to do: make it read like I am talking to them.”
Heidi Neck, co-author of the 2018 Most Promising New Textbook Award winner, Entrepreneurship: The Practice and Mindset, 1e: “I have had several starts and stops on textbooks over the years. The difference between those attempts and this one is the team. My earlier efforts were solo. Chris, Emma, and I developed a system that worked for us. This book would not exist without all three of us. We are equal partners.”
Cheryl Poth, co-author of the 2018 McGuffey Longevity Award winner, Qualitative Inquiry and Research Design: Choosing Among Five Approaches, 4e: “Pitch a proposal – it is scary to do but having a contract was certainly a good motivator for me to prioritize writing.”
Pawan Lingras: co-author of the 2018 Most Promising New Textbook Award winner, Building Cross-Platform Mobile and Web Apps for Engineers and Scientists: An Active Learning Approach, 1e: “Writing a book is very different from writing a research paper. You need to step out of your comfort zone and study a much larger set of technologies and topics. I am a better scholar for having done so.”
Kathleen Miranda, co-author of the 2018 Textbook Excellence Award winner, Calculus for the AP Course, 2e: “Expect to work harder and longer than you have ever worked in your life. Be willing to work closely with the publisher, share ideas, learn from them, and stay involved. Proof read what you write and read page proof carefully. But mostly have fun and enjoy the learning experience.”
Donald Truxillo, co-author of the 2018 Most Promising New Textbook Award winner, Psychology and Work, 1e: “I think that one of the challenges starting out was getting the contract negotiated and ready to go. Another was to understand the specific steps to the process of writing and getting it to print so that you can work more effectively with the publisher.”
Braja Das, co-author of the 2018 McGuffey Longevity Award winner, Principles of Geotechnical Engineering, 9e: “Any textbook, at least in science and engineering, should be written for the average students in the classroom—not the brightest ones. It should have a methodical approach in a progressive step-by-step manner that the students can understand. There should be excellent photographs and clear line drawings, plus a lot of example problems to bring home the concepts presented. A textbook should be written for the students who will use it—not to ‘impress your colleagues.’ With this approach, the author may be accused of ‘spoon feeding;’ however, that should be taken with a grain of salt.”
Patricia Goodson, author of the 2018 Textbook Excellence Award winner, Becoming an Academic Writer: 50 Exercises for Paced, Productive, and Powerful Writing, 2e: “I would recommend writing about something with which you are extremely familiar and strongly believe in – that way, the writing takes less effort and you – the author – come across with more credibility. I wrote the book while teaching the material to various groups: made me both a better author and a better instructor, as I had a chance to practice and edit my words, before coming to class(es). Final suggestion: spend time learning about how to write a strong book proposal. It will open many doors.”
Alan Rothwell, author of 2018 Textbook Excellence Award winner, Optimization Methods in Structural Design, 1e: “As the first step, make a detailed scheme of precisely what is going into the book, in which chapters and sub-chapters, and how they relate to each other. This may develop as you go, but in that case keep your scheme fully updated. Make sure when you read and re-read chapters that you are actually making some improvement, not just taking time! Keep everything properly organized, so that you do not spend time searching through paperwork to find what you cannot find!”
Joan Saslow, co-author of 2018 Textbook Excellence Award winner, Summit: English for Today’s World (Levels 1 and 2), 3e: “Develop a compelling message that will make your textbook unique and irresistible to potential purchasers. Understand what drives adoption decisions and study the most popular textbooks in the field. Understand their strengths and identify their ‘fatal flaws.’ Be sure that everything you say about your work reflects that knowledge and is simple enough to be understood and remembered.”
Sara Baase, co-author of 2018 Textbook Excellence Award winner, A Gift of Fire: Social, Legal, and Ethical Issues for Computing Technology, 5e: “My advice to aspiring textbook writers? Write! Don’t be afraid to throw away pages you spent a lot of time on. If your “gut” tells you they are not good enough, they probably aren’t. Figure out what you didn’t like, and your next draft will be better. It will be harder to write a textbook than you expect, so you need to make a good, long commitment to the project.”
Maria Dove and Andrea Honigsfeld, co-authors of 2018 Textbook Excellence Award winner, Co-Teaching for English Learners, 1e: “The most important advice we have is that working collaboratively on any project allows for both peer support and accountability. Find a colleague who will share your passion for the topic, has extensive knowledge of it, and is willing to coauthor.”
Q: What did you learn in the process of writing a textbook that you wish you had known before you started?
Bovee: “I learned that producing a textbook involves so much more than the writing. The business aspects can be especially difficult, and I dare say, most new authors aren’t prepared for all the possible challenges.”
Feher: “MathType. I wish I had known about MathType before I started. Basically, I wish the publisher and I were on the same page before I started. Part of that is my own fault, for sticking with Word Perfect that nobody uses, even though it is superior to MS Word. Taking a stance doesn’t matter if everybody takes a different one. When it comes to word processing programs, anyway. Do not be offended when the editors change your wording. They’re usually correct, although sometimes they aren’t. Usually, the editors make the book better, so don’t be married to every precious word, because they’re just words and there are lots of ways of writing something.”
Neck: “If you keep writing until you think it’s perfect, it will never get done.”
Marielle Hoefnagels, author of the 2018 Textbook Excellence Award winner, Biology: Concepts and Investigations, 4e: “The author has her name on the cover, but a huge army is working behind the scenes to make the author’s book a reality. You are just one member of that team. You have to respect everyone’s time and their deadlines, just as you hope they will respect yours. That means you can’t be a perfectionist. You have to allocate a certain amount of time to the work, and when that time is gone, you have to let it go and hope it’s good enough.”
Miranda: “How much work and effort goes into the process. There is no doubt that we as authors work hard. But it is important to realize that everyone else from editorial and technical, to production, to sales and marketing works just as hard. And we are all working for the same end. There are no enemies.”
Patrick Hester, co-author of the 2018 Textbook Excellence Award winner, Systemic Decision Making: Fundamentals for Addressing Problems and Messes, 2e: “That I can do it. It’s such a large task to start with, and just like eating an elephant, you do it one bite at a time. One paragraph, one page, one chapter, and before you know it, you’ve written a book!”
Das: “I should have collected course outlines from several universities to evaluate the sequence of topics taught in the classroom and the time allocated to each (to determine the depth of detail into which one should go in order to adequately cover the subject).”
Goodson: “How enjoyable it is and how much I love it! I wish I had known this, so I would have started much, much earlier. I always wanted to write books – but because books are not valued as much as journal article publications in my field (at least not while one is an un-tenured professor), I was encouraged to wait until after I had tenure to think about writing a book. I did wait. Wish I hadn’t.”
Rothwell: “Because the content of my book originated in various lecture material, individual chapters were written in a more or less random order. In the end this cost a lot of time linking chapters together in the right way, in moving text from one chapter to another where necessary, and in making all the small changes resulting from this. My advice is: start at Chapter 1 and work through in order, even if chapters have to remain unfinished for a while as you move to another chapter just for a break!”
Dove and Honigsfeld: “Our books are in the realm of the professional development literature. We have discovered that inviting authentic teacher voices through case study vignettes into our book enriches the writing and adds credibility to what we do.”
Read the first installment in this series: 2018 Textbook award-winning insight (Part 1): Deciding to write and getting the interest of a publisher
Read the second installment in this series: 2018 Textbook award-winning insight (Part 2): Boosting writing confidence, scheduling writing time, software
Read the third installment in this series: 2018 Textbook award-winning insight (Part 3): Pedagogy and marketing involvement