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The prelude: Preparing to write a scholarly textbook

Many think about writing a scholarly textbook years before actually picking up the pen to do so. That prelude is like musicians tuning up before a performance. It is an investment of time that is as critical to finishing a book as to beginning it. For a writer, the prelude is a time to organize notes and references. To draft and redraft a table of contents. To organize notes. To connect with potential editors. To investigate potential audiences and find colleagues who would consider adapting it in their teaching. The prelude contributes to the ease with which you can write the book and lays the foundation that there is an audience for it.

My third research methods textbook is about using tables and figures to advance the analysis of social science research. Preparation to write it required creating an organizational system to be able to quickly retrieve 80 to 90 images and between 300 and 400 references. Like a mystery writer who uses a spreadsheet to plot out what each character does in each scene, I mapped out the chapter where each figure or table was to appear. The organizational system had to be flexible enough to allow for additions of exciting new examples that I came across during the time the book was being written.

Whether a textbook author or a novelist, one of the biggest challenges a writer faces during the prelude is to start carrying a picture of the overall organizational structure of the book in your mind. Famed novelist, Salmond Rushdie, maintains that you can take all the notes you want but ultimately it must be in your head. I think of it as a house, with each chapter a room. The furniture in the room is what you will be talking about in the chapter. To keep it in your head requires constantly rehearsing it by pulling it up in our mind, particularly during the inevitable times when you have to put it down to tackle another project. Comparing it to a spider web, Rushdie observes that you can hold it in your head for years, only to have it evaporate the moment you hand the manuscript over to the publisher.

Devoting time to a prelude for preparing to write a textbook may have, of course, unanticipated consequences. A prelude is a time to gauge how deep your enthusiasm for the topic runs, as well as the practicality of undertaking such an ambitious effort. Writing a book of any kind takes an enormous commitment of time, energy, and concentration. Finding the limits of your interests and audience receptivity is not the worst possible outcome of prelude.

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Elizabeth CreamerDr. Elizabeth G. Creamer is professor emerita from the Educational Research and Evaluation Program in the School of Education at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in the US. She is an applied research methodologists with a principal interest in mixed methods and how it can be partnered with qualitative approaches. A prolific writer, Creamer has published two textbooks about mixing methods: An Introduction to Fully Integrated Mixed Methods Research with SAGE in 2018 and Advancing Grounded Theory with Mixed Methods (2021). She is in the process of completing a third research methods textbook: Leveraging Visual Displays in Qualitative and Mixed Method Research.  She is editor-in- chief for the mixed methods section of the Methods in Psychology journal.