Teaching faculty regularly help novices acquire new knowledge and skills. These same skills allow faculty to write effectively for audiences beyond their academic disciplines. In this episode, James Lang joins us to discuss his new book that is designed to help faculty write for broader audiences.
Jim is the author of six books, the most recent of which are: Distracted: Why Students Can’t Focus and What You Can Do About It, Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons from the Science of Learning (now in a second edition); Cheating Lessons: Learning from Academic Dishonesty; and On Course: A Week-by-Week Guide to Your First Semester of College Teaching. He is currently working on a new book, tentatively titled: Write Like a Teacher. A former Professor of English and the Director of the D’Amour Center for Teaching Excellence at Assumption University, he stepped down from full-time academic work in 2021 to concentrate more fully on his writing and teaching. Jim has served as a keynote speaker and workshop leader at over 100 colleges and universities, including SUNY Oswego.
- Lang, J. M. (2020). Distracted: Why students can’t focus and what you can do about it. Hachette UK.
- Lang, J. M. (2021). Small teaching: Everyday lessons from the science of learning. 2nd ed. John Wiley & Sons.
- Lang, J. M. (2013). Cheating lessons. Harvard University Press.
- Lang, J. M. (2008). On course: A week-by-week guide to your first semester of college teaching. Harvard University Press.
- The Saratoga Tea and Honey Company
- Articles by James Lang in the Chronicle of Higher Education
- Sarah Rose Cavanagh (2023). Mind Over Monsters. Tea for Teaching podcast. Episode 272. January 18.
- Julie Jensen
- Sathy, V., & Hogan, K. A. (2022). Inclusive teaching: Strategies for promoting equity in the college classroom. West V
John: Teaching faculty regularly help novices acquire new knowledge and skills. These same skills allow faculty to write effectively for audiences beyond their academic disciplines. In this episode, we discuss a new book that is designed to help faculty write for broader audiences.
John: Thanks for joining us for Tea for Teaching, an informal discussion of innovative and effective practices in teaching and learning.
Rebecca: This podcast series is hosted by John Kane, an economist…
John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer…
Rebecca: …and features guests doing important research and advocacy work to make higher education more inclusive and supportive of all learners.
Rebecca: Our guest today is James Lang. Jim is the author of six books, the most recent of which are Distracted: Why Students Can’t Focus and What You Can Do About It, Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons from the Science of Learning (now in a second edition), Cheating Lessons: Learning from Academic Dishonesty, and On Course: A Week-by-Week Guide to Your First Semester of College Teaching. He is currently working on a new book, tentatively titled: Write Like a Teacher. A former Professor of English and the Director of the D’Amour Center for Teaching Excellence at Assumption University, he stepped down from full-time academic work in 2021 to concentrate more fully on his writing and teaching. Jim has served as a keynote speaker and workshop leader at over 100 colleges and universities, including SUNY Oswego. Welcome back, Jim.
Jim: Thank you.
John: Today’s teas are: … Jim, are you drinking tea?
Jim: Of course. Always.
John: …still David’s Tea or some new tea?
Jim: No, actually, I have two children at Skidmore. And there’s a tea shop there called The Saratoga Tea and Honey Company. I have to go to Saratoga Springs every few months, and I stock up on tea there. So I totally favor robust black teas, so I’m either drinking English breakfasts or Irish breakfast, Irish breakfast gives you a little more of a boost.
Rebecca: It sure does, it’s one of my favorites too.
John: And I am drinking a Tea Forte black currant tea, but with some honey from Saratoga Tea and Honey.
John: I love that tea shop. I go there at least two or three times a year. There’s lots of conferences up there.
Rebecca: Yeah. And I have Awake tea this afternoon, so I can be more awake this afternoon. [LAUGHTER]
Jim: I know that feeling.
Rebecca: We’ve invited you here today to discuss your new book project. Can you tell us a little bit about the project?
Jim: Sure. So this is my first book focused on writing, even though I’ve always been interested in writing and about how academics can reach wider audiences for their work. And the premise of the book is that the reading experience for nonfiction work, whether it’s an essay or book, should be a learning experience. And so we want to think about how do people learn from the page, as opposed to learning in the classroom or outside of the classroom in real life settings. And so the argument that I make is that those of us who teach, whether we are academics or teaching at other levels, we have either sort of education or experience or instincts that help people learn. And so this knowledge that we’ve gained from like a doctoral programs, or our teaching experiences, or we have good instincts about what to do in the classroom, and we can take that knowledge and put it into our writing practices in order to help create good learning experiences for people on the page. So that’s the core argument of the book. And what I try to do is bring together the many years I’ve been writing about teaching and learning, and sort of take the research I’ve done and arguments I’ve made about effective teaching, and to put them into this new context. And my goal really is for academics who want to try to reach out to broader audiences, whether that’s academics outside of their discipline, or even outside of academic readers altogether, and to help them achieve the goals that they might have about how to promote their work. And a big part of it is we have the opportunity to make the world a better place, if we can help readers understand the importance of the work that we do. So that’s kind of a sense of what’s kind of driving me into these arguments. I think it’s a good idea if they can, and they’re interested in doing that, reach out to readers outside of their discipline and I want to be able to help them to do that.
John: So much academic writing is written to a very narrow academic audience, which tends to exclude most people from reading the work that most academics do. And as you said, academics, especially those who are heavily involved in teaching, have skills in taking complex concepts and trying to relay them to an audience that does not have the same background. But most academics don’t tend to do that. And you seem to be in a really good place to write a book like this, given all the writing that you’ve done, your role as the longtime editor of The West Virginia University Press series on teaching and learning, as well as your role as a faculty member. So how did these roles come together to help you prepare for this book? 4:09:25
Jim: So obviously, I’ve had a lot of experience writing as a writer myself, trying to reach out to outside audiences beyond my discipline. And I think one of the things you just said is important. Most academics know how to write like, this is something we have to do to get degrees and promotion and tenure and all that kind of stuff. We know how to do it. But when we’re writing to other academics, they’re in our discipline, so we have a lot of shared disciplinary background information. And then we also can sort of assume a little bit more attention to our work, essentially, from disciplinary readers because I can push your attention a little further than I can someone who is outside of the discipline, so like, you’re willing to stay with me for a little bit longer to go a little bit more deeply into the core ideas. But a non-academic reader needs more information, they need some more background information. They need to be kind of guided along with kind of signposts along the way, to be told stories, kind of different forms of evidence. So all these things are things that we do in the classroom. And so I think one of the things I really want to be able to do with the book is to sort of empower people. And my work as a writer about education, I view that as empowering as well. I want to be able to show people, for example, in my book on Small Teaching, I want to show people, there’s a number of small things that you can do, that are going to make a difference. And I hope that’s an empowering message, and I hope this message will be the same for writers. You know how to do this stuff, you’ve been doing it for a long time, and you’ve seen that other people do it. So it’s a kind of a process of kind of taking your knowledge here and just applying it to a new context. Now, to get to your question, I’ve been trying to do that for a long time. And I have a column I’ve written for the Chronicle of Higher Education, I’m approaching 200 columns at this point. And then I also have always been interested in seeing where else my writing could go. I like to challenge myself as a writer. So I’ve reached out to places like newspapers and magazines, and probably have a couple of dozen essays published in those places. And some of my books also kind of reached out to broader audiences. So first of all, I was drawing from my own experiences. And that’s not just about the writing, but also the process, like what does it look like to reach out to an editor, for example, at a major newspaper and try to get your work in that forum. So with the writing, but also then the process of getting yourself published and promoting your work, the book kind of covers all that stuff. But also, I think the reason that I really kind of wanted to address this topic is because I edit a book series as well. And so I’ve acquired, I think, 15 books for that series. Now, I co-edit with Michelle Miller. But I did probably all those first 12 to 15 ones that I worked with the authors all the way through from the first getting that query email to getting it through being approved, revised, and then getting it out there and trying to help them with promotion. So like guiding multiple people through that process, which I love, it’s like one of my great joys in my life now is to help people get their first books published. I really learned a lot. And I kind of found myself saying the same thing to authors, like, “Here’s a few things that you need to do that can help make this book more successful.” And so with that knowledge, I kind of want to say, “Okay, I want to be able to put this stuff down.” I get all these hopeful email queries when people have a lot of hope in their voices, or even on the page. And, you know, they want to get their books published, and they’re stumbling on some very common obstacles. And so I wanted to be able to have this stuff available in print so I could not only share with those folks, people who are looking to publish with us, but anybody who wants to publish, whether it’s a book or even an essay. So I do try to cover both of those things as well, writing books, but also writing about essays or various kinds of media platforms: newspapers, magazines, websites.
Rebecca: It’s interesting, because no matter what discipline you’re in, you’re usually trained on how to publish in a very particular way. And then all the other ways seem very mystical.
Jim: Absolutely, that relates to the fact that we’re so very familiar with the sort of processes and the kind of arguments that we make in our discipline. But then we kind of just jump a little bit away from that and we’re kind of in a different world. That’s true, not only of the publishing process, but also the writing process. So like, one of the things I often have to explain to authors is you have a disciplinary tradition of evidence. So in your discipline, evidence looks like this, right? It’s numbers, or its experiments, or its literary texts, whatever it might be, but you’re trying to reach now beyond your discipline. And so those people are completely used to seeing evidence in this form. And it’s fine for them to just sort of stay in that place. But when you’re reaching out to other readers, in the same way as a teacher, you have to try to reach out to multiple kinds of learners, you have to do the same thing as a writer. So yes, I might write for an audience of people who are interested in writing in literature, but I have to be aware that some people are gonna say, “Okay, well show me the facts,” essentially, right, or the statistics, or what experiments have been done to sort of show this is really true? So like, as a writer who’s trying to reach people from multiple fields, or even outside of academic fields, I need to think about how am i varying my evidence? What kind of evidentiary traditions am I drawing from? So like, when you start looking at these kinds of things, you see, yes, the things that I normally do in my academic writing, I have the skills, and I just have to learn to kind of expand them a little bit and sort of move them around a little bit in order to reach some different kinds of folks.
John: We’ve been doing two reading groups a year here, and most of the books that we’ve worked on have either been books that you’ve written, or books in the West Virginia University Press series. And there’s some things I’ve noticed that tend to be common to all of those. And I’m curious to see if you’d agree, [LAUGHTER] but all of them are very solidly backed by evidence with appropriate citations, either in the footnotes or in the bibliographies. But they all tend to be free of disciplinary jargon and they tend to have a lot of use of narrative where they’re bringing in examples with actual faculty members from a variety of disciplines, showing the wide range of applicability of the techniques that are being discussed. Was that something you tended to focus on explicitly? And is that something you encourage faculty moving into these new areas to focus on?
Jim: Absolutely. I mean, those things are definitely core messages that I’m giving to authors. The first is having some kind of practical application to it. Now that should be a true teaching book, right? There’s to be some kind of takeaway for the reader. But no matter what you’re doing, I always try to emphasize to academic authors, there should be something that the reader can take away that’s concrete. It might be a new way of thinking about the world, but it could be new advice about something, how to do something differently in your life, join a movement, or make a change in something you’re doing. So having some kind of takeaway, I think, is really important. But again, when talking about the sort of evidence piece of this, the fact that stories are really important in this because stories, they’re not like a logicians perspective, maybe they’re not the best forms of evidence, but they still really help people understand the ideas, and so they put the ideas into sort of a place where I can try to relate them, and see like how my experiences compare to the experience in the story. And so one of the things that I often will see academic authors who have this sense, “I should give an example or two,” those examples are often very lifeless, they’re like a one sentence sort of very abstract description of something. And I try to say to people, “Look, if you’re gonna tell a story, tell it well, use images, give me a little bit of detail about it, the story is going to really resonate with me when it’s a story that I kind of enjoy reading and that I can somehow try to relate to.” I kind of came to this discovery for myself as a writer, because I typically tell some personal stories in my own writing, right? So Small Teaching includes a story about me ordering green tea at my local coffee shop. And so what I’ve discovered is that when I go to like conferences or workshops, people will remember that story. And they’ll use it to kind of reach out and make a connection with me. And so like, I’ve also had people say, “You told this story about teaching your daughter how to drive and then I was thinking about that when I was doing the same thing and I had the same ideas that you did.” And so it creates these opportunities to let people share their own experiences with the book or with the author. I try to tell people, you don’t have to share your whole personal life, but just occasionally, having stories like this, whether they’re about you or somebody else, they do help people see the material in a new way.
Rebecca: It definitely makes them far more readable and brings things to life. I’m curious about this book project and the timing, and why write this book now?
Jim: Yeah, so this book is sort of coming out of, first of all, the West Virginia University series definitely has been growing and so it’s really kind of exploded in terms of the number of titles that we’re putting out. And so seeing more and more of these kinds of issues coming up in the proposals in the books that we are seeing, and so I wanted to try to get these ideas out, as I’m going out through new manuscripts and working with new authors. That was a part of it. I also had a kind of big personal issue that came up with me over the last couple of years. And so that gave me a new sense of commitment to this kind of work, not only teaching for me, but also about writing. And you kind of feel like this kind of sense of that I wanted to start working with writers in a more formal way, both in this book, and then maybe going forward and also doing more developmental editing for academic authors who would like to expand their audiences. So this is like a moment where I’m trying to make a transition here. I still want to teach and I’m still going to write about teaching. But I do want to also think about moving more into the space of working with writers and writing about writing myself. And part of that was… the short version of the story, which is a long story. [LAUGHTER] In October of 2021, I was diagnosed with something called myocarditis, which is inflammation of the heart. And that often heals itself for people when they get it. But in my case, it went the other way, this happens sometimes. It kind of essentially destroyed my heart over a space of a few weeks, the time between I went into the hospital, just because I was having like an irregular heartbeat… otherwise, I was fine… and the time I was on advanced life support, it might have been two weeks. And so this sort of crashed into our lives. I was on advanced life support for a couple months. I wasn’t expecting to survive, but I did. And I got a heart transplant and I had a stroke during the surgery, which is a long surgery. I woke up from all that. And finally, initially, I couldn’t speak also because of the stroke I had. It was complete aphasia, so I had to learn to speak again with flashcards and speech therapy, and my wife would work with me every day. So after all of that, that kind of focuses your mind a little bit, it kind of helps you realize, okay, you only got so many years left on the planet, what do you really want to do in those years? And so it has helped me realize that I want to still continue teaching. I’ve made incredible connections across the world with teachers by writing about teaching, and I love to talk to academics. They’re the audiences I feel most comfortable with. But I feel like at this point, now I have something different to offer them, not just sort of advice about teaching, but also to help them become more successful as writers.
John: And now you’re sharing it with writers, not just the dozen and a half or so writers you were working with at West Virginia, but with writers all over the world. And I think that’s providing a really nice service.
Jim: Thank you.
Rebecca: It’s amazingly incredible, for sure.
John: We’re awfully glad you have recovered so amazingly well. And I remember seeing you post about that on Twitter after you were already in the process of recovering and I had wondered why you had gone into the background there and you hadn’t posted anything for quite a while and it was a bit of a shock. And I think when you posted that you got many, many people commenting.
Jim: Yes, yes, definitely. The community was very supportive, not only the community of my family and my friends here where I live, but also many people around the world, sent me messages and asked about how things were going and offered support and prayers and thoughts and all that stuff. It was very heartening.
Rebecca: You mentioned multiple times about kind of shifting gears a little bit or shifting focus. But to me, if we look at the things that you’ve been involved in, and the things that you’ve written about, you’re really staying true to faculty development. [LAUGHTER] It’s just faculty development with a slightly different focus, but certainly the kind of support that we’ve seen from you in different ways of faculty life.
Jim: Yeah. And actually, in my last years at Assumption, before I decided to step away from full-time academic work, I was moving in that direction as well, because I was responsible for our new faculty orientation as the director of our teaching center. I like to work with junior faculty to help them navigate the different channels of academic life, including service and research and teaching. And so because I had visited so many other institutions where I had often been invited to give workshops or lectures, and had visited many teaching centers and had opportunities to have dinner with lots of people around the country and talk about academic life, I felt like I was kind of gathering a lot of good ideas from all these different places. And I wanted to be able to bring those ideas back to my own campus. So I was always trying to give this information or these ideas or this advice to faculty I knew and were working with. And again, as I’m kind of just stepping away from those concrete roles on campus, although I’m still going to continue to teach on a part-time basis, I want to be able to keep expanding that work outside to other academics who could benefit, not only in their teaching, but also in their goals as writers too.
Rebecca: I think it’s helpful to hear stories as faculty think about different ways that their faculty lives unfold over time, and how that might evolve, as they shift focus on things and maybe want to focus more on teaching or want to focus more on research or more on writing as they develop over time.
Jim: Yeah, this was definitely something that characterized my career. I started as a normal tenure-track faculty member in English and I did that for quite a few years. And I was just kind of looking for a change, a lot like many people after you get tenure, and I was kind of looking for something new to see like, “Okay, I’ve kind of cleared that hurdle, what could I do differently now?” And then I became the director of our Honors Program. And that kind of captured my interest for a while. And then I got kind of interested in these kinds of semi- or part-time administrative positions. And so then became the director of our teaching center. And so I think it’s a good point, especially as we move along in our academic careers, we can look out for other opportunities, and make shifts and draw on different strengths over the course of our careers. So stepping away from full-time work was a big one. And I actually made that decision just about five months before I went to the hospital. So I had five months of like a “early retirement.” [LAUGHTER] But that was a big decision. But I still am very happy with what I’m doing now. And I’m sure gonna continue to look for other ways to challenge myself. And again, kind of keep that focus going on faculty development, though, because as I said, I just was at Williams College last week and giving some presentations there, went out to dinner with folks. And I was just kind of sitting there thinking, “These are my people.” Like, I feel very comfortable with the faculty. I love to have the fascinating conversations that learning about people’s… all the strange stuff they research and the very specific things that people write about and think about, the cool courses they teach. I just love those conversations. I love being in those rooms. And I kind of want to keep doing that work. And as a writer, it’s a huge audience, right? The amount of people in this country, for example, just alone, that are working in higher education, right? So I’m not limiting myself as a writer, I’ve got this huge audience that I can try to reach. And I just feel very comfortable writing to folks in those positions.
John: And you’re still serving as a teacher, just to a much broader audience than when you were in the classroom.
John: In January, we released a podcast with Sarah Rose Cavanagh, and she talked about how you were working with her on a writer’s group. Is that a strategy that you’d recommend for faculty who are working on writing?
Jim: Yeah, writers’ groups are essential. All my recent books have emerged from writers’ groups. There’s different kinds of writers’ groups. So it’s worth noting the kind of taxonomy of these different kinds of ways to work with other people on your writing. The first is to sort of get a bunch of people who sit together and try to write in each other’s company, essentially, right? So that’s just: you make a time, identify a place, we come together and we kind of support each other, just sort of by being together essentially, right? So that’s one kind of writers group. There’s an accountability kind of group, that’s a second kind, where we’re gonna say, “Okay, everyone needs to have 2000 words by this date, everyone’s going to finish their articles by this date.” And then we’re gonna get together, we’re going to celebrate that or, for example, we’re all working on an article, we’ll get together every month and we’ll share things that we’re struggling with or the things that we’re doing well. It’s almost kind of like a little bit writer’s group therapy, essentially, we’re like supporting each other. The last kind is critique groups, and that’s what I’ve always been part of, where we actually send each other’s work in progress and we read it and then we get together and we give each other feedback. So to me, you can have any kind of writer’s group that you want to be in is going to be good, it’s going to support your writing, and that’s a good idea. Julie Jensen does a lot of work on writing, she argues that academics should not be in content critique groups, because you don’t need people outside of your discipline to be giving you feedback, because that’s going to happen as part of the peer review process. But if you’re going to write for readers outside of your discipline, then I think content critique groups are actually essential, because we’re gonna get from that is that people who are outside of your discipline, who don’t have the same background information that you do… “actually, I’m confused by this, like, you give me this big explanation, but there’s something that I’m missing here.” You’re not gonna get that from somebody in your discipline, because they’re gonna know what the background information is. So I think content critique groups are really important if your ambition is to write for people outside of your discipline. And so content critique groups, for me, they have the function also of accountability, because we meet essentially, once a month, and we have to have something for that meeting. We don’t put a hard number on it. But for me, it might be a Chronicle essay, or it could be current chapter. And I know that group meeting is not going to do anything for me, unless I’ve given something to the group. It’s helpful for me to give feedback to other people too, but I want it to be helpful to me, so I make sure that something is ready for it. So essentially, it’s an accountability group and we also talk about problems too. It’s like it does the other things, but I just think it’s really important for writers to have someone outside of their narrow field, give them their perspective on whatever you’re writing.
John: One thing has struck me as being common with each of those groups is that issue of accountability. We often refer to it in economics as a commitment device, that when you have that deadline, when you have to provide something at a certain time, or even if you’re just going to sit together and write at a certain time, it’s so easy to postpone things like writing and having that commitment makes it so much more likely that people will actually achieve their goal.
Jim: Yeah, absolutely, wespecially when you’re doing a longer project, like a book, you’d start the process with, like a deadline two years away, right? But the writers group, for me, gives me the structure, I need to actually finish it, because I know, “Okay, I want to get this chapter done, so that I can then get the next one done. And if I do all those things, at the end of the two years, I’m gonna have a book. Otherwise, there’s no hard deadlines, except for the one. And so to produce 80,000 words, for something that’s two years away, we’re not good at that kind of thing, [LAUGHTER]as humans, unless we really kind of put deadlines along the way. [LAUGHTER]
Rebecca: Are you implying that faculty needs structure? … and scaffolding too? [LAUGHTER]
Jim: Yeah, absolutely. Giving structure. And that reminds me, that’s another thing that I like, as a part of the book actually is thinking about the importance of structure, not only for writers, but also for readers. When you look at an academic article, for example, in social science disciplines, it’s got a set structure to it. It’s got the introduction, it’s got the literature review, the experiment, the method, that kind of thing. But if you’re in like a humanities discipline, and you’re looking at reading an article about like literary theory, it’s just gonna be like, sort of paragraph after paragraph after paragraph like just kind of a long series of paragraphs, which just kind of guide you from beginning to end. But when you look at work that is published outside of the academic world, it often has lots of sections, subheadings, little titles along the way, those things are really important to help a non-academic reader through complex material in the same way we do it in the classroom. We help students, we guide them through our slides, for example, our stuff on the board, or like dividing the class in three or four parts or something like that. Again, this is stuff that we kind of do instinctually in the classroom, because we know the students are gonna zone out. [LAUGHTER] So we kind of guide them through the material, we need to do the same thing in our writing, too. And I like to think about these as attention tools of writing. And so the use of breaking up the text, and that’s sometimes may mean just like sections and subheadings, and all that kind of stuff. But also like bullets, you don’t need to go crazy, but you want to make sure that you are breaking up the page, or the argument, with these structural elements.
Rebecca: Jim, you’re suddenly like an interaction designer. [LAUGHTER]
Jim: Okay. Wait, what do you mean exactly by that?
Rebecca: So, an interaction designer would say something like for usability purposes, you would do all the things that you just described, and they’re also accessibility principles. So they’re good for so many reasons.
Jim: Yeah. Okay, I like that.
Rebecca: It’s gold. [LAUGHTER]
Jim: I like that.
John: And right before I arrived here, I went over to our provost office to pick up a couple of big cartons of books by Viji Sathy and Kelly Hogan from West Virginia University Press for our reading group this semester. And one of their main arguments is the importance of structure in helping people make connections to help break down complex topics into these manageable chunks to help people understand things much better. And it sounds like this is, as you and Rebecca have both said, is really important in many, many different contexts.
Jim: Yeah, I believe their work about high structure is so important. And I’ve definitely kind of imported that into the chapter in which I discuss these issues. But the other thing to think about again, from like a reading perspective, so if I’m reading a work, for example, I’m not going to sit and read a book, a 300-page book by an academic writer in one sitting. So I need places to stop and come back. And so maybe I can’t get a 30-40 page chapter in. But if I have opportunities to stop, [LAUGHTER] close the book, and come back to it, and I can come back to a subheading, which is going to tell me, “Okay, that’s what next. Oh, right, that’s what I was just before, and here’s what’s coming.” These are opportunities to come away, come back, and be able to return to the argument, and not be lost when I return to it. And this is just probably always the way that we’ve read. But this is how we’re definitely doing it now, as we’re bombarded with so many different things that can interrupt us. So having those kinds of opportunities to pause and renew the reading experience are important.
Rebecca: But the use of subheadings, in particular, I find helpful as a reader to just get reoriented, especially when you’re coming from a different place. And then I need to transition to an entirely different place, just looking back to those couple of subheadings that came before can immediately get you into that place again really efficiently. So I love it when writers do that, for me as a reader.
Jim: If they’re done well, it will show you an overview of the whole argument, essentially. So I think those are really important to help guide the reader through what they call the through line. The through line is the thread that connects everything in the book, the overall argument, and the subheadings, kind of hanging off that through line. And so I think they really are important for academic writers to do for other kinds of audiences.
Rebecca: Heck, I would like it sometimes just with my own discipline… more subheadings, please. [LAUGHTER]
Jim: I agree, I agree.
John: This is a little bit different. But one thing that really bothers me when I’m reading a novel on my Kindle late at night. I always like to stop, if not at a chapter break, at least at a paragraph break. And I was trying to read last night and I had to skim through about six or seven pages on there before this paragraph ended, [LAUGHTER] and it helps to have those little breaks that are logical stopping points. And writers don’t always do that.
Jim: No, no, one of the points may be I’m trying to push you through some difficult materials, so I get that. But even if you don’t have the sub headings, for example, if you look at the articles in The Chronicle of Higher Education, they might not have subheadings, some of them do, but sometimes will just be a break. So like the paragraph ends, there’s like some whitespace, and then a new section starts, even that’s better than just the sort of constant unbroken series of paragraphs. And I also think it’s also just good for visual, your eye glosses over when you open to a page, and it’s just a huge block of text. That’s intimidating. And so the subheadings, the breaks, all those things, they give a break both for your eye and for your brain.
Rebecca: And even just encourage a moment of pause and reflection, like, “Oh, we’re moving to a new thing. Do I know what I just read? [LAUGHTER] …so I can move to the next thing?” I’m at that moment to double check.
Jim: Yeah, that’s true. They’re great transitions, too. And those moments of transition are often the times when we step back and say, “Okay, so I have this, and what am I curious about as we’re gonna go forward down here.
John: One of the things you mentioned earlier is that your book includes a discussion of the whole process of publishing. Because while academics do a lot of writing all through their academic careers, most academics have not been very heavily involved in publishing. And I don’t think most of them have many ways of getting that information unless they happen to know other people who have been successful in it. So having a book like yours, I think, would be really helpful in providing faculty with information that they just don’t have in their own experiences.
Jim: Yeah, so there’s a chapter which just focuses on guiding people from a query to publication. So like, what are the actual steps of this process? What are the kinds of things you will need in order to be able to get to that moment when you see your work in print? And so, essentially, I tried to boil it down to four things: three stages and then one sort of central recommendation about how to get this process started. The three things are essentially the query, the query is sort of the short email they’re gonna give. And for me, those are really important because they give me a sense of what’s the question or the problem that you’re addressing? What’s your argument? And why are you the right person to do it? So like, to me a query has got to do those three things, but not much more than that. It’s not like an academic job letter, where it’s five big paragraphs that covers two pages. No, I want to be able to read this thing very quickly and get a sense of who you are, what the project is, what’s going to be interesting, what’s unique about it, all those things. A query letter is like our handshake, where we’re going to kind of introduce ourselves to each other. The proposal, often, that’s all you need for a newspaper or magazine is a query and then the article or something. But for a book, you have to have this next stage of the process, which is a book proposal. And those are a lot of work. A book proposal might be 50 pages, because it’s going to include a overview of the book, which is usually like one to two pages, it’s going to have an author biography, which might just be a page or so, it’s going to have a chapter outline and that might be five or 10 pages. A chapter outline, not just a table of contents with like titles, but at least a paragraph or two for each chapter, and then a writing sample, which should be like at least like a chapter. So that we’re talking about like a 50-page document here. And it also should include… this is gonna vary from publisher to publisher… but it probably will also include a short analysis of the competition, so that you can use that as a way to show what is gonna be different or new or unique about your book. And sometimes publishers will also want like a marketing or promotion overview, like what are you going to do to help support the marketing and promotion of this book, for example. If you have a podcast, if you have a huge social media presence, if you are planning to attend a bunch of conferences in this field, you have connections, all those things can contribute to a sense of what kind of marketing or promotion you would be able to offer for your book. So that’s a big document. It’s really important when we see like student writing, for example, or those of us who teach student writing, sometimes the first page or two kind of gives you a sense of, okay, kind of the quantity of the students writing. Often, the same thing might be true for the proposal. From a couple pages, I can usually get a sense of how experienced the author is, is this project right for our particular series, what kind of writer they’re going to be, in terms of both of their writing, in terms of what kind of person they’re gonna be to work with. But as long as I get over those sort of initial couple pages and I’m still interested, then the proposal really has to show me that it’s going to work as a full book. Once you get past that, then it kind of just goes through the different processes of what’s going to happen to your book when you turn it in, essentially: the review process, copy editing, proofreading, working with a cover designer, the author questionnaire, which is a huge document that is going to help support what you’re going to be able to do support the book. And then also, often there’ll be a call with the marketing and promotion team, so kind of guiding people through that whole process. So those are the three stages I talk about in the book and try to give basic information and advice about that. But the thing I start with is, whenever possible, submit your work to a person. And what I mean by that is not just submitting to “Dear editor” or something like that, do a little bit of basic research on the publication and the person that is going to be sort of giving the initial review of your work. And there’s easy ways to do that, you can look on the web pages of the publisher, acquisition editors will typically have like a short description of what they acquire. You can also look at, like what other books they published. And one of the ways to do this is very simple. Most books will have an acknowledgement section, you can see who edited the book, and whether it was an agent. And so you see those two things. And if you look at books in your area, at the publisher you’re trying to target, you’ll be able to piece together a sense of “Okay, what kind of books does this editor tried to publish?” then you can sort of reach out to that person and say, “Look, I’m a huge fan of this book, which I know you edited and I feel like mine would fit well with this series that you’re overseeing,” whatever it might be. So try to get a little sense of the person that you’re writing to. You can be specific about why you are writing to that particular person at that particular publisher. And that’s something that we don’t have to do typically for academic disciplinary journals or something like that, right? We’re just sending it off to like a email box or just sort of being very objective, “Dear editor, here’s my work,” essentially. But as you’re reaching outside of your disciplinary journals, or academic books, you want to be able to be a little bit more deliberate about reaching out to a specific person.
Rebecca: What you’re describing also sounds a lot more relational, just generally.
Jim: Definitely, and I also make the argument in the book that it sometimes can seem like an adversarial relationship, sometimes between you as an author and an editor, because they’re like the gatekeepers. And they’re going to tell you, “No, we don’t have the money for that table to put in your book,” or an sometimes you can get frustrated as an author. But what’s really important to remember is, we are on your side, the editor always wants you to be successful. And so sometimes we might say things which are like, “You shouldn’t do this,” or “we don’t want to do this,” and “we can’t do that.” And that can be frustrating for an author. But I promise you, I am not like waiting there to kind of stamp an F on your query, [LAUGHTER]. I want you to be successful. Every query that comes in, there’s like a little sort of grain of hope that I’m hoping that this is going to be an amazing book, it’s going to change this person’s life. That’s the best scenario for me, I help someone write their first book, and it’s really successful. And so I’m hoping for that for everybody that writes to me. And I think that the same thing is true for editors. So always keep that in mind. These are the people that want you to be successful, and you have to treat them accordingly. Just be aware of that in terms of how you respond to them, react to them, and then you try to be like a good citizen of the book in the process.
Rebecca: So Jim, when can we get this book?
Jim: Yeah, so I’m finishing it right now, actually. I have one chapter left, I expect to finish it within the next month. So it’s probably be late 2023 or early 2024.
Rebecca: So I’m looking forward to it.
John: And as you mentioned before, that publishing process does take a lot of time.
Jim: That’s one of the places where it can seem adversarial to an author, right? Why are you taking so long to do this. I gave you a manuscript, why does it take a year to come out? But, I try to go through that stuff in the book. But there are good reasons. And all those reasons are is trying to help you make the most successful book
John: incentives are compatible between the author and the editor, because both parties benefit from having successful books.
Rebecca: So we always wrap up by asking what’s next?
Jim: Yeah, so this book. It’s funny because I had the idea for this book. And I’d written the proposal for it partially, because I had also left my full-time academic position. I was thinking about these issues. And so I sent the proposal actually out before I got sick. And then I signed the contract in the hospital. actually. [LAUGHTER] So that kind of renewed my commitment to it. So that’s kind of been all I’ve been doing since then. But then once I finish that, and I just have already in my mind now, probably I’m going to write some kind of memoir of what I have experienced and what I’ve learned from that. My first two books actually were memoirs. And so I haven’t been in that genre in a while, but I think I had experiences now there’s probably memoir worthy at this point. [LAUGHTER] So yeah, that’s probably the next thing that will happen.
John: Well, we’re looking forward to reading all of them. So we wish you success on that. And it’s great talking to you again.
Jim: Likewise. Thank you.
Rebecca: Yeah, thanks, Jim.
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Rebecca: You can find show notes, transcripts and other materials on teaforteaching.com. Music by Michael Gary Brewer.