My Ten Steps for Writing a Book

(Savage Minds is pleased to run this essay by guest author Kristen Ghodsee. Kristen is Director and the John S. Osterweis Professor of Gender and Women’s Studies at Bowdoin College. Her prize-winning books include: The Red Riviera: Gender, Tourism and Postsocialism on the Black Sea (Duke University Press, 2005), Muslim Lives in Eastern Europe: Gender, Ethnicity and the Transformation of Islam in Postsocialist Bulgaria (Princeton University Press 2010), Lost in Transition: Ethnographies of Everyday Life After Communism (Duke University Press, 2011), and Professor Mommy: Finding Work/Family Balance in Academia (Rowman & Littlefield, 2011). Her fifth book, The Left Side of History, is forthcoming with Duke University Press in 2015. She blogs about ethnographic writing at Literary Ethnography.)

When Carole McGranahan asked me to blog for the Savage Minds writing group, I wasn’t sure what I was going to write about.  I’d recently finished my fifth book, and was in the early stages of a sixth manuscript, so it seemed like I should have something to say about how to get a big project done. 

But I never realized I had a process until this morning.  To get the creative juices flowing, I sketched out a flow chart of how I tackle a project from start to finish.  The chart surprised me.  My quirks and old habits turned out to be a defined system, one that I have implemented for each of my books without even knowing it.

Ghodsee 10 Steps

  1. Produce an imaginary TOC

When I have an idea for a book, I type out an imaginary table of contents (TOC).  I think about the overall argument, and how to best organize the material that I will need to substantiate that argument.  At this stage I make a preliminary plan about the number and the style of the chapters.  For more traditional academic books, I go with fewer, but longer chapters that are organized thematically.  For projects aimed at undergraduate students or general readers, I have a greater number of short chapters and prefer a more intuitive chronological organization of the manuscript.  Although this outline changes, the intellectual work that goes into its initial production helps me think through the big questions of audience, tone, and length before I start writing.

  1.  Create electronic files

After I have the TOC, I create a separate document file for each of the chapters, as well as for the front matter, the acknowledgements, and any appendices.  Then I cut and paste in any preexisting writing that I’ve done.  I call this “found text,” and I include everything that might be relevant to the chapter: journal articles, essays, book reviews, fieldnote excerpts, emails, outtakes from previous books, etc.

3.  Write crappy first drafts

Whether I’m building around “found text” or starting from scratch, I write a crappy first draft (CFD) of each chapter.  I don’t always do them in order, but I don’t edit any individual chapter until I have CFDs of all chapters.  These first drafts are appalling, but writing a chapter draft from start to finish without worrying about the grammar or coherence allows me to concentrate on the ideas and emotions that I want to convey.  No one ever sees these drafts; I delete them all once I start revising

  1. Print out and line edit each of the chapters

I edit by hand (with a fountain pen) on paper.  Editing on screen is more efficient and environmentally friendly, but it makes for lazy writing.  Line editing in print forces me to read through the entire chapter before making changes to the electronic file.  This allows me to keep the larger structure of the chapter in my head, and to see how the pieces might work better in a different order.  This round of line edits is tedious because it is my initial crack at correcting the serious deficiencies of the crappy first draft.

  1. Print out and line edit again

I repeat the process above.  The chapters are still rough, but after this round of line edits, they start to become readable.  At this stage, I focus on grammar, syntax, and narrative flow.  I start watching for typos and think about topic sentences and paragraph length.  I also consider how my arguments develop over the course of the chapter, and what additional material I might need to substantiate my claims.  Only after I have everything down on paper do I input the changes into the computer.

  1. Combine the chapters into a manuscript

After the second round of line edits, I go back to my table of contents and think about the overall structure of the book.  Some chapters have outgrown themselves, and must be divided in two.  Orphaned chapters find new homes or get cut altogether.  All of the text that gets slashed is dumped into an electronic “outtakes” file.  This serves as a reservoir of “found text” for future projects. All of the chapters are now combined into one big electronic document.

7.  Print out and line edit

Call me a murderer of trees.  I print out the entire manuscript and do a full round of line edits by hand once more.  I concentrate on overall coherence and clarity, and look for more material to cut.  The manuscript begins to feel like something that I can share with the world without dying of shame.

  1. Find friendly readers

My mom, my partner, my friends, and nonjudgmental colleagues are my first line of readers.  At this point, I’ve usually been working too intensely and for too long on the project.  I need some critical distance.  Giving the whole manuscript to a few trusted interlocutors allows me to take a break and get some much-needed external input.  Are my arguments clear?  Is there still surplus prose?  How many typos have I missed?

  1. Listen to Stephen Hawking read my words

Once I have incorporated all of the friendly suggestions, I use the “speech” function in Microsoft Word to have my computer read me the entire manuscript. Unwieldy syntax, overused words, and even simple typos are more easily heard than seen.

  1. Complete references and send it off

The final task is to organize all of the references and the bibliography.  Careful attention to the references allows me to review the overall structure of the book and think about the literature to which I will be contributing.  Only once the references are in order will I begin to contact editors.  At this point, the manuscript is ready for blind review.  I say a little prayer, send it off, and start work on my next project.

I am an anthropologist and historian of Tibet, and a professor at the University of Colorado. I conduct research, write, lecture, and teach. At any given time, I am probably working on one of the following projects: Tibet, British empire, and the Pangdatsang family; the CIA as an ethnographic subject; contemporary US empire; the ongoing self-immolations in Tibet; the Chushi Gangdrug resistance army; refugee citizenship in the Tibetan diaspora (Canada, India, Nepal, USA); and, anthropology as theoretical storytelling.

One thought on “My Ten Steps for Writing a Book

  1. I’ve been researching a topic I love dearly, and have thought about writing a book once my research has been collected. I’m unsure if I should just begin writing various rough drafts, or if it would be wise to post it onto my blog and have multiple eyea read through my work instead a few colleagues?

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