The Unique Challenges of Academic Life: Tackling Book Two

After a walk with a junior colleague friend, I had the opportunity to reflect on the difference between first and second books. He is in the process of starting a second book and I’m wrapping up my second solo book. We are in different subfields and take different approaches to our research and writing, but I was struck by the almost identical phrasing we’ve used to describe the difference between books one and two. 

When I asked how it was going, he replied that things were moving along but that the challenges were different. I’m doing lots of short chapters, he said. 

This was precisely what I had said when I wrapped my first book (based on my dissertation). After hitting send on the manuscript, I told anyone who would listen, “I’m never writing a fifty-page chapter again. I want a bunch of slim, thirty-page chapters.” Years later, this doesn’t turn out to be precisely the case, but my manuscript retains the basic impulse: six chapters, around forty pages each before I get in there to prune.

I have some thoughts about why our attitudes coming off book one and looking ahead to book two are so similar as well as the unique challenges these very different books in an academic’s career might present.

So, why the behemoth chapters in book one? Because book one is often a revision of the dissertation, it suffers from too many cooks in the kitchen. When most PhD students are writing a dissertation, they aren’t really alone in the room. Depending on how active various committee members are, a graduate student may feel as though there are as many as four or five voices, agendas, and intellectual commitments trying to come through. As a result, the project can become overstuffed with citations, examples, and caveats. To be gross about it, the result can be a bit of a turducken. Ideally, in the revision process that takes the dissertation to first book, much of this comes out. You’re welcome for the gross visual. 

Even long after the dissertation defense, some graduate student tendencies can linger in book one. In particular, I think of the way graduate advisors are always assigning more reading. This means that dissertations and the first books that develop from them may have a kind of “showing your work” citation style that involves proving the writer has read the theoretical hits (Lacan, Freud, Foucault, Butler, etc.). Even as a writer works to pull this back as the project becomes a book manuscript, it can be difficult to totally unwind this kind of apparatus. 

In addition to the kind of defensive, showing-one’s-reading-list type of writing that can plague first books, I found the final copy edits disconcerting because I became obsessed with the idea that there were still dissertation sentences lurking in the manuscript. By the time my book appeared in print, I had become a different writer at the level of the sentence as well as idea.

In addition to promising myself shorter chapters, I also told myself I would write my second book using sentences that I would like to read. Short chapters and nice sentences would be the reward for making it to book two.

Writing alone in the room, without a committee’s voices rattling around in the head, I’ve found it pleasurable to think about what my agenda is, to think about the voice I’ve been cultivating as a writer. Especially in the drafting stage, this book has felt much more like it is for me. 

However, as lovely as those promises-to-self sound, book two is not without its challenges. And some of the challenges, at least for me, can be related to the good stuff of a second book.

In contrast to the first book, there is no comprehensive exam process to buttress the second book’s literature review, footnotes, or other citations. Writing a second book, the author is more on her own to determine which citations must be included, which would be nice to have, and which are unnecessary. (A quick tip for what to include: recent, in agreement, in disagreement, and really famous.) Additionally, where the dissertation-based first book might be narrowly focused, second books are often a little more wide-ranging or interdisciplinary, making reviewing the literature even more challenging. For my own second book, I tackled both a new time period and new theoretical approaches, which has meant creating reading lists, strategically attending conference sessions on newer theories, reviewing other author’s bibliographies to ensure I’m not missing things, and relying on my judgment to determine which theories are most relevant and which are interesting but not appropriate to my project.

While writing the first book is more stressful, tied as it has been in the past to tenure, and tied as it now often is to the job market, the second book can languish a bit because of a lack of pressure. Combined with the other responsibilities that occur at midcareer, such as teaching, advising, administration, and parenting or other care work, the second book can be a slow-moving object. Furthermore, playing with sentences can become a form of tinkering, as can obsessive, just-one-more book researching. 

With the second book, I’ve found it quite challenging to sew the thing up and get it off my desk. When writing the first book, I knew that if I didn’t finish, I’d lose my job. That proposition can be paralyzing for some, I know, but it did light a bit of a fire under me. Although there is a promotion tied to the second book, that’s a bit less visceral than the threat of being fired and having to pack up and move. 

The good news is that both issues—the intense pressure of the first book, the sometimes-languorous nature of the second—can be combatted with a relatively simple solution, which is to bring in the support of others. These can be other writers, coaches, editors, or formal or informal mentors. Writing my first book, I organized a junior faculty writing group among friends on campus. As I’ve drafted this second book, I’ve called on my now larger network of colleagues, asking a different friend in the field to read each chapter. A support network, like writing projects, may change over time. 

What’s true of the product (the book) is true of the process. As writers add experience in the form of a second, third, or even fourth book, they gain expertise in revising words on the page and adapting their writing strategies. While we may be used to tracking the number of words written or the changes in a manuscript to measure progress, attending to the way different moments in a writer’s career may bring new challenges and opportunities is a nice way of accounting for the development of a writing life.