New storyline, more ideas and new findings

I met with my co-author a few weeks ago to take a good look at the draft text of our book. We had already 45,000 words of the 50,000 target; but a pile of interviews, analyses, discussions of theory, reconstructed ethnographic accounts, interesting though all of them were, was really just a mishmash of stuff.

It conformed to our original proposal, but was topic-based rather than argument-based. There had been massive breakthroughs and new thinking, which had led us to collect data and make huge points that we hadn’t though of before. This creative exploration had taken us into new areas. We had ambitious hunches that what we were writing was really important and breaking boundaries.

However, this was not enough. We needed to think about our readers and what they would make of it. We felt that, because they could not be inside our minds, they would make little sense of what we were trying to say.

Writing a book, like a thesis, or like other creative acts, is a major opportunity. A publisher, a university, perhaps project funders, or other types of sponsors, have given us a space within which we can say something important. This might seem a negative thing to say; but there are so many books, theses, project reports and so on that cover ground and somehow do the job, but miss the opportunity to say something impactful. This is because they don’t really manage to go the extra mile and really speak to readers.

I recently received a new book in the post because I wrote an endorsement for it. The author might read this and recognise the reference. Just looking at the title already speaks to me in a way that transports me to another exciting place. Just the title!

Well, life is short; and my co-author and I decided that we had to take radical action to turn our draft into something that speaks. (Is this a good distinction between speaking and just talking?) Speaking out – saying something important and transporting. We just couldn’t waste the opportunity by letting all that work go without whipping it into something to be really read.

We had to work out exactly who our audience is. I’m thinking also about all the PhD students I have encountered who don’t really get this, unfortunately. We had both attended seminars and conferences, read widely, and reviewed other people’s work. This meant that we had met lots of people, either in face-to-face or on paper. We had to pull out of that experience a sense of real audience.

So we found, over a couple of days, some vacant classrooms with table space. We also went to cafés and walked around and talked. What was really useful was scribbling on pieces of paper and then moving them around. The table space was crucial for that. This was during a few days after a conference we had both attended. So we had the people we had just met and what they had said and what we had thought about them as a very fresh set of memories to help focus our thoughts. This really helped us to position ourselves – to position what we wanted to say – what we wanted to say to those people we had just met, with whom we had had conversations either in our minds while listening to their presentations, or in actually talking to them.

Well I’m really lucky to have a great co-author with whom I can do this sort of thing. We complement each other really well. Again, thinking of lone PhD students, I have also gone though this process by myself with books that I have written in the past. I also need to say that the degree of success has been variable. I have written books that have involved huge amounts of work that have not been resounding successes. However, knowing that one might not actually reach the intended standards does not mean that one shouldn’t try. Not to do the final work of re-framing a text so that it can speak to an audience is a massive, massive waste.

So that’s what we did. However, that’s not the end of the story – just moving things around to create a better storyline that will speak to an audience.

In doing that, we came up with a whole new set of ideas about what the book is actually about. Just by looking at existing material and moving it around automatically brings the need to make new connections. New connections bring new ideas.

Late at night at the end of the first day we continued to text each other possible new titles for the book. We needed a new title to match the new ideas we had found. The next day we met again and worked on those, and looked back at the bits of paper, and moved them around again, and scribbled more, and thought more about the people we had met and the conversations we had had with them.

Thinking again about going though this process alone. With a particular book I have written which has been successful, I was really lucky enough to have a colleague browse the draft. He actually suggested a title that I hadn’t thought of. It was just that title that made me, just a month before submission, completely reorganise the whole text and write in new connections. Speaking again to PhD students, it is so important to get someone else to read – not a proofreader, but someone who is going through a similar process to you. Also, for them, reading your work will help them to sort out their own ideas and writing.

A week later we had a Skype meeting with our publisher and rehearsed the title with her. Amazingly, she liked it.

Now there is the major task of the actual writing that is needed to reorganise the text and put in the new connections that make the new points and communicate the new ideas. Most of this is with the first, introductory chapter. This writing talk in itself continues to bring new ideas. Simply having to write a new paragraph that connects two apparently discordant ideas will generate something very new.

Again, thinking of PhD students. Many writers don’t really get down to the detail of making sure that a single paragraph speaks their thoughts in such a way that readers get them. There seems to be a fallacy around that the choice is just between citing references, either to literature or data, and ‘putting more of myself into the text’ which often results in empty anecdote. This is why so many PhD examiners say ‘if only you had explained this is the thesis’ and then proceed to ask for changes that might not actually be what the candidate wanted to say – too late.

Every single paragraph in the new connections that we are now having to write comprises our personal authorial voices that speak out to the author about what we think and what we have to say – but always in close reference to evidence.

These are however difficult connections to make because they are between ideas that might not immediately look as though they connect. This therefore requires difficult writing. But the outcome, of new ideas, is well worth the effort.

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