You have what seems like a million decisions to make when you start writing a book. How will you structure the chapters? Should you use jargon? Will reviewers be turned off if you write in the first person? It can feel like you’re answering questions nobody has ever answered before, in the history of the world. How can you possibly figure it all out?
Lucky for you, you’re not alone.
Unlike other industries, many of your colleagues have written books. In fact, you might be physically surrounded by those books as you read this. That’s great news! It means you can find guidance on how to write your book without even talking to anyone (introverts rejoice!). You start by identifying model books.
All good writers are voracious readers, so I bet if I asked you what books you’ve read and enjoyed recently you’d be quick with your response. Excellent! It means you’ve already started the process I’ll describe below.
The benefits of model books
They ask nothing of you. You don’t have to read every single page and diligently take notes (although if that’s your style go for it). You don’t have to become an expert on every book that you read. Instead, you can take what you need and move onto the next book.
They show you the ropes. Model books are a set of best practices for writing. You likely won’t find a single book that meets all of your qualifications for an excellent book. That’s a good thing, because I know what you’re thinking:
“I don’t want to write a book that sounds like somebody else’s.”
Don’t worry, you’re not reading model books so you can copy them. Instead, it’s to identify the very best examples of what you’re trying to achieve in your book. It’s like reading an interior design magazine for inspiration before you take on a renovation. You’re not going to create an identical room. Instead, you might buy one of the pillows and a sofa in a similar color. Inspiration, not replication.
How to find the best model books.
Be deliberate in what you read and how you read it. Here are some qualities you should consider when selecting model books:
Style: if you’re in love with an author’s prose, then read with an eye towards the prose. Diagram the sentences to see what it is about the style that you like. Highlight turns of phrase that you find interesting. This isn’t so you can copy them but so you can learn what good writing looks like.
Data/Method: Perhaps you’re telling the story of an understudied or vulnerable population and you want to be sure you do that with care. Find books that not only share your method, but also written by an author that shares your research ethics. Here’s another example: you’re an art historian who’s unsure exactly how many images can be reasonably included in each chapter. You may be concerned about the cost of the images, or if you can tell a compelling story without the image.
Framework: A strong framework makes a book work as a book, as opposed to a series of articles that have been compiled. How does the argument unfold over the course of the book? Is there a narrative arc? How does the author leverage theoretical explanations consistently to make sense of their data? Any one of these done well would suffice for a model book.
Structure: How are the chapters organized? Is the book divided into parts? How long is the introduction and conclusion? In my experience, finding books with strong introductions is vital for authors transforming their dissertations into books. Why? Because they have to see what an introduction looks like without a subsequent literature review chapter. This is vital for writing a book that doesn’t read as a hastily revised dissertation.
Where to find the best model books.
Now that you know what to look for, where can you find these books?
In your discipline. If you’re not sure how to identify a model book, look at the books that have recently received awards from your scholarly association.
Outside your discipline. Books don’t have the same disciplinary conventions (read: rules) as articles, so you have more freedom with structure, organization, and style. Look for the very best books. Read serious nonfiction that isn’t written by academics. Check out long-form journalism.
Your prospective press. University presses have identities. While you may not read these books for a model, they will be informative in learning what company you’ll be in. You’ll also want to mention these similar books in your book proposal.
Also, let’s be real. There will be some books you read and don’t like at all. That’s instructive too. Your strong negative reactions will help you refine what you actually want to include in your book.
Now that you know how to find a model book, get a piece of paper and write down three potential model books. Then, write down why they’d be good model books. Finally, go get them if you don’t already have them.
The reason I’m such a strong advocate for finding model books is because it’s so easy and there’s no downside. You’ll do something you’re already good at — read! Together, your insights from your model books will serve as a personalized writing guide.