How I held it together and reorganized my book manuscript without being reduced to an embarrassing mess (and other lies)

“Oh crap.” I thought, for the six hundred millionth time since I had opened my overdue manuscript. Other common thoughts included: “This is total crap.” “Did I write this crap?” “This isn’t quite so crappy.” “Oh crap, that needs a lot of work.” And so on, for several hours a day, for almost the entire month of January 2020. Some FIVE YEARS after I first put my book proposal together for the FORTHCOMING (PLEASE GOD) BOOK Guarding Life.

I have written extensively on how writing is an iterative process, that everyone’s drafts look pretty crap the first time round, how emotionally exhausting constant rewrites are, and how we just have to help each other push through it with the small amount of time we have, especially if we have children and lives outside of academia. I have also written quite authoritatively on how I turned my PhD into a book proposal and, presumably, a book (anyone following me closely will know I have backed off on that claim recently). But in this post, I just want to let you know what a complete and utter blubbering mess you might become as you attempt to navigate (two different sets of) 80,000 words of text, contradictory reviewer’s reports and multiple versions and opinions on your work that you, frankly, might be finding it difficult to really care about anymore.

I’m going to come right out and say that I think I’m normally a pretty good writer. My favourite part of my job as an academic is spending time crafting texts, working out how to turn complex discussion into nice clean linear arguments with some sweet turns of phrase. I also prefer texts where I somehow look smart and also deep. But I’m also going to be honest with you that turning your PhD into a book is probably way worse than just writing a book. Turning your PhD into a book is like returning to diaries from the 3rd form (Year 9 for you young people, 13 years old for you foreigners) and trying to construct a list of the main political events of your country during that period. I mean, it might be there, but you are so absorbed in your own narrative that it takes monumental efforts to distill text that can then be shared with others as an adult and be taken seriously. In the interests of saving my own dignity, I will point out that this is a simile, not an exact description of what I am doing. But you get the picture. It would be easier just to go straight to the list rather than do it through the diaries of your angsty 13 year old self.

In any case, after a year of avoiding it (to be fair, I had a baby and finished another book during that time), I have managed to do a slow painful restructure that is finally making sense. Here’s what I did in real terms that are transferable to other actual people, maybe:

1. I sort of skimmed through the reviewer’s report, the editor’s comments, and various other comments people had emailed me.

2. I panicked, got angry at everyone, shut the programme down, and ate my lunch two hours early.

3. Several months later, I repeated the process, but this time ate less and went for a big walk.

4. I’ve lost track of how many times I repeated steps 1-3. Eventually, I tried to write down all my reasons for why I couldn’t do the book.

5. I ranted at my husband about why I wasn’t going to do the book. He agreed it was stupid and I shouldn’t do it.

6. I rang other friends and explained why it was a stupid book and I shouldn’t do it. They didn’t react to my decision, but just said unhelpful things like “It sounds like you have a lot going on” and “I really enjoyed the draft, I’m sure you can make it work” and “I’m looking forward to reading more”. Morons.

7. I spent several days clearing out some 2000 emails from my inbox, and doing work on other unrelated projects that were not strictly due. Eventually, it was clear even to me that I was psychologically stuck when it came to my book project.

8. I reluctantly returned to the reports, and realized that my main ‘stuck’ point was that I didn’t know which file to work on: the 2018 version that included a year of revisions as requested by editor, including a completely new introduction? or the 2017 version which contained the original introduction from the proposal which the reviewer lamented had been rewritten so poorly?

9. Once I realized this was the issue, I wrote a self-absorbed and slightly panicky email to the entire ‘team’: the 4 series editors, the editor at the press, the reviewer, and bcc’ed to support person #1. As you can imagine, this was a highly effective way to clog people’s inboxes and get them discussing my mental health (I presume) behind my back. Several carefully worded and encouraging emails were returned, with much the same tone as one might approach a slight deranged dog that may just want a pat but could also bite your face off. Recommendation: go to the good introduction and start there.

10. At much the same time, I realised independently because it is obvious that I should just go to the good introduction and start there.

11. I went to the good introduction and the 2017 version and used the navigator view in word to right click and select heading and content then paste that introduction OVER the 2018 introduction and label the new file ‘2020 edits’. I immediately felt better.

12. I then continued to read down the text making notes to myself using comment bubbles about what obviously crappy things needed to be changed into other quite obviously brilliant things that I should have thought of years ago. Many of these notes to self included identical recommendations that editor, reviewer, support person and series editors had suggested earlier. But I thought them up myself, so I’m in control and smart etc. So there.

13. As I got bolder, I started using the navigation bar to select heading and content to a) track the length of each chapter and b) cut and paste further chapters into different sequential orders. Interestingly, the really long chapters were the same ones the readers had noted were ‘difficult to follow’ ‘hard-going’ and ‘a bit of work’. Also interesting: I reordered the entire manuscript in about 35 minutes, even reordering subsections using the same effective Microsoft Word technique described above. Brilliant.

14. And there you have it. From that moment until this (bar 13 minutes writing this blog post) I have been working on making further notes in comments on this new structure as well as writing extensive notes on how one chapter will be totally reorganized and written to (shock, horror) explain the purpose of the book and the key arguments and how they fit together with the empirical content. INNOVATIVE WRITING TECHNIQUES RIGHT HERE FOLKS.

So, for any others out there, struggling like me to work out ‘what to do, really’ with their recommended manuscript edits, I hope I have shown you a foolproof 14 step method to get about 2 weeks of short focused work done in a lengthy, anxiety-ridden period of more than a year. In case that would ever be helpful to you. You’re welcome.

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