Have you ever sat down to work on an academic manuscript and just started writing…and writing… and writing? Not necessarily in one writing session. I’m talking about the academic manuscript that gets ahead of you, that starts with one observation or argument but turns into a piece of writing that’s twice as long as it should be, with some points only tangentially related to your main argument. Or, a manuscript that has more than one topic or theme. The manuscript that’s about everything but not about just one thing.
I’m talking about a Frankenscript.
In this first of several posts, I’m going to explain why your academic manuscripts end up this way. While it’s sometimes a problem with your analysis or a cry for editorial intervention, it’s also a problem with your mind. You have fears about your writing that manifest on the page. I’m going to address some of those fears here. These are concerns that I hear when coaching clients and editing their work.
You’re worried you’ll miss something.
Here’s the truth: any academic manuscript you write could be about something else. That’s not a bad thing. We use various angles and interpretations in our writing based on our training, our interests, our politics, suggestions from mentors and colleagues, and so forth. An article about Uber drivers could be about precarity, neoliberalism, technology, or emotional labor. It can’t be about all those things, however, because it wouldn’t make sense.
Yet, you’re scared that you’ll hear the dreaded “what about…” question from reviewers. So you try to preempt it by being exhaustive in your accounts. But, being exhaustive is exhausting – to you and your reader.
You’re scared readers won’t be interested.
In book proposals in particular, I notice this trend. The section of the proposal where you discuss your intended audience has a “something for everyone” theme. From a casual New York Times reader to an expert in early 20th-century ironwork, everyone is going to LOVE your book. It’s perfectly logical that you’d write this way. There’s increasing pressure to write books with broad appeal, so thinking of ways to reach a range of audiences feels like an insurance policy. It’s also likely that different parts of your book will appeal to different audiences. Yet, when we try to write for every audience we lose focus on the heart of the narrative.
You don’t have it in you to write twice.
You have a treasure trove of data. Your corpus is overflowing. There’s an enormous body of literature that you’ve mastered. Because you’ve done all this work — this time- consuming, rigorous work — you’re gonna fit it all in this manuscript. Come hell or high water!
When I suggest to clients (especially book writers) that they may have too much information for a single book, the response is often stony silence. I advise them to consider writing a related article in addition to the book. They tell me, defiantly, “after I write this book, I’m never writing about this topic again!” I get it. You’re tired of the research. Yet, you also love it. You’re proud of it, and you feel passionately that the world needs to know about it. But, you still don’t want to write another manuscript.
It’s OK to let go of the research, even if it’s good. You might have interview transcripts with amazing quotes that just can’t all fit in an article or even a book.
Your academic manuscript isn’t a buffet. It’s a tasting menu. It’s your job to be discerning and realize that even when your arguments, examples, and topics are amazing, they don’t all belong in a single manuscript. The discernment process takes time and effort on your part, along with a willingness to let go of ideas, research, or entire drafts — even when they’re good. That letting go might mean waiting to write a second manuscript, or abandoning it altogether.
Do you think that you have a tendency to overwrite? Are you concerned that you have an academic manuscript that feels unwieldy? Tell me about it in the comments, or find me on Twitter @janejoann.