How to Write a Book Proposal

book-proposalDan Berger, a history professor at the University of Washington Bothell and the author of Captive Nation: Black Prison Organizing in the Civil Rights Erahas a helpful post up at Black Perspectives with some tips on how to write a book proposal.

Here is a taste:

A good proposal should be sent to multiple presses. While you should not submit the manuscript to multiple publishers simultaneously, it is not a betrayal of confidence to submit proposals to multiple publishers; in fact, it’s in your benefit to do so. The neoliberal university affects publishers as much as any other part of the academy. Editors are overworked and expected to do more with less while navigating legions of anxious junior (and senior) scholars eager to find a home for their work. Interest from one press is perhaps the only surefire thing that can get another press to get back to you if they have not already. In sending your proposal to multiple presses, you may want to make some superficial adjustments to the proposal. For instance, if you are interested in a particular series that a publisher has, you might work the themes and concepts of the series into your proposal in a deliberate fashion. However, since the proposal is introducing the book, it should be able to stand alone across multiple submissions without much tailored revision.

When I was finishing the proposal for Captive Nation: Black Prison Organizing in the Civil Rights Era, I devised a three-tiered list. Each tier had four or five presses in it. My plan was to send out the proposal to all of the presses in the group and see what happened; if no one in tier one was interested, then I would send it to tier two, and so on. I developed my list with equal parts reason and emotion: I talked with friends and mentors about it, and I scoured my bookshelves to see who had published books I was excited by or which bore significant tie in to some of the themes of my own book. I was fortunate to have interest from three of my tier-one list, so I didn’t need to keep sending it out. But having that list made me feel confident that I would publish the book somewhere, that I had other options if my top choices did not pan out. And the process of creating the tiers also helped me decide which press to go with when I had interest from multiple places. The other factor that helped me decide was gauging excitement for the project from different presses; when decision time came, I went with the press that seemed to best understand what I was doing with my book and shared my vision of what it could be.

Read the entire post here.

Yet Another Jill Lepore Interview

2116c-leporestoryYou may recall this post from yesterday.

Today we offer a new Jill Lepore interview post.

B.R. Cohen of Public Books interviews Lepore about “the challenge of explaining things.”

Here is a taste:

BRC: As we talk about the historical trajectory of such things, of how things change and develop, I have a corollary question. How can we write about history in ways that don’t come off sounding like what I think of as a tired mode: the academic translating obscure scholarship in smaller words and shorter sentences and calling that “writing for a broader audience.” You don’t take that approach. Did you evolve away from it early in your career? Or did you always know you would produce public (not just academic) commentary?

JL: I only ever wanted to be a writer. I love history, and I especially love teaching history, but I never intended to become an academic, and I’m baffled by the idea that reaching a wider audience involves using smaller words, as if there’s some inverse correlation between the size of your audience and of your vocabulary. You don’t talk about, say, technological determinism to a freshman the same way you talk about it to a colleague, right? Is it easier to talk to a freshman? No, it’s harder. Is it more important to give that student a clear explanation of the concept than it is to chat with your colleague about it? I think so, though I suppose that’s debatable. I love the challenge of explaining things to other people, in the same way that I love other people explaining things to me. I love being a student. Nothing is so thrilling as diving into scholarship I’ve never encountered before and trying to get my bearings, learning what so many scholars have been piecing together over a very long period of time, and trying to figure out how to bring that learning to bear on a problem that I, like a lot of people both inside and outside the academy, happen to be struggling with. The hitch is getting the scholarship right. I always worry I’ve missed something, or distorted something, or failed to understand the big picture. That’s the downside: missing something crucial. Nothing is more concerning, or more discouraging, than getting something wrong; there’s no real way to right it. It’s horrible; it kills me.

Read the entire interview here.

How to Write a Book Proposal

book-proposalOver at Black Perspectives, Keisha Blain of the University of Iowa interviews Dawn Durante of the University of Illinois Press about how to write a book proposal for a university press.

Durante acquires books in Asian-American history, Latino History in the Midwest, Black Studies, Digital Humanities, and Women, Gender, and Sexuality in American History.

Here is a taste of the interview:

Keisha N. Blain: What do you think is the biggest misconception about the process of writing the book proposal?

Dawn Durante: In my opinion, the major misconception about the purpose of the book proposal is that it is solely for the benefit of an editor or a publisher to gauge interest in the book project. Proposals can be a much more valuable tool that serve authors better when drafted well before the point of contacting an editor. I often get asked about when the right time is to be thinking about a book proposal. An author should begin crafting a proposal as soon as they are beginning to develop the book. When a scholar is preparing a proposal for a press, they must articulate key arguments, audiences, and lay out the framework and arc of the book. Many of these issues are aspects authors are thinking through (or should be thinking through) from the very conception of the project. For instance, if someone has not thought deliberately about the key stakeholders and most likely audience for the project prior to the proposal, then how has the book’s organization and writing style been appropriately designed and implemented? A proposal constructed at an early juncture can serve as a guide for the writing process and should be refined up until the point it is submitted to an editor. I have encountered authors who are hesitant to invest time in a proposal early on given all the competing commitments scholars have to deal with, and I certainly understand that. However, having a well-thought-out proposal on hand can be useful for a variety of job, grant, or fellowship applications, and more importantly, a fully conceived proposal can be a beneficial roadmap for an author from the very beginning of their project’s development.

Read the entire interview here.

The Intellectual Life–Part 9

sertillangesRecently I reread the A.G. Sertillanges’s classic work on the life of the mind: The Intellectual Life: Its Spirit, Conditions, Methods.  Sertillanges (1863-1948) was a Catholic writer and a member of the Dominican Order.  He published The Intellectual Life in 1934.  Read the entire series here.

p.199: You must write throughout the whole of your intellectual life

p.201: I have said that the art of writing requires lone and early application and that this gradually becomes a mental habit and constitutes what is called style.

p.208: Strive to write in the form that is inevitable, given the precise thought or the exact feeling that you have to express.  Aim at being understood by all…

p.209: …all creative work requires detachment. Our obsessing personality must be put aside, the world must be forgotten.  When one is thinking of truth, can one allow one’s attention to be turned from it by self.

p.213: We must not allow ourselves to be influenced by fear of what people will say; we must beware of yielding to the pressure of a spirit of cowardly conformity which proclaims itself everybody’s friend in the hope that everybody will obligingly return the compliment.

p.214-15: Seated at your writing table and in the solitude in which God speaks to the heart, you should listen as a child listens and write as a child speaks.

p.219: Sometimes it is good to stop for a while, when  one does not see the right succession of ideals and is exposed to the grave danger of making artificial transitions.

p. 220: But you most normal stimulant is courage.  Courage is sustained, not only be prayer, but by calling up anew a vision of the goal….Keep you eyes on its completion and that vision will give you fresh courage.

p.220: You must not yield to the first sense of fatigue; you must push on; you must force the inner energy to reveal itself.

p.228: You who have a sacred call, make up your mind to be faithful.  There is a law within you, let it be obeyed.  You have said: “I will do this.”

Joyce Appleby: RIP

joyce-applebyJoyce Oldham Appleby, a giant in the field of early American intellectual and political history, died earlier this week at the age of 87.  If you are unfamiliar with Appleby or her work I encourage you to head over to The Junto and read Michael Hattem’s excellent obituary.

I never met Appleby, but I read and admired her work. I read Capitalism and a New Social OrderLiberalism and Republicanism in Historical Imagination,and Telling the Truth About History in graduate school.  Appleby’s published disagreements with Gordon Wood and others from the “republicanism” school of the American Revolution were staples on the reading lists of all early American graduate students in the 1990s.  Her book Inheriting the Revolution made me aware of the role memoirs could play in understanding the American Revolution and the early republic.

In 1996 Appleby and James Banner Jr. founded History News Service (HNS) in an attempt to get more academic historians to write for a public audience.  As a newly-minted history Ph.D who was trying to imagine a slightly different kind of career than the one I was encouraged to follow in graduate school, my interests intersected with the mission of HNS and I began sending op-eds to Appleby and Banner.  Anyone who wrote for HNS remembers the editorial good-cop (Appleby)/bad cop (Banner) routine they used when editing the work of those of us who were new to this genre of writing.  Banner would cover the piece with the proverbial red ink.  In my case he pushed me to write more succinct sentences and dispense of academic jargon.  Appleby was no less of a critic, but she had a softer, more encouraging, touch.  Both of them made me a better writer. Banner made me realize that it would take hard work to master the craft of public writing. (And I am certainly not there yet).  Appleby made me feel like there was actually a chance I could contribute to this genre.

After I learned that she had passed away I went back and re-read some of the e-mails she wrote to me in her role at HNS.  Here is one from 2004 that I will always remember:

“Excellent rewrite, John.  I am ready to turn this  over to Jim for fine-tuning.  I have made one suggestion in caps for your conclusion.  I hope that you will consider it.  Many thanks.  I wish you’d write more for HNS.  You are a natural writer.  Joyce

Joyce Appleby probably never thought again about the last two sentences of this e-mail, but this small kindness meant the world to me and kept me going.  Thanks, Joyce.  RIP.

10 Rules of Writing

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As readers of The Way of Improvement Leads Home know, I am always on the lookout for material that will help me, and inspire me, to be a better writer.  Today I ran across Amitava Kumar’s piece at The Indian Quarterly website: “10 Rules for Writing.”

The entire piece is worth your time.

First, here are Kumar’s suggestions for beginning writers:

  1. Do not write long sentences (10-12 words max)
  2. Each sentence should make a clear statement
  3. Do not use big words
  4. Never use words whose meanings you are not sure of
  5. The beginner should avoid using adjectives, except those of colour, size, and number
  6. Avoid the abstract.  (Always go for the concrete)
  7. Every day, for six months at least, practice writing in this way

And now for Kumar’s “10 Rules”:

  1. Write every day
  2. Have a modest goal
  3. Try to write at the same time each day
  4. Turn off the internet
  5. Walk for ten minutes
  6. Pick a book to help you with style
  7. “Get rid of it if it sounds like grant talk”
  8. Learn to say no
  9. Finish one thing before taking up another
  10. The above rule needs to be repeated

See how Kumar develops these points here.

How to Write Academic History for a Public Audience

1477c-writing-center

Do you want to write good history for a general audience?  Alane Salerno Mason, the Executive Editor at W.W. Norton, offers some advice.

  1. Keep your introduction brief, and introductory
  2. People the story
  3. Let the people move
  4. Honor chronology
  5. Don’t bury your favorite details
  6. Avoid subtitles
  7. Don’t talk down to your audience
  8. Accept that some subjects are inherently of minor interest and others fall into genres that have become overcrowded
  9. A book should not be one’s first and only attempt to address the public.
  10. Break any rule when to do so serves a higher purpose

Check out Mason’s post at W.W. Norton to see how she unpacks these points.

Civil War Historian James McPherson on Writing

Battle_Cry_of_Freedom_(book)_coverOver at The Chronicle of Higher Education Rachel Toor interviews the Princeton historian, Pulitzer Prize-winner, and author of dozens of books on the Civil War-era.

Here is a taste of her interview:

How did you tackle such a gigantic project — writing the entire history of the Civil War in one volume?

McPherson: One chapter, or section of a chapter, at a time. I don’t write from an outline — I’ve tried it, and it proved to be a waste of time. In my head I had a general outline of the whole book and a somewhat more specific outline of what I hoped to cover in each chapter.

I would sit down to read the sources, secondary and primary, for each part of a chapter, and then write that part before going on to repeat the proc­ess many times until I had a complete book. As I wrote each paragraph, the subject of the next paragraph would become more clear in my mind, and that proc­ess repeated itself through countless paragraphs.

The second and third drafts rarely changed organization or substance; they focused on sentence structure, clarity, and finding just the right word (with frequent use of a thesaurus) in the right place. In revising at the sentence level, I would change the passive voice to active whenever possible, try to change “to be” and other nonaction verbs to action verbs, and to break up some compound or complex sentences into two or more shorter sentences when it seemed appropriate.

I also read my second draft aloud to myself as a way to catch sloppy or unclear syntax from two perspectives — sound as well as sight.

How did that book’s success affect you?

McPherson: It was a two-edged sword. On one edge, I enjoyed the praise and 15 minutes of fame that it earned, the royalties that it paid, the invitations to give lectures that paid additional fees, the prominence in the historical profession that I acquired, and other benefits of success. On the other edge, this notoriety cut deeply into family time, into the leisure for exercise and hobbies like tennis and bicycling that I had previously enjoyed, and into the peace and quiet that are part of a quality life that was eroded by my newfound prominence.

Read the entire interview at the Chronicle of Higher Education

On Writing the History of the American Bible Society–Update 118

Bible Cause CoverWell, the last time I updated the readers of The Way of Improvement Leads Home on my progress on The Bible Cause: A History of the American Bible Society I boldly announced that “I think the manuscript is finally out of my hands.”

I was wrong.

Apparently I did not realize that I told Oxford University Press that I would be preparing the index (as opposed to farming it out).  After about 15 hours of tedious indexing, I have just sent it off to Oxford.  So now I think I can say with some degree of certainty that the manuscript is out of my hands.

After writing five books, I have come to realize that each press handles indexing differently.  University of Pennsylvania Press asked me to prepare the index for The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  If I remember correctly, I also did the index for Confessing History.  But Westminster/John Knox Press and Baker Academic did the indexes for Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? and Why Study History?, respectively.

On a related matter, the “Bible Cause” tour is shaping up. We have booked engagements at National Presbyterian Church in Washington, Lincoln Memorial University, the Dunham Bible Museum at Houston Baptist University, and Trinity College and Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.  A lot more are in the works.

If you want to host us shoot me an e-mail and we can set something up.  You may also want to consider a talk on The Bible Cause in conjunction with the Fall release of the Second Edition of Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?  I actually have been starting to think about The Bible Cause as a kind of sequel.

The last I heard, The Bible Cause will be released on March 1, 2016.

John Wilsey is on Fire

John Wilsey teaches history at the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary campus in Houston.  He is a real jack of all trades.  He is the interim pastor of a Houston-area Baptist church.  He teaches courses in history and theology to traditional seminary students, undergraduates, and prisoners in a maximum security prison.  He has written a good book critiquing the “Christian America” thesis and has a forthcoming book on American exceptionalism.

But I am writing about John today because he has recently written two great blog posts.

The first post, which appears at John’s blog “To Breathe Your Free Air,” is an honest account of the struggles and triumphs of writing his book on American exceptionalism.  His exhortation to “write, write, write” was something I needed to hear as I continue to push forward with my American Bible Society project.  If you need some inspiration to jump start a writing project, head over to Wilsey’s post.

The second post, which was recently published at Religion in American History, offers an assessment of American exceptionalist rhetoric in Christian school and home school American history textbooks. In the process he invokes the term “Americolatry.”  Here is a taste:

Combine the idea of American exceptionalism with the Christian America thesis—the idea that America was founded as a Christian nation—and you have a potent brew indeed, a super-charged nationalism which has an exceptional quality all its own. 

I have a word for this powerful ideological combination—Americolatry. Americolatry consists of a form of civil religion that entails the doctrine of American greatness, innocence, and superiority (e.g., Reagan’s “the last, best hope of mankind,” Albright’s “indispensable nation,” or David Gelernter’s America as “one of the most beautiful religious concepts mankind has ever known”(2)). Americolatry also entails the practice of religious devotion to America by inextricably linking Christian devotion to patriotism. In other words, to be a devoted Christian equals the uncritical acceptance of America as superior and morally regenerate. 


Thanks for some good writing, John!