All my anxieties about my book, and how I’m dealing with them

I’m writing a book about ecology. It’s early days. So my enthusiasm for the project remains high, but so does my anxiety that I can pull it off. It’s not paralyzing anxiety–most days, I don’t worry about the book at all. I’m too absorbed in working on it, or on whatever other task commands my attention that day. But it’s there.

I’m dealing with that anxiety by identifying specific things I’m anxious about, and addressing them. So here’s a list of all my worries about my book, along with how I’m dealing with them. This is mostly for my own reference, but maybe it will help someone out there to know that even tenured full professors sometimes worry if they’re up to (some aspect of) the job.

  • Worry: Can I finish this book within a couple of years? Especially given that I’ve only just started, and my sabbatical ends in July. Solution: Focus on ambitious but achievable intermediate goals. Finish a detailed outline of the whole book plus two draft chapters by the end of my sabbatical. The book will be finished when it’s finished.
  • Worry: Can I finish this book without falling behind on publishing papers? Solution: Make sure the several papers I have in revision or nearly ready to submit get off my desk ASAP. Maybe start aiming a bit lower on some papers so that I hopefully don’t have to spend as much time revising rejected papers.
  • Worry: How many examples should I use to illustrate each of my major points? On the other hand, the book is supposed to be comparative; I need multiple examples to illustrate and defend the points I want to make. Otherwise it looks like I’m cherry-picking. But if I have too many examples, I’ll have to cover them superficially and the book will be unconvincing to profs and just sail over the heads of new graduate students. Solution: Focus each chapter on two or three “key” examples to be discussed in depth. Follow example of Vellend (2016) and include in each chapter a big table of other examples, with references to key papers. Maybe also have some examples that I use repeatedly throughout the book, so I only have to explain them once?
  • Worry: Will the book just come off as just me listing the sorts of ecology I personally happen to like? Solution: Get feedback from people who aren’t my friends; editor can arrange this. Lean heavily on the published literature; much of the value of the book will be in pulling together things others have said and identifying common themes. Recognize that arguing for one’s own views can be usefully thought-provoking for others, even if those views ultimately are somewhat subjective.
  • Worry: What voice should I adopt? A dry, formal style would be boring. And many readers will welcome a more personal voice. On the other hand, writing in my very casual blogging voice might annoy some readers. Solution: Try to find a happy medium. Maybe use footnotes as I sometimes do on the blog, to throw in little jokes (including at my own expense) or interesting asides?
  • Worry: What level do I write it at? Relatedly, how do I anticipate and forestall misunderstandings? On the blog, I often write pretty casually and assume a fair bit of familiarity with the topic. That’s because I figure the main audience for any given post is (i) people who are really into that topic, and (ii) regular readers who know how I think and who can mentally “fill in” the gaps. And if anyone misunderstands or has a question, they can just ask in the comments. And if anyone misunderstands or has a question but doesn’t ask in the comments, well, no biggie, it’s only one blog post. The book will have a much broader audience, won’t have a comments section, and it is a big deal if many readers misunderstand it. Solution: Get feedback from graduate students as well as faculty, for instance by showing draft chapters to my lab group. Don’t skim quickly over too many examples (see above). Hope that I’m as good an explainer as I like to think I am.
  • Worry: How should I get feedback as I go? I don’t want to write an entire book and then be told by reviewers it sucks and have to completely rewrite the whole thing. On the other hand, reviewers of single chapters can’t evaluate how those chapters fit in with the rest of the book. Solution: Ask editor and colleagues who’ve written books for advice on this. Try to line up a few friends willing to read multiple chapters.
  • Worry: What about “unknown unknowns”? What should I be worried about, that I’m not? Solution: Hope that commenters will point out to me worries that I don’t have, but should!

12 thoughts on “All my anxieties about my book, and how I’m dealing with them

  1. Thanks for sharing this post! I think many, of not most of us can relate to it, even if we are not writing a book and it really helps reading the about other people’s anxieties and how they deal with it. I’m afraid I don’t have anything very constructive to say, other than I really appreciate your blog and honesty with the reader and I’m sure it’ll come across your book as well 😉

  2. Jeremy, I may have to borrow your list. That’s pretty much exactly the set of worries I had with my first book, and it’s pretty much exactly the set I have with the one I’m working on now. I think this tells you something you already know: that these worries are completely reasonable, but also completely surmountable. Good luck!

  3. Hugely in favour of footnotes for adding the personal voice. The footnotes are my favourite part of both Jonathan Losos’ book on Anolis lizards and Stephen Heard’s writing book, and the people who find them annoying can easily ignore them.

  4. I shared most of those anxieties while writing my own book (http://a.co/gzGTT2K). And it had a blog phase too, so Jeff’s comment does also apply here! It took me 10 years to publish this book. It first started as some independent tutorials written for new students who entered by lab in 2007, then those tutorials were translated to blog format in 2012, in 2016 I decided to compile the best posts in book format, and now in 2017 it got self-published thanks to Amazon.

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