Reflections on writing book chapters

By Pat Thompson

I like writing book chapters. If you look at my publications – well I don’t mean you to do this literally – but IF you did, you’d see that I’ve written quite a lot of them. In the last month I’ve been sent two books which I’ve got chapters in, I’m expecting another collection as well as some chapter proofs any day – and I’m just starting on writing a chapter. So I really do think they’re OK.

The reason I like writing chapters is because they (generally) offer different opportunities for academic writing from the stock-in-trade journal article.

For a start, you can assume with a book chapter that you don’t have to convince readers that the topic you’re writing about is important. The editors are going to do that in the foreword. They are also likely to do a pretty thorough survey of the field, and to cover its history. So you don’t have to do that kind of literature work in a chapter, unless it is one about the literature ( see below). You just have to situate your own position and indicate the literatures that you draw on and to which you are talking/contributing.

And I reckon you can often be more creative as a writer in a chapter.

Not all book chapters are the same of course. There are different kinds of edited books which require different kinds of writing and different kinds of creaivity.

There are for example overtly pedagogical texts written for under- and post- graduate courses. The writing challenge here is quite different from a journal article – the reader is a learner, and the job of the chapter writer is to teach them about something. The writing must therefore be clear, engaging, the content well scaffolded; there may also be a need for examples, exercises and annotated bibliographies – perhaps even online links. It takes imagination and innovation in order to present instructional material so that it anticipates questions and answers them.

Then there are the chapters in international handbooks which set out to provide a state-of-the-art review of the field. The challenge here is not only to present a survey which identifies key debates, challenges and trends, but also to construct and argue for a future agenda – all the while not sending the reader to sleep with an excess of authors and titles and dates.

And there are topic based edited collections which aim to deliberately offer a variety of perspectives, to explore and to debate important questions. This is where the writer is most likely to be able to negotiate with the editor/s about a creative response. This is because topic-based edited collections often benefit from having variations as they keep readers moving through the text. So there is room for writerly manoeuvre. I have for example contributed chapters which are photo essays, multi-voiced accounts, auto-ethnographic words and images, heavily edited interview transcripts and variously structured narratives.

These kinds of chapters are the ones I most enjoy writing. It’s not that you can’t play with the journal structure, you can if you choose your journal carefully, and if you argue your case. But you generally don’t have to work so hard on this with the edited book. Provided the editor is up for some variation in the collection, you can think pretty creatively about how to present your material.

You can of course exercise the same kind of creativity in a whole book – but it is a much more challenging task. A book chapter is a good way in to alternative modes of academic writing. It’s a place where you can think and do much more about the WRITING aspect of academic writing. It’s a place to focus directly on the reader rather than primarily on the referees. It’s a place to practice and develop the craft of authoring.

So, that’s why I like writing book chapters….which I’m now about to get back to.

This was originally published on Pat Thomson’s personal blog, Patter, and is reposted here with permission

Categories: Sociological Craft

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