Book chapters are a weird beast to master

I’ve not blogged here for a long time, so again I’m going to say how strange it is to get back into this. This time, I found this title in my ‘drafts’ in the blog post folder, so let’s see where this takes me in the next half hour or so.

Book chapter are a weird beast to master. There are so many different types of books and types of chapters, and it’s all very dependent on discipline and methodology. It’s a weird and complex hodgepodge of words.

Maybe I should explain myself a little before I get too far down the rabbit hole about how weird I think book chapters are. So, essentially I’m a PhD student who’s trying to write words for her dissertation while simultaneously trying to publish my academic work in a number of different formats. I’m working on stuff that is very much at the intersection of HCI and social sciences (and I’m using the term ‘social sciences’ here because I can’t figure out where in the social sciences my work actually fits in quite yet…). Since I’m still not entirely sure whether I want to go into social sciences or HCI after I finish my PhD, I want to try to publish in both spaces, in different formats. I’ve published papers in HCI, and have started going to social science focused conferences recently, but I’ve yet to publish in the social sciences.

That’s about to change!

A few months ago, I received a CfP for a book surrounding sex industry research. One of the sections of the book was something like ‘underresearched areas’ and another one was ‘technologies’. In my head, I think technologies and sex work are generally underresearched so I decided to write an abstract for the ‘underresearched areas’ section of the book.

Writing this abstract took me aaages. I couldn’t quite figure out how I could write what I wanted to write and have it make sense to a social science audience. I hadn’t realised just how much of the language I use in my writing is HCI-specific! So I went through and edited, edited, edited. I re-wrote things, took things out, restructured my abstract until it was the deadline.

To be fair, I probably freaked out much more than I needed to, but I wanted my ‘social science debut’ to be good. A few weeks later I get an e-mail from the editors and as it turns out my abstract was good enough! woop! So I’ll be writing a book chapter for the ‘Handbook of Sex Industry Research’. They did however change my chapter into the ‘technology’ section, which I wasn’t super happy about – but I can see why they did it.

So anyway, a few weeks roll around and I decide to get over my fear and try to figure out how to even start writing a book chapter. I remembered the vast amounts of editing and re-writing it took me to get the abstract into somewhat send-off-able shape, and just tried to have a go at the chapter.

At first, it went really slowly. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do, what I was trying to say, or even how to get a start at my chapter. I wrote a few sentences and let it sit for a while. Even though I had months before the deadline, I was starting to get worried that I hadn’t given it a proper go yet, but still couldn’t figure out how to go about doing it. It kept sitting in my head as something that I needed to figure out. It wasn’t something that actively stressed me out or scared me, but it was just this little thing in my mind that, every  now and again, would come up.

One Saturday, pretty randomly, I felt like I wanted to have a proper go at the chapter. I lied in bed thinking about what I wanted to write and it seemed to all make sense. It seemed like I knew what I wanted to write, what pictures I wanted to include, and how I wanted to shape my argument that would be my ‘social science debut’. It would be political and strongly worded, it would be reflexive, show what cool work I’ve been doing, but then also questioning why I did things in a certain way. I got out of bed got ready really quickly and headed outside to go to Pink Lane Coffee. I ordered my flat white, sat down on their brown leather couch, and had a go. I started with writing notes in my notebook, then developed a skeleton for the chapter in a word document and then had a go at writing the thing. I spent hours that day writing away, not really re-reading what I had written – just getting words on the page. I ended up with more than 5,000 words that day and still wasn’t completely finished. But I left it at that.

I don’t really remember what I did the rest of that day, but I’m pretty sure I slept well that night.

After having that start on the chapter, I felt good about it for a few weeks – I thought I had figured it out and was happy with what I had written, knowing that I had a lot of work left on it (I had still to write the conclusion, for example). So I let a few weeks pass again before I had another go at it. This time I picked up a printed out copy of the words I had written that Saturday that I had lying on my desk and started to have a go through it. I put it down almost instantly as I realised how bad the words I had written were.

Instead of being discouraged by this, I told myself: at leat you’ve got words down. Words are editable. You can re-write the whole thing, but at least you’ve got an outline that somewhat makes sense, and at least you’ve got words. You can edit them.

I don’t remember whether it was a few days or weeks later, but I had to go to a cafe again to get this sorted. This time I sat in the Settle Down Cafe and took the chapter and a pen out of my bag. A sip of my flat white, a deep breath, and then I started. I don’t think a single sentence was left in tact from my initial chapter. Almost all the pictures were deleted, and the structure changed drastically. It was a pretty  heavy re-write of what I had done on that long Saturday in Pink Lane Coffee. But this time I actually felt good about it.

I had essentially hand-written the entire chapter through my edits on the printed out page; many of my notes were now only legible to me, and the arrows and asterix’ stopped making sense after a while.

After a change in scenery I decided to try to type up what my hand had spilled on the page – I went through all of my notes, typing things up as I went along. Trying to decipher what I was trying to say wasn’t always easy, and I changed a few things in the process of typing them up, but it kept me going. I had something on paper that I just had to type up – this wasn’t a hard task, it was do-able. Much of the hard work (to this stage) was already done.

So I typed and edited, and had another read over, and changed many things again, and then changed some more before I was happy enough with it to send it to my co-authors and supervisors. It’s still not done, and I’m still not 100% happy with it (and I don’t know if I ever will be), but I’m in a good place with it now.

What was hardest however, was trying to write in such a different style and for such a different audience. A book is written so differently from a paper. Even though I actually have less space in the chapter than I would in a CHI paper, the format makes me want to write more reflexively; it makes me want to explain things more and not cram everything into a single paragraph or sentence. The different referencing format (Harvard as opposed to the ACM CHI format) makes me want to reference fewer papers, but spend more time explaining them and how they relate to my argument. It makes me slow down, think, and really appreciate the words I put on the page.

It’s weird.

I think working on this chapter is helping me re-calibrate the way I write. It’s helped me start to write for my dissertation. I know the dissertation is yet another type of writing with yet another audience and yet another purpose, but the way I want write about my work seems to be closer to how I am working on this book chapter than how I work on CHI papers. I don’t think I can really explain why (yet)…but for now, that’s where I’m going to leave it. An open-ended sense of wonder as to what my dissertation is going to look like, and how writing in different formats has helped me see my work through different eyes. It’s helped me look at different things, and it’s developed me as someone who puts words on a page.

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