Own your place in the world by writing a book

[Guest post by my Middlesex colleague Nico Pizzolato. In this post Nico presents a passionate plea to consider publishing a book at least once in your academic career.]

Few endeavours in life are as rewarding as writing a book. The process enhances your mental, volitive and organisational abilities; the outcome often opens doors, brings recognition and a leap forward in your professional activity.

In the next few paragraphs I will sketch out my case for writing a book at least once in your life, and as early as possible. I will focus on manuscripts based on research or practice—slightly different considerations apply for fiction or memoirs. I argue that writing a book leads to a heightened sense of reflexive identity, a self-awareness about the little patch of ‘territory’ you occupy and that grounds you somewhere in the sidereal galaxies of human experience or knowledge—a place to call your own.

The Process

It’s part of what I do to support professionals who engage in researching a problem in their context of practice and then write a long report, which often leads to a book, to address it, analyse it, solve it. The process therefore starts with mapping the boundaries of what really interest you. Then dig deep. This is the first step towards increased self-knowledge, as it forces you to clarify the values behind your choice, where you stand, and what experience, baggage and perspectives you bring with you as you start researching. Crucially, it also involves entering a conversation with what others have written about it. Ideas take shape in dialogue with others, whether in person or through the medium of their writing. Your first duty as a writer of a book based on research or practice is to move the conversation forward.

In a world where we are continuously distracted, digging deep will ground your attention and sharpen powers of analysis and critical thinking that had been dormant or underdeveloped in you. You will also need to step up your organisational skills as you need to manage a daunting load of information from different fields of inquiry and different sources of data and structure all this in a workplan fitting with the rest of your life.

Building connections

It’s also remarkable how researching a book will connect you with other human lives as you seek data informants, critics, and fellow travelers in this adventure. I researched my first book, an academic study of social protest in two industrial cities, over many years and during that period I ended up travelling back and forth across the Atlantic to interview remarkable protagonists who had been left out of History as well as people who had intersected with larger events only for a short time but who brought their unique perspective to them. I also spoke to other researchers, authors, politicians, archivists and artists—encounters I would have never had the chance to make without that project. Researching forces you to leave your little shell and go out into the world. And this applies also if you are focusing on your own field of practice—to unravel the meaning and the significance of what you do is to a large extent a collaborative process. (Conversely, as you prepare and publish a book you put yourself ‘on the map’ and others will reach out to you). Forget the image of a Jane Austen scribbling with her quill in her Victorian studio, as authors too, we are social animals.

Finding your voice

But it is the writing stage (perhaps only 30% of the work behind a book) that will be the most exacting and rewarding. Committing words to the page will usher meaning-making, casting a new light on information that you have acquired through research or practices and experiences that you have been acquainted with for years. To write 200-300 pages, line by line, and without any unnecessary word (that’s how much you should be committed to the highest standards) is a painful, exhilarating labour. The thing is that the construction of every paragraph opens up questions, requires choices (style, content, scope), demands your critical judgement. Every paragraph must have a point, and you have to make it compelling. And concise. In weaseling away words you will unearth the true core of the story you want to tell.

In the process of writing and revising, your voice as a writer, and therefore as a professional or as a scholar (or both), will emerge. It’s borne out of battling with the syntax, of avoiding clichès, of choosing a strategy to keep the attention of the reader throughout the whole manuscript. When I talk to new acquaintances about what I do I sometimes hear the disappointed remark, ‘oh, but is not creative writing’. Sorry, it’s not fiction, but it is creative. You forge new knowledge out of an inquiry and explain why it matters. In the process, your own self undertakes a transformation. It’s creation—what else?

As a result you’ll find that as an author of a book you have also gained a more distinctive voice in other contexts of your life. When I see many of the people I support going on to address audiences in conferences, workshops, interviews and podcasts I know that writing a book has played a crucial part in them becoming more confident, persuasive and engaging in meetings, face-to-face or over the ether.

Often I bump into scholars only concerned about their next peer-reviewed article (an institutional obsession of modern academia), or into professionals who have an untapped wealth of experience that could shape the next generation in their field, to hear, ‘I’ll write a book when I retire — then I’ll have the time’. But writing a book is not a leisurely activity, it’s a formative one. As Richard Skinner says, ‘writing is about claiming ownership of yourself in order to become the person you know you can be’. Chances are that the earliest you do it, the most transformative impact it will have in your life. It’s never too late—but the time is now.

If you are writing a book based on research or practice (at whatever stage you are) I’d love to hear from you as I am researching my next posts. Give me a shout.