March Book Update
And some advice for academic writers...
As promised, here’s an update as I prepare for a so-far icy March. The main theory chapters are finished, though they need substantial revision. I ended up adding another theory chapter on toleration, which I’m pretty happy with. The practical chapters have rough outlines/structures, but I haven’t yet finalized the case studies I’ll use for each. March will be devoted to revisions of the theory chapters and starting the process of finding agents and putting together a prospectus/market analysis. The “practical” chapters will likely deal with Politics (avoiding partisanship and tribalism), Life (parenting, religion, nutrition, etc.), and Policy (specific radically moderate reforms in the areas of criminal justice, healthcare, and maybe things like taxes and student loan forgiveness). If you have specific thoughts on topics that you’d really like to see in these chapters, leave a comment!
Possibly Useful Advice for Writers
As an alternative to getting too bogged down in the content and numbers, I thought I could use this update post to offer advice to other writers on what’s been really helpful as I’ve spent the last three months or so really digging into book writing while also balancing a full time administrative job (and teaching, but that’s a separate bad decision we can discuss later) while still spending time with my family.
Probably the most helpful thing in this process has been having a research assistant, but oddly, not for the obvious research reasons (though those are obviously great).
As background, this is actually the first time I’m successfully using a research assistant. My work is usually pretty solitary, so I don’t usually use RAs and I wasn’t sure how effectively I would use an RA given my usual writing process. But I also knew I needed to figure out a way to use an RA well if I was going to get anything done with my current administrative load.
Anyway, after getting a grant to do so, I hired a stellar undergraduate student who has done good work for other faculty members in our department. That experience was important; I would not have wanted to start with a research newbie. Be careful that you take any onboarding needs into account if you do use an inexperienced RA.
After a bit of experimentation, our workflow is something like this: I write in the Google Doc of a specific chapter and tag him with specific research tasks. He also has a list of ongoing tasks to do from other chapters if he runs out of things he’s been tagged for (including keeping the Zotero updated, updating the annotated bibliographies for each chapter, and so on). All this is great, but it’s not the most important benefit, I’ve found.
Somewhat surprisingly, by far the most important thing we do is meet meet weekly in person. I resisted this a bit at first, because between Zoom and Google Docs and email it seems like it *should* be possible to have an RA who you just sort of asynchronously check in with while you’re both being very productive. I also have a lot of meetings, so finding a time to meet sometimes feels like a hassle. But it turns out that there are a lot of really important benefits to in-person meetings, which I’ll regale you all with here:
The hard reality is that nothing beats the accountability provided to both sides by an in-person meeting. If you skip the in-person component it becomes easier and easier to let things slide. My previous failures with RAs came in part from assuming we could do more asynchronously than we actually could. It’s also easy to justify skipping meetings on weeks when writing hasn’t been as productive, but those are often the most important meetings to have, for reason #2.
You can and should use weekly in-person meetings to rubber duck ideas. At our last two meetings, I basically just talked out specific sticking points in the last two theory chapters, while my RA sat there looking intelligent and periodically threw a thought or two out there. Could I have figured all this out without yakking at another person or done this via comments in a Google Doc? Maybe. But would I have if my attention had been competing with email and people dropping into my office? Probably not. Meeting in person forced me to problem solve instead of avoiding the sticky stuff in favor of easier tasks. I also find that, much like my class lectures, when I’m explaining things to another person my brain makes connections that it doesn’t always make when I’m writing. That alone has been really helpful in making connections across and within chapters, identifying overarching themes, and figuring out when a chapter is becoming too messy. Rubber ducking is partly why I added a chapter on toleration; the chapter I was trying to smoosh it into was getting unwieldy and I couldn’t figure out why.
I also use those weekly meetings to assess and adjust our weekly and monthly writing plans. I’m on track, more or less, in part because each week I assign both of us goals to work on, which holds us both more or less accountable for the work we’re doing. We have a master plan of work for the semester that I consult at each meeting, but that needs to be aligned with our current progress and our upcoming schedules. At our last meeting, we looked at our schedules for March and adjusted things for an upcoming spring break. I also realized while looking at our plan of work for March that if I wanted him to start putting together a document with agent and marketing information I had to give him that background at our next meeting. Forecasting the month with him in person has helped me figure out what I need to be doing now so he can be more useful in the future. I probably wouldn’t have dug that deep into our calendars had we been doing things asynchronously and we would have wasted a lot of time in the process.
As you can see, these weekly meetings are really mostly strategic problem solving meetings. But they set up our asynchronous work so that it flows pretty smoothly. The asynchronous work he does with Zotero, finding sources, and tracking down quotes is enormously helpful in helping me reduce task-switching while I should be focusing on putting words down on a page. But the in-person meetings are really what’s driving the bus in terms of motivation and accountability.
Alternatives to Real RAs
All that being said, not everyone has a grant to help them fund an RA (I usually don’t). So what’s a poor writer to do?
The good news is that there are lots of options, but the most obvious one is finding a group of 2 or 3 other poor writers to meet up with every week to do the stuff above with. You won’t get all the benefits of delegating work to an actual RA, but you’ll get a lot of the motivation and accountability benefits, which matter a lot. And you can use an in-person writing/accountability group for a lot of the strategic and rubber ducking work too, which is also great. In the academic coaching I’ve done in the past, a format where each person take 15 minutes to share their plan of work for the week and assess their progress works well and prevents a single person’s project from taking over the group’s bandwidth. I’ve tried doing these meetings via email or text and they just don’t work as well, so try not to take shortcuts. Meeting in person or at least via Zoom is pretty important for making it work.
If you still prefer the virtual world, I really like CaveDay as a way to create accountability and group cohesion in the absence of real-life in-person groups. There are lots of other versions of this concept, including Flow.club and getSupporti.com, but I haven’t tried either.
I’ve also been a part of quite a few accountability Facebook groups for academics and writers that offer similar kinds of accountability and support around writing, so chances are good there’s something in your writing genre that’ll do that for you out there. I have no idea how TikTok or Instagram work, but maybe there are options there too. Who knows! But the good news is that there are a lot of options for writers these days that don’t cost a lot of (or any) money.
Anyway, that’s it! Things are going well, I’m pleased with how the book is turning out, and therefore stay tuned for next month when I’m despairing about how poorly written it is (because that’s coming).
In the meantime…
How you can help
(Spoiler: I’m just going to keep copying this until people start sending ideas…) As I mentioned in the January (and probably February) update, help is always welcome! Throw me ideas in the comments (or via email or messenger) on any of the following or other things I haven’t thought of yet. Ideas include:
News stories you’d like a radically moderate take on.
Cultural or social or political phenomena that you think help clarify or illuminate the importance of radical moderation.
Exceptions to radically moderate rules. Are there times when you think radical moderation doesn’t or can’t apply?
(Kind) disagreement. You think I’m way off base? Let me know why! Books get better with thoughtful interlocutors poking the weak spots. Poke away!
Offers to read chapters and provide feedback are always appreciated. If there’s a particular chapter you’d like to preview, just let me know.
Anything else you come up with!
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