What I learned from writing a book: A 3x3x3 reflection

What I learned from writing a book: A 3x3x3 reflection
Photo by Dariusz Sankowski / Unsplash

It seems weird to have taken a five-month break from writing, so I could write, but here we are. Other than the flipped learning research update post, this blog has been on hiatus since May so that I could focus my book with David Clark on alternative grading. We turned in the manuscript last month, so now I can return my focus... to writing. Again. Or something.

I'd written a book before, but this one was so different from the first that it felt like being a first-time author. Co-authoring a book as opposed to writing one solo, is like playing music with a band versus getting up on stage with just you and a guitar. It's music either way, but with a different set of issues to navigate. I've also written a lot since the first book, and the way I approach the processes and tools I use to do it have evolved.

So I thought I'd revisit a tried-and-true blogging formula I've used in the past: Three things I've learned, three things that surprised me, and three questions I still have from writing the book on alternative grading.

Three things I learned

1. You don't write books in the same order in which they are read. I'm not sure why, but I had this notion going into the alt-grading book that we should first write Chapter 1, then Chapter 2, etc. and on through the Appendices, in that order. But while that's the natural way to read a book, it's unnatural to write one this way. Books are big, sprawling things that connect constellations of disparate ideas together into a coherent narrative. Trying to write a book in a linear order is like trying to make bread by baking one end of the loaf first, then the middle, then the other end. David and I wrote Chapter 1 first, not because it was first in the table of contents but because it was easiest. From there, the book emerged in bits and clumps, and our writing process was about connecting the bits and figuring out what the main idea really was. We wrote the literature review last.

2. You have to write a lot before you are really ready to write. My least productive times of writing came when I started a chapter, or part of one, from a blank document. I thought I already knew what to write and just needed to start at the beginning. But most of the time I was still looking at a blank document 30 minutes later. Then, back in the summer, in the thick of drafting the manuscript, I read Tiago Forte's book Building a Second Brain where he wrote about "intermediate packets" --- small, portable units of content that can be assembled into larger blocks and reused in different places. That made sense; David and I had already started the Grading for Growth blog to practice with smaller units of content. I gradually learned instead to write down discrete snippets of thought into my notes software, whenever they happened to occur; then, before a writing session, review those notes and pull them together into a narrative. This was not only more productive in terms of word count, I also learned that if you haven't thought through the basis elements of your chapter first, then the chapter you write is going to be superficial because it's the first time you've seriously sat down with the ideas.

3. Writing is as much about removing words as it is adding them. As our August deadline was approaching and the manuscript was getting to a stopping point, David realized we needed to check the word count. We had a word limit of 70,000 words which seemed unimaginably large. We did the count... and realized we were at 90,000 words, and we hadn't even finished two chapters yet. David and I had to start cutting. At times the cuts came in large chunks; more often it was 2-5 words here and there, repeated hundreds of times. This was hard editorial and emotional work. But the end result is, I think, much more tightly focused and will get our ideas across more clearly. Lesson: Don't skip editing.

Three things that surprised me

1. How much the tools and the environment matter. One chapter in the book is a workbook for designing alternative grading systems, in the same style as "Seven Steps to Flipped Learning Design", and I was in charge of writing it. It became my nemesis. After numerous starts, I simply could not get any momentum with it. Then one morning, for reasons unknown, I switched from Google Docs to Microsoft Word --- and in a two-hour sprint, I wrote over 5000 words. I don't think that Word is better than Google Docs for writing; but the change of scenery got me unstuck. I experienced a similar bump in productivity when I switched to a comfortable keyboard that is fun to type on, and when I installed LED lights in my home office that change color. Writing is a physical, not merely an intellectual act and the tools and environment matter.

2. How productive I can be with a good co-author. David Clark is a quality human being, a gifted teacher, and a valued colleague, and it turns out he is an excellent writer. Not just because he writes well; he also excels at the mental discipline it takes to complete a book project. I'd co-authored papers before, but with a couple of exceptions I always came away wishing I'd worked alone. But I don't think this book would have been as good, or completed at all, without David. Having a co-author who handles his end of the work (and then some), who challenges your thinking and writing when needed, and draws from a deep well of perspective and genuine care for the audience has been a revelation and a gift.  

3. The effectiveness of our weird writing workflow. David and I didn't really know how to write a book with another person before starting to write ours. We had to invent and refine our process as we went along. What we eventually settled on was this: One person would be in charge of drafting a chapter, using a shared Google Doc. Then, we would meet on Zoom and pull up the document. The person who didn't write the chapter would then read it aloud, while the person who wrote the draft would listen and edit. Having the non-writer do a "table read" of the draft gave a fresh take on what it sounds like inside the head of a person new to the words, so the person who did write the draft had a basis for making beneficial changes. Many times — a lot more often than I liked — I'd bring a draft I'd written to David; and the language which, to me, rang out clearly and made perfect sense when typing, sounded labored or muddled or nonsensical. It is a humbling process that I have started using with all my writing: Write a draft, then read it aloud (or run it through a text-to-speech program) and then try to cut 20% out. We even captured a typical writing session on video in case you are really interested (or really bored).

Three questions I still have

1. What will we blog about once the book is out? The Grading for Growth blog was originally set up to be a rehearsal space, inspired by Chris Rock's practice of taking jokes-in-progress out to small comedy venues to try them out. But now those are (mostly) all in the book, so what now? I personally would love to see it become a space where we amplify what other people are doing in their classes with alternative grading: Faculty who aren't trying to be "rock stars", but who do smart, innovative classroom instruction that deserves a wider audience.

2. How do make room for evolution in your thinking about a subject once you've written a book about it? Books don't change once they are written, but the authors do. My beliefs and practices on flipped learning aren't the same as in 2017, but people are still reading my book and quite naturally get the impression that what I believed then is what I still believe. The same will be true about alternative grading in 2028. This isn't a problem exactly; I don't have people demanding to know why I wrote X about flipped learning in 2021 when I said Y about it in 2017. But I do wonder how authors avoid being typecast by their own books.

3. Am I still a lone ranger? As mentioned above, I had a great experience co-authoring the book. David's work on it is exemplary; it was he, in particular, who used his Winter 2021 sabbatical to conduct the case study interviews that form the heart of the book. So now I definitely see the benefits of partnering with someone.

Again, welcome back to this blog. I'll be resuming posting here twice a week, usually with new content every Tuesday and content from other places (the Grading For Growth blog, interviews in the media, scripts from keynote addresses, etc.) on Fridays. It's good to be back!

Robert Talbert

Robert Talbert

Mathematics professor who writes and speaks about math, research and practice on teaching and learning, technology, productivity, and higher education.