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Professional Development Opinion

Advice for Teachers Who Want to Write a Book

By Larry Ferlazzo — April 05, 2020 17 min read
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(This is the first post in a three-part series.)

The new question-of-the-week is:

What is your advice for active K-12 educators who might be thinking about writing a book?

Many of us feel like we have books “in us.”

In theory, many educators (at least, those who don’t have little kids at home) might have a little more time over the next few months to devote to writing.

This series is designed to support teachers if that theory reflects reality.

Today, educators Sarah Cooper, Tom Rademacher, Rita Platt, and Pernille Ripp share their experiences writing books while teaching at the same time. In Part Two, editors from publishing houses will contribute their suggestions. Part Three will again feature active K-12 teachers writing about their very recent trials and tribulations.

You might also be interested in three previous posts that have appeared here on the same topic:

* ‘Write the Book You Wish You Had on Your Bookshelf’

This final post in a series on teachers writing books shares advice from Kimberly Carraway, Erik Palmer, Jeffrey Benson, and Cathie E. West. In addition, I share a few comments from readers.

* ‘Teachers Make Great Authors’

Allison Scott, Julia Thompson, and Vicki Davis share suggestions for teachers who would like to write a book and get it published. This is the second post in a three-part series.

* Educators Wanting to Write a Book ‘Must Go for It!’

Marjorie McAneny, Alan Sitomer, PJ Caposey, and Steven Anderson share their suggestions for educators who want to write a book.

In addition, here are some additional resources I’ve collected: So, You Want To Write A Book? Here’s The Best Advice...

Six tips for writing a book

Sarah Cooper teaches 8th grade U.S. history and is dean of studies at Flintridge Preparatory School in La Canada, Calif. She is the author of two books, Creating Citizens (Routledge, 2018) and Making History Mine (Stenhouse, 2009). Sarah speaks at conferences and writes for sites including Well-Schooled, Bookclique, MiddleWeb, CivXNow, iCivics, and the Modern Civics Project. All of her recent writing can be found at sarahjcooper.com:

Writing a book about teaching is not as hard as it seems. You don’t need an agent, and cold submissions can be very successful.

In 2007, I had been teaching for almost a decade, always fascinated by curriculum design, and wanted to put my history lesson plans to good use beyond the classroom.

First, I queried Heinemann, which had a temporary hiatus on publishing social studies books because they didn’t sell that well (still don’t, in general, compared with English and general literacy books). An editor there kindly directed me to Stenhouse Publishers.

My first book, Making History Mine: Meaningful Connections for Grades 5-9, emerged after a Stenhouse submission which included an outline and sample chapter, followed by another sample chapter four months later, followed by an offer two months after that.

My second book, Creating Citizens: Teaching Civics and Current Events in the History Classroom, jump-started itself. An editor at Routledge’s Eye on Education, which partners with MiddleWeb on K-12 titles, wanted someone to write about teaching in a controversial political climate and had read my MiddleWeb blog posts about current events.

Here’s what I’ve learned from publishing two books nearly 10 years apart:

  1. Write a pedagogy book because you know you have something to say - not because you’re hoping it will sell a ton of copies and help you quit your day job. This could be a happy consequence, but it shouldn’t be why you’re writing.

  2. Survey the field before you query. Any proposal should address how your book would be different from what is already out there. If it’s not fresh, keep thinking.

  3. Query committed educational publishing companies such as Stenhouse, Heinemann, Routledge, ASCD, and Corwin. They are actively looking for new voices and believe in supporting authors and teachers.

  4. Listen to your editors. I don’t like admitting it, but every time I received substantial edits, I chafed. Inevitably, though, I realized my editor was right. Through the revision process, I grew as a writer and a teacher, as when my Stenhouse editor suggested that reading about the times I had failed as a teacher was more interesting than hearing about success. And I had renewed empathy for my students when they needed to revise their own drafts based on my comments!

  5. Seize writing time when you can. Sometimes a 20-minute interval can be enough to get down a paragraph or a page. At other times, you may need an uninterrupted two or three hours to let ideas spool out. I wrote my first book while on a six-month maternity leave with my second son (born in March, with perfect “teacher baby” timing!) and my second book while getting a master’s degree through the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History. I would not have chosen this timing for either book, but there will never be a perfect time, and sometimes you just have to get started.

  6. Realize that your writing will inform your teaching and vice versa. This symbiosis will keep you honest in your writing and with your students, and it has been perhaps the richest unexpected consequence of publishing. I’m a more creative teacher because writing regularly keeps me experimenting.

Seeing yourself as a researcher and author in addition to a teacher is thrilling - good luck!

“Write your book”

Tom Rademacher is an 8th grade English teacher in the Minneapolis area. His book, It Won’t Be Easy, An Exceedingly Honest (and slightly unprofessional) Love Letter to Teaching, was released in April 2017 and was a finalist for a Minnesota Book Award. His writing has also appeared in Education Post, City Pages, MinnPost, and Huffington Post. In 2014, he was honored as Minnesota’s Teacher of the Year. You can find him at www.mrtomrad.com:

For the first chunk of teaching, eight years or so, I knew that while I was a writer, and while I was a teacher, that I was not someone who wrote about teaching.

I tried. I was very, very bad at it. My attempts came off like a mixture between awful spoken word poetry, stand-up comedy, and the answers one would give when their grandma asked, “How’s school?” Somewhere during that eighth or ninth year, I finally had some teacher thoughts that maybe were good enough to write down. I was ready, at last, for my teacher book.

I had this grand unifying theory of teaching, or at least pieces of it that I was starting to draw lines between in my head. Questions I had about teaching had been answered, and a little digging would surely uncover the magical codex that made every nonsense moment make total sense. I worried about fitting the whole thing into just one book.

I started writing and couldn’t stop. I was a madman, possessed with the fury and fire of this missive, possessed with the need to transcribe everything I had come to understand about this profession during my near-decade. Then I stopped writing. I had written it all down. Every single thing. It was almost two whole pages and had taken me the better part of half an hour.

It was not a book. It was barely long enough to be a blog post.

A couple years later, I did end up writing a book, even publishing it and everything and having the truly and consistently stunning experience of having lots of people read and like it.

I dunno, it felt a little like working really hard to grow a new internal organ and then cutting it out for people to look at and pass around. But, you know, no big deal.

I’ve had a few other teacher friends who have published. The first teacher book I ever truly loved was Jose Vilson’s This is Not a Test. Shanna Peeple’s book Teach Like Socrates should be mandatory for everyone in the world. Megan Olivia Hall just released a book of cool science experiments for kids that includes all the awesome teachy stuff those experiments show. There are others, yes, and each book is the best teacher book I’ve ever read and also makes me feel jealous and bad about myself.

But I was asked for advice, and advice I shall give. There is much advice on publishing and stuff out there. I have found Google dot com to be a very helpful website for finding that sort of how to submit and contracts and self vs. small vs. large press stuff.

Instead, I’ll try to give you the best advice I can manage that is specific to writing teachery books about teachery stuff. Hopefully, that will help, and, if not, Google dot com is, really, a website I cannot recommend enough. Spelled just like it sounds, if you ever forget.

Write Easy:

Teaching is hard. We get used to it being hard. Writing is often no walk on the beach, either. So, yes, the combination can be a pain in the ass. But the problem with torturing yourself to write is that it will often feel like torture to read. So, yeah, give yourself permission not do that. “Write Easy” was my mantra while I finished up the first draft of my manuscript. Any time I got too furrow-browed about it, any time the words felt forced and the practice felt painful, I took a step back.

Write Simple:

Some of the most impactful parts of my book, the parts people have posted or written me letters about, are things that almost didn’t make it. I like to think I’m a pretty smart dude and I get really excited about the ideas I have that feel the most groundbreaking and out there. While editing my book, I had circled a few sections that felt a little too obvious, a little too simple, but ultimately decided to leave them in since it was directed at new teachers.

It turns out that the things that felt too simple to me were exactly what a whole lot of people felt they needed to hear. Readers needed a foundation of how my philosophy and practices evolved, and in different places and different departments, conversations that have been normal and old-hat in one place may not have ever happened in another. Good teacher books are silo-busters.

Write When You Can:

If there’s one thing about writing I know for sure, it is this: Every other writer writes more than you do.

I mean ... it certainly feels that way anyway. You see a tweet or Facebook post about someone maybe considering writing a book, and then two days later they share a picture of the finished manuscript. Writers celebrate daily word-count goals that you haven’t hit in the last three months combined.

It’s OK. Really. Write when you can.

Sometimes, I grab a little time and energy before school starts or during my lunch break. Often, I get an hour or two during a weekend when my kiddo is otherwise occupied and I have either gotten all the laundry, cleaning, and cooking done I had planned to do or, far more frequently, have decided to ignore the rest of my life because I feel compelled to write.

Whatever your schedule, whatever your timetable, whatever your practice, it is yours, and that’s OK. Some books take a few months, and some take many years. Neither path makes a book or a writer necessarily better or worse.

Write Your Book:

There is a method to book writing that involves surveying the market and looking for specific gaps in what is available or in groups that are targeted and then tailoring your book to fill that gap. It’s an OK way to get a book written but not a great way to write your book, the book you could and should write.

You are an expert in your own experience. Start there.

You are the most effective communicator of your own beliefs. Share them.

Your name will be on the front of this thing, whatever it turns out to be. Make sure it’s something that speaks for you, that speaks from you. Write your book.

Good luck.

“Get writing!”

Rita Platt (@ritaplatt) is a national-board-certified teacher and a proud #EduDork! Her experience includes teaching learners of all levels from kindergartner to graduate student. She is currently the principal of St. Croix Falls and Dresser Elementary Schools in Wisconsin, teaches graduate courses for the Professional Development Institute, and writes for MiddleWeb:

Last year, I wrote and published my first book, Working Hard, Working Happy: Cultivating a Climate of Effort and Joy in Your Classroom! Thanks to the help of the amazing John Norton and Susan Curtis at MiddleWeb and the incredibly supportive Lauren Davis at Routledge Eye on Education, I was able to make a lifelong dream come true. Below are my best tips and hints on how to start down a road that will lead you to writing your own book.

Know What You Love: Teaching and learning is my passion. Education is my hobby, job, profession, and vocation. Before I wrote a book, I had spent thousands of hours thinking about my theories and philosophies and gaining a solid vision for what I wanted to say and why I needed to say it. Dave Burgess (you know the pirate guy) helped me to realize that when a writer plans to develop a book, the content should fill her/his heart and mind so completely that s/he HAS to share it! He advises that the writer think of her/his book as being a magnum opus. I love that advice because it was spot-on for me. When I wrote my book, it was filled to the brim with content that I believe every educator must be exposed to. Writing it was a work of passion, typing the pages was spilling my secrets with the hope that they would impact practice far and wide. I would suggest if you’re not feeling that strongly about the book you want to write, you might not be ready to write it.

Write, Write, and Then Write More: If you have the hope of writing a book, you need to feel like a writer, and for me, the only way to do that was to write and publish. A lot. Early in my career, I realized that it was important to write and share my ideas wherever I could (partial publication list with links is here.) Three opportunities really helped me operationalize my writing life. One, a friend had just started a teacher site, We Teach, We Learn, and he encouraged me to write and post pieces as often as I like. Two, I was lucky enough to cyber-meet Larry Ferlazzo and began writing short pieces for his Classroom Q & A column (this very one!). Three, I started reviewing books for MiddleWeb. Each of these low-pressure inroads to being a “real” writer helped me develop my writing skills, gain confidence, and build my professional network. You can do the same! Review for Middleweb, pitch a post to Edutopia, look for calls for short content on your favorite websites or journals. Even better, buy Jenny Rankin’s AMAZING book, Share Your Education Expertise With the World. It’s full of tips to get you started.

Build Your Knowledge Base and Your PLN: Not only is it important to write a ton, but reading and connecting a ton are, too. Do Google searches for the topics you’re interested in and read to get a feel for what’s already out there. Study the style of authors you like - even better, reach out to them, and pick their brains. If you’re not already on Twitter, that is a MUST! Get your handle and hop into weekly chats. Follow me (@ritaplatt) and ask for help, I’ll gladly show you around. On Twitter, you will grow your Professional Learning Network (PLN) in ways that will blow your mind! You will be amazed at how accessible your favorite edu-authors are. Through Twitter, I have met many of my heroes and found each to be open and willing to help me with my own professional writing goals.

To Sum It Up:

  1. Before you write a book, know your message, your edu-passion, and your vision. Don’t write a book until you’re really ready (ask anyone, you’re probably not going to pay the rent from your sales, it can’t be about that).

  2. Write and publish as much as you can and get your writing life in order.

  3. Read everything and anything that will help you learn your craft, grow as a writer, and see what’s already out there.

  4. Build your PLN; you’ll need the feedback and support.

Thanks for reading. Now, get writing!

“Find your own voice”

Pernille Ripp (@pernilleripp) helps students discover their superpower as a former 4th and 5th, but now 7th grade English teacher in Oregon, Wis. She opens up her educational practices to the world on her blogwww.pernillesripp.com and is also the creator of theGlobal Read Aloud Project, a global literacy initiative that has connected millions of students. She is an internationally known educational speaker and also the author of several education books, with her latest release titled Passionate Readers - The Art of Reaching and Engaging Every Child:

To write a book can often seem like a major “how dare I moment?”

After all, as educators, we are supposed to always think of others, not of ourselves, as we do everything we can to serve the children who are entrusted in our care. And yet, within this profession, the best learning that seems to happen comes from those who have walked this path before us, who took the time, worked through their imposter syndrome, and shared their stories with the world. Who brought their advice, their lessons learned, and their knowledge out to the world in such a way that it encouraged others to step onto their path, perhaps forge their own, and continue the tradition of sharing knowledge so that we all could learn.

So the first piece of advice I have to anyone considering writing a book is this: Find your own voice. What have you learned alongside your students that may be helpful to others? How have you made the messages that surround us all in the education community and made it uniquely your own? How will what you have learned boost the learning of others? My second piece of advice is know whose footsteps you walk in? Who has empowered you to do the work you do? Make sure you acknowledge the shoulders you stand on and give thanks to those who have paved the way. While we often think of original twists to ideas, it is rare that anything is truly unique to us, and so knowing your history of educational practices is important, much like citing research. Write for yourself first, then write for others second, share your work in order to fine tune before approaching a publisher, and also be aware of what is already out there.

My final piece of advice is to make it a priority. We balance a lot as educators, and often, writing a book is not at the top of our list of priorities. But it must be if we are to inspire the next generation of educators, if we are to grow as a collective. Find a routine, much like we would encourage our students to do, and stick to it. Believe in your own worth and write your truth. Invite others into your journey, not because you have the only right answer, but because your thoughts will add to the ongoing educational dialogue and your ideas may be exactly what someone else needs. Do not feel that putting your own words out there is something others need to give you permission for; give yourself permission to share your work and then stay true to the mission, bettering education for all.

Thanks to Tom, Sarah, Rita, and Pernille for their contributions!

Please feel free to leave a comment with your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org. When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

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