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Professional Development Opinion

Editors Offer Suggestions to Teachers Who Want to Write a Book

By Larry Ferlazzo — April 08, 2020 8 min read
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(This is the second post in a three-part series. You can see Part One here.)

The new question-of-the-week is:

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

In Part One, educators Sarah Cooper, Tom Rademacher, Rita Platt, and Pernille Ripp shared their experiences writing books while teaching at the same time.

Today, In Part Two, John Norton and Lauren Davis, two exceptional editors (and I speak from having direct experience with them both) contribute their suggestions.

Part Three will again feature active K-12 teachers writing about their very recent trials and tribulations.

Four Key Points

In John Norton‘s long career as an education reporter, writer, and editor, he says he’s been in hundreds of schools and thousands of classrooms “and I’ve never taught anyone anything.” But he admits he’s learned a lot. The founder and current co-editor of MiddleWeb.com, John was also a co-founder of the national Teacher Leaders Network and served as an editor for TLN’s multiyear regular column here at Education Week Teacher. MiddleWeb is currently in the process of publishing a new book by Principal Rita Platt, their 12th book in partnership with Routledge/Eye on Education:

Wearing my education editor hat, I’ve had the good fortune to work with hundreds of teacher writers over several decades. Much of that writing was eventually shared with an audience—most often in a blog format or as articles for print and online publications like Education Week, KAPPAN, Educational Leadership, and MiddleWeb. I’ve also had the opportunity to help several dozen writers polish their first professional books.

Seeing how readers have responded to all this published writing by educators has given me a few insights about “what works,” and I think they’re probably applicable to most any kind of professional writing done outside of the grad school classroom. Here are four:

(1) Keep it personal. Don’t let your readers lose sight of you as a human being much like them—someone with goals and challenges and a restlessness to improve (evidenced by the fact that they’re reading what you’re writing!). Talk to them like friends. Reveal your empathy.

(2) Share what you know but don’t preach. Honestly, very few readers want to hear an education version of the Sermon on the Mount. This goes for leadership books as well as books about teaching. Tone is critical here. Strive for collegial, not simply authoritative. They’ll soon figure out if what you have to give meets a professional or personal need.

(3) Be sure to acknowledge and honor what your reader knows and might have to share. We’ve published over a thousand reviews of professional education books at MiddleWeb, and as the last-in-line editor, I’ve read them all. Believe me, readers relish authors who recognize they are speaking to colleagues who possess valuable ideas and understandings of their own. You may think the writer/reader relationship is a one-way street, but the most successful professional writers will find ways to communicate their respect for their readers’ professionalism. Pick out a favorite professional book from your personal collection and see how it’s done.

(4) Engross your reader with meaningful stories, analogies, and examples of success AND failure. If we are teachers of writing, we always urge upon our students the big idea that writing is storytelling. Good narrative structure is important. So are actual stories that illuminate and humanize our key messages. Yet many first-time writers of professional books leave the stories out. Writing them isn’t easy, but it’s something successful authors need to practice and learn to do. And be sure to include stories about your mistakes. Failure can be so instructive!

If you’ve skipped my numbered bullets and jumped to the end of this little sermon, here’s my 37-word summary: Before you commit to your book-writing project, go back to your personal PD library and pick out your FIVE most favorite books. Spend an hour with each one. What makes you love them so? Write like that.

“Stay True to Yourself”

Lauren Davis has been a publisher at Routledge Eye On Education since 2010 (Routledge.com/k-12; @RoutledgeEOE). Previously, she was a senior editor at Weekly Reader, where she wrote current events articles and lesson plans for its middle school magazine. She was also a 6th grade English/language arts teacher in Westchester County, N.Y., and an entertainment writer for Seventeen magazine:

If you’ve developed unique, effective teaching or leadership strategies, you might want to write a book to share those ideas with the world. But how do you get published? I’ve been in the industry for more than 13 years and have seen many proposals come in over the transom—some that were very well done and some that were missing key pieces. Here are my suggestions for preparing a proposal that will rise to the top of a publisher’s inbox.

    1. Focus Your Topic and Audience

      • What is your main topic? Make sure you have a theme with clear takeaways and aren’t trying to cram in everything you know about education or your entire life story. People generally buy education books for solutions or inspiration. And they don’t necessarily have a lot of money to spend on books. Think about what makes your concepts worth buying, not something they can just Google.

      • Is your book for teachers or leaders? Usually I recommend picking a main audience, teachers or if you really want one book to reach both audiences, it’s doable, but you’ll have to stay broad or be explicit about how the concepts apply. You don’t want teachers to buy a book if only a third seems relevant to them and vice versa.

    2. Research the Competition (and Refocus If Needed)

      • Which education publishing company do you want to approach first? Make a list and research which ones are likely to publish books in your area and which publish books in the same style as yours (more research-focused vs. more practical, etc.). If you notice there are already a lot of books out there on your topic, then you might want to refocus, change direction, or add a new spin on it. Your book should fill a need and provide something fresh and useful to busy educators.

      • See which companies offer the type of author support you’d like. For example, are they on social media? Do they ever exhibit at conferences?

      • Finally, check their proposal guidelines and editor contacts. The guidelines can vary by publisher, and you might be asked to provide certain things.

    3. Prepare a Great Proposal and a Compelling Bio

      • Now that you’ve done some homework on publishing companies, you can complete your proposal. Make sure your proposal shows an awareness of the market. How does your book fit into the crowded book market? What makes it unique? And make sure it shows why you’re approaching a certain company—what do they already publish that makes you think your book would be a good fit? (Note: Publishers prefer you query one company at a time and don’t send to a bunch at once. If you do the latter, be transparent about it.)

      • I recommend including a bio explaining your presence and why you’re a qualified author, not just throwing in a CV.

    4. Be Open to Feedback But Stay True to Yourself

      • Many publishers will request tweaks to your proposal before offering a contract. Be open to feedback and the learning process. Listen to their advice—you’re the experts in education, and they’re the experts in publishing. That said, stay true to yourself! If they want you to make changes that take the book in a direction you’re not happy with (for example, if they want it to be more formal and you prefer informal or vice versa), then look for another publisher. Writing a book should be a labor of love; make sure you’ll enjoy the process and will be proud of the result! You’ll be putting your ideas out into the world to help your peers, and that is quite an accomplishment.

Thanks to John and Lauren 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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Look for Part Three in a few days ...

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The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.