Professional Development Opinion

Response: ‘Write The Book You Wish You Had On Your Bookshelf’

By Larry Ferlazzo — February 14, 2015 15 min read
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(This is the last post in a Three-Part series on this topic. You can see Part One here and Part Two here.)

This week’s question is:

What is your advice to an educator who wants to write a book and get it published?

Part One featured contributions from Marjorie McAneny, Alan Sitomer, PJ Caposey and Steven Anderson (I shared some suggestions, too). You can also listen to a lively ten-minute conversation I had with Marjorie, Alan and PJ on my BAM! Radio Show.

Part Two included commentaries written by Allison Scott, Julia Thompson, and Vicki Davis.

Today’s final post in the series shares advice from Kimberly Carraway, Erik Palmer, Jeffrey Benson and Cathie E. West. In addition, I share a few comments from readers.

Response From Kimberly Carraway

Kimberly Carraway, EdM, a learning specialist and educational consultant focusing on the intersection of cognitive neuroscience and educational practice, holds degrees in cognitive studies and elementary education from Vanderbilt University and in learning and teaching from Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education. She founded The Carraway Center for Teaching and Learning in 2001. The Carraway Center works with schools, organizations, and individuals to help students, teachers, and parents understand how learning occurs, and to create superior educational programs and courses. She is author of Transforming Your Teaching: Practical Classroom Strategies Informed by Cognitive Neuroscience (W. W. Norton; 2014). Visit her at carrawaycenter.com:

Writing a book is hard work. Learning to write a book requires the brain to learn many new skills and is a process that takes time. I am a learning specialist, with over fifteen years experience teaching students, and I recently finished writing my first book for educators. I estimated that I could write the book within a year; six years later, the book went to press.

My primary advice is to answer the following question with great assurance before you begin to write: “Why do you want to write a book?” Knowing why you are writing the book is what will carry you through the late nights and enable you to press on during the various stages of development. It is your passion--for what you have to say, the way that only you can say it--that will be the driving force as you write. Know what your calling is and why you want to write and then . . . begin! In terms of practical advice:

  • Write the book you wish you had on your bookshelf. Author the book that you wish you had at your fingertips in the classroom. Use visual reminders of your audience, such as a picture of your students, to ensure that you remember who you are writing for and what they need.

  • Write a short first book. Writing a book isn’t just about writing, its about learning how to become an author, which includes negotiating a book contract, writing a proposal, working with an editor, citing sources, and editing your work. Keeping your first book short will enable you to learn how to be an author and complete the book in a timely manner.

  • Download book proposal forms from multiple publishers. Educate yourself on the types of questions and information each publisher will want from you. These guiding questions will help you develop your proposal and refine your vision for the book.

  • Know your competition. Become familiar with current books on the market that address similar content to the book you want to write. Publishers like when you have done your research and know your competition. Similar popular books are a positive because it means that there is a market to sell your book.

  • Identify why your book is unique. Spend some time thinking about how your words or the way you express your ideas will be a novel contribution to the literature currently available.

  • Develop an “elevator speech.” An elevator speech is a three to four sentence summary and pitch for why someone would want to buy and read your book.

  • Begin by writing an outline and a thesis statement. Review multiple education books to learn how they are organized to get ideas for how to design your book.

  • Factor in the physical time and mental space writing a book will require. Oftentimes, you will have the physical time to write but will be so mentally exhausted from the day that you don’t have the energy; other days, you will have a ton of ideas but no time in your schedule to record your thoughts. Since time and space are limited, begin writing your book when you have the mental space and physical time to give to the process.

  • Begin today. If you are even considering writing, I recommend that you begin recording your thoughts, ideas, strategies, and recommendations today. Begin a word document organized by topics, or an Evernote document that organizes your information in various tabs. As you find research to support your ideas, enter it as well. I also recommend using the software Dragon Dictate, which allows you to verbally dictate your thoughts, typing with great accuracy what you say.

  • Write the easiest chapter first. After completing a detailed outline for each chapter, my editor gave me the invaluable advice to pick the easiest chapter and begin writing there instead of writing in chronological order. This will help you find your voice and your format for the other chapters to follow.

  • Write in short segments and take breaks. While writing, some days you will be “on” and other days you will feel “off.” I used the 22-minute strategy to get me to show up and sit down at my computer on days that I felt “off.” Set your timer or phone for 22 minutes and then sit down and start writing something. My rule was, once the timer goes off, I could choose to set it for another 22 minutes or to take an 8-10 minute movement break. It was a great strategy to make myself start writing. Writing for 22- or 44-minute blocks of time followed by breaks allowed me to sustain my attention and write for longer periods of time as opposed to writing for 3 or 4 continuous hours.

  • Set small goals and rewards along the way. Set small goals and rewards for accomplishing each step to help motivate you to finish the major project.

  • Meet with other authors. One of the best ways to learn how to write is to surround yourself with a network of people you can go to for help as you enter each new stage of the writing process.

  • Read Anne Lamott’s book, Bird by Bird. Anne describes the writing process with such raw and enlightening honesty. It will help you understand why certain tasks like making yourself sit down to write can be quite difficult, and how all authors feel as vulnerable as you do at some point in the process.

  • Put together a team. As a writer, you will need a team of friends and colleagues to support you through your journey. Find friends who are natural cheerleaders and encouragers; identify colleagues who will help you brainstorm, organize your thoughts, and give honest feedback on your writing; and join up with people who have a passion for your work. You will need every one of these team members to help cheer you on as you write your book and celebrate with you when it is published!

Writing a book is a wonderful opportunity to share what you know with other teachers in need.

Response From Erik Palmer

Erik Palmer is a professional speaker and educational consultant from Denver whose passion for speaking has been part of every one of his careers, including 21 years in the classroom. Erik is the author of Teaching the Core Skills of Listening and Speaking (ASCD, 2014), Researching in a Digital World: How do I teach my students to conduct quality online research? (ASCD, 2015), and Digitally Speaking: How to Improve Student Presentations with Technology (Stenhouse, 2011). Learn more about Erik’s work at www.pvlegs.com or connect with him on Twitter @erik_palmer:

There are many paths to the goal, and I don’t know that I can give Advice for Authors that has any general application. Let me share instead What Worked For Me.

First, I had as my goal writing something that would make lives better. When I wrote Well Spoken: Teaching Speaking to All Students, I knew that the ideas and lessons shared in the book would make students’ lives better. I had 21 years of experience watching students become confident, competent oral communicators which helped them in school, to be sure, but, more significantly, gave them skills crucial for professional and social success long after schooling ended. The ideas made teachers’ lives better because they now had a way to take a complex art--speaking well--and break it into teachable parts leading to better discussions, read alouds, poetry recitations, class presentations, and podcasts. Oral communication was not a hot topic and arguably still isn’t (Well Spoken remains the only book out there for classroom teachers who want to teach speaking), but my concern was making lives better, not jumping on a bandwagon.

Second, I tried to write about Ideas Teachers Can Use In Class Tomorrow. When ASCD asked me to write Teaching the Core Skills of Listening and Speaking, I pointed out that I do not write “scholarly” books with lots of (Lebowski, J., 1999) and (Pooh, W.T., 2010) references. Teachers in the trenches are not interested in studies about the importance of something. They know collaboration is important, for example, and want to know, very specifically, what they can do right now to improve collaboration. Most teachers don’t want theoretical ideas of lessons that might work offered by folks who haven’t been in a classroom for 30 years if ever. They want practical, proven, classroom-tested strategies to address, in the case of my ASCD book, listening, media literacy, Internet literacy, and using multi-media in presentations.

Third, I tried to write simply. Writers often attempt to “formal-up” language and “Use video” becomes “In addressing this issue, one strategy that should be utilized is incorporating video.” Keep it simple. Get a good editor. Be ruthless. Be open to suggestions.

I never planned on being an author. I had some ideas that had some usefulness, and one thing led to another. If your ideas are valuable, folks will find you.

Response From Jeffrey Benson

Jeffrey Benson has worked in almost every school context in his 35 years as an educator, from elementary school through graduate programs. Benson’s book, Hanging In: Strategies for Teaching the Students Who Challenge Us Most (ASCD, 2014), shows educators the value of tenacity and building connections when teaching the students who most need our help. Connect with him on Twitter at @JeffreyBenson61:

There’s an old saying that everyone has at least one book in them. That is because each of us has walked a path in life that no one else has walked exactly the same way. The stories and lessons of that unique path can be enlightening for the rest of us. There is truly no average person, whose experiences shed no understanding. These truths hold for any teacher aspiring to write a first book--there’s one in you. What you know has worth. And if you like writing, putting your ideas into words is likely worth the effort.

There is no one right way to get started. What I offer here are three continua for assembling your thoughts. As you contemplate your book, and in the day-to-day process of writing, don’t go too long at any of the extremes:

Write for yourself and write for a specific audience of educators: Write the education book you wish someone had given to you, the one with ideas and perspectives and nitty-gritty advice that speaks to the heart of the teacher you are and wish to be. At the same time, keep in mind a particular teacher, or type of teacher, who will most benefit from your work. You have a contribution to make to our field, and those “perfect readers” are waiting for you to share what you know.

Move between the specifics and the generalized: Writers of fiction are reminded to “Show, not tell,” to let the reader think about the text without being clobbered with pre-determined conclusions. Trust that you have an intelligent reader who can make the leap from an example to a concept. For instance, you may include a chart you used to organize cooperative work teams, and your readers will know to adapt the specifics of the chart to their situation. As well, don’t be afraid to make clear and blunt statements; e.g. “Make sure your chart is big enough to read from across the room.”

Offer tools and offer inspiration: I haven’t met a single person who became a teacher because of a desire to know the best way to get students to line up for recess--and yet we know that a teacher’s day can be so stressful if the transition to recess is a continual source of conflict. Your opportunity as a writer is to make the connections, sometimes boldly stated and sometimes implicit, between having a tool kit of best practices to reminding all of us what really matters. I want to know how to get my children safely in and out of my classroom; I want to be reminded that doing so can sow the seeds of learning and justice.

If you are contemplating an article or a book, you have already trod the path taken by everybody who is called a writer. Remember, Hemingway did not become a writer when he got the Nobel Prize, nor when his books became best sellers, nor when he got his first article published. He became a writer the moment he put his pen to paper. Perhaps it is your turn to take that first step. So collect your ideas within the above continua, then pull out your quill or pen or keyboard, and see what you can add to our field.

Response From Cathie E. West

Cathie E. West is an experienced educator and the author of several books including The 6 Keys to Teacher Engagement: Unlocking the Doors to Top Teacher Performance (Routledge, 2013). She is currently working on The Educator’s Guide to Writing a Book: Practical Advice for Teachers and Leaders. Cathie can be reached at cathieeileenwest@gmail.com:

You want to write a book? Terrific! Book writing provides an ideal way for educators to share their expertise with others, fulfilling an important professional obligation. But there are additional compelling drivers: the act of writing provides a rewarding experience as book components unfold, an opportunity for personal self-reflection, and stimulating--and growth provoking--creative and technical challenges. But starting a praiseworthy book takes some preparation, such as the following:

Strategic Reading

Being “strategic” means taking action intentionally with a specific outcome in mind. In regards to reading, aspiring writers are strategic when they read a variety of education books and take note of their characteristics, such as: purpose, objectives, audience, content organization, special features, and writing style. What type of book do you prefer? Are you drawn to authoritative text books, research anthologies, reader friendly practitioner guides, or something else? By reading widely--and strategically--you will determine the type of book you want to write.

Writing Practice

Will other educators want to read what you write? Find out by submitting articles to your favorite professional magazines and journals. Preparing articles provides good practice because they are tougher to write than books due the topic, word count, and style parameters set by publishers. Nevertheless, when editors select your articles for publication and you get positive feed-back from your readers, you are on your way to writing a book.

Cruise Publisher Websites

Before you get started on your book, checkout publisher websites like Corwin Press, Routledge, and Solution Tree to learn what books have been published on your topic of interest. If there are

too many competing books out there, you may want to choose a different theme. Asking an editor for topic guidance is also a good idea. Publishers’ websites also provide vital resources for writers like book proposal guidelines, manuscript preparation handbooks, and writing reference recommendations.

Find a Mentor

Getting advice from a published writer is definitely worth pursuing. Most education books and articles include author contact information so be bold. Send off an email to your favorite writer asking for tips. Most authors are delighted to hear from their readership and support new writers.

Key Message

Writing a book may seem formidable but adequate preparation--reading strategically, writing for publications, researching publisher websites, and finding supportive mentors--will give you an excellent start.

Responses From Readers

Brad Huff:

Please know that publishers have taken advantage of teachers’ writing/creating lessons for years.

I have personal experience with several, such as AIMS and Edutopia.

Teachers are so generous. When we discover a topic that lights fires under kids or a teaching technique that works well, we are eager to share.

I have attended sessions at science conferences where publishers have had representatives taking down great ideas from teachers thinking they were just sharing with other teachers.

Thanks to Kimberly, Erik, Jeffrey and Cathie, and to readers, for their contributions!

Please feel free to leave a comment 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.

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