On editing a book

As I have mentioned with increasing frequency in recent posts, I am about to submit a heavily altered version of my thesis for publication with Medieval Institute Publications of Western Michigan University, and right now I am hard at work doing the final edits before I send it off.  My friend Laura Varnam has recently written an excellent blogpost recently on her experiences of publishing a monograph; I am at a less advanced stage of the process than she is, and still too deep within it to look back and reflect altogether objectively on my experience.  Still, I thought it might be worth marking this stage with a blogpost.  Also, I don’t have the time or mental space to write about anything else right now.

I was lucky enough to encounter a very positive and encouraging publisher, who was more than happy for me to take quite as much time as I needed.  This suited me just fine: as well as having a job outside of academia, I also wanted to write a couple of brand-new chapters, albeit on subjects that I already knew quite well from my research.  Unlike Laura, I had been out of the PhD for some years before I wrote a book proposal, which at least meant that I had had time to reflect on my work and consider which parts of it needed to be changed.

My examiners and I had agreed that the first chapter of my thesis, on prayer in the Carolingian church, had ended up being largely irrelevant.  Now, in the new, improved version, I have largely got rid of this altogether other than a few useful paragraphs which have been redistributed to other chapters.  In its place, I have written something about prayers to the Trinity and saints which (I hope) demonstrates some aspects of prayer groupings to which I had otherwise given little discussion.  I have also written a bonus chapter on medical prayer, one of my pet subjects, and something which I think has been relatively neglected.  I tested out a few of my ideas at a conference on medicine and prayer a couple of years ago, and was pleased to receive positive comments on it from an expert in my field.  The remaining chapters have also received an overhaul, and I’ve taken care to visit and look closely at most of my main manuscripts.  Another benefit of publishing at this time is that most of the manuscripts I work on have now been digitised: this is particularly important in the case of the fragile Galba Prayerbook, which needs special care and is subject to restricted access.

AdHorasNone Gal.Axiv.107r
A damaged manuscript. London, British Library Cotton MS Galba A. xiv, fol. 107r.

I’ve also rethought some of my main ideas.  Originally, I got very hung up on the distinction between “private” and “public” prayer, wanting to find a clearer difference between the two than the Middle Ages really wanted to give me.  In particular, in my thesis I discussed the evidence for confessional prayer in solitude.  To my great surprise, I later found this work quoted and repeatedly cited in a new book by an academic whose work I admire: although I know that my work has been mentioned in a book or two, this was the first time that I have read my own work being used to such an extent: a deeply strange and gratifying experience!  The author of this work was careful to say that she wasn’t altogether convinced that some of the prayers that I refer to were necessarily intended for solitary use; looking back, I think I did go a bit too far in my thesis, and am grateful to be disagreed with in such a careful and polite manner.  So in the new work, I have tried to explore this issue in a much more nuanced way.

Given a long time in which to work, some might be at risk of putting everything off until the last minute.  I tend to find that I deal relatively well with long-term deadlines, and am happy to plod slowly and steadily towards them.  Although it has been very helpful to map out my work by assigning blocks of months to each chapter or section, in practice I found that it helped to be flexible about this.  For example, I had planned to write a kind of case study in the chapter on medicine, but I couldn’t seem to make one work or find the right texts to discuss, so I decided to come back to it later.  When I did, I decided to do the case study somewhat differently, and it turned out to be a lot easier to write.

I also need to put in a good word for OneNote, part of the Microsoft Office suite, which I have been using since my PhD: it’s a kind of notepad or scrapbook which allows you to write lists and keep short notes and screen clippings, with formatting which is more versatile and user-friendly than Microsoft Word if you want to do something other than write continuous text.  I use OneNote to keep bulletpoint lists and ticklists, using different sections for different pieces of work.  In fact, I’m using it right now.

OneNote blog draft

So, in the final days, I am mostly engaged in checking that I have presented my endnotes correctly, kept to the style guide, and compiling indexes, including an index of the prayers discussed in the book.  This editing stage has been pretty intense work, and I have a lot left to do, but it seems to get easier as I go on.  Hopefully, by the next time I post, it should all be done!

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