Convening the first Second-Book Writer’s Workshop. Image courtesy of Ben Park.
It began with an ordinary chat between panels at our annual conference. Outside, it was a sunny and sticky July 2016 day. Inside the hotel, in an empty and overly air-conditioned panel room, two authors of recently published first books wrapped themselves in their conference cardigans. “How are you doing on the new book project?” “Oh, you know— without the structure and the support of the dissertation, I feel like I’m flailing a bit. You?” A smile of recognition: “The same!” Before we knew it, a quick chat became a planning meeting. We recognized that if we had concerns about our second books, others probably did too. This first, simple moment of realizing that we shared the challenges of our second books transformed from a common gripe into something quite special and structural. It became the Second-Book Writers’ Workshop, or 2BWW, an exciting new venture for the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic (SHEAR).
Four years later, we’re thrilled with what 2BWW has become. For the last three years, at the SHEAR annual meeting, participants gathered on the afternoon before the opening plenary to workshop book proposals, fellowship applications, and draft chapters. Generous senior scholars have served as mentors and facilitators, talking their groups through discussions that ranged from the nuts and bolts of publication to strategies for choosing topics and from deciding whether or not to pursue a trade press to the balance of work and life. Connected panels on “How NOT to Write Your Second Book” and writing for popular audiences have seen packed rooms of writers laughing, sharing strategies, and discussing the issues that come with this stage of our careers. Participants in the 2BWW have gone on to win coveted fellowships and to sign contracts for their new projects. In 2020, some of the books workshopped only three years ago at the inaugural 2BWW have been published; one participant even won a Pulitzer Prize for his workshopped book. Other organizations have borrowed our model; we will be hearing more from some of them later this week.
Rationale for the 2BWW
We launched the Second-Book Writers’ Workshop to provide a structural solution to what we saw as a real need for mentorship at the midcareer level. Many scholars face “midcareer malaise,” as seen in the numbers of faculty who reach tenure but do not proceed to promotion to full professors. For historians working at institutions that require a second book for promotion, the second book is a significant step in career advancement. And yet the journey from first to second book can be a mysterious and difficult one. Many of us struggle with the transition and loss of structure from first to second book project. Topic choice, research support, and writing time can all be complicated by the new demands of teaching and service that increase at midcareer. For some scholars, these difficulties are compounded by the obligations of family and child-rearing that can make residential fellowships or long-term travel seem impossible. These are real challenges, but there are also real ways that our disciplinary organizations can help midcareer scholars face them. For us, a workshop that sought to create structures of feedback and support seemed a good place to start. Our goals were to provide both practical advice and the motivation that comes from writing for and with your peers.
Advice for Creating Your Own 2BWW
Co-chairing the workshop for its first two years and coordinating panels on midcareer development has left us convinced that the 2BWW is a model that can and should be spread far and wide. This is not an issue only of interest to historians of the early American republic, after all. When the Junto, a group blog on early American history, hosted a week-long, written version of the “How NOT to Write Your Second Book” roundtable in August 2017, 5,000 unique visitors made around 10,000 visits to the posts in the first week alone. Clearly, interest in the topic of second books reaches far beyond SHEAR. And it doesn’t seem to be going away anytime soon.
Think that your organization should try something similar? Here are a few things we’ve learned about creating a grass-roots solution to midcareer malaise:
- Think about your organization. We knew SHEAR would be a great place for this experiment because of its manageable size (about 500 members) and its tradition of supporting graduate students and first-book authors. It seemed only natural, then, that SHEAR could be a place for midcareer mentorship as well. SHEAR is not alone in these qualities, and there are many similar scholarly organizations that could (and should!) experiment with this model to find what works for their members.
- Meet writers where they are. How we define “midcareer” can look very different depending on where we work. Is the second book needed for full? For tenure? If you aren’t on the tenure track, or work at a teaching institution, how do these conversations change? Your members will have different needs and will be working on diverse timelines.
- Timing is everything. We released our call for papers in the fall when potential participants would be planning their panel proposals but only made applications due after program decisions were released.
- The choice of mentors is key. We sought out mentors whom we trusted could be both generous with their time and honest with their advice.
- Create space for community. Small conferences are a great place to break through the isolation that can come with a major writing project. We were intentional about developing our workshop to allow people to expand their networks and talk about their writing process in new and productive ways. Chatting about these issues over coffee and cookies before workshop sessions has been key to our success.
- Pre-circulation is important. The deadline, in and of itself, can help participants draft a chapter, apply for a fellowship, or devise a publication plan. Also, the circulation of drafts provides all the participants in the workshop with models of genres (like book proposals or fellowship applications) that are not widely available.
- Allow flexibility in the workshopped document. We encouraged applicants to submit materials in one of a few different genres: book proposals, fellowship applications, or book chapters. This benefits participants at all stages of the book-writing process: some are just completing their first books and beginning to think of the next steps, others are well on their way toward completion, and most are somewhere in between.
- Include the workshop participants in the conference program. This documentation can give participants much-needed evidence of that vague metric of “progress toward next book” that many need to demonstrate in annual reviews or tenure files. As a wise mentor told us, make all of your work legible to administrators.
- Think about proposing panels on writing during the main conference program. This is a great way to expand the conversation and demystify the process. Reach out to writers, editors, and officers of funding institutions. We’ve found these panels to be well-attended, helpful, and inspiring.
- Don’t be afraid to get personal. One thing that comes up again and again: how to manage a book project with family obligations. What fellowships don’t require long-term residency? How can you block off no-interruption writing time with small children? Some of our workshop groups have taken up these questions directly, and just talking about it has been freeing.
If there’s one thing we have heard over and over again as we’ve talked about 2BWW, it’s “I thought it was just me!” We’re here to tell you: It isn’t just you. And we’re also here to tell you that it doesn’t have to be this way. Our workshop has provided motivation, community, mentorship, and much-needed feedback to participants who are all trying to find ways to make space for writing and research in the midst of teaching, service obligations, and daily life. If you build your own 2BWW, it could well do the same for you.
As the other posts in this roundtable will suggest, some scholars have already begun adapting the SHEAR 2BWW model for other organizations. It is wonderful to see the ways that different scholarly societies have been creatively responding to the needs of their members for space to not only share their work, but to demystify the publishing process and discuss our common challenges and structural difficulties. Together, these essays will offer concrete suggestions for expanding the role of scholarly societies to provide structural support for scholars at all stages of their careers. Especially now that we are all forced to respond to new budget pressures and travel restrictions in light of Covid-19, scholarly societies can and should be thinking about creative ways to provide support for midcareer and junior scholars. It is our hope that this roundtable provides some inspiration.