Dec 24, 2019 | How to write a book?
SO, HOW ABOUT WRITING A BOOK?
Recently, I completed my first book entitled “What Is out There For Me? The Landscape of Post-PhD Career Tracks.” It is now available as a Kindle ebook, paperback, and pdf.
So, how did this happen? Was it hard to write a book?
To start with, deep inside, I always desired to write books. Writing is what makes me happy; whenever I write, time flies. I feel that I have an aptitude for writing as well (well, maybe there is some causal connection here). I used to think that if I ever get lucky enough to acquire enough passive income, one day, I would like to live in a small village (or, in the woods!) and write books. And in the end, I asked myself: why not now — especially given that I have some message I’d like to share?
Three conditions need to come together to successfully write a book. Firstly, you obviously need to have some interest in writing and enjoy the process. Secondly, you need to have lots of time to be able to focus on this task. Books are not written overnight — even if writing the main text can be done within a few weeks, the process of collecting materials, and editing the text, will take months or even years. Thirdly, you need to find some areas where you can contribute new, valuable content. Something that is not repetitive and wasn’t published before. In my case, I felt that all these conditions were met: I had lots of materials about post-PhD career tracks that I could put together in the form of a book. And for me, the topic is really important and worth spending time on and writing about.
HOW TO GET STARTED?
I need to say that no one ever told me how to write a book (or, how not to write it!). I have never gone through courses on writing and I use to “read” more audiobooks than books in a written form.
Yet, since early childhood, I used to write a lot of texts of all kinds. Between 14 and 25 years old I wrote a diary (around 200-300 pages per year). Since I turned 20, I was blogging (this is 13 years now! such a large part of my life…). Plus, I wrote three 80-120-page long Master theses, a 260-page long PhD thesis, and more than 20 different research papers and other scientific texts and essays. Altogether, since high school, I wrote ~5,000-10,000 pages of texts of all kinds.
Writing is a natural activity for me, and it makes me relax. Thus, I decided to start writing without taking specialized courses or reaching out to professional teachers in writing. I was also positive about the content. For the past two years, I had been dropping ideas, single paragraphs, and loose thoughts into one folder on my laptop. I estimated that, if I would organize all these points into chapters and unfold bullet points into full paragraphs, I would likely obtain a full-length book manuscript. So, I thought about a logic structure for the book, and I chopped the material into nine chapters grouped into three sections.
CHOOSING THE STYLE AND LAYOUT
In terms of style, I decided to stay on the casual side. Namely, I felt that the target group for this book — PhD candidates and graduates — are so burdened with textbooks and research articles that there is no point in writing yet another dry encyclopedic material. I aimed for an easy read, in which knowledge intertwines with anecdotes and pictures summarizing the content in an approachable way. I also felt that the layout should be simple, so I looked into a few recent, popular (and also, very useful and informative!) books such as “How To Be Everything” by Emily Wapnick, or “Start With Why” by Simon Sinek. I felt that the simpler the layout, the better for the reader’s comfort. From the very beginning, I also had a vision for the cover of the book: I wanted to see a scared girl walking through dark woods in unknown direction and monsters hiding in the bush. I made a simple sketch and showed it to a graphic designer whom I found online, Roger Tung from Taiwan. I must say that he perfectly grasped my intentions and made a truly beautiful artwork for my cover!
SO, WHAT IS THE BOOK ABOUT?
I wrote this book on the basis of what I learned within two years time, working as a Career Development and Mentoring Manager in the student board of the Organization for Human Brain Mapping, a Director of Stichting Solaris Onderzoek en Ontwikkeling, and then as a PhD candidate actively looking for jobs in industry. In the process, I noticed that there are different working cultures in the job market, and you need to find your tribe to be happy at work. If you, for instance, have programming skills and are interested in data science, your quality of life will much differ depending on whether you choose to work in a corporation, join a consultancy company, or set your own business.
The main message of this book is that, 80% of the effort while looking for a job, is to get to know yourself very well—including your values, habits, strengths, and weaknesses— and find a group of people in the job market who think alike. Then, finding a fulfilling job will be the remaining 20% of the work. After all, learning how to draft a decent resume, construct a cover letter, and prepare for the job interviews, is almost algorithmic. Therefore, in the main part of the book, I highlighted and characterized 8 tribes where PhD graduates typically go to, together which the perks and downsides of each one of them. I also included a number of self-discovery exercises that will help to better discover where you mentally fit. I have never seen this approach in the literature before, and I felt this systematic look at the job market is novel and provides useful heuristics.
THE WRITING PROCESS AND THE BOTTLENECKS
My writing process was no different from many professional authors. Once I had the long list of points to cover in the text, I wrote down the plan for the writing process day by day. Namely, I planned which bullet points I would unfold each day. Even though I swapped the chunks of work on multiple occasions, and I didn’t stick to the plan in 100%, I kept my internal deadline, and I finished on the very day I planned to. (By the way, in the process I also discovered that I am a faster writer than Stephan King; he writes six pages a day while I can do seven). Sculpting the text took me another few days—I had to go through the text with grammar correction tools and carefully read through one more time.
To me, the hardest part of the whole process was collateral stress. Namely, at some point, more or less halfway, I reflected on the fact that a book could expose me (as a person) to a wider audience than ever before, and I do not necessarily see that as a positive aspect. If you consider buying a book, you usually google the name of the author, right? I perceived being recognized as a cost associated with conveying my message rather than a reward in itself. I was never after fame and popularity. A possibility that people who do not know me in person, could send me emails and knock at my door was really stressful—and at some point, I froze for a while. However, I quickly put myself together and decided to finish writing as fast as possible, before the doubts start to kick in again.
I also experienced a new form of stress. As a scientist, you are used to critical comments concerning your work, which is usually all about abstract mathematical models or clinical experiments. If you write a book, you include a lot of your own opinions and conclusions in the text. This content is much closer to you as a person—thus, critical comments might feel much more personal as well. This collateral stress related to external assessment causes that whenever your hobby becomes your job, it might become stressful and the joy might fade away.
Overall, I loved the process though. For me, writing is a type of activity that energizes me: after eight hours of working, I feel more rested and energetic than before. And, I couldn’t believe that eight hours have just passed. I also enjoyed the fact that writing is efficient, in the sense that I can state my points only once and reach out to a lot of people with the message. Since I set the Stichting Solaris foundation, I was getting the same job-related questions from PhD candidates over and over again. Now I could just write down all the answers in one document and submit it to the global hive mind.
Writing for a living also has a lot of features of an ideal job for me. As a writer, you live in a sort of a cycle: you go for meetings and events, talk to people, experience little events that make you think, and when you get back home, digest what you experienced in silence, and write down your conclusions. In a sense, you have intensive contact with other people, but also a lot of time for yourself. I enjoy both the periods of hassle and the periods of calm. Furthermore, as mentioned before, I love the process of writing—to me, it’s the most relaxing activity ever. Plus, there is no boss and you can organize your time all by yourself. I also enjoy the fact that similarly as in academic research, you put your name on our work. In that sense, it’s quite an individualistic activity and you can be proud of your work. Plus, unlike in academia, your earnings are proportional to the number of people who benefit from your work.
I was raised like any regular Polish kid, and I was always being taught that I shouldn’t think of myself too high—just be a decent person, get myself a “normal job” and a “normal family.” “Normal” meaning “just like everybody else” or “common.” So, imagine that one day, you discover that maybe, you won’t have a job like everybody else after all, but rather some rare profession instead. It is a weird feeling but at the end of the day, this is a turn for the good.
And, I’m not sure how the adventure is going to unfold! This is my first book, and I’ve put a lot of heart into it. I hope that the message will reach a lot of PhDs who need this information. Yet, whether or not writing is going to become my way of living in the future, will depend on many—both internal and external—factors.