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Getting deep feedback on your book manuscript
A guest post about book manuscript workshops
Hello Manuscript Workers,
It’s been difficult to witness the violence of the past eleven days and to know how to respond in an actually helpful way. I don’t believe everyone should be required to speak immediately, because I think a general incitement to speech online has been resulting in a lot of misinformed and frankly cruel takes that don’t really help at all. Silence can be harmful too. It’s complicated.
In any case, I know that some of my clients who have been directly effected by horrible events (both recently and in the past) have chosen to channel some of their feelings of grief and anger into working on their books. Several of my authors are working on books that pertain directly to what is happening now in Israel and Palestine and what has happened there historically. So it feels right (if awkward) to continue sending newsletters that will support these authors with information to help them improve their books and get them out there sooner.
Of course, if now is not the right time for you to keep working on getting your book published, that’s very understandable too. These newsletters don’t go away; you can always find them in your inbox or online later, when you need them.
If you feel you want to take more immediate, material action right now, I have donated to UNRWA (the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian refugees) in the past and plan to do so again in light of recent events. You can make your own donation, or (as you’ll see below) your enrollment in one of my programs this week will also trigger a new donation from me.
Thank you for reading so far. If you’re ready to get to the publishing stuff, here we go…
Today’s newsletter addresses a topic that I’ve been getting questions about for years: book manuscript workshops, which are events where a prospective author brings together expert colleagues to read and comment on their book manuscript in progress.
While these workshops are somewhat related to what I have done as a developmental editor—giving sustained feedback on a scholar’s full book manuscript and suggesting substantive revisions that will help the book connect better with its intended readers—I do my work from the position of a professional editor, not a subject-matter expert. And because I’ve never attended or hosted a book manuscript workshop myself, I’ve been cautious about giving too much advice about them when authors ask.
But because the question of how and why to hold a book manuscript workshop has come up so much, I’ve been meaning to do some research that I could share with you in this newsletter. Then, a few weeks ago, I happened to see a recent podcast episode all about book manuscript workshops from Dr. Leslie Wang of Your Words Unleashed. Rather than reinventing the wheel myself, I reached out to Leslie to see if she might be willing to share her insights with my newsletter readers, and luckily for all of us, she agreed!
Presented below is an edited transcript of her podcast episode (which you can also listen to here).
How to Run a Book Manuscript Workshop
By Dr. Leslie Wang
Today I’m going to go in-depth about one of the very best and most important things you can possibly do to improve your book.
And this is to host a manuscript workshop!
If you’ve never heard of these before, they’re like a best-kept secret in academia.
Manuscript workshops are essentially a half-or-full day event where you discuss a draft of your book with other experts in your field before you ever submit it to the press for review.
The goal is to work out any major issues with the book and get a jumpstart on addressing, or even prevent, many of the potential critiques you may receive from peer review.
Look at your favorite books on your shelf that you love for their rigor, innovative ideas, and keen writing style.
There’s a good chance that the author hosted a workshop for their manuscript!
I myself held one for my second book, Chasing the American Dream in China: Chinese Americans in the Ancestral Homeland.
It was by far THE most rewarding and supportive experience I ever had in academia.
And considering I was an academic from age 24 to 45, that’s saying a lot!
These workshops do take a lot of forethought, planning, and some financial resources, but if you are able to host one, the benefits to your book are immeasurable.
Not only will the book be better, but you will likely get it done faster.
I’m going to talk about the pros and cons of manuscript workshops as well as answer the most common questions about how to organize one effectively.
By the end of this post you’ll hopefully be convinced why a manuscript workshop is one of the best things you can do for your book.
Why People Don’t Talk About Manuscript Workshops
So let’s dive in.
There’s a lot of things that successful academic writers do and services that they use that are not talked about nearly enough.
This includes hiring developmental editors, writing coaches, and copy editors.
I’ve talked at length in other episodes, especially the one on “How to Pay for a Writing Coach” that discusses why these services should be considered helpful investments in your career and your overall well-being.
I mean, we all know that hiring an expert to help you do something that you yourself are NOT an expert in will likely speed up the process and improve the final results.
It’s like when you want to get in shape after not working out for a long time, you can try to create an exercise schedule and attempt to get yourself to adhere to it consistently.
It’s possible, but difficult to maintain that kind of accountability to yourself.
Or, you can hire a personal trainer who probably understands much more about fitness than you do, will push you out of your comfort zone, and will always be there to make sure you actually do your workouts.
And, obviously the same logic holds true about investing in yourself as a writer.
Maybe part of the hesitation in talking openly is that using these services cost money, and in higher ed, money is a very taboo topic.
There’s also the pressure that exists to portray your book as something you accomplished entirely on your own.
Which we all know is a load of B.S.!
A book only becomes really good after multiple rounds of revision based on the feedback of other people.
Every manuscript draft transforms from the constructive critique given by advisors, mentors, peers, reviewers, editors, etc.
Which is why the commonly held notion in the humanities and social sciences that sole authorship is somehow far better than co-authorship is something I deeply question.
Pros and Cons of Running a Manuscript Workshop
But, moving on, let’s talk about the pros and cons of running one of these workshops.
I believe the advantages vastly outweigh any disadvantages, but it’s still worthwhile to consider all sides before you move forward with planning one.
I see three main pros to doing a book workshop.
#1: The first is that you receive invaluable feedback from a diverse set of scholars that will help you refine your ideas and improve the overall quality of your manuscript.
Your workshop participants will critically evaluate your evidence and argument and make sure they fit.
And as I’ll talk about further, you should invite folks from a range of backgrounds and expertise so that you are getting interdisciplinary perspectives on your work.
Your participants are there to help you identify any weaknesses, inconsistencies, or gaps in the overall structure and framework of the book.
Not only that, but unlike many blind reviewers who just harshly critique your research, they will also offer ways for you to actually FIX these problems!
One of the greatest things that happens during these meetings is the spontaneous free-flow and sharing of ideas.
It’s not the same as just receiving four or five different sets of feedback on your work.
Instead, the workshop provides the chance to have open discussion and collective brainstorming that is only possible when you get people together in a group.
#2: The second main advantage of running a book workshop is networking opportunities.
A workshop provides authors with the chance to create and strengthen professional relationships that can greatly help you moving forward.
You connect with fellow scholars who share similar research interests.
This can lead to all kinds of future opportunities, such as collaborations or invitations to give talks on your research or present on a shared panel at a conference.
It’s also a chance for other scholars to get to know each another in a more casual, informal way, which can help them as well.
#3: And last, but not least, the third main pro of hosting a manuscript workshop is giving you the motivation and accountability to get the work done.
In order to run one of these, you need to get as much of your manuscript finished as possible and send it to your participants at least a month in advance.
There are few things more motivating to a writer than an external deadline you’ve made as a promise to a panel of esteemed experts in your field!
Not only do you need to meet this deadline, but you also need to show up and present your work to this group of folks you highly respect.
Which likely means you will do a better job.
If you have trouble with maintaining accountability to yourself, then knowing one of these events is happening in a matter of months is a very good way to motivate yourself.
But naturally, there are also certain cons that go along with book workshops.
I will talk about three, which may impact certain folks more than others.
#1: The first drawback would be the time, effort, and organizational skills it takes to put one of these together.
You not only need to figure out WHEN you will have a complete manuscript draft, you also need to figure out a day when five or more busy academics are free to talk about it.
Because of the planning fallacy where we habitually underestimate the amount of time things take to complete, you most likely will NOT give your participants the polished draft of your dreams.
And that’s okay!
In my case, I ended up giving readers about 70% of the manuscript even though I had intended to give them the whole thing.
I hadn’t even touched the conclusion, so we devoted time at the end of our meeting to talking about what it should include.
These events take a lot of attention to detail in terms of planning, logistics, and communication with participants.
You also need to make a lot of decisions.
Will people be there in person? If so, how will they get there, where will they stay, and who will pay for it?
You need to think about things like snack breaks and lunch and potentially dinner afterward.
Also, will you have a moderator or not? Will you have someone there who can take notes for you or will you try to do it yourself? Etc., etc.
So if you know that event planning stresses you out to no end, this might not be the best way to go.
#2: The second potential con of hosting a manuscript workshop is that you will receive a huge amount of feedback that you need to decide what to do with.
Even though one of the most helpful parts of a workshop is receiving feedback, readers might also advise you to do major revisions or take things in a different direction than you would like.
I worked with a junior faculty member who hosted a book workshop with several senior people in her field.
They gave outstanding feedback, but one of them also encouraged her to add a completely new chapter to the manuscript.
And because this person is so influential in her field, my client felt like she absolutely had to do what this senior scholar suggested.
Ultimately, she didn’t add the chapter but it took many months of toying around with ideas and trying to make them fit the senior scholar’s vision to realize that it wasn’t going to work.
Furthermore, some folks are hypersensitive to receiving feedback on their writing, which means that a workshop like this would be hard on their souls.
Because even after you do this, your manuscript STILL needs to undergo another round of review at a press.
So, think about how well you handle critique before you decide to host one of these.
#3: Finally, the last con of hosting a book workshop is that it requires financial support.
Now, I definitely know that some people do not offer their participants an honorarium due to some vague idea that the reward should be the intellectual exchange.
I, personally, am staunchly opposed to not paying participants, even if it’s only a small amount.
In academia, people are constantly asked to give away their time, energy, and expertise for free in ways that would be seen as unacceptable in other fields.
Like, why are companies like Elsevier raking in billions of dollars a year in profit and not offering peer reviewers anything in exchange for reviews that take many hours to do?
I think because teaching and research are often seen as a calling with their own intrinsic rewards, many people just accept this as normal, when it’s really not okay.
So if you are asking a group of experts to take roughly 5-10 hours to read your manuscript and another full day out of their busy schedules to help you improve it, the LEAST you can do is provide a small token of appreciation.
In my case, I was able to secure a grant of $3000 from my university to support my workshop.
I invited four other experts, two of whom were in the room with me and the other two who participated over Zoom.
This was pre-pandemic, so at this point I would probably just have the entire thing over Zoom and give everyone a bigger honorarium.
But with the funds I received, I gave each of my participants a $500 honorarium.
I also purchased an airline ticket for one person to come to Boston, and I paid for snacks, lunch, and dinner for local folks.
I chose not to have a moderator or a note-taker.
Instead, I had each of the participants lead a discussion of one of the chapters—which they were aware of ahead of time—and I audio-recorded our conversations.
Other costs include potentially needing to pay for printing and mailing your manuscript to anyone who prefers to mark up a hard copy.
There are many ways to fund a workshop, including asking your institution or department to cover the cost.
And nowadays there are many more grants specifically geared towards book workshops since they are increasingly seen as an important part of professional development.
But, securing funding also requires advanced planning, so you would need to start this process long before you ever start actually organizing the workshop.
The Most Common Questions About Manuscript Workshops
So next I want to address some of the most common questions people tend to have about organizing a book workshop.
The first question is, who, and how many people, should you invite to participate?
The answer to this is really up to you.
A lot of people will invite a moderator and four experts in their fields.
I also know of some people who invited editors of particular presses to attend, although this is not as common.
As I mentioned earlier, if all goes well, the relationships formed during your workshop can lead to all kinds of other professional opportunities.
That said, it’s important to keep a few things in mind when you’re thinking about whom to invite.
The first thing is, do you know and like these people or are they complete strangers?
You ideally want to invite folks who are, or at least will be, supportive of your work and not anyone who’s known to be hypercritical, arrogant, or difficult to get along with.
There was a professor in my graduate department who was known for publishing scathing critiques of other peoples’ books, and despite being brilliant, no grad students wanted to work with him.
Because why would they?
With your workshop, you’re trying to create a friendly, intellectually fun environment so think not only about individuals’ expertise but also their personalities.
Secondly, you want to try to get the widest range of perspectives on your research.
It’s a good idea to ask people who have expertise in a variety of areas, rather than all being from the same subfield.
For mine, I sought to create a complementary group that could still offer distinct insight on my topic, which was American Born Chinese professionals who move to the Peoples’ Republic of China to build their careers.
So I invited an anthropologist who had written about Chinese American family ancestral homeland trips to China.
I invited a historian who published a book on Chinese college students in the United States and their negotiation of citizenship and identity.
I also invited two sociologists who also studied ancestral homeland migration to East Asia, one who focused on Japan and the other on South Korea.
Peoples’ expertise was like a large Venn diagram, where much of it aligned but they were also able to bring their own unique perspectives to the table.
The second main question is how far in advance do you need to organize one of these?
This is somewhat tricky because you want to time it in such a way that you are able to give the most complete draft of your work possible to participants.
At the same time, it’s still a draft and a work-in-progress so you don’t want to sit on it forever either trying to make things perfect.
Assuming you’ve already secured funding, you should invite your participants about 5-6 months ahead of time.
That gives you some leeway to ask more people if your first choices are not available.
And you also need to solidify a date that works for everyone.
I think that the best time to hold your workshop is about six months before you plan to submit your entire manuscript for review to a press.
I chose this number because it brings you close, but not too close, to the finish line.
You still have time to consider all of the feedback you receive from your participants, which can be quite extensive and feel overwhelming at first.
Very rarely in life do you have the opportunity to receive feedback on your writing from four or five different experts in your field.
The only other forum like this is a dissertation defense, but the purpose of that is quite different.
Because you are bringing together diverse experts, their revision suggestions and advice might conflict.
Therefore, as I talked about earlier, it will take some time to go through all of your notes and decide what you will incorporate and what you won’t.
And remember that you need to give your participants plenty of time to read your work.
I gave them only four weeks, but ideally you would give them more.
Also, when you send your manuscript you should give them a very detailed list of the kind of feedback you’re looking for.
Let them know if some chapters are less complete than others.
Tell them if you’re still struggling to figure out the major throughline of the book or your overarching argument.
Ultimately, this is a time to be honest with your readers and give them specific guidance regarding what you need so they can be the most helpful to you.
Third, how do you structure the day?
So the third question is how do you structure the day?
Finally, we get to the nitty gritty details!
There are a lot of different ways to structure one of these, so you can ask people you know who’ve held one of these for their itineraries.
I’ll just talk about how I ran mine.
About a week before we met, I sent my readers an updated table of contents as well as a general itinerary for the day.
I let them know that each of them would take the lead on discussing a chapter, which really just meant that they gave their comments and feedback first and then sort of facilitated the rest of the time.
This worked really well.
Because I had people Zooming in from different time zones, I chose to hold it between 10am-4pm my time.
Here was the schedule:
10-10:15: Welcome and Introductions
10:15-11:30: Discussion of Chapters 1 and 2
11:45-12:30: Discussion of Chapter 3
12:30-1:45: Lunch break
1:45-2:30: Discussion of Chapter 4
2:30-3:10: Discussion of Chapter 5 (I purposely made this a shorter time slot because the chapter was already very polished)
3:20-4:00: Conclusion and Final thoughts
If I had to do it all over again, I would probably add another half hour to the day because we ended up running overtime for some of the chapters.
We had only a few minutes to discuss the conclusion.
We had incredibly invigorating discussions that helped me build out my chapters and improve the overall structure and flow of the book.
Although I will also say that by the end of six hours, my head was completely spinning.
There was so much information and useful suggestions and references flying at me from four different directions, it was hard to keep up.
I was very glad I audio-recorded our conversations!
Nowadays you could do a Zoom transcript of the whole thing, which would also be super helpful and allow you to be more present during the discussions.
Summing It All Up
So let’s sum it all up.
I’ve talked about book workshops as a best-kept secret in academia and told you the pros and cons of running one.
I’ve also addressed some of the main questions people have about organizing an event like this.
As I said before, my own workshop was one of the most emotionally supportive, fulfilling, and intellectually stimulating experiences of my career.
I wish I had done one for my first book, but I honestly didn’t know about them.
Hopefully this has convinced you that a manuscript workshop is a worthwhile investment of time, money, and energy.
If all goes well, you’ll be able to send in a polished manuscript to the press that will fly through the review process.
I’ll talk to you again next time!
Laura here again! Thank you so much to Leslie for allowing me to share this transcript of her podcast episode about book manuscript workshops.
If you found Leslie’s guidance helpful, please do check out the other episodes of her podcast, Your Words Unleashed. Leslie is also available for private coaching and workshops about writing and work-life balance. You can find out more and contact her through her website.
Quick reminder that my Book Proposal Shortcut for Busy Scholars course is temporarily closing for enrollment as of November 1. I’m hoping to get it reopened again later in the year, but if you’re thinking this fall is the time to get some structured support for your scholarly book proposal, do go ahead and sign up before the closure. Once signed up your access will be continuous and the enrollment closure won’t affect you.
FYI, I will be donating $50 from every sale of the Shortcut this week (between now and the release of my next newsletter on October 25th) to UNRWA (the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian refugees). You can also donate directly if you’re moved to do so.
Do you have a scholarly book coming out in November or December? Would you like to share it with the 10,000+ scholarly writers and publishing folks who’ll receive this newsletter on November 1st?
Send me an email with your cover jpg, link to the publisher’s webpage, and any discount codes you’d like to include. You can reply directly to any of my newsletters in your inbox, or if you’d like to make extra-sure I flag your message as a new book to share, you can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org using the subject line “NEW BOOK.”
I will be sharing a year-end round-up of all 2023 books in December, so if your book came out earlier this year and you’d like it to be included, go ahead and email me as well. If your forthcoming-in-2024 book already has a cover and webpage, you can email me about that too!
See you next week!