Monday, January 09, 2017

Reading a Colleague's Work in Progress

One of my colleagues is working on a book, and was talking about it to me, since it's something I'm at least tangentially interested in, and I said I'd be interested to read it, so they emailed me the first chapter draft, and I'm reading it.

I don't know quite how to respond.

Here's the thing.  You know how students sometimes spend a long time winding up, setting up stuff, quoting "as X says" and such, just bits?  It does that in a major way.  It doesn't engage with the Xs it quotes, just takes quotes and does the "as X says" thing. 

And I'm 11 pages in to a 30 plus page chapter, and I have no idea why I'm reading (except that I said I would).  What I want from an introduction or introductory chapter is to know the basic argument, and how that argument differs from, disagrees with, or adds to what's come before.  This chapter, so far, gives me none of that.

So if I say that, what I'm basically saying is, you really need to totally rework the first chapter, and I'm pretty sure this colleague has worked very hard on this and doesn't want to hear that the chapter isn't working.

And if I don't say that, I'm not responding helpfully or ethically.


  1. I think you gotta tell the colleague what you're telling us.

    You might approach it helpfully -- like, hmm, this seems like it would work as a later chapter in the book. Maybe keep this chapter, but think about writing an introductory chapter as well, so that the reader understands how to read this chapter in the context of your argument?

  2. I make that comment a lot. Economists don't tend to mince words though so it is really easy to just say, "don't write a laundry list. Put your literature review in context of your argument." I've also been known to ask to see the outline or to say it needs an outline or a better outline.

    I would also say what you said about what you want from a first chapter.

    Better to hear it now before the entire book is written and unpublishable.

    But you also know the norms in your field about politeness and so on.

  3. I like what N&M have said -- "put your literature review in the context of your argument." There's probably a more polite way to say it, but no matter what, I feel like writers never improve if they are not told they need to. I tend to be very blunt with my critiques of colleagues' work -- not that I'm the greatest writer in the world. But I AM good at telling people how to fix their writing.

    Good luck!

  4. If you don't say it nicely now, some blind reviewer is likely to say it much more harshly later. My best readers are total pains in the neck in terms of forcing me to keep a laser-like focus on my own argument. But it sounds like your colleague need not necessarily throw out what's already written: some of it might go into endnotes, but what's really needed is to engage the sources in a conversation. (He says without having read the chapter.)

  5. Thanks, all; your advice helped. I think our conversation went well and was helpful to my colleague.