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The Society for Research into Higher Education


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Writing a Book Proposal

by Rachel Brooks, Sarah O’Shea and Zoe Thomson

Professor Rachel Brooks and Professor Sarah O’Shea (editors of the SRHE/Routledge Book series) recently ran a Professional Development Programme event on ‘Writing a Book Proposal’. As well as sharing some tips from Zoe Thomson (Education Editor at Taylor and Francis), Sarah and Rachel offered their insights as authors and editors, discussing some questions frequently asked by those thinking of putting a book proposal together.

Publishing a book is a significant undertaking – so why do it? Writing a book is a means for researchers to provide an in-depth and coherent account of their work, that often isn’t possible in shorter articles or other formats. Books are accepted in social sciences (including higher education research) as appropriate outputs, and provide opportunities to reach a larger, sometimes international, audience for your work.

Before embarking on such a project, it is important to consider the different options available for disseminating your research, and the advantages and limitations of each. Firstly, you may wish to weigh up the distinctions between edited books and monographs:

  • The labour of producing a co-edited book is distributed across a group authors and editors, and the format can facilitate a greater range and diversity of perspectives around a single topic or theme. At the same time, co-edited volumes demand a lot of time and project management from the editor(s), who must also ensure the overall quality of the finished product.
  • Monographs, on the other hand, are generally sole-authored or sometimes involve a small author team, such that the writing can be well-integrated, with ideas and arguments explored in significant depth. A sole-authored book involves a great deal of time, energy, and labour, but is an excellent addition to your CV.

Some of the most innovative books in the field of higher education research are based on doctoral research. However, turning your PhD thesis into a book often requires a substantial amount of work, and there are some specific considerations worth bearing in mind during this process:

  • Thesis chapters do not automatically translate to book chapters – restructuring, rewriting, revision, and addition is often required. Books typically do not, for example, tend to feature the same level of detail around methodological decisions and process as is found in a doctoral thesis. You may also need to ‘slice’ your thesis and explore a specific area or theme more deeply.
  • Consider any overlaps with previously published journal articles. Some publishers may be concerned about what will be novel or original about your book if you have already published extensively from your PhD research, while for others this may not be a significant issue. It’s therefore worth discussing this topic with your target publisher at an early stage, to establish what kind of changes or developments may be expected for a book proposal to be successful.
  • Discuss your publication plans (and/or draft proposal) with your current or former supervisor, or other experienced academics in your department or field. The transition from publishing works in progress and journal articles to publishing books can seem like a big leap, but supervisors – who know your work very well – are generally happy to discuss and advise on this process.

With your initial preparation complete, you may feel ready to approach a publisher. What are the next logical steps?

  • Research your publishing options, and consider not only what would best suit your field and specific topic, but also your motivation for writing the book. Are you, for instance, trying to apply for a job or promotion? If so, which publisher is highly regarded in your field?
  • Once you have decided on your publisher of choice, consider sending an informal e-mail to the editor(s). Your e-mail should provide a brief overview of your idea or focus and seek to gauge some feedback on whether this would appeal to the series – the response you receive can help you to quickly establish whether a publisher is the right fit for your work.
  • Check the different publication options offered – is a paperback option available? Hard copies can be prohibitive in terms of cost to the prospective reader, and so a paperback option could be a key selling point down the track. Are there options for open access – and if so, what are the fees and charges? Some contracts or research projects include funding for these costs.

Once you have conducted this initial research, a publisher may invite you to write a proposal – this is a formal expression of what you hope your book will contain, which provides the basis for the publisher (and others) to make a final decision regarding a potential book contract.

Usually there is a form or template available on the publisher’s website or which they can send you, which must be carefully followed. These forms vary across publisher, so it is important to access this early in your process to tailor your proposal to what the publisher is asking for. While completing this form:

  • Consult examples of successful proposals – colleagues in your department or wider network will often be happy to share.
  • Provide details of your writing or editing experience – this is an opportunity to outline what you have already published from your PhD.
  • The proposed timeline for someone drawing on their finished thesis will be much shorter than that of someone starting from scratch with a new research project. It is important to be realistic about how much writing you have done already, and your existing commitments. A typical timeline may be around one year from the date on which the book contract is signed, but this varies greatly depending on individual circumstances.
  • Many publishers prescribe a minimum and maximum length for the finished book (normally around 80,000 words) but this varies between publishers, and there is increasing variety in length.
  • A book proposal should also include a concise overview expressing the unique selling point of your book, a chapter-by-chapter summary, a list of competing titles in the same area as your proposed book (and what makes your book distinct from these) and the potential market for your book (academics, students, researchers, others?). Some of this can be more challenging with edited collections if you are planning a call for proposals, but both publishers and peer reviewers need to see what you are planning to include to assess the proposal fully.

Some further writing advice from a publisher’s perspective is:

  • Take your time writing

It is obvious to those assessing a proposal if it has been rushed. Use the proposal as an opportunity to best advertise yourself, your author voice, and your ideas. Ensure you answer all questions on the template provided by the publisher or series editor fully – missing out on questions can imply to the publisher that your idea is not fully developed.

  • Be clear and accessible in your language

While the editor you submit your proposal to at the publisher will work within your subject area, e.g. education, they are unlikely to be an expert in your specific topic. Make sure you spell out acronyms or technical terms the first time you use them and reference the work you are building upon.

  • Think about the market/intended audience for the book

Publishers need to know that there is a clear route to market for your book, in addition to its academic merit. Make sure you express who you think your reader will be and how they are going to use your book. What are the key objectives of your book, and why is it needed? Making this clear in your proposal shows that you are serious about writing a book and that you have a good awareness of your key market and what else has published in the area.

  • Recommend potential reviewers

The publisher may ask you to recommend peer reviewers as part of the proposal stage, generally requesting that they are at a different institution to you and spanning a range of locations if you are aiming at an international audience. Routledge does not guarantee to contact all of these people – and their peer review process is anonymised so you won’t know this for definite – but they provide another indication of who you are writing for. This can help the publisher search for other potential reviewers and ensure your book is correctly positioned within their publishing programme.

If you are considering proposing a book for inclusion in the SRHE/Routledge Book Series Research in Higher Education, please contact Rachel Brooks (r.brooks@surrey.ac.uk), Sarah O’Shea (sarah.oshea@curtin.edu.au) or Helen Perkins (SRHE Director, hsperkins@srhe.ac.uk).

Professor Rachel Brooks is Professor of Sociology and Associate Dean for Research and Innovation at the University of Surrey, UK. As well as being co-editor of the Routledge/SRHE book series, she is editor-in-chief of Sociology and an executive editor of the British Journal of Sociology of Education. She has published widely in the sociology of higher education. Recent books include Student Migrants and Contemporary Educational Mobilities (with Johanna Waters); Reimagining the Higher Education Student (with Sarah O’Shea) and Sharing Care (with Paul Hodkinson).

Professor Sarah O’Shea is the Director, National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education (NCSEHE) and a national and international recognised educator and researcher. Sarah’s particular expertise in educational inclusion and equity issues has resulted in invitations to present keynotes, symposia, and workshops globally as well as providing contributions across media including print, television and radio. She is a prolific writer, with over 80 publications including books, book chapters, scholarly journal articles, media articles and commissioned reports produced in the last decade.

Zoe Thomson is Commissioning Editor for Education at Routledge. She publishes books in the areas of Higher Education (covering both the study of Higher Education itself and practical books that will help academics teach more effectively), Study Skills (including Academic Writing) and Educational Research Methods. She also commissions Social and Emotional Wellbeing books under the Speechmark imprint.


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How should early-career researchers learn about academic writing and publishing?

by Melina Aarnikoivu

In August 2019, a group of 25 early-career higher education scholars convened in a seminar room in Kassel, Germany, to talk about academic writing for an entire afternoon. We were there to help each other write better, and become comfortable with the fact that “everybody struggles with writing, everybody gets rejected”. That quote was just one of the insights that senior higher education scholars had offered us, the organisers, prior to the event via email. In total, we had received 38 responses where senior higher education journal editors and reviewers from all around the world shared their views on what makes a good, publishable article.

What I didn’t know at the time was that this writing workshop would be my last in-person academic event for the next two years. What the event and those 38 responses offered me, however, was a direction for my future research and teaching. And the question I’ve been asking ever since is: how can early-career researchers learn to write good journal articles when even senior scholars — the gatekeepers of academic writing and publishing — don’t agree on what makes a good journal article or how it comes to be?

Rules of academic writing and publishing – are there any?

In my recent SRHE conference talk, titled Rules of writing and publishing in higher education research: are there any?, I presented the preliminary results of a study that I’ve been working on since the Kassel writing workshop. In the study I explore what kind of advice senior higher education scholars provide for early-career researchers regarding academic writing and publishing, and whether these pieces of advice agree with each other. By asking these questions, my aim is to make the ‘publishing gates’ of higher education research more transparent and accessible, so that early-career researchers who want to publish in higher education research journals would not have to submit their first articles with only a “hope-for-the-best-but-be-prepared-for-the-worst” mentality.

Going through the data, however, has been quite eye-opening, as everyone seems to have their own – often very differing – views on how to write articles, what should be in them, or how to choose one’s research topics in the first place. For example, while one scholar seems to think we have to choose our journal before we have written a single word on paper, another one encourages us to first write the paper, then choose the journal. While one scholar cares a great deal about language and style, another claims they do not care about the language at all. Or, while one senior researcher says we should give up if a manuscript is rejected, others encourage us to keep trying as long as the paper is published.

While there are probably no right answers to any of these issues, the conflicting advice might seem incredibly perplexing to those who are about to publish their first papers. What an early-career researcher might ask as a result is: does the fate of my future article depend on luck — on whose desk it ends up landing? What kind of writing and research does that individual scholar in particular appreciate — or not?

There also seem to be some things that senior scholars mostly agree on, such as the well-thought-out focus of the manuscript. However, that is also a highly subjective issue: how many research questions is enough for this particular paper? What if the paper aims to do too much after all? Or, by contrast, what if the paper ends up looking like salami-slicing?

Accept the lack of rules, talk about writing, question your assumptions

What I find even more worrying than the conflicting or ambiguous advice of different individuals, however, is that many early-career researchers might not even be aware that advice is available and should be treated as no more than that. Instead, they treat their supervisors, journal editors, or peer reviewers’ pieces of advice as ‘the ultimate truth’.

What can we do, then?

Accept the lack of rules: Supervisors, mentors, and teachers should be frank with their supervisees, mentees, and students that there is no universal rulebook for ‘good academic writing’. They should acknowledge that there are differences between languages, disciplines, and individuals. What works in my Finnish academic writing, for example, might not work in English. While I appreciate my student trying out something different in their essay, the teacher next door might not be so understanding.

Talk about writing: To improve as writers and researchers, the more we talk about writing with other researchers, the better. Especially early-career researchers should be provided as many opportunities to talk about and share their texts with their colleagues and peers as possible. Moreover, they should be able to do so in a supportive and inspiring environment. In this way, they can become comfortable with others reading their work, even if it is not polished yet.

Question your assumptions: Every now and then, it would be good for any academic to stop for a moment and think how academic writing was taught to them and by whom, and how that affected their views on what ‘good writing’ entails. Would there be more room to break or bend the rules, if we had such rules in our mental academic writing toolbox? Do we welcome a constant challenge to the conventions of academic writing, or are we allergic to any kind of ‘rebelliousness’ in academic articles? Why?

Academic writing is often frustrating because it is difficult. There are no quick fixes to suddenly become an amazing academic writer and to get your papers published without hard work. While it is always beneficial to seek pieces of advice on good writing and publishing, it is equally important to remember not to take them at face value.

But that is just my advice.

Melina Aarnikoivu is a postdoctoral researcher at the Higher Education Studies Team (HIEST) at the Finnish Institute for Educational Research. She has recently received a one-year research grant from the Wihuri foundation to study academic writing practices and writing support of early-career researchers in Finland. Between 2020 and 2021, she taught academic writing at an undergraduate level.


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Staff Academic Writing

by Amanda Roberts

I joined my current university mid-career. Having begun my teaching career as an English teacher, I ended this phase of my working life 20 years later as a headteacher of a closing school.  I used this formative experience to set up an educational consultancy company, supporting the development of schools in challenging circumstances. Consultancy provided me with the opportunity to put into practice what I had learned as an educational professional. I was secure in my professional identity and felt confident and purposeful. In 2009, on joining a School of Education at the University of Hertfordshire, I was excited by the opportunity to develop my expertise in a new sector.  However, the first year in my new role proved very challenging. I found it difficult to understand how the organisation worked or my role within it. The culture of the university, its language and structures were all alien to me. I was now an ‘academic’ and had no idea what that meant. I felt professionally disempowered and unsure of my way forward.

I was interested to discover that others felt this way too and that for many this alienation stemmed from their feelings about academic writing. Many colleagues appeared to place themselves in one of two camps – Continue reading