I’m increasingly hopeful that I’ll submit the second edition of Social Media for Academics to Sage next week, meeting a deadline which I suspect my editor had expected I would break. The book is six months overdue, I’ve broken countless deadlines and the impending date was only agreed after a period in which we agreed to withdraw any deadline in order to counter the anxiety which was making it hard for me to write. Sitting in my office on a Saturday afternoon, I’m finishing the final chapter which needs copy editing before I turn to the two chapters and introduction that require substantive work. It seems like a good time to reflect on what went wrong, with a second edition that has been objectively massively behind schedule and subjectively a nightmare to produce.
It was a project I thought would be easy. I feel ridiculous admitting that I’d effectively set aside two weeks of work to prepare the second edition. The first edition had been so well reviewed that I felt all I needed was to insert some new material to take account of what had changed on social media in the preceding years. I had been blogging regularly using a category on my blog, I’d given over 60 talks in which I’d developed new ideas and I’d had countless suggestions from people who had read the first edition. My plan was to spend time producing copy on each new topic before going through the text line by line to find where I could fit these in.
This was a big mistake because I rapidly generated vast amounts of text which didn’t fit substantively or stylistically into the existing book. In turn the process of going through it line by line eroded its structure, leaving me feeling as if I was sitting weeping in the ruins of a neatly turned out home that I’d caused to collapse in a reckless act of home repair. The project quickly became unmanageable because I had little traction upon (a) the scope and remit of the new material I’d produced to go into the book (b) the structure into which this material had to be fitted. By traction I mean a sense of how what was in front of me as I wrote or edited connected to a broader context.
I’ve often been fascinated by the experience of producing a text as a totality. That moment when you hold a thesis in your hands for the first time and this project which had dominated your life suddenly becomes an object you can easily manipulate. The second edition of Social Media for Academics has involved that process in reverse, as the objectivity of the text evaporated into a dispiriting horizon of unmet deadlines and postponed commitments. By simply piling up the new material in blog posts, Scrivener notes and artefact cards without any attempt to link these together, it was inevitable I was going to find myself drowning in ideas. I gripped onto the existing structure of the book in the hope it could keep me afloat but I simply pulled it into the ocean as well.
It occurs to me now that my mistake was a simple one. I should have read through the whole text, making free form notes, before trying to do anything else. Furthermore, in the last few years of being increasingly busy, I’d become adept at producing ephemera: short talks, blog posts, fragments of writing. But I’d gradually lost the habit of connecting these things together and making sense of what I’d been producing. My thoughts didn’t condense in the way they used to, both as a consequence of less mental bandwidth and less inclination to do the connective work upon which creativity depends. The combination of jumping straight into editing without having imposed any order on what I was trying to incorporate goes much of the way to explaining the disaster which has been my experience of producing this second edition.
The only thing that made it tractable in the end was printing out each chapter, going through it with a pen to rewrite, restructure and extend. Not all of my new material has survived and I’m still nervous that there are topics I’ve missed out. But it’s a much tighter book as a result of this process, in spite of being substantially longer. It’s also left me reflecting on the approach I take to my work and made me realise the importance of ordering what I do. This used to happen automatically, as I thought and reflected in the course of days which had a quantity of unstructured time that now seems a distant memory to me. It’s also something I did through blogging, using this as a mechanism to elaborate upon my ideas in order to connect things together. I never stopped blogging but something about the process has changed. It became more efficient, producing units of thought across a diverse range of topics, while leaving these fragmented from each other. I’d rarely stop to write a blog post when I was seized by what C Wright Mills called the feel of an idea, something which I used to do regularly and inevitably left me with the experience of a connection between things that had previously seemed disconnected.
This blog post is an example of this process and I feel much clearer about what went wrong as a result. It’s taken more time and energy than would have been involved in writing a new book. I now know how not to produce the second edition of a book. But I’m quite proud of the result and I hope people like it.