Planning a book manuscript workshop

I recently finished a manuscript workshop for my book-in-progress, Bit by Bit: Social Research in the Digital Age.  The book is for social scientists that want to do more data science and data scientists that want to do more social science.  I’m very grateful to everyone that participated in the workshop; I know that it will make my book much better.  The goal of this blog post is to write down everything that I learned planning and participating in workshop in order to make it easier for others in the future.

Background

Manuscript workshops—sometimes called “book scrubs”—involve inviting a group of people (usually 5 to 10) to read your manuscript and then spend the day talking about it.  I first learned about manuscript workshops a few years ago when I attended one for Amy Lerman’s book The Modern Prison Paradox: Politics, Punishment, and Social Community.  Amy’s workshop was fun for me as a participant, and it seemed helpful for her as an author.  That experience convinced me that I wanted to have a manuscript workshop for my book too.

When I started to plan the manuscript workshop for my book, however, I quickly discovered that there are lots of decisions involved.  While making these decisions I sought the advice of many people who had organized, participated, or hosted manuscript workshops in the past.  They shared lots of wisdom with me, and now I’d like to share that wisdom with you.  What follows in a mix of my own opinions and a summary of what I’ve heard from others.

I think it is helpful to organize the process into four stages: before, waiting, during, and after.

Before the workshop

There are five main things you have to do before the workshop: pick date, secure funding, invite people, set expectations, and pick a deadline.  For my workshop, these were all happening simultaneously and somewhat interactively.  For example, the date depended in part of the people that I wanted to invite.

Pick a date

I ended up picking a Friday during reading period. This seemed like a time where Princeton folks would be in town and not too busy.  Also, I thought that doing it on a Friday would make it easier for people who would be traveling from out of town.  Before setting the date, some people suggested thinking about a few people that I really wanted to attend and given them a chance to pick between several dates.  My suggestion is to pick the date about six months in advance.

Secure funding (if needed)

In terms of funding, sometimes centers on campus will help support these workshops.  I was very lucky that the Center for the Study of Democratic Politics was able to support the workshop both financially  and logistically.   The main expenses for my workshop were: travel and lodging for out of town guests, food during the workshop, dinner after the workshop, and printing and mailing hard copies of the manuscript.

Although funding was extremely helpful, I don’t think that lack of funding would need to prevent a workshop.  Really all you need are people and a manuscript so it would be possible to do the whole thing with no funding, but it would mean that you would be limited to local colleagues. More realistically, I think that travel, food during the day, and the cost of printing and mailing the manuscripts are three costs that are hard to eliminate but could be kept to reasonable levels.

Invite people

The most important part of the manuscript workshop is the participants.  My book is for social scientists that want to do more data science and data scientists that want to do more social science.  Therefore, I invited people from both of these communities.  I also wanted people who would read the manuscript and offer constructive feedback.  Further, I wanted people with a variety of research styles at different stages of their career and with a good gender balance.

One question that came up during the process was about inviting graduate students.  In the end, I decided to only invite graduate students who are helping me with the book, and I encouraged them to participate as full members of the group.  Apparently, another model is to invite lots of graduate student and ask them to listen but not speak.  I can see educational value of this model, but I thought that it would dampen the community feeling that I was trying to create in my manuscript workshop.  Also, some people invite their editors to the manuscript workshop.  I’m lucky enough to be working with a great editor—Meagan Levinson from Princeton University Press—and I was happy to invite her.

I’ve heard that some people also decide who to invite based on upcoming tenure cases, intellectual feuds, and marketing considerations.  These are all real issues, but I think that including them in your planning can muddy the goals of the workshop a bit.

In the invitation email, I tried to be clear about my expectations (see below) and to provide a sample of the manuscript.  I felt like I was making a big ask, and I wanted make sure that participants knew what they were getting into.

Set expectations

During this process of planning my workshop, I discovered that the expectations and formats for manuscript workshops vary quite a bit.  Therefore, it is really important that you are clear with your participants about what you are expecting.  I wanted us to be a group working through the intellectual ideas in the text.  Therefore, I wanted everyone to read the entire manuscript.  Apparently, many workshops don’t expect all participants to read the whole thing, and they assign specific chapter to specific people.  You’ll have to decide based on what you want and what you think is realistic to expect from your participants.

Here’s how I described the expectations in the invitation email:

“The goal of the workshop is to improve the argument and intellectual content of the manuscript.  This is not about you doing copy-editing of the manuscript; that would be a waste of your time.  Rather, we will dedicate about 45 minutes to discussing each chapter of the book and how it could improved.  How could the argument be stronger?  Are there other concepts that should be included?  Are there things that should be removed?  And, in between these group discussions, we will have lots of time for coffee and lunch.  In order to use everyone’s valuable time effectively, all participants will have read the entire manuscript before the workshop begins.  My hope is that all the participants will find this a fun and constructive way to spend the day.”

I also really wanted more granular comments on the manuscript so I asked everyone to give me their marked-up manuscripts to me at the workshop.  This structure resulted in a good combination of high-level comments from the discussion and specific feedback in the marked-up manuscripts.

I’ve heard that some workshops offer participants a small honorarium.  It seems like that could help encourage some people to attend, but it might also change the tone of the workshop and it might not be possible due to funding constraints.

Set a deadline

Once the date of the workshop is set, the next step is for you to pick a deadline for sending out the manuscript to participants.  I promised my participants that I would send it to them about a month in advance.  This deadline was the most helpful deadline ever.  I had invited friends that I deeply respected, and they had agreed to take time from their busy lives to help me.  Therefore, I was very motivated to send them something that was worthy of their time.  In other words, the manuscript workshop will help you even before it happens.  On the day of the deadline, I emailed everyone a link to the manuscript, and then I sent hard copies a bit later.

One thing I did that I would recommend is to plan a vacation right after your deadline.  For example, after sending my manuscript, I headed straight to the airport.  This unmovable deadline helped me feel OK about sending out what I knew was an imperfect manuscript.

Waiting for the workshop

After you send out your manuscript, you will have about a month where you really should not be working on your manuscript at all (you don’t want to get comments on a stale manuscript).  This month was a very strange and wonderful time for me.  I had been so focused on the manuscript leading up to the deadline, and then there was an abrupt change where I completely stopped working on it.  This waiting period was a great time for a vacation, and I think that the time away helped me recharge and prepare to make the next set of changes based on feedback from the workshop.

One small piece of work that I did during this waiting period was ask people to serve as moderators for the sessions at the workshop. The main responsibility of the moderator was to keep the discussion moving smoothly through the entire chapter and to make sure that everyone has a chance to participate; I did not want to the moderators to be formal discussants.  Having these moderators turned out to be a huge help because it meant that during the workshop I could completely focus on listening to the discussion.  The second thing I did during this time was to re-read the manuscript and decide the one or two most important issues for each chapter that I wanted to ask about at the workshop.

During the workshop

The first session of my manuscript workshop was me introducing the participants to each other and talking about why I was so excited that they were able to participate.  I really wanted to create a communal feeling at the workshop, and I didn’t think the typical, bland academic self-introductions were going to do that.  Then, the bulk of the day was split into 1 hour sessions focused on specific chapters.  The final session was focused on the manuscript as a whole.  In between sessions was time for coffee breaks and lunch.  The day ended with a wonderful celebratory dinner.

For each specific session, I started by giving a one minute summary of the chapter.  Then, I turned it over to a moderator to guide the discussion.  The main responsibilities of the moderator were to keep the discussion flowing and ensure that everyone participated.  Then, in the final 5 – 10 minutes of the session, I would go to the board where I would summarize the feedback, ask questions, and make a reply.

A key idea was that I would try to intervene as little as possible during the discussion.  As they say: if your mouth is open then you’re not learning.  During the discussion I was taking notes about key themes, and one of the graduate students who is helping me took more archival-style notes about everything that was said.  Both sets of notes are very helpful.

Before the workshop, I was worried that we not have enough to talk about to fill the day, but we had exactly the opposite problem.  We ended up behind schedule and had to work through lunch.  During the day, you should expect to feel overwhelmed (in a good way) so if there are specific things that you want to discuss you need to decide them in advance.

After the workshop

I left the manuscript workshop with lots of ideas—big and small—about how to make the book better.  And, equally importantly, I left excited about making those changes.

I wrote a very rough “response memo” that describes the changes that I plan to make and a schedule for completing them.  Then I got back to writing.  To be honest, I found the first few days of writing pretty difficult, I think because I decided to tackle the biggest problems first.  But, after a few days, I was able to get back into a good workflow.  In fact, I think that what I’ve written after the workshop has been quite a bit better than what I wrote before.

Things to do next time:

Here are a couple of things that I might do differently next time:

  • Leave more room in the margins of the hard copy manuscript for comments on the actual text.
  • Try to do a better job of sticking the schedule in the morning.  We got behind schedule, and then did not have as much time for the afternoon chapters.  One way to do this is to make the moderator more responsibility for ending their session on time.
  • Consider making an audio recording of the discussion.  As I go back to revising the manuscript, I think it might be helpful to re-listen to the discussion.  I decided not record the workshop because I thought that it might dampen the mood that I was trying to create, but now I think that probably would not have caused a problem.
  • Try to have a 100% complete manuscript.  I was hoping to have a finished manuscript by the workshop, but I was not able to finish the introduction and conclusion chapters in time.  That meant that we spent some time talking about what could be in those chapters, rather than working to make specific ideas better.  In general, the further along the manuscript is the better.

Learn more about this book

Bit by Bit: Social Research in the Digital Age  is for social scientists that want to do more data science, and data scientists that want to do more social science.  I expect to post a complete draft of the book online in August 2016.  If you’d like to read the book, please sign-up to receive an email when it is posted.  You can read a draft at http://www.bitbybitbook.com

Thanks

I would like to thank the Center for the Study of Democratic Politics, especially Michele Demak Epstein and Markus Prior, for their support of my workshop.  I am also deeply grateful to the participants in my workshop who generously shared their time to help make my book better:  Elizabeth Bruch, Paul DiMaggio, Filiz Garip, Meagan Levinson, Karen Levy, Mor Naaman, Sean Taylor, Markus Prior, Jess Metcalf, Brandon Stewart, Duncan Watts, and Han Zhang.

Other blog posts on manuscript workshops

http://legalhistoryblog.blogspot.com/2016/05/how-to-plan-book-manuscript-workshop.html

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