3.03.2014

The Textbook Writer

I wrote the following piece to put down some initial thoughts about what a textbook writer does and who a textbook writer is.  I'm sure many (writers and readers) will see things very differently and I'd love to hear from you. I emphasize again that this is a first attempt to define textbook writing and is really in need of much refinement. This article was published in Etc: A Review of General Semantics 70 (3) July, 2013, 282-287. 

 Textbooks are a fact of college life. They are, in fact, so interwoven into the college experience that you can hardly think of a college course without thinking of the textbook. And certainly one of the first priorities of a college instructor is to select a textbook for the course. Given the importance of the textbook (and the textbook writer) to any and all college courses, it seems useful to identify what a textbook writer is and what a textbook writer does. Surprisingly, little has been written on the textbook author; a search of Google, Bing, and Yahoo yields virtually nothing about the textbook writer. Here, then, is an initial attempt to identify some of the roles the textbook writer serves; the following provide just a start. Theres an implicit etc. at the end of the list and at the end of each of the roles.
Such a listeven a beginning onemay prove useful to the college instructor contemplating text writing, to the editor assessing the qualifications of potential authors, and to instructors and students wondering who is this person is who writes these textbooks theyre reading. More important, however, is that such a list might prove helpful in providing a clearer identity for this rather unique writing genre.


Teacher/Trainer
The textbook writer is, perhaps most obviously, a teacher of students, not just of those 30 or 40 in the classroom but of thousands, tens of thousands, and even hundreds of thousands of students a semester. Much like the teacher in the classroom, the textbook writer explains the research and theory to the students. But, the textbook author is also a teacher of teachers. College instructors, especially beginning ones or ones new to the course content, are also taught by the textbook author.
Many textbooks, and most introductory textbooks, are also concerned with imparting skillswith enabling the student to do something he or she was not able to do (or not able to do as well) before reading the text. In this, the textbook writer is also a kind of personal trainer. In communication, its the skills of listening, public speaking, interpersonal communication, interviewing, small group interaction, relationship development and maintenance. And so the textbook writer tries to explain not only what active listening is but also how to listen actively, not only what relationship development is but also how to use the strategies for effective relationship development. In psychology, the skills are more likely to cluster around enhancing critical thinking and increasing self-awareness (skill goals also shared with communication).

Student
The textbook writer is also a student and keeps up with the literature within the field as well as with whats happening in the outside world, in the world of social media, the economy, and changing cultural beliefs, attitudes, and ways of behavingto name just a few. The textbook writer also needs to be a student as he or she learns from users of the book who report on their own preferences as well as those of their students. This does not mean that the writer should do whatever reviewers want; it only means the writer listens to them, honestly assesses their suggestions, and then acts in the best interest of the book.
Perhaps most important is that the textbook author needs to put himself or herself into the role of student while writing, making sure that the materialso well known to the authoris clear, understandable, and in a form that will prove useful to the student.

Reporter
One of the main hats a textbook writer wears if that of reporter. In much the same way that a sports reporter would write about the game and the players or a crime reporter would write about the victims, the perpetrators, and the motive, means, and opportunity, the textbook writer reports on what researchers and theorists have found and postulated. Although the textbook writer goes beyond reporting, to, for example, synthesis and critical analysis, the report function always remains central.
At the same time, reporting needs to be kept in balance. The author who covers the research in too much detail is going to turn off the beginning student who is probably more interested in learning something useful. Conversely, the author who gives too little attention to research and theory
is going to turn off the instructors who make the adoption decisions.

Gatekeeper/Evaluator
After an examination of the literature, the textbook writer includes certain materials and omits other materials and thus serves as gatekeeper. The text writer highlights and discusses in detail some theories and research, notes others only briefly, and omits still others entirely. In fact, the textbook writer may be a more significant gatekeeper than even the instructor. The reason for this is that the course often revolves around the text, due in large part to the publishers supplying easy-to-use tests and the inclusion of activities and questions for discussion that provide a useful package of materials for the course. When there are multiple sections of a basic course and uniformity is desired, then the textbook is the easiest common denominator to use. Assuming an instructor sticks closely to the text, this is the studentsonly exposure to a discipline (at least in formal education). Fortunately, the Internet has lessened this exclusivity and enables anyone to find information on any topic imaginable. But, the textbook remains the basic template for the area of study and perhaps the most obvious starting point for further study.
Along with gatekeeping are the evaluations the textbook writer makes in discussing the theory and research. Of course, the biggest part of evaluation is the decision to include some theories and research and not others. But, there is also the textbook writers evaluation of theories and research with such prefatory remarks as an especially useful theory in understanding …” or an approach now little used.

Motivator
The textbook needs to motivate students not only to learn about the subject and to continue reading the text but also to pursue the discipline; in many ways, textbook authors are flag wavers for their discipline. This is especially true of beginning textbooks since these may be the studentsonly formal exposure to a discipline. In a way the introductory textbook is an advertisement for the department, for taking additional courses, and for entering or majoring in the discipline.
This is truer of some courses and textbooks than of others. Introductory psychology textbooks clearly highlight the typical psychology departments upper division courses and often contain sections on taking other courses in the field. Public speaking textbooks, on the other hand, introduce only a small part of the communication departments offerings.
Conversely, the author who gives too little attention to research and theory is going to turn off the instructors who make the adoption decisions.

Gatekeeper/Evaluator
After an examination of the literature, the textbook writer includes certain materials and omits other materials and thus serves as gatekeeper. The text writer highlights and discusses in detail some theories and research, notes others only briefly, and omits still others entirely. In fact, the textbook writer may be a more significant gatekeeper than even the instructor. The reason for this is that the course often revolves around the text, due in large part to the publishers supplying easy-to-use tests and the inclusion of activities and questions for discussion that provide a useful package of materials for the course. When there are multiple sections of a basic course and uniformity is desired, then the textbook is the easiest common denominator to use. Assuming an instructor sticks closely to the text, this is the studentsonly exposure to a discipline (at least in formal education). Fortunately, the Internet has lessened this exclusivity and enables anyone to find information on any topic imaginable. But, the textbook remains the basic template for the area of study and perhaps the most obvious starting point for further study.
Along with gatekeeping are the evaluations the textbook writer makes in discussing the theory and research. Of course, the biggest part of evaluation is the decision to include some theories and research and not others. But, there is also the textbook writers evaluation of theories and research with such prefatory remarks as an especially useful theory in understanding …” or an approach now little used.

Motivator
The textbook needs to motivate students not only to learn about the subject and to continue reading the text but also to pursue the discipline; in many ways, textbook authors are flag wavers for their discipline. This is especially true of beginning textbooks since these may be the studentsonly formal exposure to a discipline. In a way the introductory textbook is an advertisement for the department, for taking additional courses, and for entering or majoring in the discipline.
This is truer of some courses and textbooks than of others. Introductory psychology textbooks clearly highlight the typical psychology departments upper division courses and often contain sections on taking other courses in the field. Public speaking textbooks, on the other hand, introduce only a small part of the communication departments offerings.

Collaborator
Textbook writing is often portrayedat least in the popular mindas a solitary enterprisethe college professor working alone at the computer. This is far from accurate; rather, the textbook writer is a collaborator and works with a variety of people to make the book an effective classroom tool. The editor who acquired the book oversees the book and, working with the author, helps guide the book to be successful. The developmental editor works on the books progress from first manuscript to finished bookits photo program, its design, its features and themes, its narrative, and more.
Reviewers respond to lengthy questionnaires detailing their experiences with using the book or one of the books competitors (if this is a revision) or how they see this manuscript-as-book playing out in their classrooms, identifying strengths and weaknesses they see in your book or manuscript. The photo researcher searches for appropriate photos based on the authors specifications. Supplement writers compose the Instructors Manual, write the examination questions, and create the PowerPoint slides. Technology editors integrate media components. Filmmakers create the videos that are now so much are part of the introductory textbook. The textbook writer works with all these people, and many more, to produce the final textbook package.

Writer
Of course, among all the roles the textbook writer plays, that of writer is surely the most obvious. One difference between textbook writing and many other kinds of writing is that the former follows a rigid time schedule. Bloggers or researchers writing up their latest student for a journal have a relatively loose schedule, at least as compared to the textbook writer. So, if the muse inspires, thats great and you write. If the muse does not inspire, thats too bad, but you write anyway. One reason for this is that there are so many people involved in the process that a delay from the author creates problems all the way through the production line. Another reason is that the textbook must be published at a time when the sales force will be able to present the book for Fall or Spring adoption. This generally means that (for Fall adoptions, clearly the major selling season) that the book must come out in January or February so that there is time for adoption decisions to be made and for the book to be ordered (around April).
The textbook is unique in that it is written for students to read but is selected by instructors who teach the course, the authors peers. Beginning authors often make the mistake of writing to their colleagues instead of to students. They forget that college instructors who are considering adopting the book can and do put themselves into the mindset of the student and make a judgment as to the usefulness of the textto the student.
The writing must be such that students can understand it and relate their own lives to what you say in the textbook. At the same time, the writing must be appropriately academic to satisfy the instructors. Here is where all the skills from English 101 come into playthe writing needs to be clear, accurate, organized, current, culturally sensitive, interesting, etc., etc., etc.


These are just some of the roles that the textbook author needs to play. Of course, other textbook authors are likely to see the roles differently and perhaps would challenge what is written here. Thats as it should be. If all textbook writers saw their jobs in the same way, textbooks wouldnt be as varied or as interesting as they are now. The nine roles noted here are intended as discussion starters to define a writing genre that is not currently well defined and yet is (arguably) as important as or perhaps more important than fiction.

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