How to Write a Book (And How Not to Write a Book)

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Aug. 6 2014 10:46 AM
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Dispatches From Book Leave, Part 4

Three months left. 2,500 words per day.

Aaron Swartz.
Aaron Swartz in 2008.

Photo by Noah Berger/Reuters

Slate correspondent Justin Peters is on leave this year while he writes a book based on his February 2013 Slate profile of the Internet activist Aaron Swartz. He has been sending regular progress reports to friends, family, readers, and others interested in getting an inside look at the book-writing process. Here’s the fourth of his updates, sent in early August. Read the first installment, second installment, and third installment.

Hi everyone,

Justin Peters here with another of my occasional updates on the status of The Idealists, the book I’m writing about Aaron Swartz, copyright, open access, free culture, the Big Rock Candy Mountain, and a bunch of other stuff.

Anyway, it’s been a few minutes since my last dispatch, hasn’t it? Sorry about that, everybody. I’ve found that the closer I come to my (rapidly approaching) deadline, the harder it is to find time for anything other than actually, you know, writing the book. Why, I barely have time these days to maintain any of my novelty Twitter accounts!

But Twitter’s loss is the remainder pile’s eventual gain, I suppose. My deadline is fewer than three months away, and I’m working very hard to meet it. I’ve been setting increasingly demanding production quotas for myself. Right now, I’m trying to write about 2,500 words per day, and I’m mostly succeeding. Quantity over quality, that’s my motto! I’m sort of serious about that—at least for the moment.

Obviously, I want the final product to be as elegant and articulate as possible. (“Peters’ style seamlessly combines the wit of Robert Benchley, the erudition of Rebecca West, and the bizarre political theories of Lyndon LaRouche.”) But I’ve learned that, in the context of a first draft, it’s unwise to worry excessively about polishing something that’s incomplete. I wasted a lot of time at the beginning of this process slaving over sentences and paragraphs, reasoning that if I got the sentences right the first time, I wouldn’t have to go back and revise them later on. Well, that was a really stupid idea. Sure, those sentences and paragraphs look good, but this book has changed so much over the subsequent months that much of the material I worked so hard on back then probably won’t even make it into the final draft.

So now I’m taking the opposite approach, and am basically just disgorging my thoughts as fast as possible, all toward the goal of producing a complete draft—be it ever so incoherent—that incorporates everything I think might be relevant to my story. Yes, I’m working from an outline, but an outline only takes you so far; with every page I write and book I read, new angles and data present themselves, and I’m having to incorporate all of that stuff on the fly. I’m not going to know what I have until I have it, and once I have it (I hope to have finished a complete draft by Aug. 15), then I can start to clarify my themes and hone my prose. Is this the best strategy? Who knows. But it’s the strategy I’m going with for now, so let’s hope it works. I don’t know. If nothing else, this past year has taught me a lot about how to (and how not to) write a book. I wish I was a quicker study, but I guess you go to work with the brainpan you’re given, not the brainpan you want.

“Enough about process! Give us some substance!” you cry. Fair enough. (I don’t know why I always assume that my readers are a bunch of impatient hecklers.) Well, the big news in terms of the content of the book is that, after spending what feels like forever writing about stuff that happened back when people still used terms like “brainpan,” I’m finally up to modern times. And I’m finally starting to address one of the book’s central questions: Aaron Swartz got in trouble for downloading academic journal articles from a nonprofit database. Why is something like that considered a federal crime?

It’s a big question, and if I want to answer it adequately, I can’t just leave it at “The relevant laws are outdated and bad.” (Or can I?) Well, sure, but where did those laws come from in the first place? Why, for example, is an article describing the results of a federally funded research project subject to the same restrictions and protections as the latest Transformers movie? How did this academic material become commoditized in the first place? Presumably at some point somebody thought that laws and policies like these would benefit society. Why?

So I’m following a lot of threads in order to get to the bottom of these questions, and I hope they’ll all tie together in the end. Among them: the rise of “big science” in universities after World War II, and how that affected universities’ intellectual-property policies; the so-called “serials pricing crisis” that has seen the subscription prices for scientific journals skyrocket over the past 40 years; the effect that the “technology transfer office” has had on the modern university; the history of early “open library” Internet initiatives like Project Gutenberg, and open-access academic projects like ArXiv and Psycoloquy; the concept of the “gift economy” versus the market economy in the context of digital networks; what Gavin MacLeod really thought about his co-stars on The Love Boat. These are all pretty interesting topics—at least I think so—and they’re all relevant to Aaron Swartz’s story. At least I think so. And, hey, it’s my book! What I say goes! (As long as it’s cool with Brant, my editor. Don’t mean to step on your toes, Brant!)

Anyway! I’ll try to get another one of these updates out before the end of August. Until then, thanks, as always, for your continued interest and support. Feel free to comment! I always love to hear from you, though I pre-emptively beg your forgiveness if I’m slow to respond, or if I unexpectedly drop out of a conversational thread. I’ve got a lot on my brainpan these days!

Best,

Justin

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