CAREER COLUMN

Herding experts and polishing text: 10 tips for creating an edited volume

What you should know before starting an anthology.
Jessica Eise is co-editor of How to Feed the World, co-author of The Communication Scarcity in Agriculture and a Ross Fellow in the doctoral programme at the Purdue University Brian Lamb School of Communication in West Lafayette, Indiana. She studies how communication influences chronic stressors such as climate change and food insecurity.
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Editors need to keep in mind that academics are generally busy, and might need to be reminded of deadlines.Credit: Getty

Edited volumes, or anthologies, are very popular in research and academia. Several experts each contribute a chapter on their topic to form one book on a particular subject. An editor, or editors, oversees and manages the process.

From January 2016 to May 2018, I went through the process of co-editing (with my colleague Ken Foster) How to Feed the World, which united 17 researchers’ contributions in one book. This was the first book I edited, and I learnt a lot from this process. Here are ten tips:

1. Understand your audience. Know exactly who you’re aiming the book at and make this very clear to your contributors. They need to know the level they’re writing for. Fellow researchers? Disciplinary insiders? Students? The general public? Give them tips on how to write for the relevant audience. How to Feed the World was an interesting case, because we were trying to translate complex academic information on food security and environmentalism into accessible bites for advanced school classes, introductory undergraduate courses and the general public. As such, we used first-person stories and an informal style that might not be found in a typical academic anthology.

2. Provide clear instructions. Determine the style and general content restrictions for your book. Each contributor will be writing a chapter with their own unique content, and it’s important that both you as the editor and they as the contributor have the same understanding of what they’ll be writing. Make your instructions very clear through a concise and well-written set of notes, covering word count, image restrictions, formatting, literary style and anything else you think might be important. I would also deliver these verbally, through either an in-person meeting or a phone call: nothing beats a conversation to make sure instructions are clear and understood. This also provides an opportunity for your contributor to ask questions and get quick answers.

3. Academics are busy. It’s possible that some contributors will misunderstand or miss some of your instructions. If this happens, don’t get frustrated. Just know in advance that this will probably happen, and patiently request that they amend their chapter to meet instructions — or be ready to amend their chapters for them.

4. Keep in mind incentives. In many fields, academics don’t get much reward for writing book chapters. Decide how you’re going to incentivize your contributors. What kind of reward will they get out of it and why is it important for them to do it? You’ll need to make the case when you ask them to contribute. In my case, How to Feed the World was an outreach effort, taking academic work to the broader community. Contributors understood that their chapters would have a larger public impact than they would in a normal academic tome.

5. Make a sensible timeline. Some of your contributors are going to submit late — some of them by months. Include buffer space in your timeline. Don’t forget to write your edits into the timeline: good editing can take a long time. For our book, I included approximately two to three months of buffer space between deadlines. It seems like a long time — but you might need it! I certainly did.

6. Being an editor means editing. If you don’t enjoy editing — and I mean actually digging into the articles and doing in-depth edits — then don’t start an edited volume. If you want a cogent, well-paced book, you need to take your job as editor seriously and spend a lot of time providing thoughtful changes and feedback. I spent several full days on each chapter, which translated to about four to five weeks of work in total. This was spread out over the course of a year so I was able to get other work done. However, it was still a substantial time investment.

7. Edit for both content and flow. You can’t have chapters in jarringly different styles that don’t fit together. You need to work out how to edit for both content (the academic value of the material itself and its structure) and flow (the style it is written in). You can do this in two rounds of edits or one, but both need to be addressed. We used two rounds of edits; the edits for flow took the longest.

8. Remind people of deadlines. If you’re not prepared to spend time reminding your contributors to hand in their chapters and complete their edits, don’t start the volume.

9. Market the book. It’s your job as the editor to promote the volume. You can’t expect your chapter contributors to do much of it, if any. Your name is going to be on the front cover, after all. Publishers today don’t do as much marketing as they once did. If you plan to invest the time in creating an anthology, and asking others to give time as contributors, show the project the respect it deserves by marketing it properly once it’s done, by sharing it with colleagues, sending it to reviewers and showcasing it as much as possible. We marketed How to Feed the World with an accompanying study guide and teacher’s guide. We also wrote blogposts about it and discussed it in popular-press articles. We exchanged lots of e-mails and phone calls with the marketing department of our publisher to keep one another up to date on our efforts.

10. Express gratitude to your contributors. They aren’t getting much out of contributing apart from a line on their CV, and in some cases, that won’t hold much weight. Thank them for their time and energy and be polite. Your book wouldn’t exist without their contributions. The least you can do is make sure that each person gets a copy!

I am proud of the book we created; it unites a broad range of experts across interrelated food-security topics. However, if I were to do it again, I would keep one key point in mind: cutting-edge researchers are always the most attractive as contributors, but they’re also the busiest! When you aim for top researchers in the field, they’re going to have a wealth of competing deadlines. Be patient with them or seek out other contributors who might have more time.

Finally, enjoy the process! In academia, we often exist in our own independent silos. It can be fun to create something with a team.

doi: 10.1038/d41586-018-07814-y

This is an article from the Nature Careers Community, a place for Nature readers to share their professional experiences and advice. Guest posts are encouraged. You can get in touch with the editor at naturecareerseditor@nature.com.

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