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MIHE Blog News, views and insights from Macmillan International Higher Education

Writing a Textbook: Why and How

by Paul Cairney and Lloyd Langman 15th January 2020

Lloyd Langman, Publisher for Politics at Macmillan International Higher Education, chats to author Paul Cairney about why he writes textbooks and his advice for budding textbook authors.

LL: I noticed the following passage in your Preface to the second edition of Understanding Public Policy: I’d be interested to dig a little deeper into the orthodox view that Textbooks Are Bad. Where do you think this perception stems from?

PC: In terms of writing for research, the incentives for academics are to write research funding bids, articles in peer-reviewed journals, and sometimes research monographs for University presses. In the UK, when we submit our ‘best’ work to the Research Excellence Framework (REF), a textbook will not count, largely because the emphasis is on a demand for new research and a demand to produce that research using particular methods.

In terms of academic ‘impact’, an impact on university students does not count. Instead the definition of impact in the UK REF relates largely to connecting (a) a new piece of research to (b) audiences outside of further and higher education.

Both of these activities take up our research time, and research time is often at a premium when we also have high teaching, administration, and ‘professional service’ roles to fulfil.

The overall result is that very few academics are in the privileged position to have the time and space to write a textbook.

LL: This strikes me as problematic. If no one’s producing the books that communicate the bigger picture of a field of research and the directions in which it’s moving then you have to wonder what the consequences might be.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Despite the picture you paint above, you’ve been able to carve out the time and space to put a few textbooks together and have clearly come to appreciate the benefits. Could you provide some insight into how you’ve managed this? What would your advice be for researchers who are considering taking the plunge?

PC: I think the trick is to see this kind of project as part of a package of measures. In most cases, an article needs some demonstration of conceptual proficiency, and the reading for a textbook really helps. Or, it can be the other way, in which the reading you do to produce some journal articles feeds into textbook writing.
With textbooks, you assume that your reader has less knowledge than a specialist, and you try to explain from first principles. This process has an added benefit: the need to take a step back and think about the key points prompts you to reflect on your own knowledge, perhaps in a way that you would not do if you were speaking to a specialist audience.
LL: I guess you could also add teaching a course to that package of measures, too? If you’re designing a new course which requires some sort of narrative overview to help familiarise your students with key concepts then you might consider exploring whether there’s scope for a broader project which serves courses beyond yours?

PC: Yes, the core modules in my MPP programme now map on well to Understanding Public Policy because I have been able to reflect on student learning as I revise the textbook, and incorporate feedback from students into the new edition.

I know that many of my colleagues are in two minds about this process, since many people (a) expect students to read the source material, but also (b) recognise that students need a ‘way in’ to those topics. I encourage students to begin with a blog post, progress to the chapter, then use that initial familiarity with the concept / theory to make best use of their wider reading.

Or, in many cases, students are taking a one-off module as part of a wider degree. In those cases, students are relying on people like me to help them navigate the field quickly.

LL: Finally, do you have any tips for budding authors?

PC: My first suggestion is to be all in or all out. If you decide to make the investment to write an entire textbook, plan it in the same way as you would plan a monograph, and take the time to produce it to the same high quality. In my experience, textbooks are peer reviewed to at least as high a level as monographs and you can get the same satisfaction from their completion.

My second is to think about your audience. When you write a highly specialist article for a journal, you can use far more shortcuts such as referring to concepts without explaining them fully. When you write a textbook, you imagine explaining the concepts to someone engaging for the first time. You can expect the same level of intelligence from your reader but not the same background knowledge. A skilful editor can give you good advice on this process.

My third is to write blog posts in tandem with draft chapters. I wrote the 1000 Words series after the first edition of Understanding Public Policy was published and I think they follow the relatively complicated structure of the chapters too much. For the second edition, I was thinking about new blog posts – for the 500 and 750 words series - as I wrote new chapters or sections, and this helped me envisage how to introduce and sum up an entire topic.