Uehling Speech on Writing and Revising Textbooks, 1993 (modified 2010).

Presentation on Starting Out or Starting Over and Vision and Revision

given by Karen S. Uehling, June 23, 1993

I’d like to begin by describing my books to you. Starting Out or Starting Over is a textbook, a text that in my profession would be termed a process-oriented basic writing rhetoric. It’s definitely not a skill and drill book. Starting Out or Starting Over contains 344 pages and was 679 manuscript pages including the Instructor’s Manual. It has two prefaces, ten chapters, four appendices, approximately 25 photographs, and several figures.

I wrote Starting Out or Starting Over for use in the first review/re-entry writing course at BSU or similar colleges. It could also be used in regular freshman composition in some settings, especially when used with my second book, which is currently beginning the production process.

The second book is called Vision and Revision: A Reader for Writers, and it is a collection of readings which I edited. Vision and Revision is a multicultural, cross-generational reader, which serves as the companion volume to Starting Out or Starting Over. Vision and Revision is somewhat shorter than Starting Out or Starting Over at 314 pages. The readings in Vision and Revision are primarily by professional writers–student writing does comprise 20%, though–and complement the suggested writing projects in Starting Out or Starting Over. That is, the readings illustrate how a single, seemingly simple topic can be developed. The chapters are organized thematically around these “adult” issues: returning to school, relationships and parenting, and work and recreation.

Both books address the “new” students on campus: older and younger students who are underprepared or who simply need to review to build confidence and skill. I think the blurb on the back cover of Starting Out or Starting Over, which was written by HarperCollins’ PR department, well describes my intended audience: “returning adults and younger students who have jobs, families, or both.”

Before I go much further, let me briefly sketch my plan. I will present an overview of the process of writing and producing these books, and I’ve broken this down into several stages: first, the early thinking and research stage, then the proposal and negotiation phase, then the year of intensive writing and revising, then the year in which the book was in production and I was responding to copy editing and reading proof, and then recent follow-up. Finally, I’ll talk a little bit about what I think it takes to really make a book happen. Along the way, I’m going to sketch for you the many people involved. I have been struck by how specialized publishing is: many different people worked on my book in different locations doing different tasks, including an acquisitions editor, a developmental editor, a project editor, a copy editor, a photo researcher, a permissions researcher, a typesetter, an artist, and promotion people.

So let me begin with the story behind my text, that is, the early thinking and planning stage. In a sense, I “began” this text when I began working with adult learners in 1981. Boise State University, a state university that also then served a community college function, had (and likely still has) a student body in which 42% of the students are age 25 or over; only a few students, relatively speaking, were of traditional age. (Note: In this piece I use largely present tense to describe the situation in the 80s and 90s, but most of these assertions are still true.) For example, in Spring of 1992 my developmental writing course (the course for which I wrote these books) had only one student age who was 18 and living in the dormitory. And this was not a night class; this class met at 1:40 in the afternoon. We have older and younger students all day long at BSU, from 7:40 in the morning until 10 at night. National demographics are no different.

Nationally, 42 percent of all students in 1987 were 25 or over. By 1997, such students will comprise 45 percent of the college population. Many researchers define adult learners as those who are 25 or over, but this figure is more convenient than accurate. Demographics conceal the fact that many students under 25 are also adults–I’ve seen a lot of these students at BSU–students who are working, parents, often single parents, and going to school. I was motivated to write my book because there was essentially nothing for the adult and younger adult audience.

I had taught too many “bad” books which contained a condescending tone and did not address adult learners’ concerns. Many texts, targeted only at the traditional age student, contain examples and assignments which deal with issues of adolescent emancipation, such as living independently for the first time, early love affairs, making peace with parents, or the death of grandparents. I have located only one text, a reader published in 1987, which deals with issues more relevant to adults, including family and parenting, jobs, mid life crises, or lifelong learning. Robert F. Sommer, in his wonderful theory into practice book called Teaching Writing to Adults, notes that most freshman composition texts respond “only to the needs of traditional students . . . issues that concern adult learners are often ignored” (190, 191). Even more appalling was that fact that far too many basic writing texts are skill and drill workbooks, which are completely opposed to what the research tradition has taught us about how people write and how they learn to write. I wanted a book grounded in that research tradition.

I received a research grant in 1988 to study adult learners and writing instruction. With the assistance of an intern who is herself a returning student, I analyzed a survey and I interviewed men and women in their 20s, 30s, and 40s about coming back to school, especially about their re-entry writing courses. I also reviewed the research on adults and adult learning theory. I used material from those interviews in my text, as well as students’ journal entries.

One example of the kind of student I’m talking about is Esther, a single mother of three, who entered school, partly to serve as a role model for her children; she had heard that a child’s motivation to obtain a college degree is correlated with whether the parent has a degree.

Esther’s journal opens the text:

September 7
As I lay here on my bed, I think about the last two weeks. School has started! I am actually a student . . . ! Full time at that! I enjoy it, yet it demands my time. I sometimes feel overwhelmed and exhausted. At another time I think “I Can Do It!”, then at other times I wonder why I am even trying. Thru all of this I like it, I have a purpose, a goal.

September 13
The pressure is getting to me. . . . I feel like just throwing up my hands and saying forget all of this! . . . So much reading and way too many assignments to even keep track of let alone do them! I’m so flustered. I want to cry . . . but that will take too much time. I should be studying!

September 15th
I feel a lot better about school. One minute I think I can do it, the next I wonder why I ever thought I could!

In her interview Esther made the following comment, which is also in the text:

I used to think of myself as dumb. Now I know I am not, never was. I learned that persistence and motivation will get you an education. I gained self confidence. I don’t think I’ll ever feel stupid again. I may be undereducated, but I can do something about that.  It is students like Esther who impelled me to write this book.

The voices of my students are amplified with student work from other parts of the country. HarperCollins mounted a nation-wide letter writing campaign, asking instructors of basic writing to encourage students to submit work for possible publication, and some of that work is included.

Beginning in about 1988 through 1990, I worked hard preparing the materials I needed to propose my text. This included a prospectus, two sample chapters, and a detailed table of contents. I put this material in the mail just before the 4th of July 1990. I mailed this package to four publishers simultaneously. Three were immediately interested, and HarperCollins was enthusiastic enough to put me on a retainer not to sign with any other publisher until HarperCollins had had a chance to have my proposal reviewed. When the reviews came back, HarperCollins not only wanted my book but proposed to me the idea of a second, companion book. I then proposed the second book to St. Martin’s who was also interested in the second book as well. (The third company, also interested in both books, was Allyn & Bacon.) After some negotiation, I signed with HarperCollins in November of 1990.

The first person I dealt with at HarperCollins was Jane Kinney who was then the Acquisitions Editor for basic skills. She is out of New York and her job was to locate new manuscript ideas, evaluate them and negotiate contracts. She has sense been promoted to Senior English Editor.

My contract included advances against royalties; I also received a computer and printer outright, not as an advance. The money for the computer used to be a “manuscript preparation fee” for having the final manuscript typed; now everyone does this themselves, so authors get their computers free and clear. My computer arrived in early January 1991. Then began a year of intensive, exhausting writing.

During 1991 I wrote three complete drafts of my book while also working full-time at Boise State. When I had signed the contract, I had agreed to complete the manuscript in one year; I thought this was the first complete draft. It turned out they wanted the final draft in a year. I completed the first draft in July, the second draft in September, and the final draft at the very end of November. During this intensive writing and revising time, I worked extensively with Susan Moss who was my Developmental Editor. She is a free lancer with two children who works primarily out of her home in Chicago, although she does share an office at Scott Foresman in Chicago (who merged with HarperCollins a few years ago). Originally Sue worked full-time for Scott Foresman as a copy editor and a developmental editor. Her job as developmental editor is to plan the writing and revision. She sets the writing and reviewing schedules and hires reviewers.

My reviewers were other college writing teachers who were possible adopters of the book. They were chosen to provide a spectrum of response, so I could see how the book would play in diverse settings. Reviewers were from various geographic areas, they taught a range of students, and they represented various kinds of academic institutions: small and large, private and public. I had twelve reviewers from around the country for Starting Out or Starting Over (plus proposal reviewers). Sue Moss serves as a go-between with the reviewers, as everything is done anonymously, in a blind review process.

Sue contacts reviewers; she sends them pieces of my manuscript to read, writes a list of specific review questions. Then they send their responses to her, which she forwards to me. She also summarizes and analyzes the reviews, looking for trends. This was even done to the extent that she made grids summarizing responses to questions using + and – symbols. Here is a sample. [Pass out sample.] We then had phone conferences, sometimes with Jane Kinney, the Acquisitions Editor, involved, to develop a revision plan for the next drafts.

During this period of time, my husband took our children who were then four (I have twins) to day care at 7:00 on his way to work. I would write every morning until 11 or 12, then go to BSU to teach classes and attend meetings in the afternoons. I also wrote on weekends, at night, holidays, and in the summer. Finally, at about 2 a.m., on approximately the last night of November, I walked out to my car, scraped off the ice and drove to Kinko’s to have the final manuscript copied. I put it in the mail the next day.

At this time, the final complete manuscript was then mailed to reviewers for what is called a “confirming review.” No book is accepted by the publisher until a majority of reviewers say they would indeed adopt the text. While I waited breathlessly for these reviews, I worked on the permissions for Starting Out or Starting Over. This involved rereading the manuscript and listing each piece of borrowed material by manuscript page and then giving the source. Then I had to find all the original sources and photocopy the page from which borrowed material came as well as the complete title page and copyright page. With my second book I copied this material as I went along. I did not know previously that you need the full title page and copyright page as well as the page from which material is borrowed. By February–this is now 1992–the confirming reviews had come in and they were good–but I kept revising continuously, feeding in suggestions from these reviews as the manuscript was in production. By this time, my manuscript was in New York and was being analyzed for production needs.

While I waited for the production process to get in motion, in March of 1992, I worked on the first phase of HarperCollins’ marketing strategy–this was a 20-page “Author’s Questionnaire.” This very detailed document required such information as a 100-150 word summary of the book, a description of target audiences and institutions, specific documentation of features and learning aids in the book, direct comparisons with competitors, and even international marketing possibilities.

In about April of 1992, I was assigned a Project Editor, Shuli Traub, who works in house in New York at Harper. For the remainder of 1992 I worked extensively with Shuli. Her role was to coordinate the project through production, from manuscript to bound book.

The first thing she did was to ship the manuscript off to a free lance copy editor in Boston. The copy editor was the one who took a red pencil to the manuscript. I have some sample pages to show you. [Distribute] I had to respond to all of the queries, either written in the margins or on yellow stickies. Each person who worked on the manuscript had to use a different color of pencil. There are marks in green, purple, black, red, and brown. So, in addition to the copy editor, the project editor and I both made marks on the manuscript, plus at least two other people. I ended up using brown pencil, and I hate to write with pencil, especially a colored pencil.

I do think the copy editor improved my work, and it was interesting to me that she pointed out the same weaknesses I usually spot when I’m responding to student writing–sentences too long, too much passive voice, some unclear sections–the usual tech writing kinds of things. I also found it extremely interesting that I was a year and a half formally into this project before anyone directly changed my writing–of course, I revised in response to my reviewers–but direct copy editing was very late in the process. The fact that grammatical/language editing should be last is something I have long emphasized with my students and something I strongly emphasize in my text–idea, structure, development take the majority of time, and writers race to editing too soon. These perceptions about writing were only confirmed by my experience.

At the same time that the copy editor was smoothing out my prose, two free lancers in Chicago also went to work on my manuscript. One was a photo researcher. Starting Out or Starting Over includes about 25 photos; the researcher reviewed photos HarperCollins already owned and sent me a folder of photos, a choice of three for each place a photo was needed. On the manuscript the kind of photo desired was described. I was allowed to pick the photos I liked best. One of the things that stands out about my book is the pictures of adults and younger adults. See for example the pictures on pages 83 and 149. When the teaching assistants I work with first looked at Starting Out or Starting Over, they commented that they had never seen a book that contained photographs of adults. The picture on page 286 is interesting. It looks at first glance as though the older white man is the teacher and the younger African American is the student; it’s very possible, though, in today’s colleges, that the roles are reversed. I also want to point out the picture on page 106, which reflects the reality of the younger adult learner. Two of the pictures were staged. One is of a holistic scoring session in which raters read essays. This picture was taken at BSU. It is on page 293. The other staged picture is in Appendix A, p. 314. This picture illustrates the importance of using all available time, so this woman is listening to a lecture or a book on tape while commuting.

And while we’re looking at the appendix, I’d like to say something about Appendix A, which is unique in a writing textbook. Appendix A is called “Entering or Reentering Studenthood,” and emphasizes active learning in all classes, especially active reading and writing. This appendix can serve in lieu of a separate re-entry study skills course or the book could be used in a writing-intensive study skills course.

A second free lancer at work on my project in the spring and summer was a permissions researcher. Using my list of borrowed material, first she determined whether the material could be deemed “fair use,” so no permission would be necessary, or whether the material was out of copyright, or whether we would need to apply for permission. She then sent out the requests for these permissions. When they returned, quite a few were granted gratis, requiring only a permissions line. A few required payment, but most were nominal amounts. In my contract for my reader, HarperCollins will perform this permissions service for me splitting the cost of permissions 50-50; I also had the option of obtaining the permissions myself, in which case the split would be 60-40.

At this time, Shuli Traub, the project editor, also had the art in my book contracted out to be rendered professionally by a company in New York. Let me say a word about the art program now and the layout. I sent HarperCollins rough sketches of my figures and they had an artist draw them. One figure I want to point out is on page 36 at the bottom. This is a fish-bone diagram actually used at Micron Technology. One of my technical writing students brought this diagram to class one night and used it in a presentation. Micron allowed me to reproduce it. I especially like this figure because it’s a workplace application of brainstorming and problem solving diagrams. I tried to use actual workplace applications wherever I could in my book because I felt they would be motivating to adults. At the top page 36 I illustrated the fish bone diagram for the topic of the problem of finding adequate parking on campus. On page 34 and earlier I illustrated other forms of brainstorming diagrams.

A word about how the book works visually. There were two icons used–one is for Collaborative Activities–for example, on page 37–and one is for Writer’s Tips, for instance, on page 40. Informal student writing is set in a handwriting type font, for example on page 10–a journal entry–and complete papers are set to look like computer type, for example on page 78. There are plenty of headings and subheadings. I wanted to keep students awake and make the text visually interesting. Most people like the look, but my developmental editor thought it was almost overdone.

Well, back to my chronology of the process. After I finished responding to the copy edited manuscript (in May and June of 1992), Shuli Traub, my Project Editor, began sending chapters off to be type set. Typesetting was also done by a contractor, Ruttle, Shaw, and Wetherill in Fort Washington, Pennsylvania. I then began receiving galleys from this typesetter to proof. These would come in loads of about two chapters by overnight delivery service. These chapters were also proofed by a professional proofreader in New York. [Pass out galleys.] The galleys contained only text, no art or photos. Then I sent my proofread galleys back to Shuli Traub in New York; the corrected galleys were then laid out and the art added and I began receiving page proofs from the typesetter to proof. These were also proofed in New York. By this time it was mid to late summer–July and August 1992. [Pass out page proofs.]

I also was working concurrently on the Instructor’s Manual at this time, beginning in June. The Instructor’s Manual turned out to be 100 pages in manuscript. I included an introduction to the book, sample class calendars, and chapter by chapter commentary and teaching ideas. Susan Moss, my Developmental Editor, reviewed my manuscript; it was also reviewed by a colleague and I believe it was copy edited in-house. It was set directly into page proofs, and is bound in the instructor’s edition or it can be printed separately.

I also worked some on the index for Starting Out or Starting Over during the summer. Finally, in the fall, I was strapped for time as I was also working on the second book. At that time my new Acquisitions Editor in New York, Mark Paluch, (remember Jane Kinney was by now promoted) hired a free lancer to prepare the index. This helped immeasurably. The final items I had to complete for Starting Out or Starting Over were proofing the credits and the index. I saw a copy of the cover in October and received my first copies of the book in December of 92.

My work on Vision and Revision dove-tailed with the writing of Starting Out or Starting Over. Working on both books at once was extremely challenging. When I originally signed with HarperCollins two and a half years ago, I wrote a very brief proposal for the reader. Then in March of 1992, I wrote a detailed proposal with detailed TOC and submitted it for review. I did not have time to get back to the reader until Starting Out or Starting Over was almost done. To help make room for Vision and Revision, HarperCollins paid to have the index done, as mentioned earlier. In September of 1992 I worked hard on the first chapters of Vision and Revision and submitted them for review in October. Then I finished the second section in November, I believe, and the final section in early January. I revised this book in two segments, which went in in February and March of this year and that was the final draft.

In March I also submitted the permissions, and in April I prepared the huge author’s questionnaire for marketing. I am now awaiting assignment of Vision and Revision to a project editor. I just learned yesterday the name of the head of the department who will handle my book and I am waiting to learn who will actually serve as Project Editor. Some books are contracted out to a private company for production, rather than being done in house, but not mine this time. Right now I am working on follow-up projects on Vision and Revision, such as the preface, a few missing bits of text, and I need to get going on the Instructor’s Manual. I assume I will soon be responding to copy edited manuscript, the galleys, then page proofs, as previously.

In terms of the promotion of Starting Out or Starting Over, it’s been listed in the HarperCollins Basic Skills list brochure and received a two-page spread; it was also pictured in a national pre-conference brochure. This conference is the Conference on College Composition and Communication, which is an arm of the National Council of Teachers of English. At that conference, which was held at the end of March and beginning of April this year, HarperCollins invited me to represent my book at their booth for an hour and speak to potential adopters, in a kind of “meet the authors” format. I am not sure about how my adoptions are doing. The big time for adoptions is spring term for the following fall, that is, about now and earlier for fall term 1993. I did hear from my editor in early April that adoptions were moving along well.

Finally, I’d like to say something about what I think it takes to make a book happen. I think there are basically four things: a computer, a place, a regular time, and support. I could not begin writing seriously until I had my computer at home. When I worked on my proposal and sample chapters I did not have a computer, and so I was driving back to BSU at night, after my kids were in bed, to write. This was extremely difficult. Now I can write any time of the night or day and jot something down before I forget it.

I also needed “A Room of One’s Own”–a place to spread out and a place where, when I shut the door, I know it’s time to focus and concentrate. I wrote Starting Out or Starting Over in a basement office; we recently moved to a new home and I have an office there with soundproofing. Writing at the same time each morning was also crucial, and I wrote every morning first thing.

To meet my deadlines I had to have support. The support of my family has been wonderful. During the most intense writing, as I stated earlier, my husband took our two children to day care at 7 each morning on his way to work. This allowed me to begin work right away while I was still fresh and could concentrate. I worked each day until 11 or 12, then went to BSU to teach and carry out my other responsibilities there. Sometimes, when I could no longer sit in front of a computer, I took manuscript to coffee shops to edit by hand. A change of environment was helpful. I would go in mid-morning or mid-afternoon when the crowds thinned down.

I nibbled away at one small problem after another, and I think that’s how a book gets done. It’s much too overwhelming to even think about the whole thing.  My developmental editor advised me to consider it in that way: just keep working day by day; make lists, plan backwards from deadlines, etc. And what sometimes happens on a good day is that things just fall into place and you wonder where did that sentence come from? It comes from the natural process of making connections and working with your material–one day it does come, if you’re at your computer and ready to catch it.

There are of course lots of frustrating days, days where things don’t go right. I remember one section of my book I really wanted to include, but I just couldn’t get it right–I was weighed down with passive, plodding along–I couldn’t float along in this section. I thought often of just scrapping the whole part, but I wouldn’t–I felt it was too important. That section of writing ended up effective–all the reviewers and the copy editor helped–and now I think the reason it was so difficult originally is that I was trying to illustrate an idea in a new and important way.

For psychological support, I recommend Don Murray’s books. They contain lots of quotations about writing and practical strategies for getting started and keeping going. I especially like A Writer Teaches Writing; I think it honestly describes what it is like to write, not some idealized conception of writing.

I think, finally, that what you need to write is a strong sense that you are saying something to someone for a purpose. My book came about primarily because I felt impelled to write to the audience of adult and younger adult learners. There is almost nothing for them in terms of texts. Also, I believed strongly in my purpose–to produce a good book from the point of view of the theory of how people write and how they learn to write. I have read and taught too many bad books in the past–what I call drill and kill grammar books–and I wanted to write a good book that really allowed people a chance to say something they wanted to say to someone for a purpose. That is, intention, the intention to make a meaning for an audience, is all.


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