“Remember the coinage!” Why a central concept is so important to your academic book

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While still in graduate school, after reading a book of mutual interest, I turned to my mentor and asked his opinion of it. He said that he thought the material was good. However, he said with a sigh, they “forgot the coinage.” Once he said it, I knew exactly what he meant. The author seemed more interested in arcane thoughts that captured his imagination. Each chapter clearly listed these very important thoughts, alongside evidence to support his argument. However, he neglected to capture his insights in a term that readers could refer to and use in their work. Years later, I remember my conversation with my advisor more than I do the book—a sure sign that the author neglected to coin an appealing and memorable term.

So what does it mean to “remember the coinage” when writing your academic book?

Coin a term — consider Diana Crane’s Invisible Colleges, a 1972 book on the sociology of knowledge. In it, Crane examines how ideas evolve in new disciplines. At the time, the dominant perspective about scientific knowledge was that ideas evolve naturally by improving on previous ideas. However, she found that informal networks of scientists were responsible for producing breakthrough innovations. The more connected a scientist was, the more likely they were to gain access to novel information. And, as a result, the more productive their research was likely to be.

Her work had immediate explanatory value. More importantly, Crane’s phrase “Invisible Colleges” was evocative and succinct. She used novel language to define what she was studying. Crane certainly could have written about “network of productive scientists linking separate groups of collaborators within a research area” (this is how she defined Invisible Colleges). But “Invisible Colleges” is catchy. It demonstrates the benefit to coinage often missing in academic writing. After reading her book, readers felt invited to apply her concept to their own work. They looked for “invisible colleges” in their own discipline. They drew on her insights to explain how scientific knowledge actually develops—through a radical series of breakthroughs, rather than an evolutionary process.

All your writing should flow back and enrich your book’s central idea.

Enrich your term — academics are often surprised at the amount of repetition demanded by a book manuscript! I always tell clients that their book is not a mystery. Readers won’t wait patiently for the last chapter to understand why they are reading an academic book. Instead, you have to return to your coined term throughout the book. But you don’t simply re-write the exact same words. You need “call-backs” to remind readers of what they have read, and “signposting” to guide your reader through your argument.

Whatever your writing style, all your writing should add to your book’s central idea. The text of your academic book should be spent elaborating on the utility of your concept, describing how it functions in society, and demonstrating it in action. Some academics think through theory, and base their argument on synthesizing literature. Others gravitate towards rich descriptions that give the reader a sense of “being there.” Regardless, the central term is what you are building in your book. By the end of reading your book, the reader should fully understand its utility. And you should also remember that, as the author, it is your term to own.

Write with authority — a common complaint from University press editors and manuscript reviewers is that an academic book manuscript is too “timid.” By this, they mean that a manuscript’s author draw on the ideas of others, rather than explicitly stating what they think with authority. A timid manuscript can equivocate. The timid author doesn’t take a strong stance on an issue, because they are afraid someone might think they are wrong—even though this is bound to happen anyways. The author of a timid book also spends time discussing what they are not doing in the book.

A certain amount of elaboration and hedging is necessary in any academic book. If your argument could be misconstrued, you always want to clarify what you are not arguing. However, when taken to an extreme, authors can end up shadow boxing fictional enemies, rather than using the pages of their book to own their own argument. Its central concept is your own formulation, and you should write with authority about it.

Improving your book’s coinage—even if the manuscript is completely written—is among the easiest and most cost-effective ways a good editor can improve the impact of your writing.

Academic authors can struggle with their book’s coinage in different ways. Some become too attached to a wordy, arcane concept for their central concept, when a simple one would do. Others think of a catchy central term, but struggle to make their evidence align with it. Maybe their research comes from different sites and time periods, and lack a coherent through-line. Academics can also lack confidence in writing, never owning the very term they came up with. Regardless, improving your book’s coinage—even if the manuscript is completely written—is among the easiest and most cost-effective ways a good editor can improve its impact.

Dr. Andrew Schrock is Senior Editor at Indelible Voice, an editing service for academic book proposals, book manuscripts, and journal article manuscripts. You can find him on Twitter at @aschrock.