How to Write a Textbook

I’m the author of two textbooks. So I am interested in the pedagogy of non-fiction writing. And I’m starting to think I’ve been doing it wrong.

Knowledge is hierarchical. But in writing, I only really pay lip-service to that. In my introduction I summarise the bits of the book to come. I add summaries to the end of each chapter, and a little introduction at the start. But mostly I see them as ways to support the main text, they aren’t the real content.

What would a book look like that was radically committed to being hierarchical? You could access the central thesis by reading only the first page, the general argument within the first ten, the details in the first half and the hardcore analysis only if you need it (few do).

I’ve never seen it done.

My wife commented that, as authors, we are rather narcissistic. We don’t like the idea of someone not reading every last word. Most of us would pale at the idea of condensing the whole book into the first page. The thesis will be obvious once we’ve taken our readers through the full analysis and synthesis, there should be no short-cuts. Our expertise may be missed in so abbreviated a form.

Yet a week after finishing my book, most readers will only remember the overview. Even (perhaps especially) professional readers. As a scholar, you certainly want the details for works in your areas of interest. But there’s a much bigger hinterland of books you read to fill out your broader knowledge, to keep track of related areas, to find out what the main arguments are, where the controversies lie.

Is there any reason beyond vanity for this? Am I missing an obvious reason why this wouldn’t be just a much better way of approaching academic writing? In the age of Wikipedia, when we’re all used to consuming knowledge by drilling down, is it not obviously a better way to write?

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7 Comments

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7 responses to “How to Write a Textbook

  1. Fun.
    Now how about try writing another version of this post that does exactly what you are suggesting. Teach by example! đŸ™‚

  2. Ian

    Well that is my first page thesis. In the full version I go into much more detail đŸ˜‰

  3. Two points:

    1: When you are writing a text book, you are not writing it for the student who will (one hopes) learn from the book. Rather, you are writing it for the professors on the textbook selection committee. The text book market is not a real market.

    2: What students most need, is to acquire the concepts of the field. Merely presenting a hierarchy of facts won’t adequately convey concepts. You usually will need illustrative examples, and perhaps some useful analogies, to help the students grasp the concepts.

  4. Ian

    1. Both my books have tended to be adopted by individual profs, rather than panels, to support specific courses. I suspect because I’m not writing into a huge area, like a Genetics 101 textbook. So I’ve no experience of panels. I certainly didn’t write with those folks in mind, as my books are also aimed at practitioners, but I can see how that can happen. I’m rather jaded about academic publishing generally, as (I infer from your tone) you seem to be.

    2. What is the difference between a concept and a fact? Even among concepts there is surely a hierarchy. And you can give examples at the higher level, can’t you? You can teach genetics, say, at many levels.

  5. 2. What is the difference between a concept and a fact?

    A concept is what connects facts to reality. It has to do with how we use facts.

    Sure, there’s a hierarchy of concepts. But some concepts are very easy to grasp, while some are quite difficult. You have to put more effort into getting the difficult concepts across. And sometimes the top of a hierarchy is easier to grasp when there is some knowledge of what comes below it.

    What makes it more difficult, is that there’s a lot of variability between students. An explanation that works for one might fail for another.

  6. Ian

    I agree with the variability, Neil, that was one of the motivations for this. And the ‘difficult’ vs ‘simple’, also true. But not everyone needs the difficult stuff.

    “And sometimes the top of a hierarchy is easier to grasp when there is some knowledge of what comes below it.”

    Excellent point – I hadn’t accounted for that properly. I wonder how difficult it is to mitigate this. Certainly a linear book suffers in the opposite way, that it can be very difficult to grasp a deep concept without some kind of context. My intuition is that is a bigger problem, but your issue is also important, I think.

  7. I guess the proper conclusion should be that pedagogy is an art, not a science.

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