Writing an Open Text: Getting Started (Step One)

In a previous post, I tried to convince you to write an open text. Supposing you agree, here is my number one piece of advice to help you get started: Start writing.

Pick a topic/section/chapter that you'll eventually want to cover - pick a favorite! - and start writing that portion of the text. I wrote two sections of a math book. An "equivalent amount", depending on your discipline, should be enough to serve your purposes. And what, pray tell, are these purposes?

First off, they serve as play. You want to write, so do it! Don't impose too much structure on yourself. Just have fun producing something. In the end, you'll change much of what you just wrote. But you'll develop skills you'll need later (just like your play as a kid did). 

Secondly, this play will point out things you'll need to develop in the future in a way that is more meaningful than anything I could write/advise. I wrote a math book and thought I knew how to make good graphs of functions. Then I made two. And realized how different they looked. And how horrible it would be if each graph in the text had its own look. My play introduced my need for graphical standards. (I could tell you to "develop graphical standards", such as font sizes and color schemes. But your playtime will make clear what things need to be standardized.)

Finally, undertaking a big project is hard. By writing something - anything - you will have started. Keeping that momentum going is easier that starting it. If the first few weeks are spent trying to plan, after a few weeks you'll likely be discouraged for you'll have little to show for your work. Write something. Tell people you have a section already completed. Then step back and do the necessary planning. The next posts will cover some of those planning needs.

Why Write an Open Text

Because I'm continually excited my work on APEX Calculus, I've talked with a number of people in an attempt to get them to write an open text, too. Here's a list of reasons.

  1. You'll enjoy it. Writing is a creative process, and most people enjoy creating. Do you like creating handouts for your students that explain better (in your opinion) a difficult section of the test? Do you like creating challenging problems that expose the nuances of theory, or demonstrate the application of an idea? If so, you'll enjoy writing a text. I wrote a math book and even loved the creativity involved with page layout, font selection, and the design of graphics.
  2. You'll really master the subject. Of course you have mastery over the content of the courses you teach. But writing a book on the subject will take you deeper.
  3. It looks great for tenure/promotion. You have to do something to earn t&p; might as well do something you'll enjoy (see #1 above). HUGE CAVEAT: get written permission first. Different places regard open materials ... differently. Some places won't give you credit unless a publisher thinks they can make money off of your text and signs a book deal with you. 
  4. The book stays yours. Items 1, 2 & 3 above apply whether your book is open or not. This is the first "why make your book open" item. There are lots of horror stories of people writing under contract where the final book doesn't really reflect what they, the author, wanted. They'll make you add material that you don't think fits because they think it'll sell better. You'll get sucked into the "new edition" cycle that you, as a teacher, hate. 
  5. You can make money. Yes, I said that. I went into this staunchly opposed to earning any money. My "payment" was going to be tenure & promotions. Then, 800 pages and countless hours later, my colleagues & wife convinced me it was ok to be paid in dollars, too. I still give the .pdf out for free, but make royalties on the purchase of printed books. Don't plan on getting rich. But you'll get a kick out of royalty checks that eventually cover a family vacation. It also offers a nice tether to continually improving your work: if you make your product better, you may get more adoptions, which means more money. The downside: tax season becomes even more memorable. As an author collecting royalties, you are now an independent contractor.
  6. Students will save money. This is often touted as the main reason to write open texts. I saved it for last for a reason. Call me a jerk, but working hard to save other people money is only rewarding for a short time. If items 1 through 5 above didn't hold true, the cost savings to students wouldn't be enough to motivate me to write. But students will save money. New calculus books cost up to $300. Mine costs about $45, and is split into 3 $15 volumes (so students only pay a little each semester). And then some buy used, saving even more!!

You may say "Ok, sounds good. I've been thinking about writing a text for a while and now I'm convinced to try. What's next? Any advice on getting started?" Yes, I have such advice. I'll cover it in my next post.