This week on the Truth for Teachers podcast: A sneak peek on book #5 and my current book-writing process.
I’ve gotten a lot of requests to talk about how I write and publish books. Some folks are interested in publishing their own and are hoping for some good insights, while others just like to read what I’ve written and are curious about what happens behind the scenes. So if you fall into either of those two camps, this episode should be pretty enjoyable.
I’m going to talk first about what I’m writing currently: how the idea came about and what purpose I hope it serves for you as the reader. Then I’ll share a bit of insight as to my writing and publishing process.
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How I use the book-writing process to think through questions I want to answer
If you’ve been following me for awhile, you know my current book has been a LONG time in making. It’s taken me longer to write this book than any other, and it’s been the hardest book to write by far. I was hoping this was going to get easier over time because my last book Unshakeable was the easiest one to write and came together the quickest. However, it all depends on how the ideas flow and fit together. The more neatly the ideas fit into categories (which then become chapters), the simpler it is to know how much to say and where to put that information.
This current book has been a beast to write because every piece of it is interrelated and overlapping. It’s called Fewer Things, Better: The Courage to Focus on What Matters Most.
In each of my books, I’m trying to answer a question.
For example, in my third book (which is called Awakened: Change Your Mindset to Transform Your Teaching), the question I wanted to answer is this: How is it possible for a teacher to develop a positive mindset (even if that doesn’t come naturally) and change their perception of the job so it feels less stressful?
In my fourth book, Unshakeable, I wanted to answer this question: How is it possible to enjoy teaching every day no matter what?
In Fewer Things, Better, I’m now trying to answer the question: How is it possible for teachers to figure out their priorities and have the courage to align their time accordingly, even in a busy, distracting, overworked society and school system that is constantly pulling them away from what matters most?
For all of my books, I have the answers to these questions rumbling around in my brain, but I can’t articulate those answers in a clear and coherent way until I write the book. I discover how I really feel and what I really think through the process of writing. It allows me to do a really deep dive into the topic and immerse myself in it until I’ve thought it through completely and made a strong case for every point. Some of the ideas I have don’t really hold water or are contradictory, but I can’t see that until I’ve tried to justify and explain it within the context of everything else.
That’s what makes the writing process laborious at times, because I’m not the type of writer who knows everything she wants to say before she starts writing. I never do. I might have an outline, like for this podcast, but until I start writing, I don’t know everything that needs to be said.
Why the question in “Fewer Things, Better” is particularly tricky to answer
What’s tricky about the Fewer Things, Better question about priorities and time is that the answer is not straightforward. For Unshakeable, I identified the 20 things I did as a teacher that were most effective in helping me enjoy my work and wrote a chapter about each.
Fewer Things, Better did not work that way, even though I tried for a long time to make it fit that kind of format.
The idea is that there’s not enough time for everything that matters. If you do fewer things, then the things that remain can be done even better.
However, the solution isn’t as simple as deciding to cut out everything that’s unnecessary, any anymore than losing weight is as simple as cutting out all the unhealthy foods that make you gain weight. If it were, then we’d all be at our ideal weights and we’d all have sufficient downtime to relax and enjoy ourselves.
Doing fewer things better, is complex because we have emotions which pull us away from making rational choices. We have excuses, limiting beliefs, exceptions, and extenuating circumstances that keep us from moving toward our goals.
There are school and societal norms which impact our choices about the way time is spent. There are also systemic issues, bureaucratic restraints, inefficient instructional methodologies, and all kinds of other things that create a disconnect between what you want your life as a teacher to be like, and what it’s actually like.
These are the barriers I’m trying to break through in this book so that you can truly give yourself permission to do fewer things better, and feel confident about your choices. When you truly understand what is the most impactful and meaningful way to spend your time (both in the classroom and outside of it), you have a sense of clarity and focus.
That’s what gives rise to the courage which is needed to release things that aren’t serving you well and open yourself up to a new approach with the way you spend your time.
The aspect of my daily work which sparked my obsession to answer the question
The question of how to do this was born out of my work in coaching teachers, both as an instructional coach in schools as well as through the 40 Hour Teacher Workweek Club for the past four years.
The club is actually what made me really curious about my question for this book. Over 25,000 teachers have gone through the program. They all have the same resources provided to them through the club. Why don’t they all get the same results?
Why is that some teachers hear a strategy for simplify and jump right on it, why others focus on all the ways the idea wouldn’t work for them? Why do some teachers draw clear boundaries and say no easily, while others struggle to stand up for themselves? Why do some teachers create permanent lifestyle changes and bring themselves into balance on a regular basis, while others seem to fall off the wagon and can’t jump back on?
I’ve been experimenting with the answers to those questions for years. I’ve watched and coached teachers through all kinds of struggles, and I’ve seen what is holding them back.
It’s almost always a mindset shift that’s required.
They might think that nothing will change unless their principal stops being unreasonable, or the state stops requiring them to do so much, or their husband starts doing more around the house. But there’s always a personal mindset shift which gets the ball rolling for change.
Every breakthrough involves seeing the problem through a more holistic lens and stepping into your power — recognizing where you actually do have some control and using your agency to create change.
That breakthrough process is fascinating to watch and learn from, and that’s what I’ve been doing for years with teachers. The Fewer Things, Better book is the result of this work. It’s a guide to the mindset and habits of teachers who have the courage to focus on what really matters and truly let go of the rest.
How this book is different than anything I’ve created previously
I’m going to talk about that courage here in a second, but let me just say quickly that if you’re wondering if this book is a duplicate of the club materials, no, it is not.
It’s the mindset behind the club materials: it’s the way I was thinking about a teacher’s workload and work/life balance when I created the club. It’s the things I’ve learned about what traits and habits are required for teachers to create change.
So if you are a club member or grad, this book will be about 90% new to you, and will help you take your results to the next level and deepen your practice and habits.
If you have never joined the club, you don’t need to in order for this book to make sense. It will benefit you regardless. I know some people don’t want or need or can’t afford a yearlong program with all the resources need to simplify, and I think that this book will be really useful for folks who are interested in the topic but not in the club.
Why I struggled to name the book
I picked the title for the book about two years ago. And I’ll tell you honestly, my heart sank when I realized I needed to write this book because I knew how much work it was going to be.
Every time I publish, I say afterward, “That’s it, that’s my last book. I’m never doing that again. That’s all the books I have in me and all I have to say.” But when the inspiration strikes, I can’t avoid it. When the idea for the book comes to me, I have to write it. It’s not a choice.
I will go crazy with the questions and answers bouncing around in my brain with no coherent, logical pairing or articulate summary of the response. I have to do that deep dive and figure out what I truly believe and know to be true about the topic.
So, that’s how I felt about this book. I don’t remember the exact moment I was inspired to write it — I was probably ranting about something and feeling really passionate about someone’s time being wasted or misused, and the title came to me. I bought the domain immediately because I knew I’d have to write this book at some point.
But the subtitle was much, much harder. I’ve been struggling with that for awhile. I kept asking for feedback from club members, all the while knowing none of the options were right, because when it is right, I know it immediately deep in my soul.
I spent probably 15 hours or more brainstorming the subtitle — while driving, walking, brushing my teeth, making the bed. And finally my mind opened up one day. I was getting out of the bathtub and I just knew: The courage to focus on what matters most.
Why I needed the subtitle to convey that the book isn’t about the easy way out
The problem with anything related to simplifying for teachers is that some people will immediately bristle and think you’re telling them to shortchange kids. I needed the subtitle to make it clear that I’m not advocating for teachers to sit at their desks passing out worksheets and counting down the minutes until 3 pm. so they can be the first ones out of the lot to get a pedicure in the name of “self-care.”
What I’m advocating for is not lazy, and it’s not easy. In fact, it’s much harder in some ways than the way most folks are doing things because it’s not the normal, status quo approach.
It’s easier to just stay constantly busy. It takes time and effort to figure out what really moves the needle for kids and what’s most important.
It is not easy to question school norms that aren’t in children’s (or teachers’) best interest or to break from the norms in your family or community or society that are keeping you from having a meaningful, fulfilling life and living out your legacy.
It takes courage to do these things because most people are not. Most people settle for the status quo. It takes courage to prioritize rest and relaxation in a culture that tells you that your value comes from producing things for other people and squeezing more productivity out of every single second.
It takes courage to disrupt institutional structures and push back against gender norms that impact our profession, and our lives as women. It takes courage to subvert the educational system that is exploiting you for free labor and keeping you so distracted by proving your value through data and documentation that you have no time and energy for making meaningful connections with your students.
Disrupting the status quo and questioning norms take courage, and Fewer Things, Better is a book to help you develop and stand strong in that courage to live and teach in a really purposeful, intentional way.
It’s practical strategies and tactics, personal examples (you know in my books if you’ve read any of the others that I always share my own successes and failures), a few stories from other teachers, and lots of mindset shifts to help you think outside the box and make conscious choices about how you are spending your one precious life.
Why it takes courage to withstand other people’s opinions about how you use your time
Doing fewer things better will always take courage because it will invite criticism. That’s always been true for me and still is.
Sometimes random people on the internet will criticize me for making a living by supporting teachers (If you know so much about teaching and were so great at it, why did you leave the classroom?) Those kinds of questions used to bother me a lot, but they don’t now, because I have clarity on what is the best and highest use of my time, and what I want my legacy to be.
How would I ever have time to write a book, run a podcast, conduct professional development, do instructional coaching, etc. while also devoting myself one hundred percent to my students and practicing what I preach with work/life balance?
I had to make a choice about where to focus my time in order to make the greatest impact, and this is my choice for now. Not everyone will like it or understand, but I can’t let their opinions determine how I spend my time.
The same holds true for you.
Some people will try to guilt trip you or pressure you into saying yes to all kinds of commitments even though they know just being a good instructor for your students is more than a full-time job. It will take courage to cut out something that someone else thinks you should be doing.
You will feel like you have to prove your dedication to kids and profession by doing more. But you don’t have to prove anything to anybody.
The day I finally started to break free from that pressure was when I really began to enjoy my teaching and eventually have the courage to share my ideas with other educators. I stopped trying to live up to other people’s expectations for me — which were always unrealistic and not rooted in what was actually important to me — and got clarity on what really matters.
You will always have too many things competing for your time if you don’t decide what matters for yourself. That’s what this book will help you uncover so you have the courage and conviction to stand strong and not bow to outside pressure.
What the publishing process has been like behind-the-scenes
I’m going to share some excerpts from the book this spring on the podcast/blog, so you’ll get to hear more of what it’s about, and you can go to fewerthingsbetter.com if you want to be notified when the book is released. I’ll probably have some sample chapters and other stuff available later for those who are signed up, as well.
Oh, and in case you are wondering, YES, there will be an audiobook! This will be my first time recording an audiobook and I am so, so excited to read this book to you. I’m really passionate about the topic, as you can tell, and I know that’s going to come through in the reading.
I do plan to make two of my prior books, Awakened and Unshakeable, available as audiobooks as well. But I have no idea how much time I need to set aside for those projects, and they’ve been low priority. After I record Fewer Things, Better, I’ll have a much clearer idea of what’s involved, and I can figure out how to schedule the recording of the other books into my calendar.
Now in terms of publishing the book, I am actually the author and publisher. I am not self-publishing: I have an actual publishing company I started in 2008. It’s called Due Season Press and Educational Services. I don’t really use that name very often, so even if you’ve been following me for years, you might not know that it is the official name of my business.
What that means in terms of the book is that I have full control over just about everything. I get to have final say over the cover, the back cover copy, the editing, everything. That was the reason I started a publishing company.
I actually started off with a publisher on my first book in 2008 and felt so taken advantage of — I was making like 43 cents a copy on the book — that I educated myself on all the ins and outs of the publishing process in order to advocate for my rights. By the time I was done (and it was a nightmare which eventually involved me winning a case in small claims court), I knew so much about what publishers were supposed to do and how their job worked that I was able to start my own company and do it right.
So far, I have only published my own books — that may change in the future, but I need to do fewer things so I can do the things that remain even better, right? It hasn’t been the highest priority yet.
I contract with a printer/distributor to produce the books and sell everything through Amazon, basically (though the eBooks are also sold on my own site). It is far simpler than it seems, and if you feel like you have a book inside of you, self-publishing or starting your own publishing company are both totally valid options.
Why I started my own publishing company
I really like the ability to say whatever I feel needs to be said without censoring myself to fit a publisher’s preference. Because I don’t answer to a publisher or to a school district — I work for myself and answer ultimately to myself alone — I can write the books that I feel teachers need to read.
I can say what is on my heart to say, and that’s really my number one goal. I don’t have to worry about making my message palatable to corporations or districts or compatible with other authors under the publisher … nothing. I don’t have to conform to anything. That kind of freedom to me is priceless and worth the headaches that are involved in having to oversee the process more than a typical author would.
I can set my own deadlines for books, which I normally don’t do until the end. I begin with a rough outline of the table of contents and start writing in a Google Doc. I add to it slowly over time until I feel like I’ve built up enough momentum to say, Okay, it’s time to shape this thing up.
That’s usually when I’ve got about 30,000 words and it’s about halfway written. I start thinking at that point about refining the table of contents and how the book should be organized, and then I go back to the writing process and finish fleshing out the ideas.
That’s the point where I usually set a deadline, because I’m so sick of the book by that point — I’m ready to have it DONE so I can move on with my life and start thinking about other things. I usually try to finish a chapter a day at that point: re-reading every single word to make sure it’s exactly what I want to say. Then I take a break from the book for a week or so and go back in, trying to read a section a day and checking the flow. Then I take a break for another week and read the whole thing in one sitting.
After that, I pass it off to be proofread, and then I’ll go back through and re-read and make small tweaks five or six more times.
How the fear of other people’s opinions can be crippling to the creative process
It’s terrifying to think of releasing a print book to the world. I’ve shared that with you before: I can edit a blog post or podcast, but once something’s in print, it needs to be something I can 100% stand by for a very long time, so that’s a lot of pressure.
I try to read the book through the lens of a super fan who loves my work; I read it through the lens of a hater who is going to pick apart and misconstrue every word; I read it through the lens of an administrator; of a parent; and so on, and try to think through the way different people will receive the book.
But I only do that at the very end, because otherwise all of those different readers would confuse and muddle my message. I have to begin by writing from my heart and say what I believe needs to be said, the way I need to say it. I write for myself first and then edit for everyone else.
That’s where I’m at in the process for Fewer Things, Better, by the way. Concurrently I am having the book cover designed and I’ll share those on Instagram, FB, and Twitter. If you follow me on any of those channels, you can vote on your favorite cover image.
The process from there will involve having the book formatted for print as well as eBooks (that’s a task I partially do myself and then hire a contractor to finish) and more technical stuff I won’t bore you with. I’ll also be creating some free downloads to go with the book — the exercises in the book to help you figure out what “fewer things better” looks like for you — and working with my team to get all of those formatted and available.
There’s a lot of moving parts but the hardest part will always be the fear of what people will think. Every book that becomes popular gets some bad reviews. I guarantee your favorite book in the whole world has a one-star review on Amazon which says, “Didn’t get it, not what I was expecting, this is total garbage.” The fear and anticipation of what people will think and say makes all the decisions around publication and launching the book much harder.
So I have to continually practice what I preach: standing in my truth and my clarity about what’s important, and reminding myself that it’s okay if other people don’t like it.
For some people, this book is going to be life-changing. I know it will be, because I wish I’d had this book when I was in the classroom. I wish I’d known and practiced and embodied all the things in this book because it would have completely transformed my experience, not only in my work, but the way I lived my life.
Instead, you get to learn from my mistakes and the things I wish I’d done differently. And some of you will experience such a radical sense of empowerment and agency from reading this book that it really will change your life — those people are the ones I’ve written this for.
It’s for all of you who also have these same questions rattling around in your brain:
Why is total exhaustion our standard for a productive day?
How can teachers push back on all the unnecessary things they’re pressured or forced to do with students?
What really matters in my life and how can I create more space for those things?
I’m super nervous but also super excited to share this book with you this spring, and the preparation for that is my number one priority in the coming weeks. The writing and publishing process is not easy, but it’s worth it.
The same is true for the self-reflection process you’ll go through as a reader of the book. It will step on your toes in places. It will cause you to reexamine the way you’ve made your life choices and step out of your comfort zone. But yes — even though it won’t be easy, I promise — it will be worth it.
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