Preparing for Writing a Book
Marian Catechists always begin working on a book manuscript with a prayer. There is only one reason to write a book: to serve Christ. We ask Him in prayer to illuminate our mind and guide us so that the book we write will best serve His divine providence. We ask the Blessed Virgin to watch each word form in our mind, to assure that it reflects Christ’s glory back to Him and to all who could read it. We ask her to assure that we are charitable to all. We ask our guardian angel for special care to keep away all interference. If possible, we do as much of the preparation as we can before the Blessed Sacrament.
Everyone who manages large institutional projects knows the principle that changes are easier and less expensive during the design stages of a project than after the implementation phase has begun. Even within the design stages, early changes are easier than late changes. So, despite our eagerness, we invest a lot of time in preparation. We gather and set up our equipment, and then we proceed with the active preparation.
Before beginning the project, a writer preparing a manuscript needs to become familiar with the Chicago Manual of Style. Writers can either subscribe to the online version or purchase a current print copy. Most Catholic publishers today publish their books in the Chicago Manual format. A book manuscript arriving in their offices already consistent with the Chicago Manual will require much less of an editor's time, which means they are more likely to publish it. It will certainly take the writer more time at the beginning of the project to learn the standard format, but once mastered it will give the manuscript a more polished and professional appearance.
A computer is the writer’s tool of trade as much as a wrench is the mechanic’s tool of trade. It is enormously easier to write a book using a computer as opposed to a yellow legal pad or even a typewriter.
A writer’s computer should be fairly new and in excellent condition. Writing even a short book generally requires hundreds of hours. A longer one requires thousands of hours. The computer should work reliably and efficiently every day. An unstable computer can damage a book manuscript file in a subtle way that we might not notice until after we back it up, so that both the original and the backup are damaged, perhaps to the point that they become unusable.
Every publisher today expects to receive manuscripts for publication in the current Microsoft Office (Word) format.
Writers are always best off using the current version of Microsoft Word. If the publisher has the same word processor we are using, we can be sure he will read it and see all the formatting the way we see it on our home computer.
I always keep several backups. With more than ten thousand hours invested in my current manuscript, the peace of mind is well worth the extra cost. I keep a small external hard drive, small enough to fit in a shirt pocket, connected to my computer at all times. Every day, after I’ve worked on my manuscript, I back it up to the external hard drive. Every week or two I take the external hard drive to my bank safe deposit box, where I have an identical shirt pocket size hard drive. I put the updated drive in my safe deposit box and take the drive in the safe deposit box home in my shirt pocket. When I get home I back up to that drive, and continue to back up to it for a week or two, after which I go back to the bank and swap them again. That way, even in the event of a catastrophe, my crucial files, including my manuscript file, are still safe.
In addition, I back up versions of my manuscript file onto a CD-ROM, making the date part of each filename, so that I have a series of backups at different stages. That way, if I ever suddenly discover that my file has sustained serious damage that I did not notice until it was copied onto my current backups, I also have a series of archival backups. I can go back to the most recent one that is in good condition, and start work again from there.
Writing is hard work. We need office furniture. A comfortable office-type ergonomic chair, a desk at the proper height, etc. If we are comfortable sitting and writing for extended periods of time we can concentrate on our writing.
A good accountant may be able to show you how to take income tax deductions on everything you use for writing your book. He may advise you to set up a tiny corporation, with its own checkbook and credit card, that you can operate in your own home. Meet with the accountant before you begin your project.
If you’ve already begun, set up an appointment with your accountant anyway. He may be able to help you deduct items that you have already purchased.
From a Catholic ethics perspective, we are to comply strictly with the laws of our country in a rigorously honest manner. If the law allows us to take a tax deduction, we are morally free to take it.
Every serious Catholic book depends on a strong library ready at the writer’s hand. Our own ideas are of no use at all unless they are carefully set within the Catholic frame of reference.
I strongly recommend standardizing on one Bible translation for all of a writer’s quotations in everything he writes, for several reasons:
Catholic writers invariably notice that one translation is particularly useful for illustrating a certain point, while a different translation has the best wording to reinforce a second point, and a third is best for clarifying still another point. My sense is that many readers perceive this as cheating, the way some shallow Catholics shop around for a confessor who will tell them what they want to hear.
A new writer often thinks of himself as writing one book. But, over time, that book finally gets completed, and we work on other manuscripts. Often we’re looking for a Scripture quotation and can’t recall where it is in Scripture but we do recall where it is in an earlier manuscript. If we always use the same Bible, we can always copy it and paste it into the new work. If we have used different Bibles over the years, we always have to check and see what version the quotation came from, a major inconvenience.
Revised Standard Version Catholic Edition
I standardized some years ago on the Revised Standard Version Catholic Edition (RSVCE) several years ago, after both Scott Hahn and Father William Most, both world class Scripture scholars and faithful Catholics, told me the RSVCE is the most accurate translation out there relative to the original Hebrew and Greek sources. An additional benefit for me is that my book Second Exodus is often used to evangelize Protestants. The RSVCE is also available in a Protestant version called simply the Revised Standard Version (RSV). Identical text, different explanatory notes, no deuterocanonicals. So Protestants can look up the quotations in their Protestant RSV and verify the exact wording.
By the way, the RSV translation is not a compromise. Scripture scholarship has advanced to the point where both Catholic and Protestant scholars are working with the same ancient manuscripts, the same knowledge of Hebrew and Greek, etc., and when working on a consistent translation approach will often find themselves in agreement.
Many faithful Catholics prefer the Douay-Rheims Bible, a literal translation of the Church’s official Bible, which at that time was St. Jerome’s Vulgate, the Sixto-Clementine edition of 1592. (The New Vulgate, published in 1979, is the Church’s attempt to reconstruct, as closely as possible, St. Jerome’s original Vulgate in light of modern text-critical techniques.) Purists prefer the original Douay-Rheims Bible, published in 1609, because it very closely follows the original Latin, but it was archaic even at the time of its publication, and many faithful Catholics find it almost unreadable today. Bishop Challoner of London carefully updated the Douay-Rheims translation between 1749 and 1752. For those who want to know exactly what the Church’s official Bible says, it is the way to go. Some Catholics find that even Bishop Challoner’s slightly updated version too archaic for their needs. The Confraternity version, a recent update of the Challoner edition, is relatively comfortable to read.
However, even the Confraternity remains a translation of a translation. When an original language translator works on the New Testament, for instance, he looks at the original Greek as it was written for the people of that day and render it in a way understandable to the English speaker in the 21st century. However, St. Jerome looked at the original Greek texts and rendered them understandable to people who spoke Latin in the fifth century. Then another translator comes along and tries to render the perspective of fifth century Latin speakers in a way understandable to twenty-first century English speakers.
Some Catholic writers prefer the New American Bible (NAB), others the New Jerusalem Bible (NJB). The important thing is that each writer take some time, study the front matter in different Bibles, discuss the decision with a faithful scholar if one is available, and have good reasons for the decision.
By the way, somewhere in our book we always identify which Bible we are using for our quotations.
Catechism of the Catholic Church
The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC), 2nd edition, is the reference standard for what the Catholic Church teaches. Catholic writers dealing with materials for young Catholics can also use the Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. For most Catholics the first edition remains perfectly adequate. Writers, teachers, and others who must have every detail right need the second edition.
Writers dealing with Catholic social teaching can find the highest Catholic authority in the recent social teaching encyclicals bearing papal signatures. My web site has a list of Catholic social teaching resources that includes the most authoritative papal social teaching documents. However, the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, published by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, may also be used.
Father Hardon’s Modern Catholic Dictionary
The Catholic faith, more than any other, is a faith of the intellect. We need a precise and consistent vocabulary with which to articulate the great themes of Catholic teaching. Since Father Hardon’s dictionary is fast becoming the unofficial standard among faithful Catholics, we need to be sure our usage is consistent with it.
A good set of papal documents going back at least 150 years is extremely helpful. The CCC is a magnificent summary of the Catholic faith, but sometimes we need to penetrate further and find out in greater detail what a particular Pope said.
Each writer will know what other resources he needs. Give this careful consideration before starting the active preparation.
We begin by asking ourselves who is our target audience. We are very specific here. For example, my target audience for Second Exodus was "inquiring Jews." Later, I realized that Second Exodus would also be useful for evangelizing atheists, fallen away Catholics, and Protestants, but that came later through the Holy Spirit.
Sometimes an enthusiastic writer defines his audience as "everyone." That never works. When people go into a bookstore, they’re looking for a book that exactly meets their needs. Defining too large an audience for a book manuscript cripples it. For example, suppose I sense a need for spiritual growth. If I see a book on the shelf that reaches out to "all Catholics," I’m apt to think: "There are 60 million Catholics in the United States. Most of them are not at all like me in the intensity of their faith or in their particular interests. Nothing here for me." However, the next book I see is: "A summary of the writings of St. Teresa of Avila for busy Catholics seeking spiritual growth." This time I’m apt to think: "Busy Catholics seeking spiritual growth. That’s me. I’ll take the book from the shelf and read the front matter."
At the opposite extreme, we can also define too narrow an audience. Suppose we plan a book on places in Arkansas that would be of interest to Catholics who were born Jewish. A book whose potential audience is one person will not go very far.
Then we ask ourselves what we want our target audience to do. It might be to defend the Faith with relish and zest, to seek a good spiritual director, etc., but it must be an action. For Second Exodus the target action was "enter Catholic life."
We go to a major Catholic bookshop and see whether another book already fully accomplishes the objective we set for our target audience. We proceed only if we can add some value to what is already out there. Perhaps the books currently published are based on the old General Instruction to the Roman Missal and we are using the new one. Or perhaps we have an insight or perspective that is not available from books currently out there. The added value for Second Exodus was "the Synagogue transformed by the Messiah."
These steps are absolutely necessary. Each publisher who considers our manuscript will evaluate its marketability. We need to objectively evaluate our proposed manuscript the same way the publisher will. If we have good commercial reasons to write the book, we will sooner or later find a publisher who will agree that our book is marketable.
Now we are ready to decide on a principle of organization. For some subjects we might follow the organization of the Catechism of the Catholic Church: creed, sacraments, daily life, and prayer. For others, chronological order makes sense. Specify the principle of organization and write it down.
For Second Exodus, I began by making sure the reader knew why it makes sense to believe that God exists, that He sent Jesus as His Messiah, and that among the Christian denominations that proclaim Him only the Catholic Church teaches His complete deposit of faith. The reader’s belief in God prepares him to know God, and then to know the entire family He created for us. Meeting God and the family in turn allows the reader to see how God prepared His covenant children for the Messiah’s arrival. Jesus, who had already been introduced, gives us the seven sacraments. Understanding them in turn prepared the reader for the source and summit of Catholic life, the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. Its dismissal sends us into the world to live that Catholic life every day, so that leads the reader to the "Mirrors of Christ" chapter that teaches the reader how a Catholic lives his daily life. That in turn prepares the reader to understand how temporal life and death influence spiritual life and death. And that prepares the reader for the climactic chapter on the spiritual war, the wider struggle for spiritual life and death. Finally, concerned for the reader’s continued Catholic growth, I gathered a list of resources that could sustain the reader for the rest of his life.
This organization structure seems complicated, but it was necessary for the book to flow. Different subjects may call for different principles of organization. The important point is that the writer should give careful thought to the principle of organization, have good reasons for choosing that principle, and commit to it.
Make a list of chapters, assigning a title to each.
Then go to the second level. For each chapter list several sections using the same principle of organization. Usually there are at least three or four sections, sometimes as many as eight to ten.
Then, after each section, write a paragraph summarizing the content of that section. Each summary paragraph should be consistent with the overall principle of organization. These will be your guide paragraphs. When you write that section of the book, it will be a detailed explanation of that paragraph.
Review and Readiness
When the outline is complete, go back over all of the active preparation steps and make sure they are complete and neatly organized. When we have done all that, we are ready to write.