Where does a book begin?

As part of our special ‘A year in the life of an academic writer’ series,  Policy Press author and independent researcher Helen Kara shares her thoughts on how a book begins to get written.

Helen KaraWhen you pick a book off the shelf, chances are the beginning will be at the front of book. It may even be called an introduction, or a preface, or Chapter One. This is helpful for readers; they know where to start reading. But as a writer, where does a book begin to be written?

It begins with love.


“…my parents’ shared love of books bestowed on me, like good fairies planning for a royal christening”

You have to love stories to write good books, even the academic kind. My love of books and stories began with my parents’ shared love of books which they decided to bestow on me, like good fairies planning for a royal christening, before I was born. As a grabby infant, forbidden to hold books until my motor skills improved, prohibition made the physical articles desirable. And, like many children who grow up to be writers, I begged my parents to read to me stories until I could read for myself. That was where my love of stories began.

It begins with desire.

I’ve wanted to write stories ever since I knew people could be authors. I wrote my first book at the age of eight, in my best joined-up writing, using up most of an old exercise book. The story was about a group of children who travelled around in a sentient car which could float and fly, and it was terribly derivative.

It sometimes surprises people to discover that non-fiction also involves stories. My last book included stories I collected from interviewees, and stories from my own experience. People learn well from stories – if you think about it, we exchange stories all the time – so it makes sense to include stories in any kind of writing.

It begins with a journey.

‘In the beginning’, leads on to the thickening plot in the middle of a story, through to the happily (or otherwise) ever after. A familiar ‘narrative arc’ is necessary, if harder sometimes to come by, in non-fiction writing too – i.e. your beginning needs to create a coherent flow, from a logical starting point to a satisfying conclusion.


“It sometimes surprises people to discover that non-fiction also involves stories”

That was easy in my last book, because it was based on a completed research project and every completed research project also has a built-in narrative arc. I simply followed the project arc, creating a chapter for each stage of the process. That approach seems to be working well for my next book, too. It’s worth thinking about what your story arc is going to be when you sit down to write. The familiar ‘arc’ shape is what will help your readers to learn and to remember what you have to say.

It begins with an idea.

The beginning of Research and Evaluation for Busy Practitioners is rooted in the final year of my PhD, back in 2005-6. At some point I decided I wanted to write a book about research methods. I don’t remember the exact moment, as my brain was in a thesis-writing spin, but my love (that word again!) of methods had developed throughout my postgraduate studies and I was beginning to think there was something I wanted to say.


“…the pieces fell into place in my brain like a perfect game of Tetris”

I was on my cross-trainer, in January 2011, exercising away, when the pieces fell into place in my brain like a perfect game of Tetris. That, in many senses, is really where the book began.

I had an idea about something I loved and I knew I had a story to tell, something that hadn’t been told before and certainly not in the way I was going to tell it. I wanted to tell my story. I was ready to make that journey.

The moral of this story is: a book has many beginnings. If you want to write a book – or an article, or whatever – keep thinking. At some point, of course, you’ll have to start writing things down. It’s not always easy to know when that point comes, so if in doubt: write. No writing is ever wasted, and even just jotting down some notes can help you to clarify your thoughts and see your way forward.

If you’re thinking of writing a book or an article, it’s worth doing some research first, to make sure you really have identified a gap that needs filling. Next week I’ll give you some ideas and tips for ways to do that research.


More blog shaped words from Helen can be found here:

What, another blog on academic writing?!!!

A year in the life of an academic writer: About Helen Kara

And some books by the same author:

Research and evaluation for busy practitioners

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