How to Write a Jewish Book

Commentary by Dr. Gerhard Falk


How to Write a Jewish Book - Or Any Book


   We Jews have been called “the people of the book” because the Torah, translated into every language on earth, was first given to us. We have also been called the “people of the book” because the enemies of Torah, and hence the enemies of the Jewish people, were glad we were immersed in books and had no means of defending ourselves. That has largely changed today so that the would-be Jew killers are screaming with rage that the Jews of Israel defend their lives instead of chasing diplomas. Of course, one can do both, as is true of Ariel Sharon, the prime-minister elect of Israel, who also holds a law degree and studied military science at two universities. Benjamin Netanyahu is a graduate of MIT and Ehud Barak graduated from the California Institute of Technology.

   Well, back to writing books. I am often told by friends and acquaintances that they want to write a book about their life experiences or about a topic that truly interests them. Yet, few, if any of those who feel this way ever write a book. There are also folks who ask me to tell them how to write a book, but these questions are asked in the gym or in a grocery store and cannot be answered at once and briefly. Therefore, I will tell you here and now how one can write a publish a book.  I’ll use as my example my next book to be published in May, Stigma: How We Treat Outsiders and the book Dr. Ursula Falk and I will publish later this year, From Generation to Generation: American Grandparents Today.

   Evidently, anyone who seeks to write a book must make an effort to review his English skills. No one is perfect and all of us make grammatical errors. Editors catch these mistakes and give us a chance to appear literate in public. Nevertheless, a fairly good English capability is needed.

   Assuming our English is reasonable, we must then ask whether we are willing to do a lot of work alone. There are many people who cannot tolerate being alone for long. There are others who must keep driving or talking or doing something all the time. This won’t do. An author must be able to withdraw from some of his social arrangements and work alone.

   If you feel you can do that then you must next use some introspection and ask yourself just what your topic will be. This is of course of the utmost importance since none of us can write on a topic which does not truly interest us. There are of course innumerable topics on which we could write. The evidence is that every day 1,000 books are published in this country. The most popular book published again and again is the Bible. Cookbooks are next. Since eating is everybody’s favorite indoor sport, another cookbook can always be welcome.

   Now let us assume you have decided that you really want to write on your favorite topic. This is the time to sit down and write an outline of your intended work. Make a list of every chapter you intend to write. Think about it first. Think about it for some time because the longer you consider it the more ideas you’ll get. Here is my example.

Stigma: How We Treat Outsiders.

Chapter 1 The Production of Stigma

Existential Stigma

Chapter 2 Mental Illness

Chapter 3 Homosexuality

Chapter 4 Obesity

Chapter 5 Retardation

Chapter 6 Old Age

Chapter 7 The Single Life

Chapter 8 Native Americans

Achieved Stigma

Chapter 9 Resentment Against Achievement

Chapter 10 Immigrants

Chapter 11 Homeless

Chapter 12 Prostitutes

Chapter 13 Addicts

Chapter 14 Criminals


Chapter 15 The Meaning of Stigma


   Note that the book is divided into existential stigma consisting of stigma attached to people who cannot be held responsible for their outsider status and achieved stigma which deals with those who did something, good or bad or neutral, which makes them outsiders.

   Anyone who thinks about it can see that this division is important because old age, for example, is no more the fault of those stigmatized for their age than it is a “fault” to be a native American. High achievement, however, is something actually done by the high achiever. That is also true of the  homeless or addicts or criminals.

   In any event, you can see that contemplating the outline is very important. Now once you have the outline, fill it in. Go to the library, interview people, read all you can about your topic and carefully take notes or “xerox” anything you can use to make your case. Be honest. If you find evidence that there are other views than your own, say so. Maintain your opinion, but admit that there are other opinions. Document everything by the use of footnotes it you are writing a non-fiction book.

   At the end of every chapter, write a summary and a transition which anticipates the next chapter. This gives the book continuity and reminds the reader of what he has just read. Do this throughout all the chapters. Then, at the end of the book write a final justification of the book and call it Summary and Conclusions. Also, write the introduction to the book after the whole book has been written. Of course, the introduction is found at the beginning of the book.

   Now, read the entire manuscript for errors. Then write a complete bibliography listing all the books and journals in the field in which you are writing. This is very important if you want to sell your book.

   Of course, you need a publisher. Look at the Writer’s Guide and read the descriptions of all the publishers, showing the types of books each wants to print. Then make a proposal to those publishers who you think may be interested in your book. The proposal should include an outline of each chapter and a one-sentence description of each chapter, a list of books competing with your book and your resume. Send the proposal to as many publishers as you like.

   A few publishers will answer that they want to see your manuscript. Send it to them and wait at least 6 weeks to get an answer. It is of course possible that no one has an interest in a  manuscript. That is a risk every author has to take.

   If the book is accepted it will be edited about eight months after acceptance and published one year or fourteen months after the manuscript has been accepted. Do not be impatient. Publishers work full time on a large backlog of books or manuscripts so that each author must wait in line until his ms. is reached.

   After the book has been edited and you have made an index to the book, it is sent to a printer where the ms. is likely to wait another four months before finally appearing in the book stores.

   There are many other details and sometimes annoying routines that an author has to accept. Therefore, we have to ask ourselves before becoming involved in such an enterprise whether or not the work is worth the outcome. Each of us has to decide that for himself. I think it is very much worthwhile even if we have to relinquish a part of our social life and drink less coffee and above all, avoid the idiot box.

Shalom u’vracha .

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