De-Myth-ifying the Book Writing Process

Room 42 is where practitioners and academics meet to share knowledge about breaking research. In this episode, Heidi Lawrence explains what the book writing process is really like and why it’s worth doing.

Airdate: March 17, 2021

Season 1 Episode 18 | 43 min

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Transcript (Expand to View)

[00:00:12.940] – Liz Fraley

Good morning everyone, and welcome to Room 42. I’m Liz Fraley from Single-Sourcing Solutions. I’m your moderator. This is Janice Summers, our interviewer, and welcome to Heidi Lawrence, today’s guest in Room 42. Heidi is an Associate Professor in the Department of English at George Mason University. She was the first sponsor of TC Camp East, just want to throw that right in there. So she’s been a favorite of ours for a very long time. She’s currently working on how the tools of rhetoric can be used to better understand and respond to controversial topics about science and medicine in the public sphere. Her monograph, Vaccine Rhetorics, explores what she calls the four primary material exigencies that facilitate and sustain discourse about vaccines. She looks at disease eradication injury and the unknown.

[00:01:04.300] – Liz Fraley

Vaccine Rhetorics draws upon interviews with adults, physicians, as well textual media analysis to examine why our language about vaccines become so very heated. She continues to look at language, how it functions as both a space for understanding controversy as well as an ameliorative path to changing controversial issues in the public sphere. Today, she’s here to help start answering the question How Do You Keep Going with the Book Writing Process doesn’t look the way you’ve imagined it would. Welcome.

[00:01:37.570] – Heidi Lawrence

Thank you so much, Liz. I really appreciate it, and in the spirit of full disclosure and giving credit where credit’s due. Rachel Graham Lussos was really the spearhead for TC Camp East, so I don’t want to take any credit from Rachel, shout out as always to Rachel.

[00:01:52.870] – Liz Fraley


[00:01:53.770] – Janice Summers

It takes privilege, right, it takes privilege. But, Heidi, we’re very excited to have you here today. And so first, I kind of want to start out to jump in, if you don’t mind. What inspired you, now the title of your book is Vaccine Rhetoric?

[00:02:10.330] – Heidi Lawrence


[00:02:10.990] – Janice Summers

What inspired you to write this book?

[00:02:15.940] – Heidi Lawrence

So a lot of different things, I’ll start topically. So I started my PhD in 2009, which was right in the midst or in the beginning of the 2009/2010 H1N1 flu pandemic, which now feels like a happy memory compared to where we have been and the real not to make light of it, the real devastation that has happened in recent, in this past year. And so at the time right there, there was this big question, you know, who’s going to get the vaccine? They did roll out an H1N1 specific vaccine for that strain that circulated and created those higher rates of incidence of disease. Lots of people reporting adverse reactions, people were saying they didn’t want to get it, that it was too new, and I was at the time a research assistant as part of my graduate program, and I ended up supporting Professor Bernice Hausman, who was interested in this phenomenon of why people would refuse a vaccine in the midst of really exigent circumstances.

[00:03:17.530] – Heidi Lawrence

And so that was really where the research started, and at the time, it seemed like, oh, wow, we really should solve this problem about why people are so concerned about vaccines if there’s ever a pandemic, and then now we’re in the midst of that now. And so what I ended up kind of taking away from that project was this question of ultimately professional and technical communication, which hadn’t, as I saw the research that had been done on vaccine refusal wasn’t something that had totally addressed that area. As a technical communicator myself in a prior life, I really saw the question of how to communicate with people about vaccines as a question that technical communicators are always dealing with. How do you communicate really advanced technical knowledge to a public with a wide range of backgrounds, knowledge, concerns, things that you can’t anticipate.

[00:04:07.870] – Heidi Lawrence

So it’s not unlike the user manual that all–

[00:04:10.420] – Janice Summers

Exactly, a lot of similarities, right, Because you’re making it complex simple and you’re making it not only just that they can comprehend it, but that they can embrace it, right, because when you’re talking about we need to change behavior or belief then we need to show you why, we need to explain it in a way that is comfortable for you so that you can integrate it.

[00:04:33.610] – Heidi Lawrence

Yeah, absolutely, yeah. And so it was sort of I realized how much I had that investment in the project when I started talking to Doctors and realized, like, they had the same problem that my SMIS on-site had communicating engineering information or risk communication about a terrorist attack or whatever different contracts I had worked on. They were saying the same problems, I know everything about this, why can’t I get people to read my writing, why can’t I get people to understand what I’m communicating?

[00:05:04.362] – Janice Summers


[00:05:04.650] – Heidi Lawrence

It was the same refrain, just a different set of topics, and so that was really one of the things that drew me to the topic in the book.

[00:05:12.260] – Janice Summers

It’s really interesting that you refer to Doctors as SMIS right, so we always think engineers are SMIS, you know, they’re very much the same type of people, right?

[00:05:22.020] – Heidi Lawrence


[00:05:22.850] – Janice Summers

 It just tickled me a little because, you know, when you think about how sometimes challenging, right, because that’s part of the job of a technical professional writer is to translate engineer speak into a common user speak.

[00:05:37.920] – Heidi Lawrence

Really it’s a interesting point there, because you’re right, because at least we sort of know the problem in a technical writing environment, like we have technical writers there because we know we can’t expect the same engineer to build the circuit as we can expect them to communicate everything to every possible audience about the circuit, right, or at least that’s an established problem that we know it would be helpful to have some communicators in on the process to make that better, but doctors are faced with a really interesting challenge where they have a lot of scientific knowledge, but ultimately, medicine is an art and an interpersonal communication event. And they don’t have tech writers on staff going.

[00:06:21.750] – Janice Summers

They should.

[00:06:23.820] – Heidi Lawrence

They absolutely should.

[00:06:25.710] – Janice Summers

They need technical and professional writers, they should, because it would really be very helpful because you want your Doctor to be technically brilliant, right, so it’s OK if they’re not the best communicators, as long as they’re technically brilliant, right?

[00:06:41.400] – Heidi Lawrence

Yeah, but yeah, what do we– we evaluate them oftentimes on bedside manner, which is really just another word for a combination of communication expertise and how we are meant to feel in their presence and those types of things. So yeah, it’s an interesting kind of gap in the medical system in terms of how we interact with physicians and what we expect of them versus other types of technical experts.

[00:07:06.750] – Janice Summers

That’s true, that’s true because we don’t put that same burden on engineers.

[00:07:10.320] – Liz Fraley


[00:07:09.990] – Heidi Lawrence

But when we do, we know that it’s not going to go well.

[00:07:15.920] – Janice Summers

Right. We never raid our engineers on bedside manner.

[00:07:26.460] – Liz Fraley


[00:07:26.460] – Janice Summers

OK, so now let’s talk about, so your book is available, right?

[00:07:31.050] – Heidi Lawrence

Yes, it was published by Ohio State University Press, huge thanks to them, and it’s available through their website and on Amazon.

[00:07:39.210] – Janice Summers

Ok good, and we’ll make sure everybody’s got a link to it. So now let’s talk about let’s go into the like way back and let’s talk about how did you start the process? Like, what was your methodology in starting the process?

[00:07:53.670] – Heidi Lawrence

Yeah, it was really difficult as we were talking in a lead up to this conversation, it’s was a much more arduous path than I anticipated it would be, and then I was kind of told that it would be earlier in my career, so–

[00:08:11.490] – Janice Summers

You were told it wouldn’t be easy?

[00:08:13.200] – Heidi Lawrence

Yeah, no one ever said like, oh, it’s really easy, but no one ever really said it was going to be as hard as it wound up being, or at least as hard as it wound up being for me. So, full disclosure there.

[00:08:24.490] – Janice Summers

What you thought it would be like and then what reality was.

[00:08:27.400] – Heidi Lawrence

Yeah, yeah, so for non-academics in the audience, so academic jobs usually you know,  they involve the tenure process and at different institutions they require different types of things at Masons and R1 institutions, so I had to write a book for tenure and tenure being keeping one’s job, so you don’t really get–sorry, my cat is right behind my screen right now.

[00:08:54.180] – Janice Summers

My cats are thankfully are playing in the other room and not climbing their cat pole that’s right behind my back.

[00:09:02.220] – Heidi Lawrence

It’s always such a tough thing, do you kick them out and then they scratch at the door the whole time, or do you leave them in and then they bump your computer screen when you’re trying to talk? So, yeah, so anyway, so and tenure is really like the process of keeping your job. Like you don’t get to not get tenure and keep your job. So I had to write a book in order to keep my job. And so when I took the job, I was sort of advised, you know, you wrote your dissertation, you contact a couple of presses, your dissertation is basically the first draft of your book. See which press is interested, make some revisions and voila! You’ve got a book and, you know, 9 to 18 months right, very simple. I had what I thought was and was reasonably a good dissertation, it was sort of conceptualized as a book, I thought, at that juncture, and it won an award. So I thought, like, oh, this is going to be really easy. And, you know, as I started reaching out to presses, I found that they were really happy to take a look at the book, they were interested in the topic, but really reshaping the book for a book audience was much more difficult than I thought it was going to be going through the reader review process was a lot longer and more winding than I thought it would be. And ultimately, it wasn’t really until I found a home with Ohio State University Press and my editor there that I could really see the path forward.

[00:10:28.000] – Heidi Lawrence

And so, you know, I kind of envisioned it being the solo act of revision and really it was this like entirely networked path of reiterative editing and help and all kinds of things that you just don’t think of as a book writing process.

[00:10:45.860] – Janice Summers

Because, you know, other people don’t see things the same way that you do and getting those, so you have like a team of people that were previewing and reading this and saying, no, adding comments, and pulling more information from you and shifting your perspective then right?

[00:11:04.610] – Heidi Lawrence

Yeah. So for at least for my process and I think for most books, first books, second books and subsequent, I think you get a little bit more leeway. But the first book process was really about reaching out to the editors with a book proposal and then giving you some feedback. And then for me, they wanted to see a full manuscript next. So you kind of provide a plan and then you have to do the plan and then it goes out for peer review like any other journal article does. And for me, my first round of reviewers were really mixed. I had one person who was like, this is excellent. Fix up this, change that. Consider this like very kind of run-of-the mill feedback. And then another reviewer who really wanted to take the project in a completely different direction, like a totally different set of research questions, problems, et cetera.

[00:11:59.630] – Heidi Lawrence

And, you know, I ended up going forward with those revisions, in the end, it took about two years to do those revisions, and it included massive overhaul of the book and an additional chapter with some new data and research in it. I also had a baby in that time frame, so I had a few months where I didn’t–

[00:12:17.480] – Janice Summers

 A little bit of time.

[00:12:20.980] – Heidi Lawrence

Yeah, and ultimately I said, okay, I think this is what you want, I think this is what this person wants. So let me send it back to them. And I actually never ended up finding out because that person delayed and delayed and delayed and didn’t respond to the request for feedback and just was probably busy with other things. And so it’s one of those examples where, like the most important thing in your life is the least important thing in someone else’s life.

[00:12:50.540] – Janice Summers

Yeah, my urgency isn’t somebody else’s urgency.

[00:12:53.810] – Heidi Lawrence

Absolutely. And the whole book process is filled with that. We’re like, again, like my whole job and what very much I think felt to me like my whole life, I mean, I’d gotten a PhD, I’d gotten a job, my whole existence, it felt like I relied on this book.

[00:13:07.940] – Janice Summers

Well, and a lot hinging on it, your ten years hinging on this book.

[00:13:12.020] – Heidi Lawrence

Yeah. Yeah.

[00:13:13.490] – Janice Summers

So I can imagine the weight of it and the pressure of it.

[00:13:17.870] – Heidi Lawrence

Yeah, absolutely. I felt like everything is waiting on it and yet like to other people it’s just like one more task that they don’t have time to do, which is also very reasonable and we’re all really busy, and so I ended up sort of pulling the book from that press, which was scary to do, I already, I was pretty far along, I’d been at Mason–you have roughly five to six years to complete your tenure requirements. So you’re time constraint there, and I had it thankfully to Mason, they were amazing. I had an extra year in my ten-year clock because I had a baby, I had a great maternity leave, I had lots of privileges that other people don’t have access to. So I want to acknowledge that Mason is really a great support in that way.

[00:14:01.130] – Janice Summers


[00:14:01.490] – Heidi Lawrence

But, you know, the time kind of ticks. And luckily, I reached out to Tara Lee Cephas at Ohio State and she read it and said, I think this is good, but I think all of this revision you did is not right. Like this isn’t right like it’s what you’ve tried to do, and–

[00:14:23.990] – Janice Summers

You just spent two years taking revisions from the very difficult reviewer, all those revisions and that person goes missing, then you send it to somebody new who’s like responding and saying, yeah, ok, I’m not going to, you know. But all these revisions, No.

[00:14:46.200] – Heidi Lawrence

Yeah, yeah, she just was like, we’ll see, but I just don’t–I understand why you didn’t do this to begin with, and I think that these revisions were probably not the best choice. And so she really believed in me and believed in the project, and so that’s the way in which, like, you know, you need other people in ways that you just don’t know. I didn’t know I needed a reviewer who believed in me as a part of this process or an editor.

[00:15:12.390] – Janice Summers

Really quick, one of the words of advice that you would give to people who are aspiring to write a book or to write basically, I think, write anything that they should possibly, like interview different publishers and find the one that believes in them, and just because somebody doesn’t believe in you doesn’t mean that everybody doesn’t believe in you.

[00:15:35.960] – Heidi Lawrence

Absolutely. Keep going, persevere, find someone who understands your project, what you’re trying to do, who believes in you, don’t go with just like the first option, the first person who says yes, right, I mean you might have to right, but you know, don’t just say like and that kept me working that other system longer than I should have because I just kept thinking, like how I can make, I can do what they need me to do. I can do this, I can do this. And really, the project couldn’t do it. The project didn’t support what that was and what that person really felt like it needed to be and what the editor in turn was convinced it could be as well.

[00:16:15.800] – Heidi Lawrence

My husband also always says that it was like that classic example of bring me a rock right, and then, you know, bring me a rock. Oh, no, no, no, I want a big rock and then you bring it back, no, no, no, not that big, and then you bring it back, No sharper, no smoother, no gray, no brown, right. I was in this space through this back and forth on the manuscript and the revisions where I was like, just tell me what you want me to say and I’ll say it. And it wasn’t until I kind of realized that no one could tell me that. No one could tell me what the book was going to say. I had to figure it out for myself and feel the confidence and strength to just say it. And part of that confidence and strength comes from other people around you bolstering you and saying, Yes, like you have good ideas, keep it going.

[00:16:59.960] – Janice Summers

Yeah, well, and I think that’s critical to have somebody in your corner. But ultimately, it is your voice. Ultimately, you are the one writing it, you’re putting your name on it. And there’s also this thing for a lot of people out there in the world, they self-publish. There’s this wonderful thing about self-publishing now, but you know, it’s great to go through a publisher, though.

[00:17:26.780] – Heidi Lawrence

Yeah, well, that was not an option available to me for tenure purposes, you kind of have to go through it–yeah press and ideally university press. But I can 100 percent understand the value, especially if you understand what your audience needs and you are delivering that, then like yeah, you should yeah, having the confidence to self publish it if you know you’re meeting those needs, absolutely.

[00:17:52.520] – Janice Summers

But even if you are self-publishing though, have a tribe around you, like build the tribe you trust and listen, because you run into more dangers if you’re self-publishing because you’re in your own echo chamber. So at least you had with you, now you finally found somebody who believed in you and who is responsive to you. So that, I think, makes all the difference in the world.

[00:18:17.210] – Heidi Lawrence


[00:18:17.210] – Janice Summers

You try to get some guidance.

[00:18:19.520] – Heidi Lawrence

It really did, and, you know, and I think I had great advisors and great mentors who certainly were great cheerleaders, who advocated for release time, removal from other types of responsibilities, I had amazing friends, two good friends of mine from grad school, Libby Anthony and Amy Reed, who I meet with all the time, and they’d read things and just tell me what they thought, right, Like I said I approached the book process like it was about me revising a document and that’s not–and writing a document, right, like it feels like you and the page. And that’s just part of it, that’s not all of it. It’s also this network of people who get you the resources, the support, the access to materials you might need, the feedback you need in order to really make sure that what you’re writing makes sense to someone outside of your brain.

[00:19:18.560] – Heidi Lawrence

So it really feels like this linear, singular process, but it’s actually like this big networked circular process.

[00:19:26.910] – Liz Fraley


[00:19:27.990] – Janice Summers

Now, after you found the new publisher and the responsive team, how long did that take then? Because up to now you’re at two years, right?

[00:19:38.760] – Liz Fraley

Plus. Two years plus.

[00:19:40.890] – Heidi Lawrence


[00:19:41.360] – Janice Summers

Now you’ve found somebody, now how long does it take?

[00:19:47.490] – Heidi Lawrence

Yeah, yeah, I know. I was trying to think and it’s like what were the key moments where I sat in my den and cried. I think that was in February, right, and so then by March I was no longer crying like that feels very much like– that time, but it was about 18 months by that point between like kind of 18 months to two years, been making the contact, getting it back out to reviewers, reviewers confirming what Tara said, which is that these revisions were not a good idea, they just, it doesn’t hang, and if you can instead focus on bolstering these strengths about the book, then it will be a thing.

[00:20:34.350] – Heidi Lawrence

So once I had those reviews back it was about eight months before to make those revisions to go back. So that just shows you like two years to do something you don’t want to do, eight months to do a lot more work, but what I wanted to be doing, it just went faster and then I resubmitted it.

[00:20:53.850] – Janice Summers

I’m sorry I keep interrupting you, but, you know, it’s really great interesting points that I don’t want people to miss on. And what you’re talking about is when things were in the flow, when it felt right for you, right, even, you know, you’re taking advice and guidance from people, but it felt right, it flowed. Like eight months as opposed to two years when you’re trying to fight something and it’s going against your grain. So your intuition is probably a really good guide. So if you’re having a hard time, maybe you should stop and completely change your strategy right, that’s one indicator for other people out there who are trying to write something.

[00:21:38.910] – Heidi Lawrence

Yeah, yeah, absolutely, yeah and yeah. And please feel free to interrupt me at any point in time, you know, I am a long talker, so I will keep talking, until I am stopped. But yeah, absolutely like and again, it was so much, so much of what I was writing was just what do you want me to–like I was saying before, what you want me to write, sure I’ll write like I don’t–like just like let me keep my job like  just please like it felt very like not magical certainly, right, like we imagine book writing to be.

[00:22:12.280] – Janice Summers

Right, somewhat desperate.

[00:22:14.160] – Heidi Lawrence

Yeah, desperate is the exact word. And once I got out of that headspace of just feeling like I don’t know what I have to say anymore, just, you know, who knows if this makes any sense and rather really sitting down and thinking what kind of book do I really want to write, what will I be proud of, what do I really have to say about this thing, it wasn’t until like that clicked that then I could actually start to put it together and, you know, and then yeah, and then it went quickly, I mean, relatively speaking, it went much, much more quickly after that point.

[00:22:50.670] – Janice Summers

Now, here’s a question I have for you. It’s one of the things when we’re coaching writing teams, we often do an exercise about who are you writing to?  Did you have that, did you have that in mind as you were writing, did you see the audience and incorporate that into your writing?

[00:23:09.930] – Heidi Lawrence

Yeah, and in fact, that was something that was a real challenge of moving from dissertation to book, in two ways, and I think everyone knows that, like you write your dissertation to your committee to like finish a PhD, like that’s–

[00:23:27.780] – Janice Summers

 Exactly, you write it to academia.

[00:23:29.670] – Heidi Lawrence


[00:23:31.080] – Liz Fraley

Committee members in particular.

[00:23:33.000] – Heidi Lawrence

Right, right.

[00:23:34.570] – Liz Fraley

It’s very, very specific.

[00:23:38.070] – Heidi Lawrence


[00:23:38.670] – Janice Summers

To the audience, well it is writing to personas then to it’s just a completely different one, yeah.

[00:23:44.640] – Heidi Lawrence

Yeah, and so I knew about that challenge, I knew that like, ok, I’m going to have to stop writing to Kelly, Binnie’s, Paul and Carolyn and I have to write to another audience. But the thing I didn’t know that I was just idealistic about, especially given my topic in vaccination, I have this picture of like Doctors will read this chapter and parents will read this chapter and public health professionals will read this other chapter. And so, like I mean, to their credit, like the reviewers found real problems in my earlier drafts. It wasn’t like I had this great book that they just couldn’t see. There were problems with it, and one of them was that I really thought I was thinking too big. Like I was thinking like, oh, this is going to be like, you know, like I didn’t, I knew conceptually it would never be like at Barnes and Noble. But that’s what you think of when you think of a book, right?

[00:24:36.660] – Heidi Lawrence

Like all these different people who are the people who are going to pick it up. And it took me a long time to learn that like an academic book by an academic press is going to be most primarily read by your former professors, their graduate students, and a couple of people who might listen to your topic and be really interested in it.

[00:24:56.370] – Janice Summers


[00:24:56.580] – Heidi Lawrence

Right like, those are the people that you’re really talking to. And I didn’t quite get  that that was really the audience that it was going back into. And I needed to make them happy first at least. And if other people found it and were like, oh, this is cool, this is interesting. And that certainly has happened, especially I think given the pandemic, more people are encountering it because we have a question about vaccination in ways that we didn’t before. I think they are pulling useful things away, but they really are the secondary audience, at least of that book. It was really about coming to terms with like, you know, like the CDC, people in the CDC are not necessarily picking this up at Barnes and Noble, right.

[00:25:37.680] – Janice Summers

Dr Fauchi is going to be talking about on CNN later on today.

[00:25:47.760] – Heidi Lawrence

So I think–

[00:25:48.690] – Janice Summers

He could be watching Room 42.

[00:25:50.790] – Heidi Lawrence

But you never know, you never know, he’s nothing else to do sorry. But I think you bring up a really great point Janice like personas, like developing personas would have been a really helpful strategy to use earlier in the process and perhaps even to have talked through with a mentor like, you know, someone who is helping me through that process or even just like trying to see what’s going on, why is–cause lots of people were like, what’s going on, where is the book? You know, and to think through, like, you know, maybe having a conversation about or going through the exercise of developing the personas of your readers would be really useful and valuable just to see if you’re actually thinking way too broad, and I know I was. And prioritizing those personas too like this group has to be satisfied, they’re your gatekeepers. And so, like, you’re not going to get to that hopeful Fauchi audience without satisfying this first inner circle, you know, so what are their needs and address those, right.

[00:26:56.700] – Heidi Lawrence

That would have been a really helpful way of perhaps identifying the flaws in my earlier strategy.

[00:27:02.830] – Janice Summers

Yeah, we find it extremely helpful in the commercial world, especially when a lot of times people are like, well, everybody’s my customer and if you have a software. It’s like everybody is my customer. Well, not really, let’s talk about it. So you’re like when you thought about us, like, OK, well, really, my primary audience and that’s what you need to speak to because the rest are collateral, you’re going to pick up collateral. And hopefully some people here in Room 42 will pick up your book because it’s an interesting topic..

[00:27:30.790] – Liz Fraley

I did.

[00:27:32.420] – Heidi Lawrence

 Oh, thank you.

[00:27:33.870] – Janice Summers


[00:27:36.950] – Heidi Lawrence

Yeah, I think yeah, it has been really interesting to have encountered and engaged with some doctors and public health folks who’ve read it or read parts of it, and they’ve I think when I thought–I think I didn’t know how to write to them anyway, because I think they respond to things that were not necessarily the most scientific or the most targeted toward them, but they like the stories. They like the interviews, they like reading about people, right, they like it because it is a little bit different than the kinds of things they’re always reading. And so it does kind of show them that, oh, there’s this other way of knowing and doing, and so I–

[00:28:16.070] – Janice Summers

Storytelling is a really good way of getting points across. And it helps for relatability, like, you know, people, that’s part of the storytelling thing. I can see me in the stories and I can understand it. So I can imagine a doctor who’s reading a lot of JAMA articles, right, and then now they’re into a story and it’s like the parable. So they can see a scenario where they’re one part in their patient as the other part, so they can kind of fit into that scenario and it gives them more depth of understanding.

[00:28:52.030] – Heidi Lawrence

Yeah, yeah, and so even when you think you’re–I mean, that’s a classic techcomm thing, right, even when you think you’re addressing your audience’s needs, you actually need to ask them what’s working, what’s interesting, what’s helpful here, and so one of the takeaways from there would be actually to not necessarily try to be like them and speak in their language, but rather and it’s something I take through all the collaborative work I do now is, this is what I bring to the table, here are the methods I have, here are the kinds of findings I can produce, here are the types of questions I can answer. To really be plain and clear about what the limits and capacities are of humanistic qualitative research and the book writing process, which is why it’s still like the most valuable and important and useful thing I’ve ever done, even though it was horrible. That allowed me to see that like, oh, this is what I can do, this is what this is what the methods let me do and to stop trying to do things other people wanted them to do or to stop trying to say things with them that I didn’t feel comfortable saying.

[00:30:00.160] – Janice Summers

This is kind of funny. It’s really interesting because you talk about this is part of–you have to do this in academia. It’s a part of the 10 year requirements in order to keep your job, you need to publish, right, but isn’t it kind of funny that they made this one requirement for you because of the life lesson that you would learn from doing it? And that’s like, you know, standing back and listening to that’s one of the fascinating things, it’s like, while you learn what you could never learn in 20 years in that short period of time from having to go through that battle, right, because it really is a battle and when you’re battle tested, you come out stronger.

[00:30:46.540] – Liz Fraley


[00:30:46.960] – Janice Summers


[00:30:47.770] – Heidi Lawrence

Yeah, yeah that’s all really, really exceptionally said Janice. Yeah, I was furious at my institution, my own gatekeepers, my–I was just rage, rage all of the time. Why are you making me do this.

[00:31:07.990] – Janice Summers

Rage is the machine.

[00:31:09.460] – Heidi Lawrence

Yeah, right. I just felt and because I did, I mean I also read articles, I had other metrics to evaluate my performance and just felt like, you know, there’s like why do I have to do this thing, why are you making me do this? And it really wasn’t until even like six months after it came out, like I mean, it took a really long time for me to really go like, wow, this is something that was a unique writing experience, unique learning experience, you’re right. I could have never learned it, I at least could’ve never learned it another way. And it does, it has reached that academic articles that are mostly read by one group and one discipline do not always. It is something that people can buy on Amazon you don’t have to have a specialized user account that costs a thousand dollars in order to even read it or understand what it’s about and that just has given it and rhetoric, I think, and the humanities sort of more purchase and more understandability, more legibility in spaces like medicine where we aren’t always thought of so naturally, but that we really belong in.

[00:32:23.300] – Janice Summers

Right, and let’s think with a book, a book has the potential to reach a lot more people than articles because articles tend to go into specialized, you know, even if they’re published articles, they go into a specialized group, right. And that group may read it. And that might be a diverse group, but it’s not like the whole world. Like if you put it out and it’s like, you know, something you can go and buy on Amazon or you can go order from a bookstore to get, it’s very different.

[00:32:55.890] – Heidi Lawrence

Yeah, and it’s something that I again, I just–I didn’t get that part of it until it was–

[00:33:03.330] – Janice Summers

Not in the beginning.

[00:33:04.650] – Heidi Lawrence

Yeah, no, in the beginning–

[00:33:07.260] – Janice Summers

In the beginning, you thought, well, I’ll just take my dissertation, add a few words, put a little structure around it and I’ll be done.

[00:33:14.340] – Heidi Lawrence

Yeah, yeah, I’ll be done and people will read it and it’ll be great, yeah. I had a very– yeah, it’s something I try to talk about as much as I can, and I’m just so glad that we’ve been able to talk about this today because I wish that I’d had a little bit more of a realistic expectation going in. And I think it’s the struggles that we have and the difficulties and our failures, right, these are not always the things we like to talk about, and so I try to be as plain with people as possible. And they’re like, what was it like writing a book? Like, awful and really hard and almost impossible and like not really clear what the value of it was until it was well done and over with. So, you know.

[00:33:56.400] – Janice Summers

Well, but I mean, was the journey worth it?

[00:33:59.970] – Heidi Lawrence

Oh, 100 percent. Yeah.

[00:34:01.920] – Janice Summers

And do you think you really would have known going into this, do you think you really would have heard other people saying, look, this is like a battle for your life and you’ll be put through the wringer, you’re going to cry, you’re going to want to give up, you will be angry and hostile.

[00:34:22.560] – Heidi Lawrence

Well, yeah, my husband I actually started calling it the Voldemort project because I like people on campus were like how’s the book, how’s the book, how’s the book. And it was just like automatic, like just like a little twitch that I would get like, oh, don’t ask me how’s the book, so he would just say, how’s the Voldemort project, and you’re like terrible as usual. I don’t know, I think that yeah, it’s hard to hear those kinds of things, right, I mean, it’s hard to think that that will actually happen to you.

[00:34:51.510] – Heidi Lawrence

So anyone who’s going like, OK, lady, but like my project is really good and they are like and for everybody like me, I’m sure they’re like a million people who are like, what is she talking about, this was super easy for me or I had no problem. And and that’s great that to at least know that there’s a diversity of experience, that not everyone is going to just sort of hit the ground running and have a book 18 months after you finish a dissertation that you might but also on the smorgasbord of things that can happen is like something that’s just going to take a little longer and it will all be worth it, and we’ll all have learning associated with it, and we’re all going to have different takeaways and experiences. And that doesn’t make you I mean, I don’t feel like a lesser academic because my book took longer and was really hard for me to write. I feel like it’s made me a lot better and a better teacher, a better writer, and so I feel like there’s growth in all of it.

[00:35:51.080] – Janice Summers

So you think you’ll write another one ?

[00:35:53.300] – Heidi Lawrence

I cannot wait to.

[00:35:55.610] – Janice Summers


[00:35:57.870] – Heidi Lawrence

Yeah I know it’s crazy, it’s so stupid because, like I mean, I don’t even like I don’t I know that, like, who care–you know like, you start it all over, like, it’s not like I have some new voice or I’m like, oh, people are really interested in what I think. Like it’s not that, I think it is the first challenge of that long argument over 200 pages and mine isn’t quite that long but could be longer, right, that’s so hard. That’s such a huge challenge to take on. And I do miss that component of it. I miss trying to figure out the long argument and, right, and it’d just be me and just my voice and yet, like, sending it out to others and hearing their comments and it is like there is such a like a gratification in that process that even though I have like no book in me or whatever that people say, you know, it’s like I have something that’s like ready to go, but I can’t wait–

[00:37:03.320] – Janice Summers

Usually in fiction writing, so, you know, but I mean usually, in fiction writing, it’s like, you know, I have a book in me because it’s like this in-spirit thing.

[00:37:13.340] – Heidi Lawrence


[00:37:13.700] – Janice Summers

A book will come to you. But when you’re writing a book that’s not fiction and it is, you bring up a really good point, it’s a long argument.

[00:37:20.510] – Heidi Lawrence


[00:37:20.510] – Janice Summers

Right, and to sustain that argument with substance, you need to have a subject that really has that hutzpah, has the power behind it to be able to sustain it, to sustain itself somewhat while you compose the argument around it. So those don’t like you know, they’re not like falling out of the tree. Like there’s no, you know, but it will you know, it’ll come because you’ll be working on things, right, you’ve got that book now, you know that journey.

[00:37:53.570] – Heidi Lawrence

Yeah, yeah, and you just you hope that it’s I mean, I don’t really want to go through all of that again, like, I know you relive it, but yeah, it will be–I think, you know, having learned so much, it’ll be fun to exercise those muscles again and see, see what it would be like for a second time and see how it would go and, yeah, and all those kinds of things. But yeah, no, it’s definitely something that like it can be so discouraging but is really worth it.

[00:38:24.060] – Janice Summers

Yeah. And even if you know I think, I think it’s a good exercise for everybody to try to write a book.

[00:38:31.360] – Liz Fraley


[00:38:31.910] – Janice Summers

Right, I mean even if you never published it or you never self publish, or no publisher picks you up. I think it’s a good exercise in discipline because of all of the life lessons you learn in the process of writing the book. And it can be any kind of book, right, but I think you learn some really good lessons in it.

[00:38:53.960] – Heidi Lawrence

Yeah, I agree, it feels very much in the vein of like everyone should work retail, everyone should work in service, everyone should teach, you know, I think maybe not everyone, all those things. But going through those kinds of experiences help you learn so many things about yourself and writing and communication and audiences that are really important for all of us as communicators. So, yeah, I think if you have a book in you or if you even a short story article’s going through that publication process, finishing a piece of writing such that someone else reads it, wants to do something with it, there’s just a learning process like none other in that experience.

[00:39:43.000] – Janice Summers

Well, I’ll tell you, when you’re working with an editor, they are cold. Oh, my God, the things they see and you don’t think they’re going to see and they see, it’s like they’re like magicians, if you ask me. I don’t know, they’re fantastic. But that experience and when you’re working with an editor who gets you, is really–I think it’s a really–that’s why I always encourage people write, write an article and write it for your trade, you know, or if you want to write a book, write a book, go through that, but get a team of editors and reviewers, because that’s really where the life journey is, right, it sure you’ve got this in you that you want to get out, but that journey in and having those reviewers, it gives you a lot of insight for you and it helps strengthen you.

[00:40:32.640] – Heidi Lawrence

Yeah, absolutely, yeah, and, you know, any time you can get feedback on your writing, any time you get another set of eyes, we know that right from you know, even a really simple set of FAQ’s, right, someone else looks at it and says, what about this or what about that, and you go, yep, that’s really helpful. But to start developing comfort with that networked experience of writing, with that collaborative experience of writing it’s not being… thinking of it as like, you know, just you and your thoughts and it’s a precious sort of stuff thing.

[00:41:02.190] – Liz Fraley

Myself on the page, Oh, my God.

[00:41:07.710] – Heidi Lawrence

Yeah, you know, getting yourself away from those ideas because that could be stopping things and just like constraining ideas and thoughts and possibilities for your writing. I see students do that all the time. It’s always so hard because I relate to it and yet, like, know that they need to stop doing it where they don’t want to share a draft. They just– they hold on to that draft and they’re like, but it’s not done, it’s not really done, and like, literally, I care not what it looks like. Like I don’t care if it’s a list of bullets misspelled all over the place, like it gives us something to work with, like just share the draft and they’re just like, no. And I’m like, I understand, I feel the same way, but we have to let go of that as this. Like, I have to fix it all myself of writing because that’s just I don’t know, it can be a real problem for some.

[00:41:58.000] – Janice Summers

Yeah, because it’s nice being comfortable and warm and feeling secure, you know, it’s a nice feeling, let’s face it. And when you do write something and you give it to somebody else and they’re reviewing it, they’re editing it, they’re going to make notes, they’re going to make corrections. You’re going to see, oh, my God, I’m not perfect.

[00:42:23.220] – Janice Summers

Oh my gosh, Heidi, it has been so nice to talk to you. I really enjoyed our conversations. I really hope that you write that next book. I’m like, it’s kind of like those people who said, oh, you know, the first book was a breeze. It’s like, yeah write your second one and then tell me.

[00:42:42.290] – Heidi Lawrence


[00:42:44.020] – Heidi Lawrence

You had a tough one on your first one. Your sec–when you–probably. Oh, Janice, that was easy.

[00:42:50.460] – Heidi Lawrence

Or like my advisor, Bernie, said, I didn’t really get my voice as a writer until I wrote my third book.

[00:42:56.832] – Janice Summers

Oh wow.

[00:42:56.850] – Heidi Lawrence

So you’re like right, just keep going, just keep writing more books and eventually. Oh, yeah thank you all so much for the invitation. This was really lovely to chat with you both and this is a great conversation.

[00:43:11.580] – Janice Summers

And hopefully you’ll be back in Room 42 again another day.

In this episode

Heidi Y. Lawrence is an Associate Professor in the Department of English at George Mason University. She has a PhD in Rhetoric and Writing from Virginia Tech, an MA in English from George Mason, and a BA in English from Mary Washington College.

Heidi’s work examines how the tools of rhetoric can be used to better understand and respond to controversial topics about science and medicine in the public sphere. Her monograph, Vaccine Rhetorics, explores what she calls the four primary material exigencies that facilitate and sustain discord about vaccines. Examining exigencies of disease, eradication, injury, and the unknown, Vaccine Rhetorics draws upon interviews with adults and physicians as well as textual and media analyses to examine why our language about vaccines has become so heated. She then offers rhetorical theories on audience and user engagement as ways of improving public discourse about vaccines and finding more positive forms of communication and interventions. Her other published work across a range of scholarly outlets in rhetoric, medicine, and public health further examines how language functions as both a space for understanding controversies as well as an ameliorative path to changing controversial issues in the public sphere.

In this episode of Room 42, we have a candid conversation about the realities of authoring and publishing her book. Heidi shares her personal struggles and disappointments as well as life lessons learned along the way.

The rocky road epic journey to writing and publishing a book about vaccines in a global pandemic is not all fairy tales and happy endings.

In her own words: “Unintentionally, 2020 was an opportune year to publish a book about vaccines. When the year began, I thought I was 9 months and a handful of revisions away from a publishable book. Like magic it should all fall into place like a key in a lock. Between life delays, difficult reviews, and the simple fear of writing something crappy, the book (or the ‘Voldemort Project’ as my husband and I started calling it) was harder, took more time, and was more painful in every way than I ever could have imagined.”




Faculty Page:

Book website:

Where to buy the book:

Twitter: @hylawrence

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