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Writing a textbook – Advice for authors

What is a textbook?

© © Rawpixel_iStockWe consider a textbook to be a book that:

  • Is written for primarily students. Whilst the textbook may also be of interest to other audiences, such as researchers, the main audience should be students
  • Supports a course: there must be courses being taught at multiple universities for which the textbook would be suitable. The textbook could either be the only textbook recommended for the course, or it could be a more supplementary textbook that would appear on a recommended reading list. 

Why write a textbook?

There can be several reasons why a textbook gets written:

  • There is no textbook on the topic: if this is a relatively new area or perhaps a more niche topic then perhaps no-one has written a textbook to support courses yet
  • Existing textbooks are inadequate: perhaps current textbooks don’t cover the topic very well and you have to dip in and out of several different textbooks to cover all the topics you need. Perhaps current textbooks are outdated and haven’t kept up with the research, meaning you have to do a lot of work providing your own notes to supplement these textbooks
  • Prestige!: you could write the textbook on the topic and become a household name (in academic circles at least!)
  • The opportunity to expand the impact of your educational materials by working with an internationally recognized publisher who can promote and disseminate the textbook  to a global audience
Carry out market research

You should carry out market research to ensure there is an audience for your textbook and to help you understand what the competing textbooks would be:

  • Is there a market for the textbook: are other people teaching similar courses? Is this course taught at universities around the world?
  • What should be covered in the textbook: look at how other instructors teach this course - what topics are commonly taught? These should feature in your textbook
  • How should you structure the textbook: again, looking how this course is taught, is there a common order that the topics are taught? Your textbook should reflect this
  • What features to competing textbooks include: If they all have exercises then yours probably should too. Is there anything that you could add to your textbook to make it stand out from the others, e.g. case studies, definitions of key terms, etc.?
  • Look at reviews of competing textbooks: what do readers like/dislike about the textbook? Have a look at sources such as Amazon and speak to colleagues about the textbooks they use
Preparing a textbook proposal

Have a vision for the textbook! Before you begin writing a proposal for a textbook or approaching a publisher, you should have a clear idea in your mind about what the textbook will be:

  • Who am I writing this textbook for: have a clear understanding of who your target audience is i.e. what level of degree course will this textbook support?
  • What is the objective of my textbook: Why is this textbook needed? Will it be a core course textbook, i.e. the only textbook for the course, or will it be more supplementary i.e. only covering part of a course and appearing on a recommended reading list? How will it meet a course curriculum?
  • How will students benefit from my textbook: will they gain an in-depth understanding of a topic, or develop a skill set to understand a particular problem, etc.?
  • Do I have already material that I can turn into a manuscript: can I repurpose my own lecture notes, slides, assignments/course questions, etc.?
Tips for writing your textbook

There are a few final points to consider before you start writing, or to bear in mind as you are writing. 

  • Prerequisite knowledge: what topics or concepts should readers already be familiar with? Do you need to review these or further explain them?
  • Self-contained: students typically want a one-stop resource so you should try to ensure that as much of the information that student needs is presented in your textbook
  • Modular chapters: students will likely dip in and out of the textbook rather than read it linearly from start to finish so try to make chapters self-contained where possible, so they can be understood out of context of the rest of the textbook
  • Succinct and to the point: keep focused on the course that the textbook is supporting and the topics that need to be covered. Avoid including less relevant topics, very advanced topics, explanations of concepts that students should already understand, and any other content which may not actually be useful to the student
  • Didactic elements: elements such as exercises, case studies, definitions and so on help break up the main chapter text and make it more engaging. Consider what didactic elements you want to include before you start writing so you can ensure that the main chapter text provides the right information to support the didactic element e.g. that a concept is adequately explained in order to answer an exercise question, or that theory is suitably described before a corresponding case study is given
  • Writing style: textbooks can have a lighter, more conversational writing style than monographs and references works. Try to use active rather than passive sentences e.g. “It is believed by some physicians that…” becomes “Some physicians believe that…”
  • Online resources: if you have exercises, consider writing a solutions manual for instructors so they don’t have to work out all the solutions themselves. Are there data sets, spreadsheets, programs, etc., that would be useful for students to access so they can test concepts themselves? The same copyright issues apply for online resources as for the print book – see Obtaining permissions for further information
  • Write an Introduction to explain who the textbook is for and how it should be used: confirm the level of the students e.g. 3rd year undergraduates; confirm the course that the textbook supports; list any prerequisites or assumptions you have made about the student’s background knowledge; explain how the textbook could be used. If applicable, identify core must-read chapters and chapters which are more advanced or optional; provide short summaries of the chapters (just a sentence or two)
  • Test your material as you write: use your draft chapters as part of your lecture course and see how students respond to it. Do they understand the concepts you are explaining? Are they able to complete any exercises?

Important downloads (manuscript guidelines and SEO tips)