I started writing books in the early 1980s. Like most academic geographers, I published essays or scientific articles in journals like the Geographic Review or Geographical Analysis. Writing a book always seemed daunting—a fantasy fueled by a Writer’s Digest subscription and frequent visits to a local bookstore with a good “Writing” section. Especially encouraging was the observation (William Zinsser’s, I believe) that writing a book is akin to rowing a boat across the Atlantic: five miles a day and eventually you’ll get there.
My first book was a textbook, Computer-Assisted Cartography: Principles and Prospects, published by Prentice-Hall in 1982. As the first commercial textbook on computer cartography, a field now called geographic information science, it sold well. In the mid 1980s, with a glut of used copies eroding demand for new books, the publisher requested a revision, which I declined. Time is scarce, and I had moved onto book-length essays, the first of which was Technological Transition in Cartography, published in 1985 by the University of Wisconsin Press.
Two more textbooks followed, both co-authored with George Schnell, a geographer at SUNY New Paltz. George received his Ph.D. at Penn State a few years before I did, and our collaborative projects (mostly research papers) span three decades. Our jointly authored texts had mixed success. Charles E. Merrill Publishing Company brought out The Study of Population: Elements, Patterns, Processes in 1983, and promptly abandoned its geography list when a new owner took over. In 1988 we published Map Appreciation with Prentice-Hall, which encouraged us to write the book but put little effort into its marketing. At that point I swore off writing textbooks.
Or did I? Two of my books—How to Lie with Maps and Mapping It Out—are required reading for a variety of college courses, including a few of my own. They’ve also enjoyed decent sales as trade books, especially among independent booksellers, and How to Lie with Maps is, by university press standards, a bestseller. Both are published by the University of Chicago Press, which persuaded me to revise How to Lie with Maps. The carrot was an opportunity to add illustrations in color, strangely lacking from the first edition.
Working with the editors and other professionals at Chicago is enjoyable. I also appreciate their practice of keeping books in print a long time—possibly forever, with their new commitment to one-off electronic printing. All seven books I’ve published with Chicago are still in print.
I tried a trade publisher once. In 1995 Henry Holt brought out Drawing the Line: Tales of Maps and Cartocontroversy. It was a fun book to research and write, and received impressive reviews. Holt did a superb job with design and production, but the economics of commercial publishing dictated a short shelf life. In about fifteen months, a paperback was out, and bookstores shipped unsold cloth copies back to the warehouse, which sent most of them to cut-rate mail-order retailers like Edward Hamilton. And in another fifteen months the paperbound version was remaindered. You can probably locate a reasonably-priced copy in decent condition through an online bookseller like Amazon.com. And it's also available as an e-book, from Google Books.
On Making Maps: Desktop mapping is a marvelous invention, which I use regularly in creating maps for my books and articles. Through the late 1980s, I generally turned these chores over to the department’s staff cartographer, who’d use my rough drawings to draft finished artwork with ink pens and stick-up lettering. The work was labor intensive, instructions had to be explicit, delay was inevitable, experimentation was discouraged, and the process taught “clients” like me to be precise but not fussy.
Electronic publishing radically altered the way I write. With a scanner at home, access to a larger one in the department, and well-equipped computers at both locations, I now craft my own illustrations from start to finish. Specialized software helps me analyze data and project coastlines, and Macromedia Freehand lets me draft maps and diagrams while experimenting with symbols and labeling. When the story calls for a facsimile, I use Adobe Photoshop to clean-up, crop, and reformat. I often design an illustration the same day that I discuss its content, not weeks or months later. I create my artwork at the final, reproduced size, and run proofs on the laser printer in my office. If something needs adjustment or a different approach, I change it. This regular, first-hand experience transfers nicely to my map design course, and (I like to think) makes me a better teacher.
If you'd like some advice on making your own maps, get a copy of Mapping It Out: Expository Cartography for the Humanities and Social Sciences. And for insights on how and why news artists make maps, see Maps with the News: The Development of American Journalistic Cartography.
How I Write: Two early experiences strongly influenced the way I write. During my senior year in high school our English teacher decided to downplay American lit and concentrate on writing. He assigned frequent essays, always returned with helpful comments, and “dovetail” and “re-write” were his mantras. The second event occurred several summers earlier, when Dad hired a carpenter to rebuild our decaying back steps. Critical of his predecessor’s work (“a restaurant for termites”) and eager to talk while he worked, this craftsman had his own maxim: “Get it right the first time.”
Integrating these three adages was not easy, at least not before computers. I type slowly and inaccurately, perhaps because I’d peek at the keyboard during high-school typing class. And because my handwriting is worse, hiring a typist was usually troublesome. What’s more, I was inclined, even in graduate school, to get the words down on paper quickly, by hand, and later to make whatever changes came to mind while typing up the manuscript.
My strategy is different now, thanks to interactive on-screen editing and laser printing: I edit compulsively as I write, experimenting with wording, sentence structure, and “flow,” and later (usually the following morning) edit the entire piece (essay, article, column, book chapter) from the beginning, making whatever changes seem appropriate. It’s a slow process and probably obsessive—a single paragraph often consumes half a day—but it’s a good way to dovetail, rewrite, and reduce the tinkering that subsequent drafts require.
I pity my students, who have little time in their normal coursework for creatively careful writing. Master’s theses and doctoral dissertations are another matter—there’s ample time to get it right if they don’t (as too many do) defer all writing to the final stage of their research. Anticipating problems, I strongly encourage students to buy, read, and frequently re-read Style: Toward Clarity and Grace, by Joseph S. Williams. Unlike Elements of Style, in which Strunk and White reduce effective writing to a list of commandments, Williams offers a convincing theory for creating reader-friendly writing. (His principles are well grounded in studies of how readers decode information.) I discovered Style serendipitously in the early 1990s, while devising a theory for designing graphic scripts and dynamic narratives for cartographic multimedia, and can attest to its relevance to all forms of communication.
Even if I could write more rapidly, I’d maintain a close relationship with source materials, which in my case means frequent trips to the library to check facts, verify references, and browse the shelves in search of intriguing examples or anecdotes. I work closely with pre-Internet sources, and often discover new insights as I write. A flexible work schedule, a house seven minutes by car from campus, and a decent library with open stacks and a helpful interlibrary loan staff are valuable assets that I wouldn’t sacrifice, even for a platoon of research assistants.
Careful planning is crucial. More than a year before I begin a new book project, I work up a tentative outline and start collecting reports and photocopying articles that might be helpful. A running “needs list” of materials I want to examine helps me plan visits to archives, map collections, and libraries at government agencies or other universities. For some projects, visits with mapmakers or map users with special needs or experiences are essential. Syracuse University and the Maxwell School have generously supported much of my research travel.