Writing on African Peacebuilding: Reflection on Personal Experiences
Since everyone writes differently, formulating a standard set of advice on how best to pull together your research into an effective book, book chapter, article, or policy paper or brief is very difficult. In offering my personal experiences as a guide, I want to highlight choices and challenges I have faced, decisions I have made, and my ever-evolving best practices for writing and publication. Here I will discuss some of the questions scholars must consider when embarking on a writing project.
1. What format will best convey my arguments based on the evidence I have assembled, the audience with whom I want to communicate, and the guidelines required by publishers or editors?
The question of what format will best convey your research and findings on peacebuilding in Africa is perhaps the most fundamental you will face. The choice may depend on a number of variables, some within your control and others not. While the same evidence can be marshaled for any publication format, each has its own requirements and conventions and calls for a slightly different skill set on your part.
2. What is my academic disciplinary and personal intellectual position, and how can I bring it to bear on my research and writing on African peacebuilding?
For any author, the starting point has to be his or her disciplinary and personal intellectual orientation. I usually introduce myself as a historian (social and cultural) of West Africa by choice and a scholar of conflict, security, and peacebuilding by necessity. I began writing on peacebuilding in the 1990s because of war in my country, Sierra Leone. I have struggled not only to maintain relevance and standing within these two fields—by remaining aware of the evolving scholarship and conversations in both—but also to look constantly for scholarly intersections, synergies, and ways to bridge them (as well as other fields) in my writing. I have striven for interdisciplinarity, in which my training and sensibility as a historian are my entry points for my scholarly contributions on African peacebuilding.
3. Based on the evidence I have collected, what published format should I choose?
One of the stark choices I have faced in my academic career, now in its third decade, is whether to complete a monograph or to work on an edited collection. Thrice, I have opted for the latter, producing two coedited anthologies squarely in the field of peacebuilding: West African Security Challenges (completed in 2004) and the Political Economy of Ebola in West Africa (in review and slated for publication in 2017). In between these anthologies, I worked on another in the field of history, The Paradoxes of History and Memory in Postcolonial Sierra Leone, completed in 2011. While choosing to work mainly on anthologies may not have been the most astute decision in terms of the amount of work, coordination, and time involved, I believe it has been the most prudent, given the contexts within which these edited collections have been published, and they now represent strategic and scholarly interventions that have contributed substantially to the subjects with which they deal.
4. What is the vision of the volume, and what are the perspectives and voices I\we want included in it?
The proliferation of conflicts in different parts of Africa has made researching and writing on reconciliation and peacebuilding a necessity. The specific theme, topic or aspect of peacebuilding that one choses to publish on may be inspired by a variety of circumstances or considerations. In my case, West African scholarly perspectives were sorely needed on the various conflicts that were raging across the subregion in the 1990s and first decade of the twenty-first century. The journalists and scholars writing on these conflicts and the various peacemaking efforts lacked deep understanding of the nuances of the unfolding conflicts, creating a void my first two anthologies served to fill. The volumes I have worked on have ensured that African viewpoints are given center stage, even though they also contained contributions from non-African scholars.
Unlike a single-authored monograph, the edited collection is shaped not only by the overarching subject matter, themes, and sets of arguments that give it coherence, but by the scholars who choose to contribute, are chosen to contribute, or, most important, are able to work with the editor(s) until the book is complete. Choosing contributors is not easy. Whether the anthology is constituted through an open call or personal solicitation, the editors need to ensure careful selection, both of scholars and of topics. A challenge they face in this regard is the potential for cultivating excellent collaborative relations or incurring lifelong enmity.
A second challenge comes during the editing and revision process. Very few anthologies do not require significant revisions or rewriting of chapters from contributing authors, as requested by the editors, peer reviewers, or both. Many contributors oblige and do the revisions. Others do not, and their contributions sometimes have to be dropped. The latter instance constitutes another situation in which lifelong enmity can be incurred if not skillfully handled. In West African Security Challenges and Political Economy of Ebola, my coeditors and I had to make these tough decisions. They resulted in better books, the first of which continues to be relevant twelve years after its publication.
5. To which publisher should I/we submit the work?
Before approaching a publisher, make sure you have a well-crafted book proposal. It usually provides a brief description of the project, justification for it, a summary of subject matter and themes, and an outline of the chapters. It discusses the estimated length of the book, potential readers and marketing strategy, submission dates, and a brief biography of the author(s).
Sometimes a series may already be established (publisher or institution supported) on war, conflict resolution, security, and peacebuilding. Your work may fit into the publisher’s vision and your book proposal accepted with minimal hassle. In the case of West African Security Challenges, Lynne Reinner Publishers and the International Peace Academy (now the International Peace Institute) were very supportive of a series on peace and conflict in Africa, and our book became the first of the five-volume Africa series.
Otherwise, you essentially have to “shop” your book proposal to publishers, a process that requires research, diligence and negotiation between what you want to write and what the publishers want to sell. You should consider whether to go with prestigious university presses, trade or popular presses. For many academic institutions, university presses or presses that specialize in high-quality academic scholarship is the preferred option.
The publisher will invariably work with you to hammer out the final proposal and the details of the publishing contract. Pay close attention to the contract before you sign it, especially to word limit, submission dates, liabilities, terms regarding complimentary copies, and copyright provisions, all of which may be subjects of future disputes. Get someone to help you interpret the contract if you cannot.
6. What best practices should I/we follow for writing and publication in peacebuilding?
Peacebuilding in Africa is a complex and evolving field that can be approached from several disciplinary angles. As you analyze and craft your research for publication, here are some of my evolving best practices for ensuring high quality work.
• Find a dedicated space and a regular time to do your writing. Such routines will help you establish a work rhythm that enables you to meet writing targets. Writing in a hurry shows.
• Leave time for revisions (in fact, multiple revisions). Few people are born gifted writers, able to communicate with no or little revision. Most of us have to write and rewrite to ensure our work is of publishable quality.
• Understand the audience with whom you want to communicate. Are you aiming your book at disciplinary specialists, scholars, students, officials of government, members of international organizations, the general public, or some combination of these?
• Aim for clarity, conciseness, and a smooth flow of ideas and expressions. Peacebuilding is a complex topic. Write so that reasonably educated people as well as experts can understand you.
• Avoid plagiarism. The act of plagiarism is using other people’s words, arguments, or ideas without attribution—deliberately or inadvertently. In academia, it constitutes major professional misconduct, and the seriousness with which it is regarded is increasing.
• Ensure your quotes, notes, bibliographies, and other technical aspects of your work are in order. This saves time and energy both on your part and that of the publishers.
• Respond promptly to the comments of peer reviewers and of copy editors. It keeps everyone on schedule.
7. Why is scholarly writing important?
It is what serious academics—especially those who work at institutions of higher education, research institutions, or think tanks—do. They publish. Their training prepares them for it, and their jobs and career development require it, especially where they are subject to rigorous assessment. Furthermore, the production of specialized, evidence-based knowledge can contribute to the advancement of knowledge in given fields or disciplines, shift paradigms, and contribute to general education (for example, through textbooks), as well as the formulation of meaningful policy decisions (through briefs).
Curtis, Devon and Gwinyayi A Dineza. Peacebuilding, Power and Politics in Africa.
Cambridge Center of African Studies. 2012.
Germano. William. Getting It Published: A Guide for Scholars and
Anyone Else Serious about Serious Books. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001.
Adebajo, Adekeye and Ismail Rashid. West African Security Challenges: Building
Peace in A Troubled Region, Lynne Reinner, 2004.