There’s more than one way to write a college textbook. Here’s how Chemeketa Press, a non-profit at Chemeketa Community College, penned theirs.
The Chemeketa Handbook has come a long way. Only three years ago Steve Richardson of the Press approached English teacher Daniel Couch about editing the book. Now, after four editions and three title changes, the handbook is available for purchase outside the college through Van Griner Publishing.
The book’s success is momentous on many accounts. Not only is it the Press’s first public release, but it is also the first product they’ve ever completely owned. The content — from the front cover to the writing — was all created in-house.
Additionally, the handbook is one of the first of its kind anywhere. Costing only $18, the book will provide students with a more personalized and applicable writing textbook for a fair price. The handbook is designed to complement all Chemeketa writing courses, minus Basic Writing, Fiction, and Poetry. The previous assigned literature contained too much information and many of its pages went underutilized. It also cost around $6 more.
But how exactly did the Press get here? How might other schools replicate their success and create their own version?
Before they even started writing, Chemeketa Press interviewed every single writing faculty member about their ideas for the structure and content. Since they would be the ones using the book to teach, it was only natural that the Press base it off of their existing lesson plans.
Communication with teachers was also instrumental in the trimming process.
Determined not to make another oversaturated manual, the Press purposely avoided instructions on rhetoric — the voice — and left it to teachers to choose secondary textbooks that supported how they wanted students to write for their own specific courses.
Additionally, the Press examined countless handbooks for inspiration.
“We were trying to see what people were doing and how we could distinguish ourselves from those,” said Couch.
2. Select the writers carefully.
Many of the writers who worked on the handbook were adjunct instructors already employed at the college.
“The faculty are key. They should be leaders,” said Brian Mosher, the managing editor of Chemeketa Press.
As for who to choose, Couch said the Press had several criteria: If they responded to direction well, had open schedules, and were willing to invest their time in the product. Talent is abundant at any school, he admitted, but finding people who can work within boundaries and for a multi-faceted enterprise is the difficult part.
It was also imperative that they be able to adhere to the project’s style guide. Each individual’s contribution had to match the book’s tone, so that even with a large staff, it had a unified voice. The Press strove to make their product direct and simple to understand, while also relaying the information in a friendly, down-to-earth manner.
“I remember getting a piece that was really, really well written,” said Couch — “but also really, really long. And really, really not what we were looking for. It wasn’t about teaching as much as it was about demonstrating [the writer’s] own knowledge.”
3. Don’t be impulsive.
To make sure they made the best, most comprehensible handbook, the Press slaved over the structure first before they even considered writing anything. Once they had that decided, the Press assigned multiple writers to each section, so no one person was stuck writing only about a single topic.
4. Still, be open to changing directions — fast.
According to Mosher, the creation process involved a lot of stop and go, plan and adjust. This method is similar to the one used by software companies, called agile development, in which they follow the procedure “Plan, Do, Check, Adjust,” or PDCA. Instead of monthly or even yearly models, like many businesses practice, the staff sat down each week to decide their next steps.
“You have to sort of be nimble, like you’re jumping around — oh, that didn’t work, then you’d better go this other direction,” said Mosher. “Software development is a good model for this, because you’re not going to make a plan and put your head down and ignore everything else.”
5. Know when to let go.
With deadlines looming and faculty only able to dedicate a certain amount of time to the project, the Press aimed for what Mosher described as “good enough.”
The Press’s main concern is accuracy. If it’s well written but inaccurate, students are going to learn the wrong material, and that’s contrary to their primary goal: to create the most effective product for students at the most reasonable cost.
“It’s about our priorities, I guess,” Mosher said. “Do we want a perfect book, or do we want a finished book?”
If perfection is not what the Press was looking for, how then did they know when the book was completed?
6. Seek outside advice.
Just like the PDCA method, they sent out drafts, consulted with outside sources, fixed the bugs, and repeated the cycle until there were few aspects left to critique. They printed Writing and Research for College, the first developmental edition, in 2016, before considering the copy done. They simply wanted feedback and to support the students in their classes as soon as possible.
“One of the unique aspects of this model is that we can improve as we go,” said Couch.
Overall, though, deadlines controlled the Press’s definition of “done.” Eventually, said Mosher: “You have to stop.”
7. Always remember the ‘why’.
“You’re never going to get [success] if you’re only focused on making the most money,” said Mosher.
The handbook’s purpose should always be that of service to others — the student buyers.
“Now, $18 might not sound like a lot for a single student but if you multiply that by 3,500 students, that’s a lot of student savings,” said Mosher.
“So, the business model is to put those student savings first and recognize that saving students money impacts their success.”
While expecting any monetary compensation from the project is a recipe for disappointment, the Press does expect to be self-sustaining by 2021.
Besides saving students money, the handbook has aided the college in other ways.
Not only has Chemeketa’s very own Visual Communications program contributed art to the project, but collaboration between different departments on campus has also brought the whole community closer together.
“You’re making a book,” said Couch, “but you also have a lot more that you’re making when you do that. So, I’d say, embrace that.”
Megan Stewart is a journalist who during the 2017–18 school year was Co-Editor-in-Chief of The Chemeketa Courier. She hopes to one day write for National Geographic and own her own magazine. She enjoys reading the advice columns and comic sections of the newspaper, but prefers writing news articles.