Writing a non-academic book is often a solitary process. It requires concentration, time, and commitment. Most often, the exchange of ideas occurs mainly between an author and an editor. But what if there was a way to incorporate other voices into the editing process? An author himself, Rob Reich envisioned a scenario where non-fiction writers and Stanford scholars could connect. Reich, the McCoy Family Center for Ethics in Society’s Faculty Director, turned that vision into reality in 2016 with the launch of the Center’s Manuscript Workshop.
The workshop brings together a small group of Stanford academics with relevant subject matter expertise and asks them to engage with a non-academic writer whose work-in-progress addresses an important ethical issue.
“Professors have the great advantage of being able to receive substantive feedback from their colleagues and students, and writers have no such easy access,” Reich says. “The manuscript workshop is an attempt to provide non-fiction writers a version of what professors receive on a regular basis: expert feedback on draft manuscripts.”
Ramsey, a criminal justice reporter for the Los Angeles Timeswhose work has appeared in The New York Times,The Atlanticand Vice,is currently working on a narrative nonfiction that tells the story of the crack epidemic of the 1980s and ‘90s. When Crack Was Kingshares the stories of people who survived it — a dealer in Newark, an addict in Los Angeles, the son of an addict in New York, and the former mayor of Baltimore. Together, their narratives capture the depth and breadth of the epidemic, the various ways it took hold and was expressed in communities across the country.
Ramsey’s manuscript touches on several disciplines, covering psychology, sociology, anthropology, and criminal justice. To his delight, our 2020-2021 virtual workshop featured an array of academics, including sociology professor Matthew Clair, psychiatry and behavioral sciences professor Anna Lembke, English professor Vaughn Rasberry, and creative writing lecturer Jenn Trahan. Scholars from psychology, political science, philosophy and law also participated.
“It was a great experience to be able to sit down with people that are experts in those areas,” Ramsey says. “They read the book thoroughly and presented me with their thoughts, but also with steps and ideas to make the book better.” Ramsey plans to incorporate the feedback he received, particularly relating to the book’s structure in the next stage of the editing process. While it can be a bit intimidating, Ramsey says the workshop gave him more confidence in his manuscript moving forward. The intended publication date is slated for late 2022.
Journalist Carla Power, the 2019 workshop author, describes the workshop as a “book-changing” experience. Power specializes in Muslim societies, global social issues, and culture. Her manuscript examined the roots of radicalism. “Two years later, I still pinch myself. There were 12 Stanford professors, some of them who invented the field that I was exploring, sitting there reading over my work and being willing to discuss it for a day. Their comments absolutely transformed the book.”
Power’s new book, Home, Land, Security: Deradicalization and the Journey Back From Extremism, offers a groundbreaking look inside the controversial field of deradicalization, told through the stories of former militants and the people working to bring them back into society. (Power discussed her book with Stanford anthropologist Sharika Thiranagama during a virtual event hosted by the Center for Ethics in Society in September 2021. Click here to watch the recording of the event.)
This year, the Center is hosting independent science reporter Jennie Erin Smith. Smith’s manuscript focuses on a long-running study that looks at a rare hereditary form of early-onset Alzheimer’s arising from a genetic mutation seen only in Colombia. She first wrote about the topic in a 2019 article for Undark Magazineand in 2020 for The New York Times.
The selected writer participates in a workshop with invited faculty and in several smaller meetings with interested students. After the book's publication, the writer is invited back to the Stanford campus for a public event and book signing.
In April 2021, the Center hosted a virtual event with the 2020 recipient Alec MacGillis where he discussed his recently released book, FULFILLMENT: Winning and Losing in One-Click America. A year prior, MacGillis participated in the workshop and received feedback on his then manuscript-in-progress. In his book, the senior reporter for ProPublica investigates Amazon’s impact on the wealth and poverty of towns and cities across the United States.
“The workshop was extraordinarily helpful for me,” he says. “It was hugely instructive and helpful.”
Looking back, past participants emphasize the importance of connecting with academics. Through the workshop, authors can expand their network and have direct connections to Stanford’s scholarly community.
“It’s a rare opportunity," Power says. "A testimony to what really good universities allow people to do – which is to give space and time to think and debate.”
For authors interested in applying to participate, the Center generally accepts submissions early in fall quarter. Information about the application process will be posted here.