Revising the Dissertation into a Book?


                           (the book proposal)


                                        (The book)

(Images courtesy of WSVR)

Kristine at Serendipities had an interesting thread a few weeks ago about Getting it Published, which discussed the single greatest source of anxiety for those who have managed to get tenure-track jobs: revising the diss into a book.  Practically speaking, this means learning how to transform something written for a 4-person committee into another something that an editor will want to publish within your probationary period.  I also spoke to a number of people at ASECS going through this process, and I’m wondering if others might have suggestions for those going through this stage of the academic career.  And, come to think of it, this advice might also help those still cycling through the post-doc and lecturer stage, as well.

I don’t feel that I have any great insights into this process, because my revision-process was so protracted, and resulted in the writing of a book independent of the diss, but I have watched my junior colleagues go through this, and I have tried to help them by reading their work along the way, so here are my observations:

  • make the writing-process more concrete by making it part of the publishing process sooner rather than later.  In other words, try to start thinking about the proposal early on in the revising process, and think about what you would need to do to your manuscript to make it conform to your promises in the proposal.  This does NOT mean sending off a half-baked proposal right away, but that you revise with an eye to publication from the very beginning: looking at specific publishers to learn about their word-limits, series editors, citation forms, etc.
  • the book proposal is a distinct genre with a distinct rhetoric that must be studied and practiced and adapted to circumstances, very much like the job-letter (remember those?) or the grant application (you will be doing a lot of these).  Look at other people’s successful examples, and try to understand the kinds of information that you must provide to your audience in order to close the deal.   As with the job letter, it’s also worth your time to show the drafts around to people whose opinions you trust, to feel confident that you’re communicating what you want to be communicating.
  • finally, I think that the temptation is to do the writing and circulating of materials sequentially, so that you finish the revisions before thinking about where to submit the manuscript.  I think it’s probably better to assume that you’ll be doing both at the same time, since multiple revisions are a given with this kind of writing, and your time is limited.

 This advice may seem obvious, and is in fact hammered home to grad students every day of their miserable lives, but I thought it worth reiterating.  And I’d be interested in hearing about others’ experiences with this, since I”m in the middle of starting up a new manuscript myself.

UPDATE: Laura Runge, the Director of Graduate Studies in the English Department at the University of South Florida, has very generously passed on to us the presentation handout (and bibliography) she developed for her students at USF.

Runge’s handout goes into more detail than I did about the differences between book and dissertation, but the message seems similar to me: both audience and authorship are conceived differently for a book manuscript than in dissertations, largely because the scholar/author engages other scholars as peers rather than authorities; this new and independent relation to one’s scholarly community is announced in an argument that is more purposeful and rhetorically focused than student work. 

The dissertation is about developing your own thoughts in the presence of a more or less sympathetic audience.  The book is about changing other people’s minds, or moving the discussion of your topic into new and more productive areas.  To do this, the manuscript will have to be accessible enough for those not already persuaded of your approach to be reached by its arguments.  This is a very tall order, especially for those still on the market, or those swamped by the job they already have, but the key is knowing why one’s topic is important, and why others might find it important, too.



9 responses to “Revising the Dissertation into a Book?

  1. Shameless plug: at ASECS the Graduate Caucus hosted a jam-packed session on this very topic. Germano was invoked early and often, and of course, it’s always nice to hear from readers, editors, and People Who’ve Survived the Process. The out-going Caucus Chair Crystal Lake deserves endless kudos for the panel, as well as last year’s similarly well-attended and informative publishing panel focusing on articles.

  2. David Mazella

    Sounds good, and yes, the Germano I found very helpful myself as I was doing this. Any plans to disseminate some version of this panel on the web? Sounds like a natural for the ASECS grad student blog.


  3. I am merely the Vice-Chair of the Caucus, though I’ll pass along the idea to Caroline Wigginton, the new Caucus Chair.

  4. I’d also like to see more conversation about this issue. FYI: I like Beth Luey’s _Revising Your Dissertation: Advice from Leading Editors_. I find it more specific, less repetitive, and(though I really do appreciate all of Germano’s frank comments) a little less patronizing than Germano’s dissertation book.

  5. dave mazella

    Hmm, I hadn’t heard about Luey, but she might have stuff to offer people. Here’s a description:

    And here’s a review:

    If anyone has used Luey and found it helpful or otherwise, please chime in.



  6. the beefcheddar photo is rather nauseating. Will we be moving on soon?

  7. David Mazella

    Well, sure, T. What would you propose?


  8. I’m back, if only briefly!

    What great advice, Dave. I’m not a grad student anymore, but I see my book project just gathering dust (or worse, melting velveeta)… I think I’ll be doing what you did–that is, writing the monograph independent of the diss.–or at least taking only a small chunk of it and making that into a book.

    Those pictures were “nauseating” but they gave me a much needed laugh this afternoon!

  9. david mazella

    Sharlene, glad to hear you enjoyed the pics!

    As for the writing and revising process, I wish I knew the best way to revive long-dormant projects. It’s a trick, or maybe a habit, of converting distracted, useless time into more productive activities. I tend to think that academic writing feels harder to begin and to finish because it’s done in one’s unstructured time, without the same kinds of short-term deadlines or benchmarks that you might have with an office job. This is one of the benefits of having a writing group that meets regularly and demands weekly/monthly updates from its members.