“How To”: Dissertation to Book

By Dr Joshua Specht

I’m not sure how I got here, but my first book is basically finished. Along the way I learned a few things about revising a dissertation. Here’s the one-sentence take: keep it simple, focus on the writing, and follow deadlines. For the longer version, read on.

I start with three overarching suggestions, then suggest a potential revision process, before ending with assorted tips. Perhaps the most useful suggestion is the use of a revision sheet as you review your dissertation. You don’t have to use my exact sheet, but the general approach is extremely helpful.

First, the overarching principles:

1. Don’t make life too hard on yourself.

I’ve never done it, but writing a book from scratch seems really tough. Fortunately, you have a dissertation to draw from. The people I know who got bogged down with revisions had a lot of additional research they wanted to do for the book. Keep additional research to a minimum; your dissertation has enough material. If you feel like you just have to add chapters, my advice is don’t. Or at least stick to adding only one. Anything more will take forever.

A practical tip: people often stall on book revision when faced with a particularly difficult-to-revise chapter. Give yourself some easy wins to get the process started. Revise the easiest chapter first. That way your giant checklist with remaining work to do (more below) gets a check mark pretty quick. Then do one of the hard-to-revise chapters. Then do the next easiest one. Save the hardest one for last. By the time you’re down to one chapter left, you’ll have the necessary motivation to finish.

2. The writing matters most.

When it comes to revising your dissertation, the writing is all that matters. Have faith in the arguments developed in your dissertation. Beyond any minor changes, you’ve already figured out the argument of your dissertation/book. Even if its hard to find, it’s in there. The key with the book is framing the argument in terms of larger debates or questions. This isn’t easy; I rewrote my book introduction from scratch multiple times. But this is ultimately packaging the hard-work you did for the dissertation.

Similarly, you want to make things readable and interesting. People do cite and assign books that are important but poorly written. But I wouldn’t count on your work being important enough to fall into that category. Focus on the writing as a way to get people excited about your argument. This means working on the prose, editing everything carefully, and since you don’t generally show as much evidence in-text in a book as in a dissertation, work to separate your truly great examples from the merely good ones. And if you’re curious about writing better, here’s some advice.

3. Break the revision process into specific steps with concrete deadlines.

Think in terms of revising individual chapters by specific dates, rather than in terms of the abstract book revision process. Similarly, break each chapter into individual pieces. This makes things feel achievable.

Following self-imposed deadlines might be the hardest part of book revision, particularly for people who had very hands-on dissertation advisors. I don’t have a perfect solution, since I’m pretty good at following self-imposed deadlines. A few approaches I’ve used: telling peers about the deadline, agreeing to a chapter swap with someone (maybe the best option), or using an impending workshop.

A sample dissertation-to-book process:

(This is a model process for revising your dissertation. I find breaking it into a step-by-step process combats procrastination)

A. Review external comments on the dissertation (from your defense or wherever).

B. Read your entire dissertation and jot down your thoughts about the whole thing as well as individual chapters.

C. Rank the individual chapters by the estimated amount of revision needed.

Then, chapter by chapter:

D. Read the chapter with a revision sheet to help identify the necessary edits

E. Create an editing plan, ideally with a physical checklist that you can follow

F. Make edits in terms of structure, flow, etc.

G. Sit on the chapter for a week and then do a stylistic edit for readability

H. Repeat steps D-G for each chapter.

I. Edit the conclusion along these lines.

J. Rewrite the introduction with an eye on framing. You can try the same process as chapter revision, but focus a lot more energy on framing the project and readability.

(Once my book is actually out, I’ll write a post about my experiences with the remaining process through publication).

Minor/assorted points:

1. Get other people’s opinions.

The best writers can think like their readers. I’m pretty terrible at that, so getting actual readers is a good alternative. Non-specialist readers are best.

2. Write the introduction from scratch, maybe even a couple times.

With the introduction, make life hard on yourself. It’s really important.

3. For flow, try retyping an entire chapter.

This is a bit crazy, but it worked well for me (and thanks to my colleague, Clare Corbould, for suggesting it). By the time a book manuscript is nearing completion, each chapter has been edited a bunch of times over a period of years. Often it makes things quite disjointed. If you want everything to flow nicely, try this: pull up your chapter and a blank document side by side. Retype the chapter into the new window. As you go, you’ll naturally make minor edits for clarity and flow that will reproduce your chapter in a much more coherent voice. It’s work-intensive and mind-numbing, but I’ve found it works. Just try it once and see what you think.

4. Log your progress.

There’s nothing more demoralizing than thinking about your project at the end of the week and feeling like you got nothing done. I like to write down what I do, even if its relatively small, so I have a sense of my progress. It’s also why I assembled a giant checklist of my manuscript progress and was able to mark it as I progressed. I’m not organized enough to keep a research/writing log, but that’s probably even better.

5. Look for recent books/articles to keep your citations up to date.

I started writing my dissertation in ~2010 and the book is coming out in 2019. That’s a long period of time. Citations that seemed quite recent when I started are now pretty old. There’s also lots of new (and important!) stuff that has come out. Do some searching and figure out the ~5 most important books or articles for each chapter that have come out recently and ask yourself whether you should be engaging with them.

6. Keep it simple.

Focus on strong topic sentences, concluding sentences, and transitions. One point per paragraph. You don’t write well enough to break these rules!

 


[Editor Note: This piece originally appeared on Joshua Specht’s fantastic blog, and is republished here with permission from the author. Josh blogs on his research & offers advice on academia. We will be re-publishing a few of Josh’s posts in the weeks to come, but in the meantime: make sure you also head over to his blog, follow him on twitter, and keep an eye out for his first book, Red Meat Republic, out with Princeton University Press soon!]

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