Turning a PhD dissertation into a book - any tips?
February 4, 2016 7:25 AM   Subscribe

I'm just getting started on the process of turning my PhD dissertation into a book. On rereading, I'm a bit shocked by how clunky the writing is and how much I haven't said. I'd love any advice from anyone who has done this or anything similar. What's the best approach I can take, and what pitfalls are there?

Some more specific questions

-- should I just treat my thesis as one source among others, open up a blank document, and start writing from scratch? This is what I'm tempted to do but it sounds a bit crazy (am I really going to write the whole thing again, even with liberal copying and pasting?) Does it make more sense to see the job as extensive editing of the old text rather than writing a new one?

-- should I send publishers my best most-polished thesis chapter as a sample chapter, or should I rewrite before contacting publishers? As I've said, the style of the thesis is pretty clunky - will publishers look past this, seeing the sample as a first draft only, or should I aim to send them something that looks publishable to my eye? (That would involve a lot of rewriting and incorporation of fresh material.)

-- What am I not thinking of? Are there pitfalls here that I'm ignoring?
posted by Aravis76 to Writing & Language (8 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: So, you don't say what area of study you're in, but I'm going to assume that if you are in a book discipline, you're most likely in the humanities or some of the social sciences. First, you should be asking these questions of your dissertation director and any other senior faculty mentors you may have. There are some pitfalls to this -- if your advisors are not very current on the current state of publishing, they may have advice that is out of date -- but in aggregate such guidance can be very useful. Second, there are a number of books out there that directly address the questions that you have. I found William Germano's Getting It Published to be very useful. Other useful titles include Beth Luey's Handbook for Academic Authors and Rabiner and Fortunato's Thinking Like Your Editor. They will have specific advice on many of your questions, especially as regards to what to send a potential publisher. Third, every dissertation is different, and there is no one-size-fits-all answer to how to proceed. If your dissertation is a clunky mess, you'll have more editing to do. If the basic structure is sound and it needs better writing to make it publishable, then that's the project you have to do. Get as many people as you can to read your dissertation and help you figure out what needs to be done -- your first instincts may not be the right ones. One thing to think about is whether you have impending deadlines that will influence your approach. Are you in a tenure-track position and need to have it published before you come up for tenure? Do you need a contract or at least a clear game plan for a third year review? Are there things in your dissertation that are extraneous and could be spun off into articles? In short, you need to take a careful look at what other requirements you need to fulfill and make sure that your diss to book project will meet them too.
posted by pleasant_confusion at 8:05 AM on February 4, 2016 [2 favorites]

Best answer: My first monograph was a rewrite of my dissertation, as first monographs tend to be. I finished the diss in 1997 and the book, IIRC, in late 2002; it was published in 2004. The most drastic revisions: an entirely new introduction and conclusion; one new chapter; one chapter whacked in half and then revised and expanded into a new one. Everything else had a pretty thorough going-over. When I sent out the book to publishers, I had a) the new introduction and b) one polished chapter (an earlier version of which had been published separately--you'll want to think about doing that).

I agree with pleasant_confusion that you should ask colleagues/others in your discipline to read the diss and give you feedback about what does and doesn't work. In my case, I had to really loosen up the prose style (as it happens, several years of blogging tamed any leftover penchant to write in grad school English-ese, as opposed to English), eliminate the literature review (that's standard for any diss rewrite), and sharpen up/pare down the argument's arc. A lot of footnotes had to decamp. Moreover, I had to learn how to make the argument's stakes clearer to the reader.
posted by thomas j wise at 8:19 AM on February 4, 2016 [1 favorite]

Dissertation -> Book from the Professor is In.

Have you spoken with editors yet?
posted by k8t at 8:22 AM on February 4, 2016

Seconding the recommendations of both Germano and Fortunato. They're excellent. I wish I had had them! In my own case, my first book was about 70% dissertation and 30% new material (more or less), reorganized and heavily revised. I finished the dissertation in 1997; did research for the revisions from 1999 through 2001, finished the revisions in 2003, and the book came out (finally!) in 2006.

I sent my dissertation with a cover letter indicating what the revisions would be to an editor in 1999 and got a preliminary contract based on that. But I already had a contact with the editor, through one of my mentors. I also had a six-page list from my dissertation advisor of the revisions that she suggested for the book. (That was in addition to the one-page list of things that had to be fixed in the dissertation before she would approve it!) I don't know whether I would send the dissertation as-is to an editor or not; at the very least I'd want to discuss it, preferably face-to-face at a conference.
posted by brianogilvie at 8:25 AM on February 4, 2016 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Yeah, I have done that (this answer addresses texts in the humanities...)

The best trick would obviously have been to have planned the dissertation right from the start as "bookifiable" material. If that's not what has happened, you will very likely have to heavily edit and/or re-write many parts.

Pick some three or so books in your field that you really admire or that have been exceptionally informative to you, and look at how their authors went about the task of writing such a "good book." Analyse how these books are structured, what type of information their authors tend to provide, and what they skip. Look careful at the length of these books: are they just right, too long, too short, and why do you think that?

Now start thinking about your own work, and especially about your intended readership and their backgrounds, about how they need to be addressed. Make your own outline. Take whatever research you have and put it into place according to that outline, bit for bit, topic for topic. Rewrite everything that needs rewriting in the process; edit everything that gets away with editing. Look carefully at the order of things, perhaps you can sort your material and arguments in better ways than you did before.
Be on the lookout for arguments, elaborations and references that tend to appease supervisors but bore a larger readership of the field. Leave however any basic material in place that simply needs to be mentioned in preparation for an argument. Beware of wordiness otherwise. Try to adhere to a book-length word count, cut the blab in footnotes especially. Let some people read what came out if it all.

For publishing: one thing that's really important and that's not necessarily related to how clunky the writing seems to you at this point, is to get people from your field to acknowledge that your content is good, and to endorse you; also, if possible, they should be in a position to help you with contacts. Searching for such people is a process that you can start right away.
posted by Namlit at 9:56 AM on February 4, 2016 [2 favorites]

My limited knowledge of dissertations is from the sciences. Such dissertations have a particular structure which would be terrible in a book.

If you want a really good book, then this:
"Treat my thesis as one source among others, open up a blank document, and start writing from scratch." Get an editor involved as early as you can.
posted by SemiSalt at 10:30 AM on February 4, 2016

Response by poster: Thanks everyone, very helpful recommendations and advice.
posted by Aravis76 at 1:14 PM on February 4, 2016

If your book is intended for a general non-fiction audience, then then you will probably start by first re-writing the introduction and first chapter in a charming and accessible style, and then using this sample to look for an agent that sells manuscripts in this genre, rather than approaching publishers directly yourself. Publishers are usually not interested in stuff that needs polishing.

There have been some dissertations that have done well in popular publishing, and Camille Paglia is a famous example, but Paglia is also a very lively and talented writer (whether you agree with her or not).

I can't speak about Academic Publishing. Lower down the food chain there is self-publishing, which is cheap and easy to do these days, but with the disadvantage that there's not much interest or exposure for the general public. It's worth considering if you just want to make a text available to your immediate circle of interest, and you can rewrite, change or edit as much or as little as you feel like.
posted by ovvl at 7:21 PM on February 4, 2016

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