From Dissertation to Book: A Few Practical Suggestions

A .pdf file of the following advice can be found here.

Academy Series Editor Search – Appendix 1: From Dissertation to Book: A Few Practical Suggestions

Despite this open-ended invitation of topics for Academy Series consideration, there are characteristics shared by most dissertations that require revision in order for the dissertation to be considered a book. Below are a few suggestions authors might wish to follow as they engage in the process of turning their dissertations into books and as they transform themselves from graduate students into academic professionals.

Typically dissertations are evaluated as an exercise in research, which means they must demonstrate an author’s full command of relevant literature on a particular topic. Because dissertations are written for and influenced by the contributions of an entire committee, oftentimes they bear the mark of being products of a committee; that is, works intended to satisfy each committee member’s particular perspective or area of expertise. A book, however, while it relies on competent research, blends this research into argument in subtler and less direct ways. The scholarship informs the argument but it does not subsume the argument. In a book, the author’s unique and authoritative voice must always be distinct. Several ways to achieve this distinction include:

Eliminate excessive footnoting and/or incorporating footnoted material into the text proper. If footnoted information is indeed pertinent to advance an argument, it should be included in the body of the text for coherence and ease of reading. If the footnoted material is simply an interesting aside or additional commentary, consider its relevance and purpose to the overall design of the argument. It may be useful for another enterprise, but not necessary for the book. A book does not require you to trot out for the reader everything you have read or learned about a particular topic, only that you demonstrate your command of the knowledge represented in the sources. A book should synthesize and interpret information derived from sources, not merely present it, and do so in a way that advances an argument.

Organize your material coherently. Dissertations often are organized by how they are researched which is not always the most illuminating way to advance an argument. In other words, some of what you needed to learn to acquire an argument or a thesis may not be relevant to the reader who simply wants to learn about your thesis. Readers do not need to know every step of the process you took to arrive at an idea. Your book should advance an argument rather than roll out data. Therefore, always keep the theme, thesis, or main argument clear and present before the reader. Do not make the reader hunt to find the thesis. Do not lose sight of your thesis and get diverted or off track. Always bring your argument back to the original notion you are advancing. In a book, unlike a dissertation, you are joining an ongoing professional, academic conversation so make sure your argument acknowledges this by not patronizing your reader and by situating your argument in a discussion that is broad enough to be of interest to the wider academic community.

Remove any language describing a text as a dissertation. This includes setting up an argument with phrases like: “and now I will” or “as I have just said,” or “in this paper I propose to…” Make your writing more elegant in setting forth an argument rather than giving your reader signposts to what you will do or have done. Also, remove any passive voice constructions. Always write in first person, active voice. In this way you will make your authorial identity and presence clear and commanding. You will become a person behind an idea, a voice behind the words. Consider the difference in these two constructions: “You are loved by me,” and “I love you.” Who would you trust?

Establish your authoritative and unique authorial voice. In so doing you will also be demonstrating your ability to join the conversation of your predecessors as a peer, not as a supplicant. Certainly you can admire (or criticize) the opinions of others but do so as an intellectual equal and position yourself in the tradition of a topic and among a community of professionals by announcing your own professional arrival through the strong command of your own language.

Paraphrase more than quote. Your language and authority will be strengthened if you paraphrase more than quote from sources. Obviously some writers’ work will be so elegant and precise that a direct quotation is necessary. But continuously inserting the voice of others diminishes your own; it establishes someone other than you as the authority. Also, disciplining yourself to put someone else’s ideas into your own language rather than letting someone else speak for you insures that you more completely understand what it is your are trying to communicate.

Be informative and illuminating, not clever. Avoid jargon or idiosyncratic terms unless you specifically define a term for your contextual usage. Also, define all your terms and do not assume everyone shares the same definition for wobbly and imprecise terms like “sacred.” Use language that is precise, but flexible, which means avoiding superlatives (such as: always, never, most) that you may not be able to completely defend.

Write in short sentences and short paragraphs to avoid losing your train of thought or getting off topic. In writing, as in much of life, less is more.

Remember Aristotle’s rhetoric. Rhetoric, the art of argument, is pertinent in writing a book because you are, in fact, arguing for the relevance and importance of your topic. Thus, employ the principles of Aristotle’s rhetoric: logos, ethos, and pathos. Know your stuff (logos); know yourself (ethos); and know your audience (pathos). Show you are in command of the topic. Demonstrate you have the character, ability, and trustworthiness to interpret that topic. And make your reader care about the topic and share your enthusiasm.

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