Many PhD students dream of turning their research into a successful book. However, the task of transforming a PhD dissertation or thesis into a manuscript suitable for publication can be a daunting and intimidating one. To take some of the mystery away, we at Boydell & Brewer have created a list of the best tips from our Editors for first-time authors.
Advice from Editors and Publishers:
1. Take advice from your supervisor and examiners. Did they comment positively on the potential for transforming your study into a book and on what in their view would be necessary? If they spontaneously offered advice on this, it’s a good sign; if they did not, you still might consider asking them their opinion as a starting point.
2. Give it some distance. Take some time away from your thesis so that you can come back to it with fresh eyes.
3. Think about your audience. Bear in mind that you are no longer writing only for your supervisor and examiners but for a much wider audience, who may not be as familiar with your subject as you are. While an exhaustive review of the previous scholarship is to be discouraged, greater contextualisation may be needed.
4. Chapter 1: The first and last chapters are usually the most problematic. The first chapter typically involves a literature survey, setting the scholarly context of the work to follow. This can often be a breathless gallop…
(‘Winehouse (2005b) argues against Eminem (2004c), while Dixie-Chicks (2006a, c & d) rebuts both and establishes a new paradigmatic presence, which is further disputed by…’).
This survey is one way of demonstrating to your supervisor and examiners that you have read the background literature. It is not a good way of engaging with a wider audience and introducing them to the subject matter of your book. Find a more direct and arresting way to introduce your subject in chapter 1. This chapter is often the most difficult to write, as it needs to both present and make your arguments. It is usually the case that it goes through several revisions; we recommend getting a draft done at an early stage but then leave it alone, write the other chapters, and rewrite it after the other chapters are written.
5. Final chapter: The final chapter, too, is often written at a gallop. It summarizes the findings, but, as a way of covering an examiner’s anticipated criticisms, a candidate often reels off a list of unanswered questions arising from the material, ‘that need further research’. Very often these afterthoughts provide a very good starting point for recasting your original questions, and thus the structure of your book. The answers to such questions might not require ‘further research’, merely further thought. Think carefully: are you still satisfied with your original questions, as well as the answers you provided? You probably are the day after your thesis is passed. You shouldn’t be later (thus the advice to leave it alone before starting to revise).
6. There is no need to provide a plethora of examples for every argument you make: choose wisely. The presentation of evidence is important in any thesis. Sometimes the material is absolutely new, or it runs counter to established thinking. Very often there are large sections where both author and readers trip over the evidence, so dense has it grown. The argument of a book, on the other hand, must flow more smoothly. Is your thesis over-annotated? Do tables, graphs and illustrative material merely repeat information in the text? If so, they should go. You can then present your publisher with a leaner, fitter manuscript.
7. Stop being so defensive! A thesis is essentially defensive: you need to argue your case and assert the value of your research in a possibly crowded field. One temptation for PhD candidates is to dismiss previous scholarship: that until you came along, everyone was entirely wrong about the Battle of Hastings or Magna Carta or Thomas Malory. Don’t fall into this trap. Questioning, querying, respectfully disagreeing and qualifying are good; ridiculing, dismissing and denigrating are not so good!
8. Language: In a thesis the candidate often must demonstrate mastery of technical language or jargon. But the more jargon-laden a manuscript, the smaller its potential audience. Think carefully: do you really need to situate yourself within ‘a discourse analysis of the iconography of packing crates’? Can you find another way of saying the same thing, less mysteriously? The editorial ‘we’ is now considered archaic. Some editors, and many readers, find it intensely annoying. Write as yourself, not as a committee. And rather than cluttering the narrative with long explanations of case-specific jargon, consider adding a glossary.
9. A book, like a novel, should have a beginning, middle, and an end: you should set up an interesting situation, develop it, and provide a denouement. All of this advice is aimed at helping you free yourself from the restraints of the thesis format and take wing in your imagination and your writing. Remember that many theses or dissertations, no matter how competent, simply do not lend themselves to being adapted into good scholarly books. Often the best books derived from theses and dissertations bear little relationship in structure, organization, argument or language to the original work.
10. Accept that further work – sometime a lot more work – is necessary. A thesis that is ready for publication is a creature of myth and legend. Keep going, and remember to reward yourself for your progress!
- From Dissertation to Book, by William Germano (University of Chicago Press, 2013).
- The Thesis and the Book: A Guide for First-Time Academic Authors,edited by Eleanor Harman, Ian Montagnes, Siobhan McMenemy and Chris Bucci (University of Toronto Press, 2003).
At Boydell & Brewer we pride ourselves on the attention devoted to each title and author and on providing clear and supportive communication from the earliest contact. In particular, we recognise the unique pressures of academic life and work as closely as we can with all our authors to fit in with their schedules.
Contributors to this blog post:
Douglas H. Johnson (former James Currey Editor), Lynn Taylor (James Currey, African Literature, Theatre & Film, Managing Editor), Megan Milan (Tamesis, Hispanic and Lusophone Studies, Commissioning Editor) Caroline Palmer (Medieval Studies, Editorial Director), Michael Middeke (Early Modern History, Modern History and Music, Editorial Director), Mari Shullaw (Eighteenth-Century Studies, Commissioning Editor), Jim Walker (Camden House, Editorial Director), Jaqueline Mitchell (James Currey, Commissioning Editor).