Completing a dissertation is a tremendous milestone, but it is important to keep in mind that a dissertation is not a book. Throughout the process of writing your dissertation—and even as your committee members sign their names on the dotted line and declare you a doctor for the first time—you should realize that your dissertation is best understood as a draft of your first book. The following will provide you some tips and strategies on how to eventually convert your dissertation into a book that will be accepted by an academic press.
You Can’t Submit Your Dissertation for Publication “As Is”
You are rightfully proud of the dissertation you produced and was accepted by a group of your academic superiors. But a dissertation is never publisher-ready; that is, don’t even try to send your unedited dissertation to a press. They will immediately reject it.
Dissertations tend to be narrower in focus than publishable books and often have stilted formats and language that must be revised for publication. This is not to denigrate the hard work that you have already done but rather to underscore that a first draft needs further revision. Unlike a dissertation, a book doesn’t have to challenge existing paradigms as much as it has to contribute to a growing body of scholarship.
Heed the Criticisms of Your Dissertation Committee
Take advantage of the issues and potential problems raised in your dissertation defense. Your defense was a rare opportunity to present your work to a committee of experts exclusively focused on you and your ideas. Resist the urge to be defensive when you hear criticisms of your dissertation. If you haven’t defended yet, be sure to jot down their thoughts and eventually use them to make your book even better. If you are overwhelmed by this process, have a good friend in the room who can also take copious notes for you. The comments from your committee could potentially generate the core of your new focus in the book to come.
Take a Break from Your Dissertation
You probably won’t be tempted to do this anyway, but don’t jump into your revisions immediately after you graduate. Give yourself some time to mull it all over. Ask yourself: What parts of my research or work did I enjoy the most? What turned out to be most compelling? What chapters worked and which ones need significantly more work?
Don’t be afraid to cut chapters wholesale from your manuscript. Sometimes you have to start fresh, even if it means going back to the archives or pulling out your research again. Now that you are older and hopefully wiser, you will have fresh eyes and a new perspective.
Appealing to a Wider Audience
You were writing your dissertation to please less than ten people; in contrast, a book has to appeal to a much larger and diverse audience. In order for the research and ideas present in your dissertation to eventually be accepted by a publisher, you have to scale back on the academic jargon. If you haven’t done so already, you also need to develop a personal writing style that sets you apart and attracts the editors at whichever press you are targeting for publication. Your advisor or colleagues can be very helpful in directing you toward the best fit for your subject matter and personal style.
Length is another important consideration when converting a dissertation into a book. Publishers prefer shorter books, not only because they are cheaper to produce but also because they have broader appeal. Try to keep your book within the 200/300-page range.
You may also need to remove those long and unwieldy footnotes—if applicable. Publishers will humor more established scholars and allow them to include 50-100 pages of notes and references, but for the rest of us, it is wise to only include the most relevant and important ones and to keep them short and to the point.
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Germano, William. From Dissertation to Book. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013.
Harman, Eleanor, Ian Montagnes, Siobhan McMenemy, and Chris Bucci. The Thesis and the
Book: A Guide for First-Time Academic Authors. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2003.
Luey, Beth. Ed. Revising Your Dissertation. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008.