Making the Transition from a Dissertation to a Book

For many scholars, turning the dissertation into a book is a long and difficult process. In the first of this two-part series, I discuss how to start making this transition. In my next post, I will provide some concrete strategies for jump-starting your revision process.

Let’s be honest, most dissertations are not written as books to begin with. In fact, dissertations and books are two fundamentally different types of projects. Repeat after me: a dissertation is not a book. It is very unlikely that your dissertation is  the exception to the rule.

The fundamental difference between your dissertation and your book is the audience. Dissertations are aimed at a narrow audience–your dissertation committee. Books–in contrast–should be aimed at a broader audience, including but not limited to scholars in and outside of your field. And there is more incentive than ever for scholars to reach even wider audiences, including undergraduates and the general public.

Dissertations and books also serve distinct purposes. Dissertations fulfill a specific academic requirement. To defend your dissertation, you must demonstrate: (1) your ability to conduct and present original research and (2) that you’ve “done the reading.” It is also acceptable for a dissertation to be quite narrow in scope.

In contrast, for a book, your expertise is assumed, to some extent. Books present a central argument or problem, offer evidence to support the argument or suggest a solution to the problem, and seek to reach a broad audience. According to Dominic Boyer, a series editor at Cornell University Press:

Books are driven by arguments, not a constellation of analytics. But the only way to get to a good argument is to experiment and fail a lot in the dissertation and post-dissertation process.

Therefore, it is crucial in the course of developing your dissertation into a book to consider what it is about your argument that will be of interest and use to readers.

When I work with early-career scholars, there are three issues that I consistently see in their attempts to move from dissertation to book. First, the manuscript does not have a clear and consistent argument. Second, the book is missing a strong scholarly voice. And third, the book lacks a clear attempt to demonstrate the topic’s broader significance. To overcome these specific challenges, I recommend three strategies.

Strategy #1: Stake Your Claim

One of the most common issues that I come across when working with scholars revising their dissertations into books is inconsistent or weak argumentation. Either the argument is not clear from the beginning, or more commonly, the argument gets lost. 

Early-career researchers also tend to be more hesitant to make bold arguments. Instead, they over-rely on quotations from other scholars to support their claims. They also get caught up in narrow academic debates that will only be of interest to a small group of readers.

As I’ve discussed previously , there are several ways to stake your claim. First and foremost, you need to develop an argument that is open to debate. Put another way, you need to make sure that your central argument is debatable in the sense that you’re not merely making an indisputable statement nor taking a position that is already widely accepted. I know this sounds obvious, but it is actually something that a lot of early-career academic writers struggle with.

To stake a claim, your argument also needs to be clear and engaging. In fact, your main argument should be so clear in your own mind that you can easily put it into one or two sentences. When working with clients, I often recommend writing your main argument out on paper and physically posting it in sight of your computer. 

But perhaps most important in terms of staking your claim: be consistent! Make it clear to your reader how each chapter bolsters your main argument and themes. At no point should your reader have to struggle to connect the dots. Again, this is where you distinguish the manuscript from a dissertation by creating a cohesive book built around a specific argument.

Pro Tip: One of your most important tools for keeping your argument consistent are titles–the book title, chapter titles, and section headings. Treat these as critical signposts for your readers so they can easily get to where you want them to be.

A final step toward staking your claim is to be bold. Avoid wishy-washy language in your argument; instead, use first person statements such as “I argue” or “my work demonstrates.” Be sure to use active voice in your argument and avoid vague or convoluted language.

Strategy #2: Establish Your Authority

One of the distinctions between your dissertation and your book is the issue of authority. As a graduate student completing a dissertation, you are seeking your committee’s approval that you should be considered an “expert” on your subject. This means in most cases that your scholarly voice in the dissertation is tentative. Graduate students also depend heavily on the words of other scholars to support their claims.

To develop your dissertation into a book, you need to establish a clear and strong scholarly voice of your own. It is critical to remember throughout the revision process that you are no longer a student trying to prove that you did the work to your advisor. You are the expert! While there’s always the possibility that someone out there knows aspects of your topic better than you, it is likely that you really are an expert on this particular subject.

So how do you make this cognitive leap from student to scholar if you haven’t already? First, do not over-rely on quotations from other scholars to prove your claims. Nothing screams “unrevised dissertation” more than excessive and lengthy quotations from other scholars.

Next, radically reduce your discussions of narrow scholarly debates that were so important at the dissertation stage to show that you “did the reading.” Remember, you are now trying to write to a larger audience than your dissertation committee or even a handful of scholars. It is critical to focus on your new contributions to scholarly discussions of your topic and to avoid minor academic debates.

Another important way to demonstrate your authority is to assert your interpretations of your evidence throughout the work. While it might be crystal clear to you how a specific example supports your argument, it might not be self-evident to your reader. Provide sufficient analysis throughout the book–do not make your reader struggle to figure out how your examples are supporting your claims.

Pro-tip: dissertation writers often fall into the trap of wanting to include “all of the examples,” but a well-argued book only includes the very best examples!

Strategy #3: Answer the “So What?” Question

My final strategy for making the transition from dissertation to book manuscript is to provide a persuasive answer to the “so what” question. In other words, you need to be able to articulate exactly why your book will appeal to your audience–whether it is other scholars and graduates students or undergraduates or beyond academia. It is crucial not to wait until you’re done with your revisions to think about your book’s broader significance. Instead, it should be a central part of your revision process.

Contrary to what some people may believe, not every subject is worthy of academic inquiry. Or at least, every subject’s worth needs to be demonstrated to the reader. You need to determine and communicate the broader significance of your topic and why other scholars in different fields or even disciplines will want to read your book.

It is not enough just to “fill a gap” in the existing literature–you also need to explain why that gap should be filled. Consider some of the following questions to get at your book’s broader significance:

  • Have you developed a new understanding of a specific idea or event?
  • Will your book change how other scholars approach your subject matter?
  • Is your topic something that you can relate to current events, say in an epilogue?

I hope that these strategies are useful as you begin to develop your dissertation into a book manuscript. In my next blog post, I will discuss how to jump-start the revision process.

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  1. Pingback: Developing Your Dissertation into a Book, Part 2: Jump-Starting Your Revisions – MargaretEdits

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