How to turn your dissertation into a book

In talking with advanced PhD candidates and junior faculty in the humanities, this topic has come up often. I have some thoughts on it.

CUNY dissertations.jpg

so many dissertations

It’s in the nature of the task that you only do it once, so I can’t claim to be an expert. To turn my dissertation into a book, I added one chapter, substantially rewrote the introduction, and revised the whole. I get the sense this is on the lighter end of the scale.

(By ‘book’ I mean a scholarly monograph. How to turn your dissertation into a bestseller is not advice I am qualified to give.)

The worst case scenario is that you compose an entirely new book as your first book and publish little or nothing from your dissertation.* I have seen people do this and come out OK. However, I recommend avoiding it if at all possible. Your first book doesn’t have to be perfect in every way, it just has to exist in the world. Your Big New Idea for Revolutionizing the Field can become book #2.

My context for the following remarks is the North American research university, which inculturates PhD candidates to publish books and requires the same of new hires. At some colleges and in some places outside of North America, there is less pressure to publish a book soon, or at all.

  1. Consider timing. I was fortunate enough to be hired directly into a tenure-track job, but that’s rare nowadays. You may be facing a familiar dilemma: you need a book to get a full-time job, yet you need a full-time job in order to make the book count professionally. My advice is to complete steps 2-7 below before winning a job offer. But know that if, down the road, the book appears in print before you take up a tenure-track position, some departments may expect you to make significant progress toward a second book for tenure. In some cases, it can be to your benefit to have a long publication process. (Luckily, the publication process for humanities monographs is quite long.)
  2. Take your dissertation reports seriously. The dissertation reports are a good place to start. Their authors are, of course, advanced scholars in your field, and they possess valuable information about how your ideas will sound to the field. There are roughly three kinds of reports: (a) laudatory, (b) descriptive, (c) skeptical. Bask in (a). Then launch into revision on the basis of the insights and objections in (b) and (c). As with revising articles, your goal is to retain what is distinctive and new in your work while addressing alternative theories and alternative construals of surviving evidence.
  3. Add a chapter. I haven’t met a dissertation that couldn’t benefit from an extra chapter (or two). In my case, adding a chapter brought the narrative I was trying to tell to a conclusion. Alternatively, a new chapter might expand on a suggestion, create symmetry between elements in the project, or demonstrate that your idea works outside of its initial historical context. In addition to the intellectual reasons to add, there is the professional one that adding a chapter tends to please academic publishers (who are looking to publish books, not dissertations) and hiring committees (who are looking for a colleague, not a student).
  4. Revise. The difference between a dissertation and a book is above all a rhetorical difference. The occasion of the dissertation is a demonstration of mastery, at most places (but not my PhD-granting institution) formalized as a dissertation defense. The occasion of the book is exposition of mastery. At least in my field, the difference appears especially in the footnotes. My dissertation had long, argumentative footnotes citing every relevant secondary source. For the book, I trimmed down the footnotes to essential clarifications that weren’t suitable to the main text, and I cited only the secondary sources that I was quoting or which were especially pertinent.
  5. Workshop. One of my PhD advisers was fond of saying, “No one gets smart alone,” and it’s true. Seek out an opportunity to present a chapter at a conference in your field–or better yet, at a graduate colloquium or workshop, if you can get invited. Boiling down your chapter(s) for oral presentation will inevitably suggest ways of streamlining your ideas for the page.
  6. Focus on the introduction. As I revised, I kept reminding myself that many readers would never read past the introduction. I anticipated that readers would engage with my book the way I engage with books that I do not teach and am not commissioned to review: read or skim the introduction for The Big Idea and positioning in relation to scholarship I already know, and read or skim the chapter(s) that most closely relate(s) to my interests. I designed my introduction to facilitate this expected reading practice. Once you’ve revised it, the introduction can make an effective writing sample for both jobs and presses.
    • In a dissertation in many humanities fields, the introduction must survey, exhaustively and at length, the ‘literature’ on its topic. A book introduction has a different function. It must declare the salient features of the book; define, explain, and illustrate its methods; and summarize its contents. A rule of thumb is, if it’s an important component of the book, it needs to be represented somewhere in the introduction. Many book introductions share a basic syntax: summary of the argument; statement and defense of method; illustration of reading or historical practice; chapter summaries; discussion of prior scholarship on the period, topic, and/or texts; closing reflections.
  7. Initiate correspondence with a press. (A topic for another post.)

*For a different view, from someone who did take this route, see the exchange below in the comments.

4 thoughts on “How to turn your dissertation into a book

  1. Is it the ‘worst case scenario’ to write an entirely new book? I finished my PhD summer of 2014, and shortly after got a job where I had to write a book-length quantity of new lectures, on subjects quite different from my PhD. Those lectures were the basis of what will be my first book. I got the contract for it last year, and should submit shortly. Of course plenty of people publish dissertation-to-book books faster than that, but plenty others don’t. There’s nothing wrong with my thesis, and I would like to go back and do the manuscript-based work to turn it into a book too, but it wouldn’t have been easy to do that alongside a lot of lecturing. And the nice thing about writing an entirely new book is that it has felt exciting every step of the way, which is something I’ve never heard anyone say about revising their thesis.

    Of course there are pitfalls, but I do wonder why academia is so damning of new books for ECRs?

    • Thanks for sharing your experience. I meant “worst case scenario” in this context as shorthand for “the path requiring the most work from the perspective of moving from dissertation to book.” My context is North American research universities, at which there can be pressure to produce a book prior to tenure review. I will go back and specify that, as I should have to start.

      • Thanks! But, sorry, I wasn’t clear – I meant, I don’t believe that writing a new book *is* the path that takes the most work. There’s a pressure here to produce a book before getting a permanent contract, certainly, but there must be differences of which I’m not aware, too!

      • Oh, sorry for my misunderstanding. I suppose my impression of these things reveals that my own writing process is accretive, so that working from a previously written document, however gnarly, always speeds things along for me. Archival study, which I neglected to address, certainly adds its own variable to the calculus. My first book trod very lightly on manuscript studies, whereas book #2 will be more archivally based because I have had more time and resources to travel and spend time in rare book reading rooms.

        I added a note directing readers to our exchange here.

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