Dear First-Time Author: How to Turn Your Dissertation Into a Book

Full 06032014 firstbook

Working on your first book? Or still fighting through your dissertation? Whether it's advice or support you need, you can start a thread on our On Scholarly Writing forum.

Dear junior scholar: Congratulations! If you’re reading this, maybe you’ve recently submitted your dissertation, and your advisors think it’s terrific. Or perhaps you’ve just landed a postdoc or your first tenure-track job, and one of your next goals is working on your first academic book. Because you’re a good scholar, you’ve probably already done some initial research on which presses might be interested in your project. And you’ve probably looked up tips on how to write a winning book proposal. But as you sit down near the beginning of the summer to start in on revisions, you might realize that you don’t quite know how to turn that solid dissertation into a publishable book.

First, recognize that turning your dissertation into a book is one of the hardest things you’ll ever be asked to do in your career. It’s a long, arduous, and often solitary process, requiring hours of work and multiple drafts. But the good news is that you’re not the first person to write a book from a dissertation. The process will be much smoother if you focus on the most important factors from the very start. If you take the following advice to heart, not only will you save valuable time (and your sanity), but you may even learn to enjoy the challenging process of writing your first book. So let’s dive into it, shall we?

I asked several editors at top university presses for their advice on turning a dissertation into a book. Their responses contained some of the most incisive advice I’ve ever seen on the craft of writing, but everything they said can be boiled down to two fundamental points.

1. A dissertation is not a book. Read that sentence again. Read it out loud. Print it out and hang it over your desk. It’s that important.

If you are writing a book proposal straight from your dissertation, you’re likely not going to get a book contract. Here’s why: A dissertation is not a book. Even if you think you’ve written a booklike dissertation, I promise you haven’t. A good first book might be based on a dissertation, but it is very, very different from the dissertation itself. Dominic Boyer, a series editor at Cornell University Press (and the editor of my own first book), cannot stress this point enough. The biggest mistake he sees from first-time authors is that they tend to send him proposals that read more like dissertation descriptions, not actual book proposals.

Boyer explains the core of the problem like this: “A book is what happens later, once you’ve grown past the dissertation. When one argument rises out of the analytics and becomes something on which you can build an intellectual agenda. Books are driven by arguments, not by constellations 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.”

In other words, a dissertation is where you begin to articulate the ideas and arguments that will eventually transform into your book. But it takes a lot of revising, restructuring, and failing in order to find a cohesive argument and structure. A book is the fifth or eighth iteration of something that used to be your dissertation. But it is no longer recognizable as your dissertation.

Sharmila Sen, executive editor at Harvard University Press, agrees wholeheartedly with Boyer. The acts of writing the dissertation and the first book are key points in a young scholar’s intellectual development, she tells me, but both texts are—and should be—very different. After all, dissertations and books are written for different purposes and different audiences. As Sen notes, the dissertation springs from an “intense relationship” between a student-author, her committee, and her research subject. As such, it is best described, using Sen’s metaphor, as “a spectator sport.”

“A good academic book cannot be a spectator sport,” Sen explains. “The reader is not satisfied when she is kept at a distance, watching the author play a game with other people in a distant field or stadium. The reader must be brought into the book, made part of the conversation. In order for this to happen, the author has to break that intense relationship she first had with her subject in the dissertation. This will be painful business. Then, she has to remake that relationship in order to include the reader in it.”

So far, so good.

But then you’ve got to write the thing. And as it turns out, when you’re working on a book, you need to think more about writing effectively—and for a more general audience. Which brings me to Point No. 2:

2. Your writing style matters as much as the content of your book. Really it does. At this stage, you’ll need to take a step back from the trees (the nitty-gritty details of your argument and evidence) and start paying attention to the forest (how your book is written and for whom). Play around with style. Free-write. Try writing in a different “voice.”

In some ways, your prose style now matters more than your thesis: Even a great argument won’t pass editorial muster if it’s mired in unreadable text. Peter Potter, the editor in chief of Cornell University Press, warns that many first-time authors “spend too much time explicating their argument in great detail” instead of focusing on how they can “distill their argument down into its simplest form.” For Potter, an overly long and detailed book proposal is one indication that an author is “still struggling to understand the larger significance of their work.” In other words, when it comes to writing a solid book proposal, less is often more.

Karen Darling, a senior editor at the University of Chicago Press, suggests that first-time authors read widely as they work to transform their dissertations into books. But not, she cautions, simply so they can pack more citations into those books. (Side note: A book will always have significantly fewer citations than a dissertation.)

Darling doles out this advice to new writers: “Read widely across genres, paying attention to what makes for good storytelling, a compelling voice, a persuasive argument. And try your hand at writing across formats—articles, book reviews, blog posts, op-ed pieces, anything that helps you change up your presentation and style. The idea is to focus on the art of writing. If you step back from the content of your work to think about how best to present it, you’re on your way.”

Dominic Boyer suggests that junior scholars put the dissertation away for a few years in order to work on writing articles first, since peer reviews can be invaluable in helping you tease out the arguments for your book. “Constructive peer review is the best gift a young academic can receive in terms of helping to figure out which of your ideas are the ones that have the capacity to travel,” he says.

In addition to this, I recommend finding a trusted writing partner or group with which to share your work-in-process. Sharing work is the best way to hack away at your dissertation until you hone in on your arguments. It provides you with deadlines and peer review. The bonus of this is that others often see our work more clearly and can provide us with helpful comments, questions, and constructive criticism.

In sum, transforming your dissertation into a book will be a long process, but it’s more than doable. My own personal advice? Don’t be afraid to fail and fail again before you come up with something terrific. Don’t do more research; start writing. Write every day.

I think Sharmila Sen says it best: Writing a first academic book is a lot like baking bread. “Let it rise, punch it down, let it rise again,” she counsels. “When you skip a few steps, you can taste the difference.”

Don’t be afraid to take your time. The final results will be worth it.

Join the Conversation


Log In or Sign Up to leave a comment.