3 Important steps to reconceiving your dissertation as a book
Early career academics and newly minted PhDs in the humanities and social sciences often want to turn their dissertation into a book. While this is a laudable goal, it is important to keep in mind that university presses seldom publish unrevised or lightly revised dissertations. Instead, they seek books that grow out of dissertation projects and are substantially more developed. Margaret Puskar-Pasewicz’s TAA webinar offered terrific advice about the big picture of moving from dissertation to book. TAA members can review her webinar for an overview of the whole process.
Where most writers get stuck, I’ve found in my work coaching academics for the past decade, is in the early stage of reconceiving their project. Taking the following three steps can help you shake off the familiar old conception of your work that you’ve lived with for years and chart a new map for a truly book-worthy project.
Step 1: Review the whole manuscript and take stock. Don’t worry if several years have passed since completing your PhD; the passage of time often can help you see the project afresh. As you review your work, consider: What are your strongest arguments? What did you want to explore that you were unable to? What larger questions did your dissertation perhaps tippy toe up to but leave unanswered? Also consider, what have people seemed most intrigued by as you have discussed the project or presented parts of it at conferences? Take time to jot down your responses to these questions to generate ideas to begin to reconceive the project.
Step 2: Consider the “bookness” factor. I encourage academic writers to develop an understanding of what I call the “bookness” of academic books. With that term, I’m getting at all the things that distinguish a significant and successful book from a series of journal articles on the same topic. In short, the bookness of the scholarly book stems from its scope, significance, and coherence as an extended argument.
It may be helpful to gloss these terms. A project’s “scope” refers to the breadth as well as the depth of the study’s investigation. Academic books seldom treat a narrow topic in a narrow way. So, reconceiving your dissertation as a book may mean expanding the scope of your work. Will you broaden the context, expand your claim, or bring in new archival material, for instance? And, a book’s “significance” refers to why it matters—in particular why it matters to the field. Are you shedding new light on your topic to change the way we understand it? Are you reframing old questions to illuminate a new discovery? How might other scholars use your work in their own research?
To get a better grasp on what constitutes the scope and significance of a viable book project, review book jacket or promotional copy of academic books you admire. You might start with books on your own shelf and then branch out to analyze descriptions in publications like Choice (an important publication for university librarians who, after all, represent the largest market for academic books). And don’t forget to also browse the descriptions of recent books on websites of your favorite university presses.
Notice the phrasing of those descriptions. Jot down terms, particularly verbs, which you may not typically use to describe your work, but which are compelling and render the big picture. Then free-write about what phrasing you might use to describe what your project is really about and why it truly matters. To accurately bring your project to life, you may well use phrases that differ from the texts you’ve just considered. But always aim for direct, vivid language. Think boldly here. After all, in completing your dissertation you have graduated from student to credentialed scholar. Claim the authority of your voice.
Step 3: Think Bigger. Once you have a better grasp on the scope and significance of your project, you’re ready to challenge yourself to bring a new level of coherence to this work. Often, the bigger, more significant concept of the work requires jettisoning some chapters of the dissertation and creating other ones. It also always means bringing out into the foreground the conceptual links between chapters. Again, try free-writing to help yourself see the connections between the chapters. Articulate for yourself how and why Chapter Three, for instance, logically follows Chapter Two. Why does the reader need to understand the concepts explained in Two in order to grasp the argument of Three? In short, you are reconceiving the structure of your book as an extended argument across chapters that builds to a conclusion. Once you understand what that extended argument is, you can see the “through-line” of your book. A strong though-line makes it easy to see how all the pieces of evidence come together to illuminate the book’s central claim.
Reconceiving and building your dissertation into a book is hard work. It may take months of thought, reading, fresh writing, and discussion of your ideas with friends, colleagues, or even a writing coach. But working through these steps with a strategic and thoughtful process allows you to write a book proposal that will compel editors. And, ultimately, it will provide the foundation for publishing a book that can anchor your career.
Amy Benson Brown runs Academic Writing and Publication Coaching LLC. Since 2002, she has supported scholars in developing articles and books, first through Emory University and more recently through Academic Coaching & Writing. As a developmental editor, she offers feedback on manuscripts to help authors hone their arguments and find the best way to express them. She also coaches authors about how to build a more productive writing process and move beyond anxiety. Benson Brown specializes in book development, and her clients have published with university presses including Oxford, Cambridge, Princeton, Harvard, Rutgers, University of Texas, and Indiana UP, among others. Her article clients have published with top-tier journals in History, Anthropology / Ethnography, Literature, Women’s Studies, African-American Literature, Philosophy, Sociology, Spanish Literature, Latinx Studies, Education, Nursing, and Law.