Revising Your Dissertation: Advice from Leading Editors

Revising Your Dissertation: Advice from Leading Editors

by Beth Luey (Editor)


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The aftermath of graduate school can be particularly trying for those under pressure to publish their dissertations. Written with good cheer and jammed with information, this lively guide offers hard-to-find practical advice on successfully turning a dissertation into a book or journal articles that will appeal to publishers and readers. It will help prospective authors master writing and revision skills, better understand the publishing process, and increase their chances of getting their work into print. This edition features new tips and planning tables to facilitate project scheduling, and a new foreword by Sandford G. Thatcher, Director of Penn State University Press.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520242555
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 10/11/2004
Pages: 262
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.25(h) x 0.63(d)

About the Author

Beth Luey, Founding Director Emerita of the Scholarly Publishing Program at Arizona State University, is author of Handbook for Academic Authors and Editing Documents and Texts.

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The University of California Press

ISBN: 0-520-24255-6

Chapter One


William P. Sisler

OK, so you've passed your orals, defended your thesis successfully, gotten your union card. So far, so good. But the pressure is intense and immediate. To get ahead, to stay ahead, you need to get that book out. You have the raw material, but it's not a book; it's a dissertation, and that won't do. Why? Because when you wrote your thesis, you were an acolyte not yet empowered to speak with authority and gravitas. Now, as you begin to think about moving that dissertation into book mode, you'll need to make a gestalt shift, in which you stop seeing yourself as a supplicant seeking to convince the chosen few (your dissertation committee) and start seeing yourself as a creator, an expert, an authority-an author.

As an author-as the author-you've taken charge of your work; you have a right to speak and be heard. Your readers will pick up your book not to judge your mastery of the facts or your facility with the literature in your field but to learn something new. Unlike your dissertation committee, they will assume you know what you're talking about. Still, your readers don't want to learn everything you know: they want to know what you think. They want to hear your opinion in your voice, not what all those other authorities you've read and quoted had to say. And they don't want a tour of the sidestreets, byways, and alleys discovered in your research. They only want to know what's relevant to the argument at hand.

It's one thing to assert your right to your own voice and quite another to know what that voice actually is. Most of us are pretty good mimics-we can write a paragraph that reads like the New York Times or the Daily News; we can imitate the cadences of an Al Gore or a George Bush. But when it comes to sounding like ourselves, we're at a loss.

To get past this first writer's block, try asking yourself who your ideal readers truly are. Are you planning a monograph, written at a very high level, for experts alone? Nothing wrong with that. But the tone of your tome will change suddenly if instead you imagine yourself lecturing to a classroom of college sophomores or, widening the circle further, envision yourself as the host of a PBS special, speaking plainly and simply to the interested viewer. In reality, these are not mutually exclusive cadres, but for the purpose of finding your voice, it helps to focus on one particular type of reader. Better yet, instead of imagining a roomful of experts or sophomores or neighbors, try thinking about one particular person you want to persuade and tell your story to that reader. The person could be the history professor down the hall or that lawyer you just met downtown-pick your own target and then ask yourself how to hit it. What kind of words and phrases would you use to talk with this person about this topic? Sentence fragments? Maybe a few. Rhetorical questions? Many writers use them to good effect. Second person? That's for you to decide.

Whether your intended reader is a member of academe or of the general trade audience, you need to read your writing out loud, to see how it sounds in your ear and feels in your mouth. If you can't imagine speaking those words to that particular person, then choose different words. As every parent knows, reading aloud can teach quite a bit about good writing. Simpler is better-we've known that since Goodnight, Moon. Shorter is better, too. The manifold temptations of the word processor should be resisted. It's simply too easy now to go on and on, adding more and more, shuffling every metaphorical index card to stack that deck higher and higher in your favor. But think again of your reader. What does that reader need to know about your subject and your take on it? The reason someone will read your book is to benefit from your distillation of years spent in research. Readers don't want to experience the tedium of your years in the stacks, the archives, or the lab; they seek the value of your expertise. A few years back a well-known scholar made the case for the hypertext book, arguing that the electronic format would create a "pyramid" allowing the reader to follow the scholar down to the lowest levels, to track with the scholar through the subterranean labyrinths of years of endeavor, and to relive the "joys" of discovery. Forget it! Life's too short! Your reader wants to be at the top of the pyramid, mastering the big picture, not dusting down below for hieroglyphics.

But let's step back for a minute and focus on just what your book is about. What is the appeal of your subject? Sure, it was interesting enough for you to spend considerable time and energy on it and significant enough for your committee to grant you a degree, but will your topic appeal in its current guise, first to an acquisitions editor who has a limited amount of time and a limited number of publishing slots to fill, then to the external reviewers, and finally to a sufficient number of potential readers to justify the publisher's investment? Can you broaden its appeal by spending some more time on research to extend the work chronologically (why end in 1956 instead of bringing it up to the present?), geographically (why limit it to the Western world?), by adding other texts (not just Goodnight, Moon, but Pat the Bunny and The Very Hungry Caterpillar), or cultures, or characters? What limits did you and your advisers put on the scale and scope of your project to enable you to contain it and finish it? What trails did you not follow that you'd now like to pursue to broaden and deepen your argument? Did you write on Dante's Inferno? Should you extend your argument to the entire Divine Comedy? (OK, maybe not.) But if you've analyzed a single play by Marlowe, or Jonson, or even Shakespeare, your chances for getting a book accepted these days are slim. You need to make a larger statement with more examples and a thesis that will cover more ground. Think again of your reader and what new angles, or players, or histories, or examples will increase the appeal of your work. Then think of yourself. What kind of book do you like to read, whether for professional development or for pleasure, and how does your original or current version match up? What criticisms and tips from your dissertation advisers or other readers are worth adding to the mix now that your defense is over? Think of this question as you develop the work: Who needs this book and why? More crassly, who'll spend thirty bucks (or more) to read what you've written?

You need a systematic approach to find the book within the thesis, or to develop the book from the thesis, and to create a work that will cry out for a place in the publisher's list at a time when the competition is becoming more and more intense. Let's begin at the beginning, with the title. The title is first and foremost a marketing tool, and you want to choose one that will instantly grab the attention of the overworked editor on whose desk your proposal will land. Now, unless you have perfect pitch, are very lucky, or have a crystal-clear subject, odds are that the title of the published book will be different from what you submit anyway, but at this point you want a grabber to pull your work out of the undifferentiated pile. It probably should be accurate, maybe even descriptive, certainly not poetic and flowery. But try not to make it dull and formulaic. Here are some genuine titles that capture one's attention (as Dave Barry would say, "I am not making this up"): Who's Who in Barbed Wire; Defensive Tactics with Flashlights; Lappish Bear Graves in Northern Sweden; All about Mud; Hypnotizing Animals; Stress and Fish (all from Bizarre Books, by Russell Ash and Brian Lake, published by Pavilion Books in 1998). Would you have picked up this book if it were titled something like Thesis and Antithesis, or Booking a Career, or Gathering the Winds: Reaping the Rewards of Writing? Probably not.

Next, look at the chapter titles. Do they convey solid information about what's in the text? Are they long, dull, cute, punning? In most cases, cute and punning will not do. Should the book be structured in parts? If you feel the table of contents and the book itself need additional subheads, these should be consistent with the tone and subject of your topic. Too many subheads can give a choppy feeling to the book and its argument and can be offputting in the table of contents. You may indeed have needed these as structural supports while you were writing, but now that the writing is finished, they should go. Unless you're engaged in a technical philosophical analysis or scientific treatise, avoid plentiful subheads. Think of the table of contents as the second most important page in the book after the title. It's the skeleton of your book, on which the body will develop. It's also your opportunity to lay out for the reader how the book will evolve, and therefore it's crucial to have the chapter and part titles (if any) work together.

You've chosen a good title, created a clear and accurate table of contents, and composed solid chapter titles. Now to open the text proper that you've whittled (or expanded) from the original dissertation.

The opening, most often an introduction, is your first real opportunity to engage the reader. Does your subject allow you to begin with an anecdote, a historical occurrence, or the establishment of your main character's identity, as in "When the posse arrived at Margarita Chacon's house at 11 p.m. on this rainy night, George Frazer, superintendent of the copper smelter, banged on the door with the butt of his Winchester"? Or is your subject best introduced plainly and simply, as in "Seldom do we reflect upon what philosophy is in itself"? In either case the object is to gain the attention of your readers, draw them in, keep them reading, and stimulate their desire to keep going with the story. The opening is your appetizer, offering a savory taste to prepare them for the banquet of your ideas. If it's too dense and heavy, the reader may be sated before the main course. The introduction should be consistent with your title and table of contents in tone and approach. It should lead naturally into the body of the book.

But let's not forget that the body has to be in shape, and for most of us, that means losing a little weight. If you've written a massive piece of scholarship, including every bit of evidence for your thesis, every reference, every bibliographical flag, every brick in the defensive wall to keep out those Inquisitors challenging your right to the Doctors' lounge, it's now time to follow Mae West, who said, "Between two evils, I always pick the one I never tried before." Try the shorter route. Begin by eliminating the review of the literature, if you have one. Your audience assumes you're an authority; you don't need to establish your bona fides. Chop the methodological bits. The reader doesn't need to know the fine points of how you got to your destination. She wants the panoramic view when she arrives with you. If you really do have some innovative and groundbreaking methodologies, consider working them up into a journal article or articles for the cognoscenti. Is the text peppered with infighting, attacks on other scholars, skirmishes that only the illuminati will appreciate? Bye-bye. Look with a gimlet eye on those footnotes, and if they're discursive, either bring them into the text proper or eliminate them. And that bibliography? Let it go. But if you feel you really must retain it, pare it to its most essential elements. Appendices? You'd best have a very good reason for keeping them in. As Thoreau said, "Simplify, simplify." (So why'd he say it twice?) Your audience will thank you, and your publisher will smile more kindly upon you.


Excerpted from REVISING YOUR DISSERTATION Excerpted by permission.
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Table of Contents

Foreword to the 2008 Edition

Introduction: Is the Publishable Dissertation an Oxymoron?


I. You're the Author Now

2. What Is Your Book About?

3. Turning Your Dissertation Rightside Out

4. Bringing Your Own Voice to the Table

5. Time to Trim: Notes, Bibliographies, Tables, and Graphs


6. Caught in the Middle: The Humanities

7. Putting Passion into Social Science

8. From Particles to Articles: The Inside Scoop on Scientific Publishing

9. Illustrated Ideas: Publishing in the Arts

10. A Sense of Place: Regional Books

11. Making a Difference: Professional Publishing

Conclusion: The Ticking Clock

Frequently Asked Questions
Planning Tools
Useful Reading
About the Contributors


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