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Friday, November 7, 2014
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From Dissertation to Book
by Naomi Schneider (University of California Press)
Graduate students who are more than halfway through their dissertation may be thinking of turning their dissertation into a book project. At conferences, you have a chance to meet editors from various presses, see what new books are getting published, and also talk to them about your book project—but how do you approach the editors? What do you have to prepare?
Below is a guest post from Naomi Schneider, an editor of the University of California Press, on general guidelines on how to prepare your dissertation into a book manuscript.
Guidelines for writing and publishing your first book
- Do take on a book subject of real importance and breadth.
- Do make a first pass at revising the dissertation before contacting a publisher (See below for general rules for revising your dissertation). You will increase your chances of the manuscript being formally considered for publication if you make an effort to revise it before approaching an editor. Editors commonly complain that dissertations contain: too much jargon, long literature reviews, weakly-articulated theses, not enough attention to narrative flow.
- Do write your book for an audience of general, educated lay readers. (We call this the Upper West Side crowd.) It’s necessary to write more boldly and more engagingly in a book than in your dissertation. Reread some of your favorites books—fiction and nonfiction—and try to emulate the style of successful writers.
- Do utilize important contacts (adviser, dissertation chair) in making an initial contact with a publisher but don’t overdo it. Your adviser’s support might help you get an editor to read your proposal seriously but your mentor can’t insure acceptance of the manuscript.
- Do research the best publishers for your own book. Look up who has published books you admire and works in your field. Make sure to find the correct names and addresses of editors at publishing houses. Start off with approaching your top two or three publishers.
- Do contact a publisher in a professional manner. Generally I still like to get hard copies of proposals that contain an overview of the book project, a table of contents, a brief discussion of where this books fits within the existing literature (i.e., what makes this book new and noteworthy), a sense of the market for the book and a sample chapter or two.
- Do realize that some editors will not consider a first manuscript (send it out for review, etc.) if it is submitted to more than one publisher. Most editors will only contract a first book project on the basis of a full manuscript (that the author has made an effort to revise, at least partially, before approaching the publisher). Also realize that contractual terms will be modest and are fairly standard for a first book.
- Do not lose hope if your book project gets rejected from a publisher. Sometimes I have to turn down a book project just because I have too much on my plate; there are many university presses and publishing options out there.
- Do read guidebooks in this area that might be helpful, including Revising Your Dissertation: Advice from Leading Editors, edited by Beth Luey (California, 2004) and From Dissertation to Book, by William Germano (Chicago, 2005).
General rules for revising your dissertation
- Eliminate and/or minimize review of literature and theory (especially in the first chapter!). A book manuscript is not for your dissertation committee; it's for your colleagues, who have done their homework and will do you the courtesy of assuming that you have also. It’s also for general readers and students, who, if they want to read more, can refer to your bibliography and/or notes.
- Reviewing and previewing. This is the true mark of a dissertation, and needs to be eliminated! Do not begin each chapter and/or major section by announcing what you are about to say, or reviewing at the end of each chapter what you have just said (i.e., “In the following chapter/section I will show x, y, and z,” or “In the previous chapter I showed a, b, c.” Don’t forecast what you’re going to say, just say it!)
- Readability. The strictures surrounding dissertation writing seldom produce readable writing. Stuffy phrases, passive voice, attribution, and polysyllable jargon are roadblocks in the path of readership. Read it aloud. Does it sing or sag? Will it fly with Joe and Jane on the street? Your goal with this book is not to sound as smart as possible, but to have your book read as ACCESSIBLY as possible (while still delivering the material in a smart fashion).
- Footnotes. Dissertation writers, afraid that their judgment carries no weight, are apt to footnote almost every statement. But the author of a book must accept responsibility. Delete half your footnotes. Cut them down in both number and in size. A book that is too long, or weighted down with excess documentation, will not be publishable.
- Completely rewrite your Introduction from scratch so it’s more like a book and less like a dissertation. You need to draw the reader in. Tell a story; use real-life examples to capture the reader’s interest. Don’t make your book about data and theory, make it about people and events!
- Cut the number of subheadings/subsections in the book. Ditto for your Table of Contents. Subheads give an outlining feel—it shows that you know how to outline or write a brief, but for most books the outline should disappear into the fluidity of a context. The book should flow; it should not hop from stone to stone.
- Bibliography. Having cited everybody who has written anything pertinent, the dissertation writer gathers them into a list and calls it a bibliography. But a useful bibliography must do more than alphabetize footnotes. A judicious bibliographical essay, grouping major references into sections according to their importance to your topic, can be part of what readers will pay for when they buy your book.
- Too much? When beginning writers don't know quite how to make their points—when they are teaching themselves the techniques of writing as they compose their material—they are apt to fumble a great deal, and the result is wordage by the yard. They don’t know when to stop or how to move on. Re-examine your dissertation critically—others will. Ruthlessly cut out the flab, and pay special attention to repetition. Don’t depend upon the editor to do this. A flabby manuscript may never survive to get into the editor’s hands. Read questionable passages aloud. If they sound stilted or obscure, they probably are.
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