Recently a friend wrote to tell me that my earlier two posts about the process of getting your dissertation published as a book really didn’t help answer the most critical question: how do you decide what to keep from the dissertation in the book? I’m chagrined at the oversight. The answer is a difficult one–so bear with my personal narration.
I think I turned in a perfectly serviceable dissertation. It was missing a couple of chapters, but due to the time constraints I was under I wasn’t going to be able to write them. There were some decidedly unserviceable sentences–and whole paragraphs–in what I turned in, but my committee was generous with their support and looked past those syntactic failures. All told, it felt like a dissertation: I tried out some ideas, got a lot on paper, and attempted to weave it all together.
At the time, I really tried to imagine writing my dissertation as a book. This was in part because of my admiration for one of my committee members, Jean Langford, whose first book, Fluent Bodies, is a lightly revised version of her dissertation. Jean had had a professional career before returning to do a dissertation, so she had a wealth of writing experience to rely upon. I had written a couple of clunky MA theses and started on a couple article manuscripts. Thinking my dissertation could be quickly revised into a book manuscript was pure, graduate student hubris.
Meanwhile, down the hall from Jean’s office, David Valentine, was insisting to me that no two words in his dissertation and first book, Imagining Transgender, were the same. In retrospect, David’s experience was more like mine than Jean’s was.
I always advise people to not immediately try and turn their dissertation into a book–teach some classes and work through the literature in your field. Write some article manuscripts and get some peer reviews from total strangers. The experience of dissertation writing is–by necessity–an experience of narrowing one’s attention. Dissertations are written to meet institutional expectations, as meted out by one’s dissertation committee. They’re written for a very small audience, who, very likely, is onboard with the project and has been for quite some time. They–hopefully–want to see you succeed and move on. Writing a book is about capturing a broader audience and speaking to more general concerns in the literature.
It took me a couple years of teaching to understand what my book should be. In that time, I taught several medical anthropology courses–both introduction classes to the subfield and upper division theory classes. I distinctly remember in a lecture on medicalization that I realized what the book was about and things snapped into place. I imagine the rest of the lecture was basically an out of body experience as I worked through the book in my head.
In many respects, the content of the dissertation and my first book, The Slumbering Masses, is roughly the same. I did, much like David Valentine suggested, rewrite every word though. The big changes were how the project was pitched (its “intervention”) and the tone of the language.
Dissertations are anxious documents. Having read several of them as a committee member now, they’re often kind of claustrophobic and caught up in demonstrating one’s expertise. I found that whenever I tried to copy and paste text from my dissertation, tonally it was very different than anything I was writing after defending my dissertation–and my writing has continued to get looser and more precise over time.
So, here’s the recommendations: Seriously, send out some article manuscripts based on the dissertation. Get a sense of what other people see in your work. Teach some courses if you can. If you can’t, write up some mock syllabuses for courses you would teach based on your dissertation’s topical and theoretical areas. Work through what other people in your field are interested in and what you can add to the conversation. Also: remember what you disagree with in other people’s approaches.
Then, excise all of the empirical content from your dissertation. Put it into piles (virtual or material). See what other kinds of stories it can tell. Consider what kind of stories it can tell put together.
Often, dissertations are organized around a key idea or topic in each chapter. That can make a successful dissertation, but it often translates into a book that isn’t well integrated. What works about making an argument about an idea in a chapter results in a book that lacks a heart. The best books are those that have an idea that flows throughout the whole text, motivating the reader’s attention and also pulling together all of the little arguments and insights. The constraints of writing a dissertation often make it hard to see the possible sweep of the dissertation’s empirical content.
In the conversion process between the dissertation and the book, I dropped a lot of the ethnographic work that focused on everyday life in the clinic that I conducted the bulk of my research in. By the time I was reworking the book, some early articles had been accepted for publication, and that relieved the need to include that material in the book. I was also a little haunted by a comment by one of my committee members who told me that “no one needs to read another laboratory ethnography,” which I agreed with–yet, a lot of my material was precisely that kind of stuff. It’s worth thinking through what the “laboratory ethnography” in your field is–what have people read too much of?
Addressing that question in your writing is mostly rhetorical. Where in the dissertation something might lead a chapter, in the book it appears later in the same chapter. Even though the empirical content is the same, by placing it later in the chapter it has a different rhetorical effect–it feels less like a laboratory ethnography and more like something else (I’m not sure what, exactly). It’s worth working through what content you should lead with–what will be the most compelling to a wide readership?–and what might be better supporting content. Karen Ho once told me to start writing based on the stories I kept thinking about from my research, and it’s solid advice: what sticks with you is the stuff to lead with. The other stuff, while important, might be best tucked away as supporting content.
My dissertation was really organized around sleep and its interactions with everyday institutions in the US–family life, workplaces, school, law, etc.–but the book takes the same stuff and reorganizes it into smaller chapters. Instead of a few very long chapters, The Slumbering Masses is several much shorter chapters that are thematically organized. The 20,000 word (or more) chapter that your dissertation committee waded through is probably not the same thing you want to unleash on the world. Even if it’s relatively unchanged, breaking long chapters into two or more chapters will make them easier for your audience to read. This might also lead to excising content that can go live in an article manuscript instead of the book.
The rule I heard from several editors is that no more than two-fifths of your book should appear in print elsewhere. If you send modified versions of a couple dissertation chapters out as article manuscripts and then rework the content of the dissertation into a new format, this shouldn’t pose a problem–likely there will be little or no duplication (which is also good for things like tenure and promotion!). If you can’t or don’t want to rework everything, it’s worth keeping this two-fifths rule in mind though. It may mean writing new, additional chapters or holding back on publishing some material as articles.
All that said, the key to the transition into a book manuscript is moving away from the “fill a gap” mentality that shapes a lot of dissertation writing. Filling a gap in the scholarship is important, but it’s rarely enough to appeal to a wide swath of readers and book acquisitions editors. Instead, they want a bigger story that addresses concerns in your discipline. Teaching classes and sending stuff out for peer review is one way to identify these concerns, especially their most contemporary iterations by being in dialogue with students and other scholars.
Giving that lecture on medicalization–which I had probably given three or four times at that point–made me realize that as much as the linkage I made between American traditions of capitalism, work, school, family life, and sleep made sense in my dissertation, it didn’t quite rise to the level that something outside of a small group of people would be interested in. Even though I don’t agree that medicalization has all the answers, it provided a hook into the material I had that was legible to a broad audience and made sense of the empirical content I could rally behind my argument.
Which isn’t to say that the whole book has to be about that idea, but finding ways to address ideas of general concern–and particularly ideas that make sense to people–is an immediate way to appeal to people who aren’t as well versed in your materials as you are, or as your dissertation committee was. So having a sense of what these big ideas are and how you can arrange your materials to speak to them–while doing the other work that needs to be done–is a way into reconceptualizing how the dissertation can become a book.
The other very palpable memory I have about the process of turning my dissertation into a book is sitting in an apartment in St. Paul while on a return trip to Minnesota. I didn’t have a desk, so worked at an old dining room table with an uncomfortable chair. Next to the dining room table, somewhat incongruously, was a day bed. My dog, Turtle, would lay on the bed staring at me between naps as I rewrote The Slumbering Masses. To my left was a printed out version of the manuscript, before me was my laptop. I would read a sentence in the manuscript and then type a new version of it. I tried, wherever I could, to make things easier to read, less anxious, and clearer in their intent. I had three months to do it, and it was grueling. It was, ultimately, a total reworking of the manuscript. Luckily Turtle was there to get me away from the screen for daily dog walks–and there were friends to visit and other things to do–because the process was no fun. The Slumbering Masses is better for being reworked. Although I can’t really read it, I’m told it’s pretty easy (and sometimes fun) to read.
Soon, I’ll write about the process of writing a second book, which is a whole different ball of wax…
If you’ve converted your dissertation into a book–or if you haven’t–what was the process like? Post sharable stories in the comments if you like.