Your Dissertation is not Your First Book

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.

Here’s the cover of The Slumbering Masses for old time’s sake. It depicts the title of the book screen-printed on a pillowcase. The pillow that the pillowcase is on is scrunched up and arranged vertically.

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.

How I Revise Articles for Resubmission

A fan of printed out pages that include peer reviews for a recent article. It includes marginalia and highlighting from me. The pages are upside down, just to make reading them a little more difficult.

This fall, I had a piece come out in Feminist Anthropology. “Recomposing Kinship” is my attempt to get anthropologists (and others) to take technology more seriously as a social actor–or at least as something more than an object of fetishism. It’s something like my 20th article, and over the last 15 years of publishing, I’ve found that how I approach revisions on articles has developed into a system. This article, by way of example, first received a revise & resubmit, and then was accepted for publication after a second set of reviews were returned based on the revision. Parts of it had be presented at conferences or in workshops, but it had never all been put together before, so sending it out for peer review was a bit of a fishing attempt–I was really curious to see how people responded to an argument that put together Facilitated Communication, sleep apnea, genetic testing, and fecal microbial transplants.

I’ll chalk the speed with which I was able to turn things around and address reviewers’ concerns to 15 years of academic publishing–and that the piece grew out of a couple of projects that have had pretty long gestation periods. It was also really helpful that the reviewers were on board with the conceptual project (even if they didn’t necessarily agree) and that the editors were supportive of a revision. Since the process of revision has become largely the same for me, it seemed like a good opportunity to write about the process in case it helps other people approach their own revisions.

Whenever I get emails from editors about articles under review, I really try not to open the email immediately. I find that whatever the email’s contents, it’s likely to derail me for the rest of the day, usually due to a desire to get back to work on the article. I try, whenever I can, to save it until the end of the work day. That way, after I read it, I can mull over the contents while I cook dinner, take care of the kids, feed the dog, chat with my partner, etc. This helps to stop me from wanting to address the editorial and peer review comments right away and lets them simmer as I do some ambient processing. Generally, other work gets in the way of immediately getting back to the manuscript and so I try and take a week off of working on it.

When I get back to working on revisions, I start by rereading the cover letter from the editor and reading through the peer reviews. I read them in their entirety and then read them again. On the second pass, I try and come up with a list of the necessary and optional revisions. A lot of peer review is relatively phatic language which can sometimes distract from what the peer reviewers are actually asking for; I tend to underline the relevant parts of the peer reviews and make marginalia to help me extract the incisive parts of the peer reviews. I then write them up and group them–if reviewers are asking for the same kind of thing (or contradictory things) this helps me develop a sense of what kinds of overlaps there are in the reviews. (You can see examples of my underlining and marginalia above.)

With that list of optional and necessary revisions developed, I set about grouping them. The first pass at grouping puts similar kinds of suggestions together, and the second grouping pass orders the suggestions in terms of where they should appear in the body of the revised manuscript. This usually involves sorting suggestions into multiple parts of the introduction (opening, literature review, map of the article, thesis & argumentation), each of the substantive sections, the conclusion, and citations and endnotes. I find that the heaviest lift is the suggestions for the introduction, followed by the conclusion, and then the substantive sections of the paper, which usually most need clarifying and alignment with the article’s aims once I’m able to clearly state them and articulate their relationship to the evidence at hand.

I then try to address the suggestions in order of difficulty. Overlooked citations come first, with minor syntactic tweaks following, and then it’s on to the big issues.

I’ve found that one of the recurrent experiences I have is overlong introductions. I try and make them short and to the point, but after addressing reviewer suggestions, I find that introductions balloon to be 7-8 pages long, when they should be 4-5 pages. If I can, I move parts of the introduction into the endnotes–especially theoretical positioning that only certain readers care about–but I’ve increasingly begun to break introductions into two parts. The first of these parts is the usual, empirically-driven hook that readers tend to appreciate which helps to set the stakes of the piece. It’s followed by the thesis and a layout of the article’s structure. But then I have a second helping of introduction, which is usually the literature review and theoretical work. If possible, I break these sections apart with headings to make sure that they are clearly flagged for reviewers and readers. I wish I could do this in the initial writing of an article manuscript, but I’ve come to find that it’s really only through revision that I’m able to see where these breakdowns should be–usually as a direct response to peer reviewer suggestions.

Often, working through the revisions means substantially rewriting the conclusion. Conclusions are always hard for me to write, often because, generically, they waffle between recapitulations of what was just written and soaring calls for reimagining disciplines, theoretical frameworks and categories, humanity, and existence. I try and do a little of both in an initial manuscript draft and then rework the conclusion based on reviews.

When I resubmit a revised article, I always make sure to include a very detailed cover letter to guide the editor and peer reviewers through the revisions. It’s usually pretty easy to adapt the list of suggestions for revision into a cover letter. Where possible, I make sure to flag where a suggestion came from–i.e. which peer reviewer or the editor–and detail how it is addressed in the revised manuscript. I also try and include a page number and paragraph to make sure that it’s very obvious. One of the challenges I’ve faced as a reviewer over the years is having the original version of an article in mind as I review a revised manuscript. I imagine other readers have similar issues, and it’s particularly helpful to dispel specific concerns by addressing them in the cover letter in addition to the manuscript.

I recognize that this is all pretty dispassionate in its approach. And it’s true: I’m pretty dispassionate in my writing. Most of what I enjoy about writing is solving puzzles, particularly how to put certain kinds of evidence and argumentation together. Addressing peer reviews is a lot like solving a puzzle to me. Given all of the pieces that reviewers have provided me with, how can I fit them together into a coherent picture that abides by the aims of the original version of the manuscript (or “picture” in this metaphor)? Sometimes it’s harder than other times, and it requires some finesse in smooshing pieces together. Other times it’s really clarifying, and I find these to be the best rewriting opportunities.

How do you rewrite based on peer reviews? Other suggestions for techniques? Tell me about them in the comments.

The Best Advice I Have to Give About Writing Dissertations

Reading other people’s dissertations as an adviser and committee member has familiarized me with some common oversights that writers make, which basically fall into two camps: being too ambitious and overlooking the obvious. Now, this might all seem a little straightforward, but, honestly, that’s what a dissertation should be, and yet they often aren’t. These are recommendations based on cultural anthropology dissertations, but they probably translate to a lot of the more humanistic social sciences and humanities — and there are always exceptions to be made. So these are recommendations to get people started on conceptualizing what they’re doing when they tackle writing up a dissertation project. As usual, what your specific committee, adviser, and institution expects may be different from what I lay out here — but this might still be a decent place to start a conversation.

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That’s R. Crumb’s Kafka struggling with something akin to a dissertation…

1) Start with a chapter that lays out the people, places, and things that you’re going to be talking about for the rest of the dissertation. This is not your introduction, which is much more conceptual (see below) — this is really just what it sounds like: who are these people, where do they live and work, and why are you writing a dissertation about them? These are all questions you should have answers for, and their obviousness might lead you to not write this chapter (I’ll admit: I didn’t) because you’ve been working on the project for so long that these things are just assumed. But they aren’t for your dissertation committee, nor will they be for any potential future reader of the dissertation and the eventual book. It doesn’t need to be high concept — in fact, it should be the opposite in the sense that all you’re doing is giving your reader a deep sense of context so that as you discuss these people, places, things, and events later in the dissertation, your reader has this background information in mind.

Now, you might have some reservations — say, you don’t have a specific place, because the project is multi-sited — but, let me assure you, there is a chapter to write that gives your reader context for the rest of the dissertation, whether it’s about individual people, a set of institutions, or a concept, thing, or event that the rest of the dissertation is tracking. If you think you covered this in your dissertation’s introduction, your introduction might be too long or you might be doing too much in your introduction. A solid contextual chapter can go a long way to making sure your dissertation is legible to your committee.

2) Pick a set of theory to work with. One of the nice things about graduate school can be that it introduces you to a wide variety of theorists and theoretical approaches — but when it comes time to write a dissertation, you really have to pick what you want to work with. One of the problems a lot of students seem to have is that their conceptual tool kit becomes overfull when it comes time to write a dissertation — there are so many possible conceptual explanations that it can be difficult to choose just one. But, choosing one explanation is at least pragmatically necessary: a chapter needs to come to some kind of conclusion. Knowing that Marxism is on the table, and psychoanalysis is not means that you can focus on one set of possibilities and ignore others.

A former adviser, Hai Ren, once recommended that you need three theorists to write a dissertation, and over time I’ve really come to see the wisdom in that approach. As I advise students, I’ve come to realize that limiting your conceptual concerns in this way provides you with a strong body of language to draw from and a delimited set of ideas to explore. This combination of theorists and ideas can be complementary or antagonistic — that is, you can draw from three staunch Marxists, or pit Lacanism versus Latourianism — but the most important thing is identifying what’s on and off the table for the purpose of theoretical explanation. And you might commit to this physically: box up all the books you won’t be using and put them out of sight for the duration of dissertation writing.

When I was writing my dissertation, one of my committee members, Bruce Braun, suggested that I come up with a list of terms I didn’t want to use as well as a corresponding list of replacement concepts derived from the theoretical interests I have. So, I drew up a list of problematic Cartesian concepts and a list of Spinozist replacements. Just doing that — coming up with the list — profoundly shaped my vocabulary and meant that I wasn’t inadvertently wading into troublesome terrain or mixing terms that didn’t fit together. Once you know who your pet theorists are and what theories you’re working with, coming up with such a list can be very helpful in identifying key ideas to explain and how to structure what you’re doing.

3) Structure chapters around an idea. It was once the case that anthropologists could legitimately write a chapter each about kinship, economy, religion, political structure, subsistence patterns, etc., but the discrete nature of these distinctions has been largely abandoned — as least as comprehensive rubrics for chapter-length description and analysis. That said, there should be a set of key ideas that you’re working with and that you can arrange your evidence to support. These might be ideas that arise from the project itself — i.e. you might structure chapters around ideas that the people in your field site find important — or they might be ideas that derive from the theoretical questions that you’re concerned with. In either case, structuring a chapter around an idea helps to delimit what goes into that chapter.

Alternatively, you might think about structuring chapters around specific cases — whether they be people, places, or events — and even when that’s the case, it’s important to identify what the case is a case of. Having some kind of identified structure can lead you to ask whether or not any particular set of evidence needs to be in the chapter (which is to say that it’s absolutely okay to leave evidence out of a chapter when it doesn’t fit — better to be short and persuasive than long and unmoored).

The other vital thing here is that when it comes time to write articles based on your dissertation, they too will need to be organized around an idea (or maybe two coming into contact with one another), and starting with this kind of framework can lead you to have a more modular dissertation that you can mix and match to produce articles, and, later, more complex book chapters (but they needn’t!).

4) Make sure all those chapter ideas and pet theories appear in the introduction. Dissertation writers are sometimes motivated to write their introduction before they write the chapters of the dissertation, but it’s usually best to start with the chapters and work back to the introduction, if for no other reason that there tends to be a lot of drift when people work the other way (which is to say that what you think your dissertation is going to be about before you start writing it is probably not what it will actually be about). Once you have the ideas in place for each of the chapters, and you’ve written most of those chapters, it’s worth sketching out the introduction to see how all the ideas fit together as some kind of conceptual package. And then you have to explain why they fit together for the sake of your committee…

Again, if you have a delimited set of theories that you’re working with, writing an introduction around a set of ideas can be pretty straightforward: you can explain the ideas, where they come from, and what your contributions will be. That way as you work through the ideas in the dissertation itself, your committee has something to fall back on as to why your interests are as they are.

Introductions also benefit from a taste of the empirical content of the dissertation — which is different than the contextual chapter mentioned above. Give your readers a sense of the kinds of situations, quandaries, or events that are of interest throughout the dissertation, and use an example or two to motivate your engagement with the set of theory and ideas you’re employing. This helps stop an introduction from being too abstract and can compel your committee to engage with your readings of a set of shared theoretical texts in a new way.

5) Go easy on yourself. Dissertation writers often get hung up on identifying the ‘big idea’ of the dissertation before they actually write it — but, it took me three years after submitting my dissertation to really have a sense of what the big idea behind it was (and that had a lot to do with teaching and realizing where what I was doing fit into the field more generally). I had a passable big idea — sleep and its relationship to industrial capitalism — but as far as how that idea could travel, it took a long time to flesh that out.

And, no dissertation is perfect: it won’t feel that way when you turn it in, and it won’t feel that way years later. The best that a dissertation can be is an archive of evidence, ideas, and experiments that you can use for years to come — for conference presentations, articles, and eventually a book. If it’s also coherent and persuasive, consider it a victory.