The 5-Page Dissertation

Starting to write a dissertation is a daunting project. I’m all about formal conceits, though, and find that they can be very helpful in making dissertation writing a much more agreeable process. With my own dissertation, I used a method that relied on 5-page, case-oriented sections (which I’ll describe a bit below, and which you can still see the remnants of in the structure and content of The Slumbering Masses; if you feel really daring, you could also look at my actual dissertation). Each chapter of my dissertation was comprised of 5 or more of these 5-page sections, as well as an introduction and conclusion. All in all, my dissertation ended up being comprised of more than 50 of these 5-page sections, which included evidence assembled from fieldnotes, interview transcripts, and archival and textual content.


Not every section adhered to a strict 5 pages, but my general rule was that if it was less than 5 pages long, then it wasn’t enough to count as a section — so it either needed to be paired with other data, or it needed to be expanded with more data or analysis. If it is longer than 5 pages by more than a couple of pages — i.e. it was closer to 10 pages than 5 — then it would need to be broken into two smaller sections that were clearly argued.

My general writing philosophy is that no one wants to read  about any one thing for more than 5 pages, and even if they do, they forget why they’re reading about it after page 5. So, both for the purpose of keeping people interested in your dissertation, and making sure they know what they’re reading what they’re reading, 5 page sections make sense.

Sections like I’m describing can also be fairly easy and stress-free to write. If, at the beginning of your dissertation writing, you can set aside theoretical concerns and structural conceits, writing up evidence in this 5-page case fashion can go fairly quickly. Yes, you’re deferring the heavy lifting, but it means that by the time you get to the analytic work, you have a significant amount of data, and a clear sense of what’s going into the dissertation (evidence-wise).

There’s also inherent modularity to 5-page sections. That is, if you need to move content from one chapter to another, if it’s in 5-page chunks, it’s relatively easy to relocate, and usually only requires a little rewriting in the section’s introductory and concluding paragraphs (and maybe in some of the analytic sections).

So, how did I (and how might you) structure 5-page sections?

I always tell people who are writing their dissertations to start with the evidence: just start writing up fieldnotes and transcribing interviews, beginning with the stuff that really stands out, and working from there. Don’t worry about why you’re writing this stuff up, just focus on assembling evidence. These nuggets of evidence provide the basis for your 5-page sections. These initial evidence-focused drafts can be quite short, anywhere from 1 page to 3 or 4. If they get longer than that, think about where it might be broken into 2 sections for the purpose of later development.

As you write these small sections, it’s worth marking them with keywords — these can be very straightforward descriptors or theoretical terms — which you can then use to move to the next stage. If you compile all of your sections into one document, it also makes it easy to keyword search for sections that might be associated with one another.

Once you have a significant number of these 5-page sections written (say 20 to begin with), you can start to arrange them into the skeletal framework of chapters based on similarities in themes or content. On first pass, each chapter probably needs 3-4 sections; as you move ahead, you might write new sections to complement the ones you already have, or move sections from one chapter to another. It will also become increasingly clear what other evidence you need to type up, so although you might only start with 20 or so sections written, by the end of the process you’ll have significantly more.

After assembling skeletal chapters, you can begin to write the analytic content for each of the sections and work on tying them together. This is the real difficult part of the process, and nothing makes it easier. But having solid evidence-based sections will ensure that there’s a firm foundation for each of the chapters.

You might also find that you end up with a number of sections that don’t ultimately fit into the dissertation. This isn’t cause for alarm, but instead might provide the basis for future articles or book chapters. Dissertation writing is about creating an archive of content that you can mine over the next five or more years (when the likelihood of new research opportunities is low), so the more you have by the time you finish your dissertation, the better. It doesn’t all need to be in the dissertation though, so don’t worry about producing too much since you’ll inevitably find uses for it.

Any questions about the process? Other suggestions for how to tackle dissertation writing? Desire to read a whole How-To book about the idea of dissertation writing this way and possible strategies? Post everything in the comments.

For another approach, check this out.

From Dissertation to Book, Part 1

This is the first in a two part sequence of posts on the dissertation-to-book process. The second installment discusses the behind-the-scenes processes that occur once the book is under contract and being prepared for publication and is available here.

A lot of recent graduates feel like the first thing they need to do once they get their Ph.D. is to turn their dissertation into a book manuscript and to get it under contract. This often means dropping everything, and working assiduously on the book manuscript and book proposal. I did; I shouldn’t have. My first book proposal was all wrong, and my thinking about the book version of the dissertation needed a lot more time to mature. That being said, if an editor gets in touch with you and wants to talk about your book, you should do it. It’s a low pressure situation: they want to know what it’s all about and when it might be ready for peer review. Chatting with them can make sure that they remember who you are and look forward to your eventual book proposal. But before you get to the proposal, here’s what (probably) needs to happen:

First, get a couple articles out for review, for two reasons: Getting feedback on your ideas from your peers (who aren’t your dissertation committee or people you’ve known in your grad program, which can often be an insular world of ideas) helps to expand your thinking about your material. And publishers want to see that your peers take your work seriously — so having a publication or two on your CV when you send it in with your book proposal is pretty important. So, really, the first thing you do out of your Ph.D. — if you haven’t already — is to get a couple publications out into the peer review process. (Check out the professionalization timeline to plot this stuff out in advance.)

Since you’ve been living with your dissertation in a pretty intimate fashion for a number of years, it’s also a good idea just to spend time away from it. Give yourself a year to work on a new project or develop some new syllabuses — you might need this time to prepare for a new job anyway, and explicitly setting it aside can be psychologically less stressful that taking that time off and feeling like you should be working on your book. When you come back to the dissertation, you might feel a little less tied to it in its current state, and be ready to mold it a little differently.

Now, when you do get back to the dissertation to turn it into a manuscript, there are some things that surely need to go: Long literature review sections need to be cut out in their entirety, although parsing them out and putting them in as end notes is a good first step, since some of this content is important to retain. Long discussions of theory needs to be cut as well — it might have been important for you to write, but it can moved into the end notes now. Incidental, orienting discussions of theory can still be useful, but for the most part, most theoretical discussions can be cut. If you have whole chapters that fall into the lit review or theory review realms, they might be excised — and with revision — sent to area studies or theory focused journals as articles.

The logic behind these cuts is to really highlight your work — your empirical and theoretical contributions to the field. And this is really critical for developing your book proposal.

Book proposals are rather mysterious things — when I wrote mine, I couldn’t find any really detailed guidelines online, and the people I asked for proposals from had proposals that were a few years old. Like anything related to the academy, the genre is in flux, but there seem to be some constants. From a few conversations with editors over the last few years, this is what I gather they should be: First, they should be no longer than 2 single spaced pages (with normal margins). One editor described them to be as ‘morning coffee documents,’ i.e. an editor should be able to read through a stack of them over morning coffee. Secondly, it needs to lead with your contribution, not some juicy anecdote (as you may have been trained to lead with). When you think about it, it makes a lot of sense: every project has at least one juicy anecdote, but not every project makes a clear contribution to the field (or they might, but authors might not be able to articulate them yet). Seeing that an author knows their contribution sets a proposal apart from the juicy anecdote types. And, third, the proposal needs very, very short summaries of each of the chapters — like 2 sentences each. The editor should walk away from a proposal having a good sense of what the book is about, but they don’t need to know all of the empirical or structural detail. And bear in mind that most book manuscripts are about 100,000 words long, give or take 10,000 words, and you may need to cut or add to get the book to that length.

Now, in thinking about your contribution, there might be some major changes to your manuscript. Many dissertations are written — explicitly or not — as case studies. They’re rather narrowly focused, and the contribution they’re making is usually to a circumscribed literature. It might not feel that way at the time, but it’s often the case. What many books need to do is realize the more general contribution to the discipline that they make. So if your dissertation was about England, it now needs to be about Europe; or if it was about sleep (as in my case), it needs to be about medicine. Most of this work can be done in the new Introduction you’ll be writing shortly… But it also needs to be captured in the proposal. More than anything else, this is the thing that I find people struggle with. And, as I mentioned above, getting some peer reviews and taking some time off from the manuscript can really help you to see its contents differently. It may also mean doing new research to expand the scope of the manuscript; so, if you’re moving from England to Europe, it may mean doing new research to be able to sustain that transition.

I often tell people that I didn’t know what The Slumbering Masses was about until I was nearly done with its second set of revisions. Which leads me to my big caveat for this entry: I didn’t get my first book under contract with a blindly sent proposal; an editor contacted me about seeing the manuscript based on a conversation he had with a third party who knew my work. He rushed the book through peer review — from my perspective, at least (I wasn’t really ready to send it out, since one of the chapters was only half complete). But I got great reviews back from reviewers that knew it wasn’t a final manuscript, and responded to their reviews in my first round of revisions. When I sent it back, it was a very different manuscript. I don’t think more than 2 pages were the same… And when it came back with more comments, I was able to turn them around relatively quickly to make the final version of the book. So when I say I didn’t really know what the book was about until the last couple months of final revisions, it was that I wasn’t entirely sure of all of the contributions it was poised to make. And once I realized them, I just had to align some of the content differently.

I should also say that I don’t know a single person who has gotten a book contract from an unsolicited book proposal. (If you have, let me know your story.) My editor asks me with some regularity if I know of any interesting books-in-process, and I send him lists of names; I imagine many people have this kind of relationship with their editors. So it’s really important to make sure that the people you know who are getting books published know what you’re working on and what it really looks like — not the five second summary they often reduce your work to.

If you have specific questions about anything related to early stage book manuscripts, post them below and I’ll either address them in comments or in a future post.