Research

Reflections: From Dissertation to Book

It might be a bit early for me to write this post since I’m still working through my second chapter, but after Ken Wissoker, the Editorial Director of Duke University Press, visited our workshop last Tuesday, I wanted to share and reflect on his helpful insights and suggestions for thinking about the life my project will take on after the dissertation.

The differences between a dissertation and a book project:

One of the main distinctions is a question of audience. Whereas you often write your dissertation for a specific committee of scholars, your book project engages an entire field or set of discourses. You have to learn how to engage a broader critical audience who might not necessarily be as invested in your project in the same ways that your committee members are (for instance, in reading through every single chapter to the end).

Originality is key. While your project doesn’t have to be entirely new, there should be a clear sense of the unique contribution you are making to a field (or, better yet, fields).

Your presentation of objects and evidence will have a different rhythm and weight. In other words, book readers might not necessarily be as patient as your dissertation readers. While a chapter in your dissertation can be devoted to a long, extended analysis of one or two literary texts, in a book this might turn into a few paragraphs. In sum: the book only presents enough evidence and analysis necessary to make your argument.

Your voice matters above all others in the book. While the dissertation is often a place for you to rehearse your knowledge of key critical and theoretical discourses, the book should announce your authority on a subject matter. For that reason, many citations from secondary sources will become footnotes in the book to make room for your own voice and arguments to shine!

What might ease the transition from a dissertation to a book project:

In thinking about the book, you might want to start with the introduction, which is usually the last piece your write for the dissertation. Writing the introduction first will force you to clarify early on what your argument and interventions are because these are the keys to what makes this project truly yours.

Thinking carefully about the organization and structure of the dissertation versus that of the book. Rather than approaching the book project as simply a “revision” of your dissertation, it is important to assess its existing structure and open yourself to changing it. For the book, you have to clarify to yourself what chapter line-up and order would be most compelling for you to communicate your argument(s). There is also more pressure in the book to justify why you are turning to a specific set of texts and/or objects as opposed to others. Figuring out how your project hangs together is vital, whether this is accomplished thematically, generically, historically, and so on.

After conducting all of your research (and I would argue even before writing), it might be useful just to step back and think about the most effective way to introduce readers to your project, including its exigency, archive, larger claims and goals.  Ken’s useful metaphor for this is to imagine your project as a movie- what would the opening scene look like?

Finally, the practical stuff:

Identify the presses where you feel your project would be a good fit. This is often most likely the press that is publishing the bulk of the critical and theoretical texts you are engaging.

It is never too early to begin establishing a relationship with a publisher. Send out an email, set up a coffee meeting, or talk to a publisher during a conference- it largely depends on what environment you feel most comfortable in so figuring out the kind of space where you can discuss your project clearly and effectively is key.

Always keep in mind the timeline of publication because after a book proposal is accepted it will probably take between 4-5 years for it to get into print, so the argument that you are pitching has to always be thinking ahead into the future- What might your project look like four or five years from now?

My mind was of course reeling after Ken’s presentation- there are so many things to think about in the transition from dissertation to book, but he also mentioned that learning about all of these differences should not impede us from writing on. After all, the dissertation is just one iteration of your project and I take comfort in the fact that it can–and will–live on in other forms… This is something I will try to keep in mind as I worry endlessly about questions of methodology, about whether or not literature has enough traction in the present to engage an interdisciplinary audience on questions about social justice, knowledge politics, and racialization… thoughts for another time.

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