Research

Reflections on Chapter Writing

One of the most difficult challenges I faced during the beginning of the dissertation process was figuring out how to write a chapter. How does it differ from a seminar paper? Are there specific elements or sections I need to include? How do I know when I am done? After finishing full drafts of my first two chapters (finally!), I feel ready now to offer some brief reflections on this process.

Although I had read beautifully written critical and theoretical texts before, sitting down to write my own chapter was still a daunting experience because I have only ever been familiar with the form of seminar papers. The essays I wrote for class, with its specific thesis statement, often focusing on a single literary text, did not prepare me for writing a chapter that is just a piece of a larger project. For me, grappling with this new form also meant learning how to let go of my own desires to produce a perfect whole, a neat and contained document. I had to move between the arguments I wanted to pose in a specific chapter and the over-arching research questions that animate my dissertation project. I had to constantly remind myself that a chapter is just one attempt at getting at these larger questions without necessarily having to answer them in full; the following chapters would provide other opportunities and angles for returning to and approaching these questions differently.

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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!

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