Turning Your Dissertation into a Book

“Make every word tell,” advised panelist and Loyola University professor Tim Gilfoyle, quoting Strunk & White at yesterday’s AHA session on “Turning Your Dissertation into a Book” at the 126th annual meeting. Compression and concision—prune, prune, and prune some more—were the panel’s watchwords. Though, as more than one careful listener pointed out, that advice floated in tension with its seeming opposite: that in the transformation from dissertation to book, our subjects must be more widely contextualized. How, asked a member of the large and intent audience, can we both tighten our manuscripts and broaden them?

Well, for one thing, we can let our work “season,” as Tom Sugrue (panelist and University of Pennsylvania professor) put it, agreeing with Gilfoyle on the benefits of patience. Gilfoyle insisted that “there are no good writers; only good rewriters.” And Laurie Matheson from the University of Illinois Press (whom I think everyone in the room yesterday will now long for as their gentle and intelligent editor) went so far as to call your dissertation “your first book”; the revision, “your second.” She urged the room to think more about “what you want to keep than about what you want to cut,” and suggested that the relationship to one’s audience changes during the transformation from self-doubting graduate student to self-confident author: “you’re the authority” now, not “the defender,” and your book “needs an overall arc, not sectionalized components.” So pace yourself, and your narrative, and develop your own voice: “you’re the puppeteer.” Of course, I’ve now broken one of Gilfoyle’s golden rules: never quote more than once in a paragraph.

The panel returned again and again to the importance of choosing the right editor (a particularly wise bit of wisdom, says the AHA’s consulting editor). First: a good copyeditor is crucial. Second: trade or university press? There are advantages to each, according to the panel: Trades want to reach the widest possible audience—a worthy and exciting goal—but university presses provide peer review, which, if well chosen, become absolutely critical to the revision process. “I didn’t need unconditional love,” said Sugrue, “I needed tough love,” and trade publishers “won’t give you that.” Some history departments prefer university publishers, so talk to them. And not just them! Talk to everyone you can. Anticipate a long acknowledgments page with relish; as Sugrue put it, “there’s nothing heroic about going it alone.” And that advice goes not only for you but also for your book—look at a publisher’s list to find a good fit. And there’s nothing wrong with sending the manuscript off to several publishers for a first look, as long as you’re honest and clear and you proofread your cover letters.

Of course, having now finished this post I must go back and revise, revise, revise—ridding it of those pesky passive verbs and the inevitable repetition. But chins up, people: more than one panelist yesterday called the transformation from dissertation to book an “exciting process,” and Roosevelt University professor Brad Hunt concluded the session with this bit of affirmation: your dissertation is a major piece of work, and “there’s a good book in there.” Now go write it!

The photo above shows the large turnout for this session.

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