How to turn your PhD into a book: part 3, some first revision steps

By Juliana Adelman

booksI started this series of posts because when I began the project of turning my PhD into a book I would occasionally type ‘turn your PhD into a book’ into Google hoping for some kind of magic.  Perhaps there was a translation engine I could put my text through to save me the agonising pain of revision?  Alas, there is nothing for it except to struggle on, re-reading sentences over and over until you go numb.  With that for a cheery start, I wish I had approached the process in as systematic a manner as I imply below.  It’s hard to be ruthless with your prose without getting discouraged and if you’re not being ruthless I don’t think you’ll accomplish much by way of revision.  Some people certainly have a gift for writing and the rest of us have to make do with revising.  It is hard work and a bit too similar to psychoanalysis to be enjoyable.  The past two posts on this topic have covered aspects of the publishing process, writing a book proposal and choosing a publisher.  In case you haven’t read those posts, I’ll repeat my disclaimer: my only claim to expertise on the subject is that I have successfully navigated the transition from PhD to book (only once, TBTG).  Now we get down to the nitty gritty of actually transforming your academic exercise into a book with an audience of…well at least a few hundred.  The first thing I did was to start taking things out.

1. Cut out/down the literature review

In your PhD you had to prove to your examiners that you had read all the things you should have read and that you understood them.  You may have a lit review in your introduction or it may be a separate chapter or even at the start of each chapter.  Now you need to trim this down substantially for several reasons.  First, it is boring to read.  Second, it is really boring to read.  You still need to demonstrate that your book fits into recent literature (or proves that all prior authors were wrong wrong wrong), but you don’t need a historiographical essay.  This should now all become part of a seemless introduction which tells the reader what came before and what your book will add.

2. Cut down the footnotes

Although you must of course reference ideas which are not your own in an appropriate way, you probably don’t need to list every single paper or book on a topic.  Stick to the most current, the most relevant, etc.  You may not actually reduce the number of footnotes, but you will probably reduce the size of each note.  In one of my PhD chapters I had a footnote which was almost one half of the page.  Needless to say, this would not do for a book.  If you are a person who left all sorts of additional information in your footnotes now is the time to take it out.  If it’s worth saying it should be said in the text.  Footnotes may become endnotes and so may not be read in detail by anyone reading your book unless they wish to follow up on a specific topic.

3. Revisit the introduction and conclusion

These are probably the two parts that you will change the most dramatically, unless you have decided to add new chapters or cut old ones all together.  Read some introductions and conclusions for other books and see what works and what doesn’t.  Consider the fact that some people may read only these parts of your book (we’ve all done it) or that they may decide whether to read your book on the basis of the introduction.  Your examiners didn’t have any choice.  The introduction should clearly tell the reader what to expect in the book to follow.  You may or may not give chapter summaries, but your argument (that thesis business) should be prominent.  Likewise the introduction and conclusion should match and there should be a logical progression from one to the next (otherwise known as your chapters).

Here’s where you probably need to re-read your dissertation all over again.  The introduction should reflect any changes in your argument, structure, etc.  It should also be punchy and put forward the boldest possible version of your conclusions which is supportable by the evidence in your chapters.  Try not to tippy-toe.  If you like, you can read the introduction to my book for free here.  It’s not by any means a perfect example.  In fact, I’m sure if you read it you can find lots of things you would change.  I know I can.  It starts a little slowly and timidly and is rather dry.  You can compare it to the introduction I wrote for my PhD, here 01 Intro.

I think you should also take a first pass at your conclusion before starting on the chapters.  I found this clarified my thinking on where I wanted to end up.  It can help you set a direction and find ways to tie your chapters together.  I think a good conclusion also tries to look beyond the book.  For example, you might briefly compare your time period to a later or earlier one or your geographical area to a different one.  This should not be original research, merely further ways to fit your work into existing scholarship.  Original research should go into the chapters, don’t add it to the conclusion (or take it out if it’s there).

Now that you’ve had a look at your introduction and conclusion it’s time to tackle all the stuff in between.  The next part of this series will suggest some ways to polish prose and give some thoughts on how much work is involved in making substantial additions and subtractions.

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