How to turn your PhD into a book: part 4, revise, revise, revise

By Juliana Adelman

booksLet’s start with the bad news.  This whole revision business is tedious and frustrating.  The good news is that you if you put your mind to it you will not only improve this (your first) book, but you will acquire skills that will stand you in good stead for future.  Revising is effectively the same process no matter what type of prose you are looking at.  This post is a kind of miscellany of tips and thoughts.  I tried to organise them around themes, but it just didn’t work that well.  So hopefully this won’t be too convoluted.  For those of you who haven’t already read them, this post follows three others on a similar theme: part 1 (book proposals), part 2 (finding a publisher), part 3 (first revision steps).

Before you begin revising your chapters you probably need to read the whole dissertation, AGAIN.  When reading your chapters try to consider how they fit into the whole.  Do they support what you set out to do in the introduction and do they lead logically to the conclusion?  Do they link one to another?  Do you repeat yourself?

1. Writing and style

Allow your own voice to develop more than in the PhD.  Don’t invent a voice for yourself, but loosen your prose a little.

Look at some style guides.  The classic (I discovered it too late) is Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style which has lots of handy tips as well as common grammatical errors.

Cut out all non-essential paragraphs and sentences.  Get to the point, don’t dither.  I learned a useful trick in a writing class.  Number all the paragraphs in your chapter.  Now try to summarise each paragraph in one sentence, writing them in a numbered list as you go.  A paragraph should express one coherent idea, so if you can’t express it in one sentence you may need to break it up.  If a paragraph doesn’t express any coherent idea than it’s just some extra words.  Cut it!  Read through your list of paragraph topics and see if any of them should be combined, cut, moved around in order to improve the flow of writing.  I always resort to this when I find myself stuck with a piece of writing and it usually works.

Take no prisoners.  Every word is up for revision.  Even your favourite one on page 47.

Recruit friends and family as well as academics to read chapters for you.  Although it’s not a good idea to get so many opinions on a chapter that you can’t decide what to do, it is great to have feedback from non specialists.  They will tend to pick up more style related things.

Look out for pet words and phrases.  We all have a tendancy to use certain words over and over: search and destroy.

We’ve discussed cutting back on the length and number of footnotes.

Technical discussions should be made as clear as possible.  Sometimes graphs and charts are actually more confusing than writing out the most important findings.  Again, this is a good place to ask for the advice of a non-specialist.

Get rid of the phrases ‘this dissertation’ and ‘this thesis’ or any other reference to the fact that the main text is derived from a PhD (aside from footnotes referring to your PhD, of course).

Try to eliminate italics, bold and underlining as an indication of emphasis.  Use strong words to create emphasis.  Non-English phrases not in common use should remain in italics, however.

Severly cut back on lengthy literature reviews (see part 3).

Typos, spelling, etc must must must be checked on a print out.  Of course use spell check first, but it is prone to certain bloopers.

2. Dealing with illustrations

Get permission to reproduce images.  This is absolutely paramount.  You could be sued.  Some places will require payment, so you might need to set a budget and prioritize.  Keep track of all the permissions you receive in a file.  If they are by email, print them out.  Pay attention to the wording you must use to acknowledge the relevant authority.

Get the highest possible resolution images you can and keep them as tif files, on a cd or a usb device.  Keep a back up copy of everything (this of course goes for your text as well).

Think of useful titles for the images, think which portions of the text they should be nearest to and also have some idea of the size that you would like them to be.

3. Dealing with footnotes and bibliography

The bane of the historian’s writing life.  Why oh why do we always have at least ONE (or many) references where the full bibliographic information (read page numbers) seems to go missing (read scribbled on scrap of paper accidentally binned)?  I sometimes wonder if going back to notecards isn’t a bad idea.  If anyone has success with this, please let me know.

Check the press’s author guidelines as they will want your footnotes to conform with their other books.  Changing the format of notes is really really time consuming so don’t leave it to the last minute.  If you use Endnote, remember that you need to make a new document with all of Endnote’s field codes removed in order to alter the text of footnotes (ie to change capitalisation, etc).

Check and double check that everything in the bibliography is actually in the notes.

4. Things to keep in mind

You’ll have to do an index, so while you are revising it might be a good idea to make a note of concepts or themes that you would like to index.  No point in marking down page numbers as these will change, but keeping a short list with the relevant chapters might save you time later.

You can’t change everything.  Well, you could but then this would be a five year project and not a 1-2 year one.  If your manuscript is to be sent to referees they will have opinions as to what should be changed so you’ll have another pass.  Try to avoid rewriting the entire work.

4. Timing

How long does this all take? How long is a piece of string?  Or a sentence?  You probably know just how fast you can write at this stage, but I think revising is a much slower process.  You need to take breaks from the material as well, or you lose sight of your task.  You can definitely tell in my book which chapters received the most attention, they are smoother and read better.  Revision really pays, but there is probably a point of diminishing returns.  Once you reach this you are threatening your sanity in greater proportion than you are improving your text.  I wish I had learned how to more evenly allocate my attention to each chapter.  I had little ‘pet’ chapters and the others suffered a bit as a result.

If you are adding new research and a new chapter this will tend to take up a LOT of time.  To keep it from getting out of hand, try to be focussed.  (Here again, I failed)  Make sure the chapter fits very clearly into the book’s themes and the introducton and concluding portions should almost write themselves.  If you are chopping up or combining material check and double check that you don’t repeat yourself.

The next, and final, post on this topic will give some tips for reacting to referee reports, compiling an index and reading proofs.

4 Responses to “How to turn your PhD into a book: part 4, revise, revise, revise”

  1. Eoin Purcell Says:


    This is a wonderful series of articles, looking forward to reading the last one! Having worked with number of historians to turn their academic work into commercial books, your notes are pretty much exactly what I would have been saying.

    By the by, some of your readers might find the free online version of Elements of Style useful, they can find it on the Bartleby site:


  2. puesoccurrences Says:


    Thanks for the remarks and also for the tip regarding ‘Elements of Style’. It’s a great little book. The fact that it is organized intuitively is really helpful. I don’t know how I missed out on it as an undergrad!

    Please feel free to add your 2 cents on the topic…anything I’ve missed, for example.


  3. Eoin Purcell Says:

    I think you have pretty much hit on everything I would suggest so far! If I spot anything I shall let you know!


  4. Laura Kelly Says:

    thanks for this, juliana, it’s been really helpful – i’m sure it will come in useful if/when i eventually get to the end of my thesis! 🙂 looking forward to the final part.

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