Revising a Dissertation

Dissertations are written to prove to a small number of mentors that you have mastered the methods and academic literature in your chosen field of study. Books are written to make an original contribution to scholarship in your discipline. Revising a dissertation into your first book involves changes in format and usually also in content that signal your shift from student to professional.

Here are some tips for managing that shift:

  • Drop the literature review. Whether your field requires a formal lit review or not, in the book you will want to foreground your original research and argument, while appropriately acknowledging the scholarship that has enabled your work in the citations.
  • Minimize the number of pages you spend describing the background or explaining the context. There is an art to providing just enough of this material so that your readers understand why you ask the question and make the argument you do, while avoiding tedious summary. Typically, a first book in the humanities and social sciences is aimed at your fellow scholars. They already know the basics. You can focus on just those specifics that highlight the need for your contribution.
  • Trim your citations. You don’t need to prove you have read everything anymore. Cite the most relevant and most recent scholarship and move on. The people you cite will have cited the scholars writing before them, so any halfway diligent researcher can follow the tracks back as far as the field goes.
  • Take some time to absorb the advice and critiques you received from your dissertation committee. Then make a plan for moving the project forward. Do you need to do additional research you didn’t have the time or funding for during grad school? Do you need to address a question that arose in the process of your dissertation research? Did a new archive become available, or a new relevant angle on your specialty? Do you have a job opportunity that would draw your work in one direction rather than another? Did you discover halfway through the dissertation that you are more interested in some other question or body of literature? Now is the time to rethink and rework.
  • Reconsider the organization of your manuscript. As a part of doing more research or taking a new approach, break apart the structure you so carefully built in the dissertation. Does the organization of chapters best serve your argument, or would changes help? Is each chapter successful on its own, or might some chapters’ contents need to be divided and recombined? Might one or more chapters work better as journal articles, opening up room for other material?
  • Think carefully about who your audience is and how best to write for it. Are you addressing primarily scholars or also nonspecialists? Are those nonspecialists college students or general readers? Is your project crossing disciplinary boundaries or combining multiple approaches? Does your project have policy implications, or might it be useful to practitioners? The answers to those questions should shape how you write, from word choices to organization and citations.
  • Take another look at books in your field that you really like. Why are they so successful? What did those authors do that you might emulate?

If you want more advice, here are some oft-recommended resources:

William Germano, From Dissertation to Book, 2nd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013).

Melody Herr, Writing and Publishing Your Book: A Guide for Experts in Every Field (Santa Barbara, CA: Greenwood, 2017).

The Chronicle of Higher Education also offers useful advice on writing.

Check out the AUPresses’s subject area grid to find out which presses publish in which areas.