The Dissertation That Thought It Was a Book

I have been rereading a (relatively) recent article in The Chronicle, “From Dissertation to Book” by Leonard Cassuto. The title alone should be an alert to my avenue of thinking as I finish up my current article-in-progress and contemplate the next project: THE book. I have received a lot of advice in the last few years about what to do when I reach this stage – how to think, how to approach it, how to revise, how to reconsider…how to go a little crazy.

As I contemplate getting started, I recall the feeling I had when I passed my exams and I was faced with the task that had loomed on the horizon since the beginning of graduate school (actually, the beginning of undergrad): writing the dissertation. It was a combination of excitement, nerves, and a delicious sense of being overwhelmed (What can I say? I’ve always found enjoyment in the oddest things.). Overall, though, there was that conviction that IT WAS TIME.

I can’t say that I am to that point yet with THE book, but it is right around the corner. It has been a little over a year since I finished up the dissertation, and, while I have been working up a section of it for my article, I have, at the emphatic advice of my advisor and everyone else with an opinion on the matter, largely ignored it. A copy is sitting in my living room in a place of honor, more as a reality check that, yes, indeed, I did get my degree and I did take the next step in my life, rather than anything else.

The first realization, as it was with the dissertation, is that I have never attempted anything like this. I suppose, now, there is the fact that I have completed a book-length project. Experience, right? While I assume it will help to have some familiarity with the process of sustaining an argument for over 200 pages, writing a book is a different animal – I say with the certainty of hearsay and intuition.

So the considerations. Someone has to want to read what I write, which is very different from the dusty tomes of academic dissertations. I am lucky in that my research topics – memory and confession – are perennially popular subjects. When in doubt, simply invoke Mary Carruthers – voilà, instant credibility and lineage. Still, I will have to reconsider what it is about my research that might be of interest to others.

Organization. The overarching thread of my dissertation makes sense to me and it seemed to make sense to my committee. I wonder now, however, if the organization is appropriate for a book. Is it so much organized by cohesive chapters or is it rather on the order of an outline? If the latter, then I need to rethink a structure that is easier to follow, especially as I engage a plethora of texts. To a book audience, it might resemble a leviathan, tentacles escaping here and yon with no discernible purpose. My instincts tell me I need to simplify the structure, decide on a more direct focus. Easier said than done.

Let it go. This will perhaps be the most difficult task for me. Parts of the dissertation are going to be jettisoned. I doubt I am the only one who feels an emotional attachment to keeping my work untouched and intact. Deciding to axe certain parts in favor of expanding on others will be tantamount to cutting off a limb. Still, it must be done. There are certain sections which will not fit an altered focus. If I am honest, perhaps they did not need to be included in the first place. Hindsight is 20/20 after all.

Was I wrong? If abandoning certain sections is the most difficult task, then this question raises the most daunting fear. What if, in looking back, I change my mind? Wonder what on earth was I thinking when I came up with certain readings? I don’t have a problem with deciding I was wrong, but the experience is going to be depressing nonetheless!

In a companion piece to The Chronicle article mentioned above, “It’s a Dissertation, Not a  Book,” Cassuto states, “I now encourage graduate students to seek book publication only when their dissertations actually have the makings of a book.” How do you make that decision? I know I have a book-length project – now it remains to be seen if it has what it takes to be a book. I’m sure it would appreciate any cheerleading anyone can muster. Maybe I’ll write a children’s story: “The Dissertation That Thought It Was a Book.”

Hmmm…despite the challenges, now I’m getting excited. The TIME is approaching faster than I thought.



Filed under Professional stuff

2 responses to “The Dissertation That Thought It Was a Book

  1. PRT

    I look forward to hearing about your adventures as you navigate these waters–I’m filled with trepidation over turning the diss into a book, and I’m not even done with the diss yet!

  2. Hey Kisha,

    Really glad to hear that you’re starting to do this thinking seriously, and mainly wanted to say to keep me posted and feel free to run specific questions or decisions or ideas or etc. by me at any point.

    But my other main thought right now is just to agree that a streamlined and very focused structure/argument is to my mind a real key. More and more academic publishers are not willing to publish things that feel like dissertations or even (in my experience) like monographs, sets of interesting chapters or focal points within a theme or a set of authors/texts or the like. I have found that they’re really looking, at the proposal stage and at the manuscript stage, for that clear and coherent and strong main idea and main structure, that sense of what this book is and why someone will want to read it and why they should want to publish it. So I’d say developing that is definitely the most important next step, and then finding ways to frame it explicitly in an Intro, the opening of chapters, etc.

    Again, keep me posted! See you soon,

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