Because I consider pre-planning one of my most important coping strategies for writing, I now have a gigantic pile of paper sitting on the floor of my office.
Last week I dug through more than a dozen binders stuffed with photo-copies, printed Pdfs, book reviews, book extracts, copies of chapters, and academic reports, to pool all the material relevant to the thesis-to-book project in one place.
Revising the 2011 MA thesis into something that looks like a book will occupy a significant chunk of my office time up to September. Between book reviews, a couple short articles, a (likely) book chapter and that pesky student visa application, I need to turn a 106 page masters thesis — a piece of writing with the literary ‘body fat’ of a pentathlete — into a scholarly, yet accessible, monograph of around 220 pages, a build similar to an NHL defence-man. The level of performance stays the same, but I need to have a little more mass to handle some shoving and checking by readers.
Most of the advice for writers trying to convert a thesis into a book centres on cutting unnecessary and overly technical content, but that’s a sin common to the doctoral dissertation, not the MA thesis. I was confined to a 100 page limit and had to focus the text like a magnifying glass, scorching a very small, but very important, piece of history with the light of academic scrutiny. Trimming is not my problem. My problem will be reorganizing the thing and filling out the gaps that are forgiven by a dissertation committee but offend any other academic reader.
My thesis begins where most theses end, with the punch-line. Apparently, and this really is news to me, most dissertations read like detective novels — tedious, technical and long-winded novels — where the reader goes along with the narrator on a serpentine path through the literature, the methodologies, the research questions, and, if they are very fortunate, they come out at the end amongst the conclusions that represent the original contribution that is the unstated promise of all academic dissertations. Mine starts with a concise statement of my conclusions, drawn from all my tedious text analysis, and then spends the rest of the 80 pages explaining why I’m probably right. If the first description resembles an Agatha Christie story, the second resembles a… well a story where you see the murder, and murderer, and just follow along to find out how the cops prove it to each other.
That ‘murder first’ format makes for a readable thesis but a less than compelling monograph. What is best lies between the mystery novel and a journalistic essay. I can’t do this by simply dropping in the context and expository that the limits of time and space forced me to excise in the first place. I also can’t cut the original apart and stitch it together around some new content. The Frankenthesis is a terrible crime of academic writing and an affront to nature. I am left with the unpleasant conclusion that I must re-write most of the thing and follow an entirely new outline.
I can take some comfort in knowing that I have very little new research to do and no-one will publish on this before I do, so there is no serious need to rush to work. I’ll need to do some general reading on some historical contexts and I’ll need to re-read some previous work and flesh out those areas for the new version, but all the heavy lifting and expensive legwork in the archives and libraries is over. My focus now is on a new outline and crafting new prose around the nuggets of valuable research from the thesis.
Aid in this endeavour comes from several well known and a few less known guides for academic writers and those who hope to squeeze a first book out of their dissertation. One of the most popular guides is the edited collection by Beth Luey with the unambiguous title Revising Your Dissertation (2nd ed. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008). Luey, like just about every other book with this theme, deals exclusively with the doctoral dissertation and all it’s natural ills, but I have a hard time believing that anyone’s thesis-to-book experience remotely resembles the fictionalized in Scott Norton’s “Turning Your Dissertation Right Side Out.” I think the greatest oversight in Luey is that it spends very little time explaining how one goes about selling the book idea to a publisher without mentioning its parentage in a thesis. Few publishers are interested in participation in the thesis-to-book process and would rather have complete manuscripts with compelling 10 page proposals than to have to hand-hold someone through the process.
The Thesis and the Book: A Guide for First-Time Academic Authors, edited by Harman, et al., (2nd ed. Toronto: University of Toronto, 2003) makes the same error by omission. There is some good advice here, particularly with re-writing and organization, but it also assumes that publishers will actually deal with a potential author who just brings in the thesis and asks for guidance. Editors will make adjustments to complete ‘book-like’ manuscripts and some of those changes could be substantial, but they will wait until the thesis is no longer a thesis before doing so.
I know this, not only from personal experience, but because William Germano and his Getting it Published: A Guide for Scholars and Anyone Else Serious about Serious Books (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008) tells me so. Germano begins with the most important bit of writing the aspirant needs to produce before approaching a publisher, the proposal. You don’t actually need the complete manuscript at this point, you may only have that unreadable thesis, or a few pages of notes and headings that represent a book-length project. It’s not important because the editor won’t want to read any of that anyway. What the editor wants is a clean, well organized, compelling, and persuasive proposal that is like a CV for the book. Forget about all the work that editors will, eventually, do with your manuscript; forget that the publisher has marketing staff, and knows the demographics of the markets and readerships in various areas better than you ever will; forget that they know what is being published and what is being bought across the market in more detail than you could possibly know. You need to present all the information (based on your own limited access to it) in that proposal. You need to do as much of the work as you can to make the book appear desirable to a publisher who you must assume does not want it.
Half of Anthony Haynes’ Writing Successful Academic Books (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010) is about the proposal. I personally resent the demand for the marketing and competition details that proposals demand. How am I supposed to know the market for this book? How am I going to identify the competition for a book that doesn’t exist? If I were writing anything other than an academic monograph, I would have some clue as to competition, markets, reader interest, and such but what I am working on is just a little too ‘marginal’ to fit into the market this way. That’s not to say it’s unique, but really, how am I supposed to know how many copies Yale sold of Anglo’s book in 2000? I’ve asked them, they aren’t talking. Do I know how many libraries will buy this? No, I have no clue. I know some general readers with an interest in martial history and swordsmanship will probably buy this, but I have no clue how many that is, or if it’s even remotely worth aiming the book at that readership. I would love to see the proposals for books with the obscure academic focus, and equally obscure authorship, for Anne L. Prescott’s Imagining Rabelais in Renaissance England (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998), Valentin Groebner’s Defaced: The Visual Culture of Violence in the Late Middle Ages (trans. P. Selwyn, New York: Zone Books, 2004), or Alastair Minnis’ Translations of Authority in Medieval English Literature: Valuing the Vernacular (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009). That would be helpful.
But I digress.