After my defense—at 11:30AM on the day of the solar eclipse in 2017—, I felt a change in the cosmos. Not just because we were actually going to experience total blackout that day in Nashville, TN, but because I was liberated from this document that had been dictating my life. Or at least, that’s what it felt like. The topic I had once been in love with had started to feel less exhilarating and more like a weight. Post-defense, I needed time to reassess, to pursue other projects, and most of all, to go have fun.
Now I realize that it is typical for such a huge project to lose steam. Especially when the author has difficulty maintaining a healthy relationship to writing and letting the project breathe. Dissertators are not great at establishing either.
Given the arduous writing process, some people walk away indefinitely from the dissertation. Others go on to publish a series of articles based on the research. And then others find a gem of an argument in those hundreds of pages and completely restructure their diss to craft it into a publishable book.
So, the question is, how in the world do you begin to approach this process?
Like other forms of academic writing, the process of flipping the diss into a book seems to be shrouded in mystery. After some searching, I stumbled upon a longer-form piece, From Dissertation to Book by William Germano (once high in the ranks at Columbia UP and then Routledge and is currently a Professor of English at Cooper Union). Germano covers everything from re-reading the dissertation and deciding whether to move forward with articles or a book project to specific suggestions for chapter style and length.
It is invaluable to hear an editor’s point of view. But I also value hearing from scholars’ personal experiences—especially from those who are in my field. So, I reached out to two scholars who do research in contemporary French and Francophone Studies and feminist theory: Régine Michelle Jean-Charles and Annabel L. Kim.
Both have published top-notch books in the last 5 years. Both of these books were based on their dissertation research. I asked them for their top five pieces of advice to early-career scholars who are trying to flip the diss into a book. I have included their full comments below.
A couple major takeaways? Write every day. Amplify YOUR voice — share your thoughts rather than reciting the work of others. Get feedback from senior colleagues and faculty in other fields to enlarge the scope of your project and cultivate a larger audience.
One last notable similarity between these two scholars: both of them had a postdoc that gave them time to refine the dissertation. Postdoc fellowships (often, but not always) build in healthy chunks of time for research. Something to consider for those of you who are set on (or must) publish a book to get tenure in your field.
Régine Michelle Jean-Charles is Associate Professor of French and Graduate Program Director at Boston College. Her research interests include Francophone African and Caribbean Literatures and Cultures, Gender Studies, and feminist theory. She is the author of Conflict Bodies: The Politics of Rape Representation in the Francophone Imaginary (Ohio State University Press, 2014).
I really believe in writing every day. I am a huge fan of developing a daily writing practice which can center you tremendously given all of the competing demands of academic life, not to mention personal life! I agree with Dr. Kerry-Ann Rockquemore of the National Center for Faculty Development and Diversity, that blocking out the time on your calendar and committing to it every day will make an enormous difference. Also, remember that writing can take on many forms such as editing a chapter line by line, outlining a chapter, or taking notes from an article or book that you then incorporate into your chapter. I also abide by the rule of what I call “give to yourself first.” This means that before you respond to emails, work on a manuscript review, letter of recommendation, class prep, or anything else you have been asked to do you should work on your own project for at least one hour.
2. Form a writing community.
I am blessed to have been a part of many different writing communities. In graduate school, I created one along with a friend from a different institution for which about ten women would meet twice a semester for writing accountability and community followed by a sleepover. During my first year as an assistant professor I became part of a group of women that met monthly to review pre-circulated book chapters, book proposals, journal articles and even fellowship applications. We met monthly for five years. At every gathering (often held in our homes) we shared a meal and reported on professional and personal issues. I would often give this group rough, drafty material and they were also incredibly helpful by providing incisive critiques that made my work so much better. Most recently, I began a group with junior and senior colleagues in African and African Diaspora Studies at Boston College. We met every other week and would either gather to write together, or offer someone feedback on pre-circulated material. I am also part of a group made up of four women, two working at universities in Haiti and one in Miami that we call “Haitian Women Writing.” Since we are all in different locations we do check-ins on slack weekly and sometimes daily then we meet via Skype every few months. The online framework is perfect for also posting writing advice and goals as well as just checking in before and after daily writing. Writing groups are great for providing extra accountability, giving feedback, proofreading, and offering communal support to get you through.
3. Ask a senior colleague to read your entire dissertation.
As junior faculty, most of you should have a faculty mentor. With regards to mentors always be sure to tell them what you need from them and set the terms of the relationship early on. You could ask your mentor to read your dissertation, or find another senior colleague in your department who can read the entire manuscript and give you feedback. When you ask them to read the dissertation, tell them what to look out for—perhaps it is refining your argument, suggesting suitable places for publication, or enlarging the scope of your project. It helps to have someone look at it with fresh eyes because they will have different insights from your committee members. Also, having more people familiar with your work and invested in your progress will help you down the road when you go up for tenure.
4. Refine your voice.
A friend once told me that after her senior colleague read her manuscript he said she should take all of the quotations where she is citing the work of others and move those to the footnotes. I love this advice because most graduate students are over-invested in citing the work of others rather than centering their own voices in academic work. By moving most of your quotations to footnotes you discover what is absolutely essential for your arguments. Refining your voice means thinking about the craft of academic writing. It also requires that you examine your own work with a critical eye and ask, is this my voice or someone else’s? A wonderful resource for how to develop and amplify your academic voice is Helen Sword’s book Stylish Academic Writing in which she presents writing principles for paring down prose.
5. Dream wildly.
One of my dearest mentors, Dr. Farah Jasmine Griffin, told me in college that she begins every new project with a new journal in which she records her thoughts about what she is writing. I have adopted this practice of journaling to reflect on what I am writing and it has helped me tremendously. For example, my dissertation was about representations of violence in the works of francophone women writers. When I was going through the process of turning the dissertation into an academic book, I read a journal entry that I wrote while I was abroad in which I had written that I really wanted to write a book focused only on rape culture, but feared it might be too narrow for publishers. My first book, Conflict Bodies: The Politics of Rape Representation in the Francophone Imaginary is a realization of what I thought was a wild dream, but finally decided to pursue when I began my postdoc at UVA. Start a journal to accompany your writing projects, record your wildest dreams in it, and watch what happens!
Annabel L. Kim is Assistant Professor of Romance Languages and Literatures at Harvard University. She is interested in feminist writing and theory, the contemporary novel, and the ethical and political implications of writing and reading fiction. She is the author of Unbecoming Language: Anti-Identitarian French Feminist Fictions (Ohio State University Press, 2018).
Despite the overwhelming pressure to publish or perish, and the need to get things in the pipeline sooner than later, because of how much slower the rhythms of academic publishing are compared to the rhythms of the job market or the tenure track, you need distance from the dissertation to be able to figure out what sort of a book it’s supposed to be. Think about other things for at least a semester, explore other interests—start learning again, in other words. I’m convinced that everything that the brain takes in nourishes everything else that’s already there, no matter how unrelated things may seem.
2. Talk to people outside your field.
One of the main differences between the dissertation and the book is one of audience and of your relation to your reader. The dissertation is an exercise you must get through in order to obtain your degree, with an audience of your dissertation advisor or committee, where the point is to demonstrate mastery of your chosen area of specialization. For the book, on the other hand, the audience for your book will be much broader than just a handful of people, and you will be speaking to your colleagues in your field (and hopefully, outside your field) not as their student but as a peer, endowed with as much authority as they–authority you’ve gained from the process of writing the dissertation and gaining expertise.
In order to do so, to wield this authority, you have to first figure out what the argument of your book is, and what sort of a critical intervention it’s making. (And this is another major difference between the dissertation and book. The dissertation demonstrates, but the book argues.) But to be able to come up with a strong, compelling argument that makes an important contribution to your field, you need interlocutors from outside your field, who can tell you what the major stakes of your project are, unburdened as they are with the kind of knowledge fellow scholars in your field will have. Their disciplinary distance enables them to identify clearly what about your project is interesting and can carry over into and resonate with other fields and disciplines. I was very lucky to be a postdoc at Duke the first two years out of the PhD, where I was housed in Literature, which is more properly a cultural studies and critical theory department. Surrounded by interlocutors with very different references and disciplinary backgrounds than my own, I was able to rip apart my dissertation and take out the germinal argument of my book more quickly than I would have been able to had I been in conversation solely with similarly-trained and similarly-read interlocutors.
3. Don’t save your footnotes for last.
I highly recommend using a reference manager like Zotero to keep track of your sources. Never leave a citation incomplete because when you come back to try to track down a page number, you won’t be able to find it without a fair amount of weeping and gnashing of teeth (and wasted hours that could be better spent doing other things). Keep your manuscript’s notes tidy as you go along.
4. Work smarter, not harder.
I’m a big believer in writing a little (nearly) everyday, and don’t believe that it’s possible to maintain writing focus or quality for more than three hours a day. While I was writing the book, which was 90% new material, I did so by focusing on output, not input. So rather than chaining myself to my computer for 8+ hours, I put in place a quota, whereby I had to produce at least 500 words per writing day (which, during my postdoc, was 5 days a week—I believe strongly in taking at least one day off a week). Some days, getting to the 500 words was exquisitely easy, and I’d be done with the 500 words in a half-hour. On those days, sometimes I would just stop, and do other things with my day, and other times I would just keep going past my quota until I started to lose steam, and would then stop for the day. The other days, when writing was like pulling teeth, the 500 words would take much longer to come, but it never took longer than two hours to get there (as 500 words really isn’t that much).
Granted, I was very lucky to have two years of basically uninterrupted time in which to think and write because of my postdoc, which is a luxury that most people don’t have. Now that I have a job, I don’t have the large chunks of uninterrupted time that I used to have. I’ve begun experimenting recently with the pomodoro method (25-minutes of pure focus followed by a 5-minute break, repeat as often necessary or as many times as you have time for, with longer breaks every 2 hours) and have found it to be very useful. During the semester, I often won’t have the time to reach that longer break, and might only have one or two 25-minute sessions available to me in a day, and I’ve accordingly adjusted my quota, lowering it from 500 words to 150-200 words. I’ve been pleasantly surprised at how much writing one can produce in such a seemingly insignificant chunk of time! Here, as was the case before, it’s about framing writing as a task not of exertion but of accretion.
5. Don’t stop at stopping points.
By this I mean, don’t stop your writing sessions when you’ve finished a section, but stop mid-section. This might seem counterintuitive, and some of you may be balking at the idea of all the energy it takes to pick up where you left off and figuring out how you got there and trying to remember where it was you were trying to go. But it’s precisely that energy expenditure that I’m aiming for: I find that stopping a day’s writing before I’ve had the chance to finish the section I’m working on is good precisely because it forces the writing (and accordingly, the thinking) to remain fresh and responsive. (And in the grand scheme of things, that energy expenditure isn’t particularly great, compared with the energy expenditure of writing.)
Rather than working based off an outline or a model that’s been prefabricated, where you already know, before you’ve started writing, where it is you want to go in your writing and how you think you’ll get there—an approach that, in my opinion, doesn’t sufficiently accommodate the vicissitudes and unpredictability of an argument, which should be dynamic—I like to force myself each day to have to take stock of where I’ve been. Rather than having pre-made transitions, I have to supply that connective tissue fresh everyday, and I believe that makes whatever piece I’m writing stronger and more cohesive for it, because every part is connected to the other—the product of my brain having to make sure the seam is continuous, rather than fitting my writing into a prefabricated frame or structure that might not fit well once one’s thinking is set into action.