Transformations are difficult. Especially difficult when your formation as an academic prepares you in oblique ways for what you desire to become: a writer.
William Germano’s From Dissertation to Book (U Chicago, 2005) is nearly a classic in the books-on-writing genre. At least four of my professors recommended I read it before I ever submit my dissertation to publishers. And for good reason. Perhaps the most powerful argument contained in Germano’s work is one simple statement: “a dissertation is not a book.” Transformation is necessary.
Why is the dissertation not a book? They’re both stored in libraries. They both require extensive research. But the similarities end there. Books and dissertations are written for different audiences because they serve different social and institutional roles. A PhD student writes her thesis to establish herself as an expert in the field. She does by using a diffident tone and obsessively pointing to other research, which is why Germano refers to the dissertation as a “paranoid genre.” The PhD student writes to cover her ass, as it were. The result is often a thesis that lacks confidence, one that won’t “speak up.”
So, how does one transform such a substantial piece of writing and research?
The heavy lifting of revising is in changing its role for a new audience. The book broadcasts a new discovery to the general or specialist reader. Germano calls this “adaptation” because it is similar to putting a novel on film—the tone and pace must change to capture a larger audience. Germano provides some key concepts and a schedule that fits revision of a book-length manuscript into six or twelve months. It’s daunting in the way that writing a dissertation is daunting. So it’s a challenge once-accepted.
From Dissertation to Book discusses the major features that publishers search for in a manuscript. Germano offers precise editing strategies to help turn the fusty PhD thesis into a book that appeals to a larger readership and thus a publisher. Germano is also a model writer to emulate. He writes clearly. His tone is generous and engaging. And there are a number of wise and humorous gems contained in the text. Germano relates a bit of advice he received as a scholar long ago: the dissertation is your last piece of student writing. Becoming the next thing, the professional writer, involves finding the one or two things in your thesis that are of value to a larger community.
For the student to become a professional writer, transformation is necessary. We must wrangle our highfalutin obscurantism into ideas recognizable to the broader community. And then, as Germano states, “tell it to us in language we can understand.”