Advice for academics about writing and getting published

By Rachel Toor

The Chronicle of Higher Education, Chronicle Careers, March 24, 2008

Last summer, I was asked to lunch by an acquaintance from another university, an assistant professor whose tenure clock was running down. She wanted some advice about publishing.

She explained that she had a year to get her dissertation turned into a book. Or else. Being an assistant professor had taken more time and energy than she had expected and now here she sat, with a year to get a book written, accepted, and into production at a good press.

OK, I said.

She wanted to talk about revising her dissertation. She described, in pretty good detail, what she had done. At that point, if I had still been a publisher, I would have said, “Sure, I’d love to see it.” I would have paid for lunch, and she would have left feeling all fluffed up and told her friends and colleagues that a good press was interested in publishing her book. She would have spiffed it up and sent it to me.


The manuscript would have arrived on my desk. I would have vaguely remembered the conversation and remembered, too, that I didn’t think the project was that promising, and it would have sat on my desk for a while. Then it would have gotten covered up by other manuscripts.

While I may have remembered that she was up for tenure, it wouldn’t have much mattered to me. Everyone is up against some kind of deadline. It’s likely her manuscript could have sat on my desk for three, six, or even nine months — not because of cruelty or negligence, but simply from my own overburdened schedule. Then I would have gone through one of my frenzies, trying to clear my desk. I would have read the first 50 pages of her manuscript, and would have asked my assistant to write a reject letter. And that would have been that.

But I was no longer a publisher. I was, like my acquaintance, an assistant professor. So I asked her what argument her book would make.

There was an uncomfortable silence. She told me again what she had looked at, the focus of her research.

OK, but what was the argument?

Silence.

She didn’t really have an argument, she guessed. She just looked at the topic in its context. She was actually more interested in her next book project, she said, but she had done all this work and she needed to get a contract and she didn’t have enough done yet on the next (more interesting) project, so she had to revise the diss.

Wanting to be helpful, and, since I was no longer an editor constantly on the prowl for potentially promising manuscripts, I gave her my honest opinion: Who would be interested in a book like this?

I pointed out that, even in the way she described it to me, she was using coded language, jargon that would be a big flashing red light to warn off anyone outside of her particular academic discipline. What publisher, I asked, was going to want a book on a topic unknown to most people, especially if there was no underlying argument or theoretical framework?

Ultimately, what I wondered was whether anything in the dissertation was worth turning into a book.

I’m not always the most fun lunch date.

The idea that every dissertation needs to be turned into a book is perhaps a notion that we need to encourage more graduate students and Ph.D.’s to give up. Sure, some dissertations (rare as the ivory-billed woodpecker) are ready to be submitted to presses without much substantive revision. And others have the bulb of an idea worth nurturing until it blossoms. But most dissertation manuscripts contain only a small number of hesitant, quiet insights, and are bloated with reviews of the literature, block quotations, and pages of footnotes.

I realize it may seem uncharitable to tell someone who has spent years cranking out a few hundred pages of work to put it in a desk drawer and move on. But I also realize the constraints under which many dissertations are produced: rushing to make a deadline; writing to get to some perfect page count; using words and concepts that you, a graduate student, only vaguely understand; working to narrow your focus so that you’re sure that you’re doing something that no one else has done before. The ugly truth is that most dissertations do not result in publishable books.

A friend of mine in a doctoral program has been told by his adviser: Don’t write a dissertation; write a book. That would be fine, if my friend knew how to write a book. Or even, how to be a historian. But that advice is becoming commonplace, especially in disciplines that are book-driven, for obvious reasons. If you need two books to get tenure, then the first one should be a revision of your dissertation.

But that means that faculty members are going to have to start teaching their students how to write books. Or they are going to have to corral working acquisitions editors into giving seminars on the differences between dissertations and books, and what makes a book more or less intellectually successful. (Plenty of senior professors could benefit from that as well.)

William Germano, in From Dissertation to Book, provides a primer on scholarly publishing, points out some of the common pitfalls, and outlines the basic differences between dissertations and book manuscripts.

For the most part, Germano, formerly publishing director at Routledge and before that editor-in-chief of Columbia University Press, gives advice that many academic authors, not just first-timers, would find helpful. He gives specific examples about how to use chapter titles to help think about the structure of a book; solid advice about the tics and annoying fetishes of scholarly writing; and ways to approach editors.

In a passage that should elicit whoops of assent from his former colleagues at university presses, he gives advice on titles: “Avoid titles that quote literature (and especially avoid titles that use quotation marks to set off the borrowed words). Shun titles that insert punctuation in the middle of words (Re:Vision, De/Construction, and other once-new formulations that are tired now.) Avoid the academic double-whammy of an abstract title and a concrete subtitle separated by a colon.”

If taken seriously, the book should provoke you to think hard about your dissertation, and its revisability. But you have to be ready to receive an obviously unwelcome message: It’s more than likely that the pages you wrote, printed out on acid-free cotton paper and lovingly bound by the university that granted you a Ph.D., represent the final stage in a process, not a marketable product.

You have to be prepared to realize that you didn’t write a book. But you might be able to mine a couple of solid journal articles out of the volume, maybe even use the research toward constructing an as-of-yet inchoate argument.

How can you figure out what is worth saving, what is fertile ground from which you might produce a publishable work? Your adviser might be helpful, but, like you, may be too close to the work to be able to see it clearly. Your other committee members may have some good ideas. Certainly, conversations with colleagues both in and out of your field can help.

Your best bet would be to find an editor willing to sit down and talk with you about what you have. Or a former editor who needs to squeeze in a training session for a marathon.

During a three-hour run with my friend Dean, he told me about his dissertation. A strong runner and Ironman triathlete, he slowed his pace so that I could keep up, and as we covered miles of trail ascending Stuart Peak, I asked him a barrage of questions.

By the time we’d climbed the hardest part, it was clear to me how he could revise his dissertation for publication. It would take a lot of work — an overhaul of the entire structure and some serious rethinking — but the ideas and the research could be shaped into a terrific book. It would mean saying goodbye to all the pages he had worked so hard on, and hello to a new project.

Even if you don’t have a recovering editor as a training partner, it’s possible that the folks who work on your campus and are engaged in the business of publishing serious books would be willing to have lunch with you to discuss your project — even if it’s not something they would publish. Academic-press editors like to be engaged with their campus’s community.

Just be prepared to hear what may seem like bad news to you. Listen carefully, without getting angry or defensive. Realize that while this kind of thinking may come easier to an editor than it does to you, it is still hard work and not as much fun as talking about the Final Four or Gossip Girl. Don’t forget to thank your editor friends. And it would be really nice if you paid for their sandwiches.

Rachel Toor is an assistant professor of creative writing at the Inland Northwest Center for Writers, in Spokane, the M.F.A. program of Eastern Washington University. Her Web site is www.racheltoor.com, and she welcomes comments and questions directed to careers@chronicle.com.