Dissertation vs. Book: What’s the Difference?
by Aaron W. Hughes
No matter what your well-intentioned committee may tell you, your dissertation is not a book. A book is not a dissertation from which you have simply removed the review of literature chapter. They are two different species and the sooner you realize this, the easier it will be to begin your own voyage of transformation.
A dissertation is often a very technical piece of writing. It is written for 4-5 people: your advisor and your dissertation committee. In my experience in the academic study of religion, a dissertation often involves a small text or other such dataset that sits rather awkwardly upon an elaborate theoretical and often highly jargony framework. A dissertation is an exercise that, while often difficult to write, only gives you the credentials to write a book.
A book is what an author writes. Though your dissertation was probably dedicated to your parents for their emotional and maybe even financial support, your book should be written for them as readers. That is to say, a book—at least for a major university press—ought to be readable to more than a handful of experts and should be able to intersect with a number of cognate fields. Presses, while they help us by publishing our books, are in the business of selling books. They won’t publish what they can’t sell. It really is as simple as that. Certainly there are presses, I think of Brill in the Netherlands, which publish highly technical (and expensive!) works and have the capability to publish critical edition of texts in non-European languages. We should be thankful that such presses exist and not label them as “vanity presses,” as I have heard colleagues do. But the presses I have in mind here are American university presses.
The main difference between a dissertation and a book is you and your voice as a scholar and an author. This is probably the most difficult thing to communicate because it is largely intangible. Whereas a dissertation tends to be deferential to those who have gone before and especially to one’s advisor and committee, a book needs an author brimming with confidence (but not arrogance) and comfortable (but not overconfident) in her own authorial voice. This will also bring a certain cohesion that cuts across the book. If a dissertation “illumines” or “adumbrates,” a book presents a well-reasoned argument and analysis. A dissertation keeps readers away, a good book invites them in and ideally changes the way they think about the world.
I recently was in conversation with an editor from a major university press about the changing state of our field and the worrying fact that people no longer read, but seem only to blog. He informed me that his press, indicative of many of the major houses, is rarely interested in “esoteric” scholarship, especially from younger and less-established scholars. This is a worrying trend, especially if we take “esoteric,” as I did, to refer to traditional scholarship that involves philological work and in eras other than the present.
If you work on medieval Islam or Hinduism or in early modern Judaism, it is incumbent on you to tell your reader (or before that, the acquisition editor) why what you work on is important. This is not to say that every book should be relevant, heaven forbid, but it is to say that no data is self-evidently important. This is one of the biggest mistakes a young author can make, to wit, thinking that because you work on something it is clearly important and recognizable as such to all and sundry. Books, unlike dissertations, contribute to larger conversations in the field and the best books help to change the shape or at least the contours of fields. This is why books should address larger issues in both the academic study of religion and the humanities. This means that you may not be able to publish large chunks of Judeo-Arabic texts in your book, or engage in lengthy transliterations full of diacritics. Maybe you could think about publishing those aspects of your dissertation, if in fact you have them, in an article or even a book series devoted to critical translations (e.g., see here).
My biggest piece of advice for a first-book writer (not a “dissertation transformer”!) is to think of oneself as an author. Obviously most of us do not possess the linguistic dexterity of John Banville or Alice Munro, but even an academic monograph should be a creative work that changes you as person and your readers as thinkers. This is why I encourage young authors to be bold in their vision and in their voice. Do not be afraid to go against accepted opinion or to disturb the status quo. This is a very difficult thing to ask because so much of what we have learned is to be cautious, even trepitatious.
Despite what religious believers claim, there is no perfect book. If there were, all writing would dry up. Write and send it in. Do not be afraid or procrastinate!