In this new series with the Bulletin, we ask scholars who have published in the field to share some insights on the dissertation-to-book process–what to do, what to avoid, to put it all together. For other posts in this series, see here.
by K. Merinda Simmons
My feelings after I finished my dissertation were ambivalent. On one hand, the whole thing seemed a bit anticlimactic. I had just accomplished the biggest scholarly undertaking that I had endeavored at that point, and it was a bit disappointing to realize there wasn’t a ticker tape parade awaiting my emergence from the defense. On the other hand, I was so eager to forget about the whole thing and just never look at the project ever again. Indeed, opening up the file again to begin drafting the book proposal was a tooth-pulling experience if ever there were one. In the process of turning from the dissertation to what would eventually become the book, I received some good advice that I’ll share here.
“If you can stand behind your basic argument,” a colleague said, “spend some time on crafting a proposal, but then just go ahead and send it. They’re going to tell you to change everything anyway.” At first, I balked. All I could see were the dodgy points of the project—the sections that were way too long or way too short, the ideas that warranted much more clarity and/or explanation, the desperate need for a conclusion that would work. The impulse was either to spend the next several years turning the manuscript into what I thought it should be or to erase the entire file from my computer completely and just start working on something new. My advice to scholars at the post-dissertation, pre-book phase is to avoid this impulse. The time after the dissertation’s defense is the “get back on the horse” moment. While it will seem strange, and probably uncomfortable, go ahead and try to think about why the topic is useful on a broader level for wider audiences. Try to think back to why you wanted to start writing on the topic in the first place. And with these things in mind, put together a proposal that spells out a brief description of the project and the contribution it makes, offering an abstract of each chapter and a sense of the book’s (because now it’s not a dissertation anymore—it’s your book manuscript) marketability.
My colleague was right: any positive feedback I received from acquisitions editors and external readers was secondary to their primary concerns that spelled out revisions they wanted to see. These revisions emphasized what seems obvious now but what seemed counterintuitive at the time. Namely, they asked that I cut a ton of secondary criticism and scholarship and cultivate my own “authorial voice.” Because I was still so close to my graduate student self, I couldn’t understand how the book would be better for having less scholarship. If anything, one of the reasons I was hesitant to send it in before spending years on revisions right out of the gate was what I saw as the glaring holes that needed filled with more scholarship. But they were looking for a coherent point of view out of my work rather than endless references to the late greats. I needed to demonstrate my own critical intervention into a field rather than rehearse the claims that had already been made by others.
On a pragmatic level, sending in the proposal early on bought me some time to work on what I knew needed to happen (like writing a conclusion) while I waited to hear back from the outside readers. Once they got back to me with their feedback and suggestions, I was then able to direct my revisionary attention more specifically to what they wanted to see in the book. In that way, the writing process was far more efficient than it would have been otherwise. I didn’t waste all of the time I would have adding even more outside scholarship on minutiae, for example. It can seem unfair to the behemoth of your dissertation to turn around after the defense and pander its thematic wares to acquisitions editors who will be thinking about its sales potential. However, since the book’s review and production processes (not to mention those of the job market and tenure applications) are behemoths all their own, I think it best to try and dive in sooner rather than later.
K. Merinda Simmons is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Alabama. Both her teaching and research focus on identifications of race, gender, and religion in the Caribbean and the American South. She is the author of Changing the Subject: Writing Women across the African Diaspora (Ohio State University Press, 2014). Her co-edited books include: The Trouble with Post-Blackness (with Houston A. Baker, Jr., Columbia University Press, 2015) and Race and Displacement (with Maha Marouan, University of Alabama Press, 2013). She is currently at work on a monograph tentatively entitled Selling Slave Religion: Theorizing Experience in the American South, as well as the co-authored (with James A. Crank, UA) monograph Race and New Modernisms (invited for inclusion in the Bloomsbury Academic series New Modernisms).