by Donovan Schaefer
In this 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.
I want to meditate on the sage words of Aaron W. Hughes, who in his own contribution to this series, insisted that “A dissertation is not a book.” A dissertation is a major intellectual accomplishment. But recognizing that there will usually be a divergence between the priorities of writing a dissertation and the protocols of writing a book is important for making the next step—after the extraordinary and utterly necessary labors of writing the dissertation—in which the dissertation coalesces into a book and enters the global scholarly conversation. In my case in particular, the dissertation was not a book. I thought that it was while I was writing it, but in retrospect, the book that I wrote—although it resembled the dissertation, in some ways, from the exterior—was manifestly different. If I’d known that my dissertation was not a book—that less than 15% of the content of my dissertation would end up in the volume I eventually wrote—my approach to rewriting would have been much different.
A dissertation is a practice book. Long-form writing is fundamentally different than short-form writing. It requires the deployment of intellectual rhythms and structures that aren’t cultivated by writing term papers. The finished dissertation will have the watermarks of a project that was completed while the very techniques for finishing the product were being learned, like a first painting or a first piece of furniture or a first thrown pot.
Moreover, your writing skills will advance rapidly while you write your dissertation. You’ll be growing more as a writer during dissertation-writing than throughout the duration of your coursework. This means that there will be a sort of Doppler effect in your writing: the chapters you write first will be clumsier and less fluid—not to mention just plain different in tone and rhythm—than the chapters you write later.
Editing a subtly askew work that you’ve already read and re-read multiple times can be harder than starting over. An argument that runs just slightly off-track of where it needs to be is more difficult to correct than an argument that is clearly running in an oblique direction. It pulls you back into the current of ideas you were trying to create the first time. Each sentence, each paragraph, has an axis that is subtly oriented to the project of your dissertation. But the current of ideas you want to create in your book runs not only past the dissertation, but in a slightly different direction. Keeping track of the subtle digressions is much more labor-intensive than you might expect.
What changed between the dissertation and the book? For me, it was my sense of how the project fit into a broader scholarly conversation. One axiom that I’ve picked up while in conversation with writing mentors is that your writing and thinking will change depending on the imagined audience. The imagined audience for your dissertation, most likely, was a handful of committee members who were gauging your performance against their own standards of academic work. But the imagined audience for a book is both broader and more fluid. It’s the virtual intellectual community, the rhizomatic network of scholarly conversations built around specific conglomerations of texts, writers, disciplinary labels, and institutions. The obligation of the dissertation is to establish that you can convert diligent research into long-form writing. The obligation of the book is to find a meaningful way to interlock with one or more of these conglomerations—to figure out what has been said, what has been asked, and what is taken for granted—then to expand the horizon of the conversation. Standing on this new stage, your argument, perspective, sources, and method, will all be adjusted accordingly.
This doesn’t mean that a completed dissertation isn’t an extraordinary achievement. Only a handful of wizards can write a focused, well-sanded book on their first crack. For most of us, the dissertation is not only an undertaking, but a zone of experimentation that, as Hughes writes, “gives you the credentials to write a book.” What others say about dissertations tends to be true: they display more of the academic machinery than is strictly speaking necessary to access and maneuver an existing conversation. But more importantly, the argument of the dissertation itself will likely mutate in the passage to the book as you reimagine the audience and, in the process, your own authorial voice. I found I needed to, as Whitman wrote, “make much of negatives” in thinking about what needed to remain and what needed to be deleted in converting the dissertation to a publishable manuscript.
Donovan Schaefer is a departmental lecturer in science and religion in the Faculty of Theology and Religion at Oxford. His research looks at the relationship between religion, emotion, and power, with particular attention to approaches embedded in evolutionary biology and poststructuralist philosophy.