Lots of people want to turn their thesis into a book. This is not always possible – not all theses make good books. But it may also not be desirable. Some disciplines revere the scholarly monograph so writing one may be very good for the career. But others hold the peer reviewed journal article as the gold standard; in such cases, it may be better to get stuck into turning the thesis into a set of papers, rather than sweating over a manuscript. However, if you do want to do the book business, then you have to think about what the common advice – this book is not your thesis – actually means.
The first and most important difference relates to purpose.
The thesis is a text which is written to be examined and evaluated. As such, it follows a particular form, and the writing has to do particular kinds of work. You must show that you know the literatures. You must show that you understand research, and can justify why you have used the methods you have. You have to explain and justify how you analysed your material/data. You have to argue that the research contributes to knowledge. The examiners want to see all of these aspects dealt with, in detail.
The reader of a book, on the other hand, is not concerned about the same set of things. They buy the book primarily because they are interested in the topic. They haven’t bought the book to go through a trawl of what other people have done or how your research methodology sits within a tradition. They don’t want pages of audit trail. They want to know what you think and what you’ve done. So while your book will include other people’s research and possibly some discussion of method/ology, this will usually be succinctly presented in relation to the argument that you are making.
For this reason, I often suggest to newly completed DRs that they consider starting their thinking about a book at the end of the thesis, with the findings and conclusion.
After all of your research, you’ve come up with something. You started with a question but now you know the answer. While the thesis was structured around the question, and how you got to the answer, the book must BEGIN with the answer, explain why the topic is important and then go on to do something interesting – trace a history or show how policy is playing out or develop a new framework for thinking about the topic of tell a hitherto hidden story about it and so on.
Another key difference between an examiner and a book is to do with readership.
The thesis is written for examiners. The examiner is obliged to read the whole text. No matter how plodding, difficult, or messy it is – or how elegant and stimulating – they must get through the lot, as that is their job. They won’t like reading it if is tough going, but they’ll do it. An ordinary reader on the other hand has no such obligations. They’ve paid good money, or picked up your book in the library or borrowed it from their supervisor and they expect you to maintain their interest. If you don’t, they’ll simply stop reading.
So in writing a book there is no option but to think carefully about your authoring options. What is the best, most seductive, enlightening, persuasive way to present what you have to say? The thesis chapters are probably not it. Three chapters presenting the data followed by a discussion? Maybe the reader would prefer the discussion unfolding in concert with the data, organised around big meaningful chunks…or…. The book is an opportunity to think more creatively about how to put the argument together. It’s another challenge, but a good one.
So it’s a sensible idea, I reckon, to think about the book of the thesis as a rewriting, not a revision. It’s not just a bit of a fiddle with the introduction and conclusion and then plonking the rest in, but rather a restructured text written for a different reader and for a different purpose. While you may well be able to modify some existing thesis chapters in the rewritten text, what you end up with is likely to be different from the thesis that you wrote first.
For that reason, it’s often a good idea to leave a bit of time between completing the thesis and writing the book proposal. Write an article or two and then come back to the thesis. Look at it afresh, and think about how you could rework the material into the most interesting text possible.
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