turning your thesis into a book

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.

Other posts on book writing:

Can I get a book from my PhD?

Picking the right publisher for your book

Never write a book without a contract

Writing a book proposal

Be conference savvy and land a book contract

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in academic book, book proposal, publishing, thesis and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

27 Responses to turning your thesis into a book

  1. sherranclarence says:

    Thanks very much for this post. I am not sure I want to write a book – I will probably write a few papers instead, but I do see gaps in my field where my research could fit usefully in a longer format, like a book, and your post offers very useful advice and links. I can kind of see where my research could go next, now that I am writing my conclusions, so perhaps extending my project and turning that into a book could be an exciting thing to pursue in the next couple of years. We shall see… 🙂


  2. Jane S says:

    Alas, Pat ~ I have an opposite problem. (I guess your invaluable advice applies as much to A&H as it does to social science.) The way I write up research appears to be turning a book into a thesis. …
    The ‘inner creative’ wants out. I like to call her a ‘muse,’ but sometimes she’s just a nuisance.
    I printed off 6 months work (41,570 words) over the weekend, inc. assorted preliminary material, and drafts of the Intro. + Chapters 1 – 4. Phew! Half a book’s worth, albeit chapters do have possibilities of being re-wrought into papers. However, have proved to myself that attacking it as if it IS a book ~ deadlines, so many words a day, etc etc., is the only way to get it done. Besides, it’s the only way I know how ~ but I foresee a lot of rewriting!
    The print-out’s hard copy insurance; half a year’s work from grinding grindstone is not to be vaporised in one of those terminal Computer Events which can, and do, occur. OTOH, I did commence with The Question, so at least got THAT right 😉


  3. lorenagibson says:

    Great post, and timely for me! I am rewriting my thesis at the moment (two years after completion) by ‘flipping’ everything, e.g. starting with the answer rather than thesis question and situating relevant theories within my research and approach rather than vice versa (everything you suggest, basically). I am fortunate that I only need to do this for the intro and conclusion as my thesis advisors supported my decision to write the thesis as a book and present it in an accessible, creative manner. Rewriting is a painful process and I’m not sure I would bother if faced with revisiting the entire thesis – journal articles would be easier.


  4. Chris Keene says:

    Can I ask, do you think having your thesis freely available online, on the University website, will affect your ability to get a book contract? From what I’m reading here it seems they are such different things that the thesis being online should hopefully not put off publishers from wanting to publish as a book.


    • pat thomson says:

      I think it depends on the publisher. It’s not generally an issue but I’ve heard of a couple of instances where it was


    • We’ve recently published a monograph based on a thesis, with only moderate changes. However, this was on the condition that it was embargoed on the University’s website for 2 years. There’s no way we’d have published it had the material been freely available online. There are a few more theses in production, too, and they’re either embargoed, or are substantially different from the original.


  5. lorenagibson says:

    Reblogged this on anthropod and commented:
    This is a great post on how to turn your thesis into a book, and very timely for me as it is what I am doing right now. I haven’t taken all of Pat’s advice (I’m working on a full manuscript without a contract, for example) but her tips on rewriting are very useful. Ger post has reminded me that I’m writing for a specific genre – ethnography, quite different from a thesis – which has particular conventions that I need to follow, and inspired me to completely rewrite my introduction and conclusion with a new audience in mind. Now, if only I could churn out 2,000 words a day …


  6. Writing a book ? I think printing and publication through a renowned publisher, requires extra investment, which I am not willing to make at all. Is there a cheaper way of publishing your work as a book? paper bags version ? any ideas/suggestions ??


  7. Helen Abrahams says:

    I don’t know if I should publish my work, but still this is a good read! I get that the examiners’ job is to read every detail of the dissertation but I’ve heard instances where examiners don’t actually read the content and just skim through, then make their comments based on what they saw. How true is that?


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  9. Don Mthobela says:

    Kindly inform me of other projects that are aimed at turning thesis into a book for inputs and suggestions.


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  11. phambichha says:

    Reblogged this on Phambichha's Blog and commented:
    Great advice to turn my thesis to book, focusing on differences between thesis and book on purpose and readership


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  16. Papo says:

    I am considering self-publishing my thesis paper on Art Education. I did interviews for the bulk of my research. I was wondering to publish do I need permission to publish the names and interviews I already did???


    • pat thomson says:

      You need to stick to the ethical permissions you negotiated before interview. It is usual to anonymise people so they aren’t recognised. If you didn’t have any permissions beforehand yes you should get them now.


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