from PhD to book – or – on not writing under anaesthetic

Often dissertations sound like prose under general anaesthetic, working hard to separate the writer out from what he or she has written.

That’s a quote from William Germano, writing in From dissertation to book.

Wellcome image collection

Wellcome image collection

Germano’s metaphor points to a tendency for the thesis to be written in flat and distant prose. This is in part because, as Germano explains, the thesis is as much a record of other people’s ideas as your own. You see, your job in the thesis is to supplement or challenge the existing knowledge in the field with your own research results, analysis and insights. However, the very task of going through the process of the thesis – setting up the problem you are researching, seeing where it fits, and then accounting for the research you conducted – can have a very deadening effect on the writing.

Germano contrasts the deadened thesis to the book. The book,he argues, must be written from your point of view first. Your argument is supplemented by the work of others. He argues that in order to wake up an anaesthetised thesis you have to not simply revise, but transform the prose. Conservative approaches to thesis revision – like cutting and pasting whole chapters holus bolus from the thesis into the book –  leave the book, he says, “moving jerkily like a poorly projected silent film”.

The problems with the standard dissertation writing voice are pretty well known. Lots of citations which not only visually disrupt the page but also create obstacles for the reader. Too much signposting which signals intention, rather than actually doing the stuff. Overuse of passive voice. Long sequences of very long sentences stuffed full of subordinate clauses. Huge numbers of multi-syllabled abstract nouns – zombie nouns as Helen Sword calls them.

Germano adds to this list “an unseemly pompousness or willed lifelessness – as if being a professional scholar means showing as little expression as possible…. “Here’s another one of those Germano metaphors… Bad dissertation writing inevitably reminds me of the sort of play in which young actors in gray wigs and heavy makeup play characters forty years older. The problem, Germano says, is that the dissertation replicates an “inert prose style that sounds very much like the inert prose style of thousands of dissertations that have gone before.”

This kind of writing won’t please a book publisher, Germano says. And he ought to know, because he was one for a very long time. He was Director of Publishing at Routledge before going into the academy.

Germano’s solutions are not as novel as his metaphors. The antidotes to comatose prose are well discussed in the writing advice literatures. Germano suggests that transforming dissertation prose means getting rid of the omniscient narrator, removing unnecessary and hefty footnotes, writing shorter sentences and writing more in the active voice. Germano advises attending to the content of headings and subheadings, making them not only catchy but also related to the overall meaning of the writing they herald. He also suggests removing colons and semi-colons in order to pay attention to pauses and pacing, as well as examining the choice of words to achieve greater clarity.

So Germano is a serious fan of revision. As am I.  Lots of revision. As Germano puts it, “..writing and revision are the paired beats of a scholar’s life.”

The entire From dissertation to book can be seen as a very extended argument for transformative revision. It is also a good example of the kind of prose that Germano advocates – snappy, lively and to the point. It is therefore a good read, and a relatively quick one. It’s one I’d recommend to everyone trying to turn their thesis into a scholarly book.


About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in revision, thesis to book, Wiliiam Germano and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to from PhD to book – or – on not writing under anaesthetic

  1. Emma Dyer says:

    But you’re not necessarily advocating making the thesis writing a more lively read because of the nature of the beast, if I understand you correctly?


  2. Madeline Walker says:

    Yes, I used Germano’s book extensively when revising my diss to book. I also used his chapter “Making Prose Speak” when teaching writing to nursing students. I recommend this book. Thanks, Pat, for the post.


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