Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Revising and Proposing: An Uninformed View (I)

Because a couple of people asked about the process of revamping my dissertation and sending out a book proposal in the comments to the last post, I thought I'd just do a proper post on what I did to revise my dissertation and write up the proposal. Now, I do not in any way pretend that this is an expert view. For those of you who haven't been following my scintillating career, here are the caveats: I have not published a book. I have not had a book accepted for publication. I defended my dissertation a year and 3.5 months ago. I have only ever seen one or two proposals other than my own. The only "credential" I have is that two publishers have deemed my proposal to be interesting--or, at least, acceptable--enough to ask for the complete manuscript. So this is not intended as a definitive guide to moving from dissertation to book or to writing a book proposal, but rather just a run-down of what one person who's in the midst of the process has been doing.

First, revising.

I like to think of myself as The Laziest Scholar, so, in truth, I did not do extensive rewriting as a part of my revision process. Or if I did, it's only because I tricked myself into doing it by working on just a few sentences at a time, here and there, and then occasionally banging out a new transition paragraph (usually in the space of about 15 minutes). The revision process will, of course, differ vastly from dissertation to dissertation; Germano's From Dissertation to Book is helpful in giving you a sense of what the scope of your revisions might be, although I confess that I found the book to be frustratingly general at times. (Which is not really a failure of the book--I mean, he's trying to address a very wide, multidisciplinary audience--but I wanted a little more in the way of concrete advice. Perhaps because I wanted someone else to do my revisions for me?)

Anyway. Here's what my dissertation needed; perhaps some of it will be applicable to others:
  1. Better titles. Seriously, my titles were clunky messes of nonsense. Well, no, they weren't that bad. But I'd tried really hard to make each chapter title parallel, so each one fit into the following formula: "Pithy Phrase: Something and Something in Text [or Author]." I have eight chapters, so this got a little old after a while. In the revision process, I grappled mightily with my chapters and decided to jettison the parallelism, so now I have some chapter titles without colons. Yes, you read me right! No colons! In some of them! I also tried to make the titles a little more engaging. Titles aren't my strong suit, so this caused me some stress; in coming up with a new title for the book itself (a vital move, as it shows that you really have revised the dissertation) I generated at least a page and a half (typed, single-spaced) of possibilities before settling on the one that seemed to best represent the content of my work. By the time I finished the dissertation, see, the title I'd chosen Lo Those Many Years Ago wasn't very accurate, and boy did it sound stale to my ears.
  2. Subheadings. I added subheadings to each chapter. This not only made it feel more organized, but it's probably what forced me to do the most substantial revisions in each chapter, because it made me really think about what I was arguing and the order in which I was arguing it, and how each section built (or failed to build) upon the others. I know that not everyone likes subheadings, but they seemed to work for me. Also, the two chapters I'd spun off into articles both had subheadings--in one case the reviewer recommended/ordered me to add them, and in the other the editor simply inserted them into the final piece. And once I saw them there, I liked 'em.
  3. Actual restructuring. But no, not all of my revisions were cosmetic! Indeed! Upon meeting with my advisor post-defense to discuss what I should do to vamp the thing up into book form, she recommended taking a chapter from the middle and integrating it into my introduction. Providing more detail on this point probably wouldn't be helpful, as it's rather particular to my project, but I wound up following her advice and it made a big difference, I think, in terms of setting up the substance of my argument. What I basically ended up doing was merging two chapters and then splitting them apart in a different way and using them as a kind of two-chapter introduction to the rest of the project. To extrapolate from this to more general advice, I guess what you might do is to think about how your project would best be introduced now that you've seen it through to completion--trying to disregard how you actually did introduce it and conceptualize it more abstractly. I was lucky in that I had my advisor basically do this for me and point out the flaw in where I'd originally put the material from those two chapters, but I suppose it's something that a diligent scholar might be able to do for herself, too.
  4. A new introduction. I wrote--from scratch--a 12-page introduction to the book in which I did my best to make it sound really exciting and to keep my approach fairly broad. I wrote the first draft of this intro (which was only about 6 pages long) in maybe forty-five minutes; I'm a fast writer of drafts in general, but in this case the speed was deliberate. See, I knew that if I took too long with the intro, I'd start getting too specific and worried about the details: what I tried to do instead was to provide a rapid-fire overview of what's really important and why it's important to study it. I revised this like crazy, of course, and added a lot of text later, but that first quick run-down was extremely helpful in getting me to write something that wasn't hopelessly technical and (most likely) rather dry.
  5. Subordinated scholarship. I didn't have a literature review per se in my diss, but I did, of course, demonstrate that I'd read about 80,000 articles in the process of writing it. As I revised, one of the main things that I did was to simply delete references to other scholarship that didn't actually advance my argument (but that, most often, just talked around it) and to put most of the rest of my secondary research into footnotes. Hence, I have a lot of long footnotes, but the chapters themselves seem much cleaner and I found it a lot easier to keep my argument on track when I wasn't pausing every half-page to point out that three or four other people might be said to agree with me.
  6. A highlighted narrative. You all know this one: Find the "story" that you're telling in the dissertation and make sure that everyone can follow it, using nice clear introductions to each chapter and conclusions that lead the reader on to the chapters that follow. I wrote a lot of these transitional conclusions from scratch as I revised, because I really couldn't be bothered to produce them while I was working on the dissertation. They were sort of fun to write, though, actually, because I could just talk in my writing about what's interesting in my project without worrying about developing the scholarship itself.
  7. Stronger assertions. None of this "it could be argued" or "it might be possible" bullshit. Nope: I'm right, my argument is important, and you'd all best agree with me. If you know what's good for you. I mean it.
Just an additional point on the process: I thought that I was doing all of these things back when I was writing the dissertation itself (except for no. 3, of course). But when I went back and reread it a few months after the defense, it looked less bookish and more dissertationy than I'd imagined. But that's probably because this was the first book-length piece of scholarship I'd written; it's only natural that it would take a bit of revising to get it into a truly readable state. I don't think that there's a natural distinction between "dissertation" and "book"--at least, not in literary studies--but rather that a dissertationy book is just a book that hasn't quite moved towards a more general scholarly audience.

Now, I don't know how good my manuscript is or anything, and it's possible that I'll need to do a lot more to it to get it published. When I defended last April, my committee really pushed me to send out proposals as quickly as possible (and I took more than a year to do so; they evidently didn't push hard enough--but I'm glad that I took the time, as I'm confident that the work is in better shape than it was). I don't think that this was because I'm a natural genius with an instantly publishable dissertation, but rather because my diss was on a semi-"hot" topic in medieval studies that's getting more attention lately, and if I waited too long, the moment might pass. So, just to reiterate my caveats, because I'm sort of embarrassed about presuming to give advice on book-writing: I may not know what I'm talking about, at all, but it can be useful to read about what someone else did, no?

OK, this post has grown much longer than I expected it to. So stay tuned for Revising and Proposing: An Uniformed View (II): The Proposal!


squadratomagico said...

I think this sounds really, really, helpful -- even though I'm no longer at the stage of revising a diss. But I imagine it will help a lot of folks -- you hit a great balance between discussing what worked for you, and how others might adapt a similar strategy.

Congrats. on the press interest!

Hilaire said...

You know, I'm not revising a diss, but writing from scratch, but this was still really helpful as a reminder to me of some fundamental things about publishing. Thank you!

I wish you and I were in a writing group together! You would be an awesome writing group colleague, which is a compliment of the highest order.

Sisyphus said...

Thanks for the helpful advice!

And where on earth did you find that pic!?!?1?!?!

heu mihi said...

Glad that it might be helpful--and the picture is from Google images. (No, I don't personally photograph squirrels in tuxedos, although the idea has its charm.)