When I began revising my dissertation into my first academic book manuscript, I felt like I had three Herculean tasks in front of me: establish and maintain a regular research schedule while beginning the tenure track, learn about the book publishing process, and, of course, revise my dissertation’s content and structure into a book manuscript.
I read everything I could on the process, and, having successfully published my own first book, now have a better idea of what advice was useful, when, and why. Below, I lay out which resources were worth it in revising my dissertation into a book, and why. I’ve organized the books and articles into three broad categories: practical information on how to revise your structure and content, developing writing as a craft, and how to prepare your proposal. I have also organized these books on academic writing and publishing academic books into a relative chronology. Though it might, at first look, seem out of order, in my experience, it’s a good idea to start with a clear idea of where you’re headed, before then focusing in on the tasks at hand.
Rachel Toor’s Four Articles in the Chronicle on Where (Junior) Scholars Go Wrong in Pitching Their Books
As I said above, it might seem strange to begin with the book pitch. After all, presumably you haven’t even begun your revisions yet. However, Rachel Toor’s advice is an important reminder of the state of the academic book publishing landscape today. A former acquisitions editor at Oxford and Duke, she has seen the transition from a time when presses were able to count on library sales to support themselves, to a time when acquisitions editors must first and foremost think about whether a book will sell. These articles will, I hope, prompt you to approach your writing as a craft instead of an intellectual performance.
William Germano’s From Dissertation to Book
This book is the reference guide in the field for scholars in academic disciplines looking to turn their dissertation into an academic book. The first four chapters walk you through evaluating your dissertation honestly (to discover if there is a kernel of a book idea there) and deciding whether to publish your dissertation at all, before laying out some of the forms it might take. Should you decide that publishing an academic book is for you, the rest of From Dissertation to Book gives practical and actionable advice on thinking about the book project in the making through your editor’s eyes (chapter 5), and doing the revising, focusing on the book’s structure (chapter 7) and prose (chapter 8). It concludes by laying out brief procedural information about the book publishing process.
Writing as a Craft
Congratulations! You now have an idea of where you’re headed, and what the revisions will entail. If you took anything from Toor’s articles, I hope it is that your book’s narrative arc, individual chapters, and prose will need to be engaging. As you are undertaking your revisions, then, you should consult three works that give concrete examples of how to write for readers, and how to keep your writing momentum.
Helen Sword’s Stylish Academic Writing. If you read no further than the book’s third page, which gives eight features of “stylish” and “exemplary academic writing,” (which includes points such as “catchy opening paragraphs that recount an interesting story, ask a challenging question, dissect a problem, or otherwise hook and hold the reader” and “numerous examples, especially when explaining abstract concepts”) your academic writing will still benefit from Stylish Academic Writing. Sword illustrates her points about stylish academic writing by drawing from real, published articles and chapters from a variety of disciplines, before explaining “why it works.” Additionally, each chapter concludes with a “Things to Try” section, which systematically guides you through the process of distilling other authors’ strong writing, and experimenting with your own style. It will, no doubt, become a workbook-style reference for all your scholarly writing.
Eric Hayot’s The Elements of Academic Style. I first heard of this book when Hayot gave an interview on the New Books Network during which he recounted a shocking activity he asks his graduate seminar students to do: after analyzing scholarly writers’ successful rhetorical moves for introducing citations and paraphrased material, he requires his students to emulate those moves in their writing assignments by directly citing and paraphrasing made up scholarship. His point? All of the elements that make up writing academic pieces, just like any other craft, must be practiced, and that graduate education–which requires students to master enormous amounts of “content” in any given semester–often relegates writing to a secondary position. The Elements of Academic Style deals practically with a variety of problematic writing practices academic writers–particularly dissertation writers–engage in regularly, such as citing too many sources, rehashing entire disciplinary histories, or not structuring paragraphs to move an argument forward. Though I found his concepts of the “Uneven-U” and “The Iceberg” most useful, the book concludes with an Appendix that walks you through distilling others’ writing, and practicing the strong rhetorical moves he discusses in the book’s chapters.
Joli Jensen’s Write No Matter What! Jensen’s book champions the idea that many academics struggle to write when they view it as a series of products, rather than a craft. After a section giving practical tips for creating the time, space, and energy conditions for craft-based academic writing (Part II), Jensen then enumerates eight stumbling blocks and gives practical ways to deal with them. For instance, she outlines the “hostile reader fear” that frequently causes scholars to write from a defensive position (if they can write at all), or the “magnum opus myth”–the idea that our articles, chapters, and books must make revolutionary contributions to our fields. In Part IV, Jensen gives actionable advice for recognizing and combatting stalled and stuck writing patterns. In the final sections of the book, she explores the topic of starting and maintaining a writing group, or even a writing space on your university campus.
The New Books Network Podcast in Your Field. Ok. This is not a book, nor will it offer you any practical advice on writing as a craft. Nevertheless, the New Books Network Podcast in your field (literary studies, philosophy, popular culture, etc.) is a great resource to get insight into how successful book authors structured their books, how they pitch their projects to non-specialists, and what types of analyses they engage in.
Practical Academic Book Proposal and Book Publishing Information
You’re getting close to finishing your manuscript, and you’re about three months from when you think you’ll submit your proposal. These works will give you a practical overview of how to prepare your book proposal, and what will happen to your book at a university press.
William Germano’s Getting it Published. Germano used to be an acquisitions editor at the University of Chicago Press, so his Getting it Published offers academic authors a “look at the inside” of the world of academic book publishing. The most helpful chapters, in my view, are those on Selecting a Publisher (chapter 4), Your Proposal (chapter 5), and What Editors Look For (chapter 6). The book, though, is really filled with all the information you will ever need about any practical issue relating to book publishing (such as images, “what a contract means,” etc.). Read it for an overview of what you as a book author will experience during the book publishing process.
Rabiner and Fortunato’s Thinking Like Your Editor. While this book is intended for all non-fiction writers, not just academics, it nevertheless gives extremely useful information on preparing your book proposal. Additionally, because it is written for a non-academic audience, it is a crucial reminder of the importance of style and craft in a book, and a proposal’s prose. See, for instance, the entire chapter (6) devoted to “Using Narrative Tension.”
Karen Kelsky’s article “How to Write a Book Proposal.” Most of Kelsky’s advice on the topic of writing a book proposal is solid. Some, however, such as the length of a total proposal, seems outdated (see the comments, for instance). When in doubt, defer to Germano’s Getting it Published, or the requirements of the particular press you are proposing your book to.
My series on how to identify university presses that might be good fits for your project. This series walks you through identifying the longest list of university presses that publish in your field, before then narrowing it based on information you glean from your own bookshelf and bibliography, from the press websites, and from conversations with colleagues and mentors about press reputation and prestige. In the process of completing the exercises, you’ll have a better idea of what materials each of your target presses wants for a book proposal, how your book project fits with their existing lists, and how to tailor your proposal for that press.
Reread Toor’s four articles on where junior scholars go wrong in their book proposals. Click on the images above to access the articles.
Have a question not addressed above about the best resources for first time academic book authors? Leave a comment below or email me.
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