Revising Humanities Dissertations for Publication

So you've finished your dissertation. Your committee has approved it. Now you can just box it up, send it to a publisher, and receive a book contract, right?

In reality, even the best dissertations must be revised before being accepted for publication. Because they receive so many unrevised dissertations a year, most editors can spot one soon after opening the package. To guard against an immediate rejection, you'll need to spend a lot of time rethinking and reworking your manuscript. The press's acquisitions editor, the expert readers to whom the press sends the manuscript for evaluation, and the editorial board will all be evaluating not only the validity of your argument and the depth of your research, but also the book's potential appeal to a substantial number of educated lay readers outside a narrow field of interest.

The first step for you is to take a look at your topic. Is it interesting to more than just a handful of scholars? Is it unique? Is it timely, but not faddish? Where does it fit with other books published lately in your discipline? Chances are you'll have to broaden it, or narrow it, or take a different angle on it than you did in the dissertation.

Some quick and easy revisions:

  1. Cut the part where you thank your dissertation committee. You can still acknowledge them, but as individual scholars rather than as part of your committee.
  2. Cut the review of literature or, if you feel you must keep some of it, work parts of it into the text at relevant points.
  3. Cut the number of quotations, especially long ones. In general, your book needs more of your own voice and less of others' voices, so utilize paraphrasing and summarizing skills.
  4. Comb through the manuscript and replace the jargon with more fluid and clear language. One easy way to find the clunky language is to read the chapters aloud. Another is to discuss your work with an educated person who is not in your field.
  5. Cut a third to a half of the notes. If the information can't be seamlessly incorporated into the text, dump it!
  6. If you have divided your chapters into sections and subsections, each with their own headings, take out this outline structure and instead work on transitions from one idea to the next. This will make your book more unified and more readable.
  7. Pare down the bibliography. As a student, you wanted to show your committee the depth and breadth of your research. As a book author, to keep from overwhelming your readers, give them just the most pertinent sources. (If you have referred to a source directly, you will need to keep it in the bibliography.)
  8. Chances are you'll need to update your research using the new articles and books that have appeared since you finished your dissertation. Work these ideas into your text and add them to your bibliography.

Selected Bibliography of Books and Articles on Changing a Dissertation into a Book

Derricourt, Robin M. An Author's Guide to Scholarly Publishing. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996.

Germano, William P. From Dissertation to Book. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005.

_____. Getting It Published: A Guide for Scholars and Anyone Else Serious about Serious Books. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001.

Harman, Eleanor, et al., eds. The Thesis and the Book: A Guide for First-Time Academic Authors. 2d ed. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2003.

Lanham, Richard A. Revising Prose. 5th ed. New York: Longman, 2006.

Luey, Beth, ed. Revising Your Dissertation: Advice from Leading Editors. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004.

McMillen, Liz. “A Doctoral Dissertation Is Not Yet a Book, Young Tenure-Seeking Scholars Are Told.” Chronicle of Higher Education, 5 February 1986.

Also, various university presses have author guidelines that will help you focus on matters most important to that particular press.