Sarah Caro, author of How to Publish Your PhD has kindly offered us this six-part guide on revising a thesis for publication as a book. Over the coming weeks she’ll be explaining how to understand what type of book you can produce as well as discover ways of shaping it up into a more book-like body of material.
A PhD performs a specific function, very different from that of a book or a journal. As a result it is structured differently and the tone and approach are not those you would use in a journal or a book. This six-part series provides some general advice on revising your thesis and high¬lights some common problems and issues that will need to be addressed whether you opt for articles or a book. It includes a practical example of how one might set about restructuring one’s thesis into a book and some basic guidelines on content and style.
Unless you are a student of literature the chances are that in your aca¬demic career to date you have spent little time thinking about genre or style. You will hopefully have made an effort to write clearly and will have learnt how to lay out references and notes but you may have never consciously considered the genre or format of what you are writing. In fact academic writing like any other form of writing geared to a specific audience is a distinctive genre in its own right and comes with a clear set of expectations on the part of both reader and writer. All academic disciplines conform to the basic strictures of the genre of academic writing, though there may well be significant dif¬ferences in style which can obscure these similarities.
So what are these various sub genres? At the risk of being accused of over-simplifying I would characterize them for the purposes of this book as being five in total: the PhD thesis, the academic journal article, the academic monograph (both electronic and hardcopy), the textbook, and the academic book which crosses over into the general or trade market. In keeping with my previous home-grown definition of a genre as a form of writing that is geared towards a particular audience with a specific set of expectations (whether it be academics or readers of science fiction) I would say that each of these sub genres is designed for a very specific audience and comes with a distinct set of expectations.
A PhD thesis has the unique characteristic of being written for a small and rarified audience that probably knows more about the general subject area than the author – and woe betide any doctoral candidate that forgets it! The author will be putting forward a par¬ticular thesis and then trying to prove it at the same time as show¬ing off their knowledge of the related literature and explaining the methodology (empirical, theoretical or both) that they have employed. So essentially it is a defensive document and a showcase at the same time.
The journal article is written by people who know a lot about a highly specialized topic for an audience that also knows a lot about that topic. In a strange way it is not that dissimilar to a thesis in so far as it also has a very specific structure, usually includes sections devoted to literature and methodology, and may well be defensive if the authors are presenting new results or theories. It differs from the thesis in that audience and authors are usually equally well informed so a lot of shared knowledge can be taken for granted. The style is ideally concise and to the point and doesn’t allow for self-promoting displays of erudition and verbal wizardry.
The structure of an academic monograph can vary enormously and though it will invariably include references to the relevant literature and explanations of whatever methodology has been adopted it is unlikely to have specific sections or chapters devoted to these topics. Rather they will be integrated into the narrative framework and the emphasis is likely to be less on proving one particular point or pre¬senting one set of results in isolation, but on exploring a range of ideas or results and their implications for a whole area of study. Monographs tend to be written in a fairly technical, academic style but there are plenty of exceptions and those that are written in a more lively style tend to sell better. Even academics hungry for the latest ideas are not indifferent to the way that they are presented and the more accessibly written a monograph is, the more likely it is to find a market amongst graduate students and researchers, as well as other academics. As is the case with journal articles, the author of an academic monograph is able to assume a certain level of knowledge amongst their potential audience but not necessarily the same level of specialization in a particular area.
By virtue of its pedagogic nature the textbook is written with the assumption that the author knows more than the reader. Ideally the style in which it is written should be clear and concise without rhetorical flourishes and its structure will generally be determined by external factors such as the way a particular course is taught, rather than by the internal logic of the material covered. The style and structure of the book will also be affected by commonly used textual features such as chapter outlines, chapter summaries, boxes, definitions, glossaries, further reading, thus making it one of the easiest sub genres to identify.
Finally the academic book which crosses over into the more general market is an increasingly familiar phenomenon, distinguished from other kinds of academic writing by the high advances and celebrity status of successful authors in this sub genre. Yet it is much more difficult to characterize in terms of style, structure or content. There is little similarity between Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time, Oliver Sachs’ The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and Steven Leavitt and Stephen Dubner’s Freakonomics. They cover different subject matter (astro-physics, clinical psychology and economics), range in readability from the impenetrable to the journalistic, are very differently structured and in all three cases it would have been hard to predict before they were published just how successful they would be. The one thing these remarkable books share in common is the impact they have had not only on their own fields but also on the public imagination.