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.
How you decide to restructure your thesis will depend in part on the subject matter and discipline within which you are working but there are some more general points regarding style that are relevant whatever your topic and disciplinary background.
One of the most common problems is a too heavy reliance on the opinions of others – in other words too many direct quotes from other critics/theoreticians/scholars. While it is perfectly understandable that you will wish to position your own work in relation to those who have gone before you and show how your own work builds upon theirs, excessive direct quotation can distract from and weaken your own argument and even be quite confusing out of context. It can also become quite tedious if you are constantly referencing the same people and may give the impression that you are less well read than is actually the case (not a desirable outcome!). To avoid this pitfall read through your manuscript looking for opportunities to reduce the amount of direct quotation. Paraphrase or summarize arguments instead of reproducing them verbatim and perhaps cut them out altogether if they are not strictly necessary. Do make sure, however, that you still scrupulously reference any idea that is not your own – the last thing you want is to make yourself vulnerable to accusations of plagiarism.
Almost the antithesis of the kind of intellectual modesty that is constantly referring back to what has gone before is the arrogance of the young and inexperienced writer who feels s/he has nothing to learn from the past or present. This seeming arrogance may be unintentional but whether genuine or not, the appearance of arrogance in a young researcher is very unattractive and will not win you many friends. If you do not wish to appear overly confident be careful how you criticize the work of others. It is perfectly acceptable (and indeed necessary) on occasion to point out the flaws in others arguments or research but the way in which you do so is all important. Dismissing all of the current work in a given field as ‘unsophisticated’ or ‘lacking a strong theoretical underpinning’ does not strengthen your own argument but rather suggests that you have failed to understand those of others. To state baldly as was done in another proposal I read recently that ‘in my view all these approaches have done their time’ is to display a level of over confidence that is not likely to get your own work, however important, treated seriously or objectively. Ironically, the more critical you are of others, the more likely the reader is to be critical of you, so remember: tone is all. Questioning, querying, qualifying are all ok. Ridiculing, dismissing, denigrating are not.
A final general point about style is keep it simple. Good academic writing of any kind is clear, concise and only uses technical terminology where a more commonly used word lacks the necessary nuances or precision.
Although many academics and semioticians would I am sure disagree with me, I personally think that the best academic writing is that which does not draw attention to itself but to its subject matter. There are many fascinating arguments about the symbiotic relationship between words and ideas, style and content, but for the purposes of this book and your first serious piece of academic publishing, you need to concentrate on conveying what you have to say in as direct a way as possible. One of the most frequently heard criticisms of PhD theses is that they are overly rhetorical, attempting to impress by using excessive amounts of jargon and convoluted turns of phrase. If you focus on saying what you have to say as simply as possible your argument will be much more powerful and you will have a much greater chance of persuading the reader of your point of view. The downside of course is that if your argument has any weaknesses these will be apparent straight away. But they are bound to be found out sooner or later and at least this way you have a greater chance of noticing them yourself and addressing them before anyone else does!
Lastly, do not worry if you work within one of those disciplines where many of the most influential figures have very distinctive styles of writing. You will develop your own voice over time as your vision and understanding of your subject deepens. It is not something that you suddenly acquire or can copy from anybody else and it is not something you can force. Study the work of those you admire, concentrate on the mechanics of structuring your argument clearly and saying what you have to say with honesty and simplicity, and in due course your own voice will come.