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Writing a book proposal part I – structure & significance by Astrid Bracke
Posted by Linda Levitt

Astrid BrackeIn this series of posts, Astrid Bracke writes about the process of moving from disseration to book. She has a PhD in ecocriticism and contemporary British fiction and teaches English literature at the University of Amsterdam and HAN University of Applied Sciences.

While every publisher has their own book proposal guidelines – available on their website – these tend to cover the same elements, such as the title, short summary, a longer chapter-by-chapter outline and a section on the significance of your book. Some publishers ask you to fill in a form that covers all of these elements, and others simply require you to submit a document that incorporates all the required elements in a running text.

An obvious but nonetheless worthwhile piece of advice is that if a publisher suggests a certain structure, follow it. While you may feel that deviating from the requested structure reflects originality and individuality, the editors and reviewers that will evaluate your proposal are used to a certain structure. Choosing a different structure will more likely confuse or even irritate the editors and reviewers – who usually have little time – rather than make your proposal stand out positively.

When I started working on my book proposal, I found it nonetheless hard to determine what my book proposal should look like. Asking a friend who works more or less in the same field as I do whether I could look at her – successful – proposal helped me a lot. Another valuable resource is Palgrave Macmillan’s Open Peer Review Trial. Although primarily meant to encourage open peer review of submitted book proposals, its archive gives examples of book proposals and the feedback they received.

Eventually I decided to write a proposal as a running text that includes the elements that most publishers require. This allowed me to really conceive of my proposal as a whole, rather than a series of fields to be filled in as part of a form. Once I’d written the proposal – and had asked feedback from trusted colleagues – I could tweak and adjust the proposal to the specific forms or guidelines provided by individual publishers.

I structured my proposal as follows:

  • A longer section describing the book’s main argument, the gap(s) it will be filling and the texts and theories I’ll be concerned with. This section ends with a paragraph that sums up the specific contributions the book will make (total length about 6 paragraphs);

  • Table of contents with titles of chapters and word count. Includes notes and bibliography;

  • Chapter outline (about 500-650 words per chapter);

  • Market;

  • About the author;

  • Timeline for completion.

A number of these elements are particularly important, and worth thinking about some more.

First, you’ll need to demonstrate the significance of your book. Why should others read it? What does it contribute, and to which fields? This may require you to broaden the scope of your dissertation somewhat. The challenge is to turn your dissertation from something that is interesting primarily to your supervisor and committee members into a book that will gain the interest of a larger group of scholars.

For instance, my dissertation was aimed explicitly at expanding ecocriticism through readings of contemporary British novels. While this may be of interest as well to some scholars working outside of ecocriticism, my primary audience consisted of ecocritics, and I explicitly engaged with and responded to existing work in the field. In order to appeal to a wider audience – and hence make the book more interesting to publishers – my monograph is less explicitly concerned with ecocritical theory and practice. Instead, I’ve shifted my focus to the second element of my dissertation: an analysis of representations of nature in contemporary fiction. Since my own interest as well as work in the field is moving towards post-millennial British novels, I’ve adjusted my corpus from novels published between 1975 and 2011 – as was in the case of my dissertation – to British novels published since 2000. Consequently, the audience for my monograph increases, as I aim to appeal to several scholarly communities equally: ecocritics as well as those working on contemporary fiction, especially post-millennial British fiction.

In the next post I’ll discuss another key element of the book proposal – the market section – and one of the most frequently heard pieces of advice for recent PhDs: making your book sounds less like the dissertation you based it on.

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Weekly wisdom: tips and tweaks #47 by Linda Levitt
Posted by Linda Levitt

Diorama_-_19_(8126284371)Top Tip: Meet deadlines. Once I was working on a submission in response to a call for chapters for a book. I did not make time adequately and got behind on my writing schedule. I had to finish the last section and conclusion when the deadline came. I wrote to the editor and asked for a few more days. He replied that no one had met the deadline, and he did not want to work with a group of authors who clearly didn’t have a vested interest in the project. The book was abandoned.

Editors are certainly pleased by responsive authors, and your ability to meet a deadline makes the process move not only more efficiently but also on time. You can only enhance your reputation and network by completing your work on time.

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Should you turn your dissertation into a book? by Astrid Bracke
Posted by Linda Levitt

Astrid BrackeThis is the first in a series of posts from Astrid Bracke regarding the process of moving from disseration to book. Astrid Bracke has a PhD in ecocriticism and contemporary British fiction and teaches English literature at the University of Amsterdam and HAN University of Applied Sciences.

Over the past months I’ve been working on a book proposal for a monograph based on my dissertation. In this and the next three posts I’ll be sharing my experiences and advice on getting from finishing your dissertation to submitting a book proposal, and going on – hopefully – to publish a book. In this first post, I’ll be talking about making the decision to turn your dissertation into a book, and everything that comes with it.

It’s easy to follow the advice of only those in your Department, such as your supervisor and immediate colleagues. This may not be the best advice, though, no matter how well meant. For instance, in the Department where I did my PhD, most of my colleagues focused largely on articles – and barely on monographs. Hence, the advice to recent PhDs was to turn their dissertation into a series of articles, rather than seek to publish it as a monograph. Indeed, as I learned later, the monograph – while seen as the Holy Grail in many academic fields – is of considerably less importance in others.

Either way, it’s important to seek advice outside of your immediate academic environment, by asking external advisors or committee members, people at conferences or even following discussions on Twitter and using websites such as PhD2Published or The Research Whisperer. It can also help to look at job adverts when making this decision: they don’t always specifically list The Book as a requirement, but often do add a published monograph to their list of desired qualities.

That should be one of the first questions you ask yourself: how much do I need The Book for my career, or does a series of articles carry equal or greater weight in my field? Of course, in literary studies, the monograph is generally seen as very important, which made working on and submitting a book proposal important if I wanted to get a job outside of my own Department. At the same time, the dissertation doesn’t have to be your first monograph – although it will probably take longer to publish a book based on a wholly new project, than one based on your PhD project.

I deliberately gave myself a year from my PhD defense to decide whether or not I wanted to turn my dissertation into a book. During that year I didn’t look at my dissertation at all. Instead, I talked to people – mostly outside of my own Department –about their experiences and advice. The number one advice I got is that you should only turn your dissertation into a book if you can find the motivation to do so. If you cannot be enthusiastic about it, don’t take it on. Similarly, if you realize that large parts of your dissertation are already outdated, or make it unfeasible as a book for other reasons, you’re better off turning the best parts into articles – if you hadn’t done so already – and move on to a new project.

One of the biggest reasons why I eventually decided to turn my dissertation into a book is that I felt that otherwise the work I did in the four years it took me to write the dissertation would go to waste. I still believed in my dissertation as a whole, yet also realized that although I wanted to use the material, I also wanted to rework it. Consequently, the book proposal that I’ve now written describes a book that is more a spin-off from my dissertation than actually based on it.

In the following three posts I’ll discuss the next steps: writing a book proposal and deciding on a publisher.

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Weekly wisdom: tips and tweaks #46 by Linda Levitt
Posted by Linda Levitt

Diorama_-_19_(8126284371)Consider your audience. An often-repeated reminder: your dissertation or thesis cannot be repackaged as your first book without significant revision. Many students find themselves in a position where they are writing primarily for their director and committee, each of whom plays a critical role in the student’s success. If your committee does not see your project making a meaningful contribution to the field, you may get sucked into a spiral of revision that keeps you from completion.

Once you have succeeded and graduated, your audience changes. Do you have a publisher in mind? A press that you would most like to put out that first book for you? Take a close look at what that press publishes. Will your manuscript be a good fit? Is there a particular editor to whom you would submit the manuscript? What books are in that editor’s repertoire? The degree to which you would write toward a particular audience/market changes from one discipline to another, but it can be helpful to bear in mind that an editor will need to know your book is marketable before offering you a contract.

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Weekly wisdom: tips and tweaks #45 by Linda Levitt
Posted by Linda Levitt

Diorama_-_19_(8126284371)Find friends from other disciplines. Switching from one discipline to another or doing interdisciplinary research can be a challenge, especially as methods change from one discipline to another.  Yet working with a colleague or friends from another discipline can bring a fresh perspective to your research. Some patience may be required to find a common lexicon, but it is likely that there is more common ground that we might expect from one discipline to another. Should a project idea develop that you can work on together, each of you can be first author for the work in your own discipline. More collaboration, less competition.

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Weekly wisdom: tips and tweaks #44 by Linda Levitt
Posted by Linda Levitt

Diorama_-_19_(8126284371)Take stock of what works. Much of the conversation about academic writing and publishing focuses on how to improve processes and be more productive. Many scholars are in the midst of transitioning back from summer break, and the demands on your time will change as the daily routine changes. Consider the good writing and research habits you developed over the summer. Are there routines or habits that you can carry forward into the fall? What can you modify to maintain some semblance of writing in your everyday practices?

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Weekly wisdom: tips and tweaks #43 by Linda Levitt
Posted by Linda Levitt

Diorama_-_19_(8126284371)Walk with a light step. Maybe you’ve had a particularly vexing time with revisions. Or a computer error that resulted in a corrupted file. Or you just haven’t been able to meet those perhaps overly ambitious summer writing goals. You don’t need to make excuses for goals that are only in your head. If you’re accountable to a writing group or partner, chances are there won’t be any serious punitive measures. So don’t be unkind to yourself. If you’re gearing up for the Fall semester, think about how you’ll answer the inevitable question: How was your summer? Prepare an answer that demonstrates your satisfaction with something you did accomplish. A former boss used to describe demanding tasks as “good hard work.” What good hard work did you muddle through? And can you walk away from it with a lighter step?

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Weekly wisdom: tips and tweaks #42 by Linda Levitt
Posted by Linda Levitt

Diorama_-_19_(8126284371)Think of yourself as an entrepreneur. In many ways, a successful academic career bears some similarities to owning your own business. While there are some disadvantages, focus instead of the benefits to your time as a writer and researcher. You can often select your own projects, set your own hours, create your agenda, and organize your plans. If you think of yourself as an entrepreneur, what might you do differently? Would you write out short term and long term “corporate” goals? Would you look at the trends in your field to see what new research is being published? Would you develop the equivalent of an advertising plan to make sure your “business” is getting the recognition it deserves? What incentives might you use to inspire and motivate your best employee…yourself?

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Weekly wisdom: tips and tweaks #41 by Linda Levitt
Posted by Linda Levitt

Diorama_-_19_(8126284371)For the next several posts, Weekly Wisdom will be looking at the physiological state of the writer—both literally and metaphorically. The contradictions are deliberate: some days you need to stay hungry, and other days you need to be well fed.

Consider switching your schedule. If you feel unfocused or worn out when it comes time to sit down and write, it may be an opportunity to rethink your working schedule. As a undergraduate, I did most of my writing in the afternoon. I wrote my dissertation primarily in the evening. When I started teaching full time, I struggled with writing in the evening. I considered dozens of possible reasons that I couldn’t seem to get any work done until I thought that maybe I was just too tired by the end of the day. If your schedule permits, think about blocking time to write at a different point in the day and see if it changes your productivity.

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Weekly wisdom: tips and tweaks #40 by Linda Levitt
Posted by Linda Levitt

Diorama_-_19_(8126284371)For the next several posts, Weekly Wisdom will be looking at the physiological state of the writer—both literally and metaphorically. The contradictions are deliberate: some days you need to stay hungry, and other days you need to be well fed.

Get good rest. Discussions about the importance of being well rested are abundant. An adequate amount of sleep means you can think more clearly, process and retain information more effectively, lower your stress level, and, some say, even lose weight. Being well rested here refers not only to having enough sleep but to having your mind at rest. Whether you are anxious about the quality of your work (plagued by perfectionism), or distracted by what is going on around you or going in your head, most of us have had the experience of having our attention and energy drained by the inability to put our minds at peace and concentrate on writing and research. Spend some time observing yourself at work and see what changes you can make in order to establish a well-rested mind.

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Weekly wisdom: tips and tweaks #39 by Linda Levitt
Posted by Linda Levitt

Diorama_-_19_(8126284371)For the next several posts, Weekly Wisdom will be looking at the physiological state of the writer—both literally and metaphorically. The contradictions are deliberate: some days you need to stay hungry, and other days you need to be well fed.

Stay hungry. In his Stanford commencement speech in 2005, Steve Jobs told a story about Stewart Brand and The Whole Earth Catalog. When the final edition of the catalog was published, the back cover featured a photograph of an open country road with the words “Stay hungry. Stay foolish.” These were Jobs’ parting words to the students as well. There is much to be said about the value of staying hungry and staying ambitious, and aspiring to always accomplish more. But the first question: For what do you hunger? You may have a list of tasks to accomplish, like a university’s requirements for earning tenure or promotion. But how well do those tasks sync with your own aspirations? Figuring out how to make them match can be a step toward a more fulfilling professional life.

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Weekly wisdom: tips and tweaks #38 by Linda Levitt
Posted by Linda Levitt

Diorama_-_19_(8126284371)For the next several posts, Weekly Wisdom will be looking at the physiological state of the writer—both literally and metaphorically. The contradictions are deliberate: some days you need to stay hungry, and other days you need to be well fed.

Be sure you are well fed. A brief metaphorical journey: Research and writing is a multicourse banquet. Aperitif, appetizers, soup, a first course and so on through dessert, with possibly a coffee or cigar to conclude. It is a long and arduous process, but one that should provide as much satisfaction as possible at each step. Some courses take longer to prepare than others, especially if it’s your first time with a particular recipe. A new method, a different theoretical approach, or a new dataset can be daunting, so make sure you have prepared yourself well before coming to the table. Sometimes the banquet gets reduced to a quick bite at the side of the road, when for one reason or another we need to hurry through some part of the process. Don’t be in too big of rush, though. Savor the process.

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Weekly wisdom: tips and tweaks #37 by Linda Levitt
Posted by Linda Levitt

Diorama_-_19_(8126284371)For the next several posts, Weekly Wisdom will be looking at the physiological state of the writer—both literally and metaphorically. The contradictions are deliberate: some days you need to stay hungry, and other days you need to be well fed.

Stay thirsty. Dos Equis beer has a widely recognized campaign featuring a character tagged as “The Most Interesting Man in the World.” After describing his vast adventures, the Most Interesting Man ends his commercial messages by saying, “stay thirsty, my friends.” The metaphor applies to research and writing as well. Stay thirsty for your next big adventure—whether it’s going to the lab or out in the field to collect data or sitting down with a stack of page proofs. Being able to savor the adventure of scholarly work requires that you stay hydrated and stay thirsty.

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Weekly wisdom: tips and tweaks #36 by Linda Levitt
Posted by Linda Levitt

Diorama_-_19_(8126284371)For the next several posts, Weeklly Wisdom will be looking at the physiological state of the writer—both literally and metaphorically. The contradictions are deliberate: some days you need to stay hungry, and other days you need to be well fed.

Stay hydrated. During the summer months, there are often reminders in public discourse about making sure you drink enough water throughout the day. But the dangers of dehydration aren’t only for athletes and people involved in physical labor. Dehydration affects your mental labor too.

Neuroscientist Joshua Gowin, writing for Psychology Today, notes that we simply need to stay hydrated to stay at our mental best. If you’re dehydrated, you’ll have trouble staying focused. Your short-term memory function and long-term recall can both be affected negatively. You might even struggle with simple math, let along complex calculations.

So keep a glass or bottle of water or your favorite beverage close by. If your favorite beverage is a cup of coffee or tea, no worries:  Sarah Klein at the Huffington Post reports that “while caffeine is dehydrating, the water in coffee (and tea, for that matter) more than makes up for the effects, ultimately leaving you more hydrated than you were, pre-java. Consuming 500 or more milligrams of caffeine a day — anywhere from around three to five cups of coffee — could put you at risk for dehydration.”

Sources:

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/06/27/dehydration-myths_n_3498380.html

http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/you-illuminated/201010/why-your-brain-needs-water

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Weekly wisdom: tips and tweaks #35 by Linda Levitt
Posted by Linda Levitt

Diorama_-_19_(8126284371)Express your gratitude. A recent blog post suggested not waiting until you write up the acknowledgements page of your thesis or dissertation to thank the people who have mentored and supported you and been allies during your academic process. Acknowledgements should not end with the publication of an essay or book either. So much of the service that academics do goes without appreciation. Take a moment to say thank you: if you submit an abstract and it’s rejected, you can still appreciate the editor’s and reviewer’s time. If you present at a conference, thank your panel chair. Thank your respondent. Thank the other panelists. Do so with sincerity, and your gratitude can go a long way to creating a lasting connection.

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