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Your First Book—
A Quick Guide to Effective Scholarly & Specialist Writing

Copyright 1999; 2010; 2012 by Patricia Anderson, PhD

 


You've done it.

It took months (or years) of research and thinking, months (or years) of writing and revising. Now, at last, you've finished that dissertation, thesis, major project report, or long-term case study. It's earned you a graduate degree, enhanced your professional standing, given you a higher profile in your company, possibly led to a promotion, or added to the prestige of your private practice or consulting business.

Many academics and other professionals are content to leave it at that. But you feel strongly that your subject has wider interest and should be published as a book. You target a few appropriate publishers, prepare a proposal, and submit your book-to-be. So far, so good, you think, and wait expectantly for a reply.

What's wrong with this picture?

From the author's perspective, what's wrong is the rejection that will typically follow. From the publisher's point of view, what's wrong is the project's limited market appeal. Worthy though the subject might be, its presentation will not attract enough readers to merit publication. In other words, it needs to be edited for a larger readership.

Your New Purpose

This is often when the fate of a project is settled—and many will never see the light of publication. Why? Because the authors are stuck on their original purpose and all the work they put into achieving it. To earn a degree or other career enhancement, they've already researched, written, revised, and edited their work. Why should they change it now?

Changing—that is, editing and rewriting—is crucial because your purpose has changed. A thesis committee, corporate task force, or group of professional practitioners are not the same as a wider readership, even a specialized one. What was effective writing in a dissertation, thesis, or other unpublished project will no longer serve. Your new purpose is to publish your first book and to do what's necessary to attract readers. "Effective" now means publishable.

Adding—and Subtracting

Getting published in book form sometimes requires adding to your original project. You may need to expand your central topic to include ideas that you only touched on briefly or perhaps excluded in the interest of a tight focus.

One guide to academic publishing, Persist and Publish (1991), by Ralph Matkin and T. F. Riggar, notes that many new authors "naively believe that their master's thesis or doctoral dissertation is sufficient material from which a book will emerge." In some cases, a dissertation (or report or case study) may add up to only a chapter or two in a book. If your project is skimpy on pages—say, under 200 pages of double-spaced typescript—you need to consider this point. Scrutinize your work for themes that bear expanding into full chapters. Follow the example of published books in your field and adapt your own work along similar lines. Consider overall content, structure, length, writing style, and readability.

But more often than not, the challenge is not to add to your project but to subtract from it—to reduce and simplify for the sake of clarity, readability, and appeal. In most cases you will need to delete circuitous wording, jargon, repetitions, gratuitous quoting, and excessive documentation.

Don't cling with stubborn attachment to your ideas as originally expressed. Editing for publication is not the same as destroying your original project. It will continue to exist in hard copy, on computer diskettes, and in the case of dissertations and theses, on microfilm. You can make copies available to colleagues and students, as well as consulting it yourself for information and sources.

Don't forget that chapters or other substantial segments that have to be deleted or reworked can also be recycled. Make them the basis of a conference paper and send off a proposal. Or better still, rewrite them into one or more specialized articles. In 1988 there were more than 70,000 professional journals published throughout the world. Imagine the opportunities now, with the growth of desktop publishing and epublishing. Even one published article on a topic related to your project will significantly enhance its chances of publication as a book.

Letting Go

Often new authors think that the hardest part of reworking their project for publication will be the actual editing. But in fact the greater obstacle is the psychological one of closeness to the work. A long period of highly-focused involvement with a single project is like an overly intense relationship. You end up codependent. But now, if you want that project published, you have to let go of it and strive for a measure of detachment.

There are two principal ways to break the codependency pattern and get on with the crucial job of editing:

  1. Distancing. Before you so much as delete a comma from your work, take some time off from it. This helps to distance it from you and your ego. Once this separation process has begun, you'll find yourself approaching your work with a fresher, more objective perspective. When you start cutting words, paragraphs, or even chapters, it will no longer feel like excruciating surgery. Your project is as important as ever but, as you now realize, it is neither yourself nor your child but the means to an end. WARNING!Don't take too long a break—six months at the absolute most. Otherwise, before you know it the project will have gathered dust, lost its currency, and you'll no longer be motivated.
  2. Focusing. Don't lose sight of your purpose. Getting published is the goal, editing the way to achieve it. Keep that book-to-be constantly in view. If you are procrastinating about getting started, or losing momentum part way through, then focus all the more strenuously on that book. Think of its contribution to the profession and value for individual readers. If that doesn't work, then visualize the glossy jacket, favourable reviews, and admiration of your supporters.

Do as I Do

I'm always gratified when I can honestly advise clients and students to do what worked for me, rather than urging them to "do as I say, not as I do." Here I'm on solid ground. Everything I say, I have also done and continue to do.

Though I now write for a general market, my first book was a revised version of my doctoral dissertation. The subject was popular illustration and the role of visual media in publishing and early mass communication (Patricia Anderson, The Printed Image and the Transformation of Popular Culture, 1991; paperback, 1994). It was published by Oxford University Press, and its readers were scholars, university students, and other experts. But despite its specialized market, it still had to be simplified from dissertation to book.

Typically, instead of opening with a brief general introduction and then moving on, the dissertation plods its way through a full first chapter, exhaustively reviewing the literature in the field, my theoretical approach, and the originality and significance of the subject. I include a couple of examples from that chapter, each followed by the revised published version and the even more straightforward way I would write for a new edition. The chapter title alone shows the difference between dissertation style and more readable versions:

Dissertation

Chapter 1
The Printed Image and Cultural Change:
Theories and Problems in the Historiography of
English Popular Culture and Illustration, 1790-1860

Catchy, eh?

Book

This is better, though not great:

Introduction
The Printed Image and Cultural Change:
English Popular Culture and Illustration, 1790-1860

How I Would Do It Now

Introduction
Pictures and Popular Taste

This is all that's really needed—the main text can provide the details of date, locale, cultural change, and so on. Now here's another example:

Dissertation

In the following passage I attempt to establish that the study is both original and necessary. Note the apologetic and circuitous approach, designed to appease an academic committee:

Unfortunately the existing literature on popular illustration offers little in the way of guidelines for addressing practical questions of methodology. This lack is not necessarily due to any qualitative failing in the literature; it is a reflection of the fact that studies of inexpensive printed imagery are relatively few in number. Moreover, the fairly substantial body of work on periodical publishing gives little or no attention to the pictorial content of the most significant illustrated periodicals. Meanwhile, conversely, other kinds of studies--surveys of the graphic arts or printed ephemera--occasionally reproduce or describe an illustration from one or another of these magazines but normally restrict their captioning or commentary to a minimum. And while there are many such surveys of nineteenth-century popular imagery, there are only a handful of studies that have examined illustration in specific relation to any wider social or cultural context.

(Are you still paying attention? I bet not!)

Book

In taking inexpensive popular imagery as both the subject matter and evidence for much of its argument, this study fills a gap in the literature on nineteenth-century popular culture. With comparatively few exceptions, what has been written about popular illustration fails to situate it in any wider social or cultural context.

Well, at least it's shorter.

How I Would Do It Now

There is a shortage of literature on the social and cultural importance of popular illustration.

Get it? By the way, the first version was 26 pages of typescript with 36 notes. I cut it to 19 pages and 29 notes. Today I would write it as 10 or fewer pages with 5 or 6 notes.

Revising for Publication

If you are now facing the challenge of reworking your project for publication as a book, the tips below will help you divide the job into manageable tasks.

If you are still in the process of writing, these tips are for you, too. Try to remember and use as many as you can in your first draft--it will make the final editing for publication relatively painless. If your academic or professional situation does not allow this, then of course do what you must: pepper your work with the required terminology, provisos, and circuitous explanations. But at the same time keep a file of notes on how you will eventually revise. It will smooth your way when the time comes.

Tips for Publishable Scholarly and Professional Writing

  1. State your argument without disclaimers and apologies.
  2. Express your thoughts straightforwardly. Don't circle in on them like this: "If the foregoing is any indication, then it would seem that . . . whereas in reality this has proven to be a misconception, and the truth of the matter is more apt to be . . ." Just say what something is or is not, and get on to the next point.
  3. Use the active not passive voice: Say directly who did what, not "this was done in an effort to . . ." or "came about by means of . . ."
  4. Delete unnecessary repetitions, irrelevant details, and tedious digressions.
  5. Don't quote when your own words would serve as well; shorten necessary but lengthy quotations.
  6. Replace jargon with everyday language.
  7. Ditch clumsy transitions and recaps: "In this chapter I have proven . . . In the following chapter I will show . . ."
  8. Describe existing literature in a sentence or two rather than exhaustively surveying it.
  9. Summarize your research methods (preferably in a preface); avoid the word "methodology"--just say what you have done and/or plan to do.
  10. Change footnotes to endnotes; eliminate unnecessary notes and, where possible, reduce lengthy ones.
  11. Include a selective not exhaustive bibliography.

In short, let go of the first version of your project—it has outlived its usefulness. Keep your new purpose and readers in mind, revise for clarity, and cut for conciseness.

Why perish in verbiage when you have the power be published?


This article is partly based on Beth Luey, Handbook for Academic Authors (1995); Ralph E. Matkin and T. F. Riggar, Persist and Publish: Helpful Hints for Academic Writing and Publishing (1991); and Joseph M. Moxley and Todd Taylor, Writing and Publishing for Academic Authors (1992).

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