This post is the second in our series on genre in academic writing. To read the introductory post you can click here. In this post, we’re going to discuss two different genres: dissertations and books. As we discuss the two genres, we’re going to focus on five components: the goal of the genre, the format, the expectations, audience, and concerns.
Demystifying the dissertation
The dissertation’s most important goal is to earn you a PhD. While people in academia – from grad students to advisors to deans – attach a lot of other meanings to the dissertation, it’s really there to make sure you can graduate. In a dissertation, your goal as a scholar is to show your facility with a topic. Essentially, you must prove you’ve done the reading and that you can write something of substantial length.
The formats of dissertations vary, even within disciplines. While most have a multi-chapter format, some are written as case studies where there is little connection between chapters, or even as a set of articles. Others have a throughline, where the entire manuscript turns on one overarching argument. The format is often determined by the conventions of a field or subfield, with little room for flexibility or experimentation.
What is expected of the dissertation? First, you are expected to exhaustively review the relevant literature. You should have an extensive citation list. This is where you put all that reading from your comprehensive exams to good use! You are also proving that you can conduct original research. This means demonstrating competency in a method or approach. It also includes original data collection (including but not limited to fieldwork, theorization, interpretation, translation, etc.).
The audience for your dissertation is small – it consists of your advisor and your dissertation committee. While some writers imagine their dissertation will have a larger audience, it usually doesn’t (sorry!). For dissertations, your audience holds quite a bit of influence because they approve the final product and decide if you can graduate with a Ph.D. Part of what makes a dissertation unique is that you’ve had a longstanding relationship with your audience as you’ve written it. In the future, your entire audience won’t see your work in progress.
The first concern graduate students have with their dissertations is along the lines of “how on earth do I do this?” It’s likely the most lengthy and intellectually rigorous undertaking of their careers thus far. It’s natural to feel overwhelmed and underprepared. Even with a great advisor and supportive intellectual community, writing a dissertation is a process of trial and error, so if your primary concern is “getting it right,” rest assured that it’s OK to make mistakes.
Once you have your Ph.D. in hand and want to publish manuscripts, your concern may turn to what you can use from your dissertation in the form of articles and/or books. This is where many scholars get discouraged because they believe their dissertation is “bad” or unsophisticated, and therefore can’t be published as articles or books.
The good news is that while dissertations are not books — the process and product are both fundamentally different, as we’ve now seen — there are many exciting and creative ways to approach developing the dissertation into a book.
What makes a book a book?
A book can have many goals. Here, we are going to focus on the goals of a scholar’s first book. For many scholars, their goal is to write a book that earns them tenure. Yet in addition to this transactional goal, scholars have other commitments. They may want to bring attention to an neglected population or area of study. Or, they may just want to make sure all the hard work they did for the dissertation doesn’t go to waste. It could be a project where they share their passion for a topic with a broader audience.
Books are of course multi-chapter and have a narrative structure. Perhaps more so than any other genre we’ll discuss, books have room for creativity. The author isn’t beholden to an IMRaD (Introduction, Methodology, Results and Discussion) structure, for instance. This creativity, of course, comes with a few caveats. With greater flexibility comes greater confusion around how a book should be organized.
What are the expectations of a book? One is to demonstrate one’s expertise. Here, a distinction with a dissertation is important. In dissertations, one is expected to show their work, or prove they’re an expert. In books, one is already assumed to be an expert. Or, at the very least, that’s the posture you should take as an author. Here’s what we mean: in a book, you don’t not exhaustively cite to show you’ve done the reading. Instead, you reference the reading in a way that demonstrates mastery, and that uses other scholarship to deepen and support your own argument and analysis
Another expectation of a book is that one puzzle or question will be given an extended treatment. This means that in some respects, books must be ruthlessly single-focused. In Elevate, our book-writing program for academic authors, we refer to this as developing the throughline. That means identifying one unifying argument or line of inquiry that animates the entire book — your book’s center of gravity. The reader should know the throughline before they’re done reading the introduction.
The audience for a book is perhaps one of the most perplexing and critical questions an author must answer. It’s often the case that authors imagine incredibly broad audiences for their work — partially out of optimism, but also out of a desire to “prove” to a publisher that their book is worth acquiring. A book certainly has the potential to be read more widely than an article on a similar topic. It may be read by intellectual peers including scholars from several fields or subdisciplines. It could also be assigned to students. A few books are distributed and read more widely. In Elevate, we focus on identifying and writing for the readers who are most important to you.
In our experience as developmental editors and writing coaches, we know that authors carry many concerns about their books. The first concern is the rather broad question of “how do I write a book?” Here’s what that usually means: “How do I write a book that is accessible to the people that I care about but also expert enough to satisfy the gatekeepers that must award me tenure?” A second concern is understanding what to do with the various “assets” that you’ve been taught to write (such as literature reviews and methodology sections) that are essential in dissertations and articles but have no formal home in books. Third, “how do I make time for writing amid all of the other demands of the tenure track?” And finally, “how do I stay engaged and excited about a project I’ve been working on for so long already?” Addressing all of these concerns at once is no easy feat.
If you’d like help finding your voice (and the confidence to speak in it), prioritizing your goals, and making time to write the book you want to write for the readers you most want to reach, then consider checking out Elevate. It’s our 6-month coaching and editing program for academic women who are writing books. We take you through a proven system for crafting your argument and developing a realistic writing plan. Then, you get editorial feedback and coaching along the way so you’re always focused and making progress. You can view the program description by clicking this sentence. From there, you can apply for enrollment.