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How Books Differ from Dissertations: Getting the Meta-Discourse Right

In the first blog in this two-part series, I discussed how scholarly books typically differ from dissertation projects. To recap: they often have an expanded scope. And the significance of the contribution of the project and why it matters is crystal clear.

Another key way books differ from dissertations is that the project’s unity and coherence should be obvious. By coherence, I mean that the book must clearly be an extended argument across the chapters. Often, the bigger, more significant concept of the work requires cutting some chapters of the dissertation and creating one or two new ones. It also means being overt about the conceptual links between chapters. In short, you are reconceiving the structure of your book as an extended argument across chapters that builds to a conclusion. Once you understand what that extended argument is, you can see the “through-line” of your book. A strong though-line makes it easy to see how all the pieces of evidence come together to illuminate the book’s central claim.

Another way to think through these ways of reconceiving your project is to work on developing a vocabulary for writing about your writing in a compelling way. This step is one of the hardest, I’ve noticed, for scholars reconceiving their book projects. It helps to realize you are really developing a meta-discourse. Rather than being stuck in the weeds making your argument, you are describing the argument in broad brush strokes and why it matters.

To grow your vocabulary for writing about your project, I suggest reading over book jacket descriptions (or other promotional copy) for academic books you admire. You might start with books on your own shelf. And don’t forget to also browse the descriptions of recent books on websites of your favorite university presses.

Notice the phrasing of those descriptions. Jot down terms, particularly verbs, which you may not typically use to describe your work, but which are compelling and render a big picture. Then free-write about what phrasing you might use to describe what your project is really about and why it truly matters. You might even play around with writing copy for your own book jacket as an exercise. To accurately bring your project to life, you may well use phrases that differ from the texts you’ve just considered when you reviewed other books’ promotional descriptions. But always aim for direct, vivid language. Think boldly here. After all, in completing your dissertation you have graduated from student to credentialed scholar. Claim the authority of your voice.

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