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How Do Books Differ from Dissertations?

I often work with junior academics who are turning their dissertations into books. And the question inevitably comes up: how much does this project need to be revised? Though the answer, of course, varies from project to project, typically a significant amount of material is cut and substantial amount of new material is added. Often the literature review is dumped and replaced by a more focused positioning of the work’s contribution to the existing literature. Often a chapter or two is sacrificed and another chapter or two added to fill out a new framing of the project. Sometimes, writers have to shake off old, familiar conceptions of their work and really see its potential a new way. More often, achieving the right vision of their book means understanding what was really driving them to study this topic in the first place.

For all writers, reflecting on something we take for granted is helpful: what makes a scholarly book a book? We’re so familiar with the genre of the monograph, but can we take a step back and try to see what really defines it? We need to perceive what I call the “bookness” of academic books. With that term, I’m getting at all the things that distinguish a significant and successful academic book from a series of journal articles on the same topic. I say the “bookness” of the scholarly book stems from its scope, significance, and coherence as an extended argument.

It may be helpful to gloss these terms. A project’s “scope” refers to the breadth as well as the depth of the study’s investigation. Academic books seldom treat a narrow topic in a narrow way. So, reconceiving your dissertation as a book may mean expanding the scope of your work. Will you broaden the context, expand your claim, or bring in new archival material, for instance? And, a book’s “significance” refers to why it matters—in particular, why it matters to the field. Are you shedding new light on your topic to change the way we understand it? Are you reframing old questions to illuminate a new discovery? How might other scholars use your work in their own research? And the “coherence” of the book comes the through-line of argument, in which each chapter builds on the one before it.

Next week, the second part of this blog will offer some specific advice for thinking through the scope, significance, and coherence of your own project.

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