Advice

Revising the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Dissertation

A book does not just emerge fully grown from the ugly chrysalis of the dissertation

March 28, 2016

Brian Taylor

Like most graduate students, I wrote a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad dissertation, and so revising it into a book has been something of a challenge.

I’ve worked through it in two different ways. First, I’ve changed my writing and editing habits for what feels like the hundredth time. Second, and more important, I’ve adopted a strategy of recasting my chapters as journal articles — a process I’ve come to think of as "the revise-and-resubmit route to writing your book."

That route involves submitting your book chapters as articles to the absolute top journals. Your goal: to get a revise-and-resubmit letter with reviewers’ comments that can help you conceptualize the broader argument you should be making in the book. I took this approach, not because I hoped my articles would be accepted (though that would have been nice) or rejected (I was almost sure they would be), but because I’d gotten to the point where I wanted someone to read my work in detail, and comment on it in writing. And I wanted that feedback before the book manuscript went out for peer review.

I’d presented my chapters at enough conferences to know the sorts of questions I was going to get from people in my subfield, but I wanted a broader set of reviewers who would have the time and space to pose questions I hadn’t heard or considered. I also took this approach because — while I’d written the chapters out of order — I was revising the book mostly from start to finish. I wanted to make sure that my beginning and end chapters made sense, so it was the first and last chapters of the manuscript that I prepared to submit as articles.

Preparing the articles for publication brought its hurdles: I sat on the drafts for a while before coming back to them for edits; I sent them to colleagues and asked for comments; I talked about the arguments nonstop with willing victims; I scoured the journals to which I planned to submit for similar work, and made sure to cite those articles and incorporate their arguments; and I tailored the articles to the journals’ formatting and submission guidelines.

The results? One article went through the revise-and-resubmit process twice — once at an excellent journal that said no, and then at another excellent journal. That second journal ended up rejecting my article, too, but then I sent it to a third journal — one more specialized in my subfield — and it accepted the essay with revisions. The other article went through several rounds of revision at one journal, which ultimately accepted it.

More to the point, that process helped me revise my dissertation into a book manuscript now called No Useless Mouth: Hunger and the Revolutionary Atlantic. It’s about early American food policy, which was similar to and different from, British food policy in Nova Scotia and Sierra Leone. My argument: People were not useless mouths; they portrayed hunger strategically and took steps to avoid it. Those portrayals of hunger drove the creation of food policies.

The "revise and resubmit route" worked — in helping me rethink the manuscript — for a few reasons:

  • My dissertation adviser always wrote the same line on my chapters — that I had too many trees and not enough forest. I had a lot of great material, in other words, but I failed to offer an argument that tied it all together. I used the chapter-by-chapter, revise-and-resubmit process to get reviewers to help me identify the argument they seemed to think was most worth making. (I also learned that I have a tendency to make too many arguments in a single article.)
  • The reviewers made some suggestions that I didn’t want to follow. Their suggestions weren’t unanticipated or unwelcome. When you submit to a journal that obtains a minimum of five readers’ reports, some of the advice you receive is bound to be contradictory. What their suggestions did do, however, was point me to the spots in my introduction where I had to pause and explain what the book was not about, and why I wasn’t writing about those topics.
  • The reviewers made some suggestions that I hadn’t considered. Their recommendations about additional texts I should read helped hugely in building the argument I’m now making. It was through that process that I realized I cared less about food and more about the subject of hunger prevention.
  • Having the articles out for review became excellent motivation to ignore the chapters on which those articles were based — and get to work on all the chapters in between. I found that having articles under review offered me momentum that carried me through the broader revision.

That broader adventure necessitated a rejiggering of my work habits. When I was on the job market, I recall being asked about how I thought I would manage my time and get everything done. And I answered pretty glibly that I’d just do it. I can offer a slightly more thought-out answer today, but the sum message is still the same: When faced with a large amount of stuff to do, you just do it.

That meant setting boundaries. I felt like I was taking too long, so I had to start writing like I was running out of time. To that end, I cut down on my service contributions last semester. I said no to book reviews. I took the maximum amount of time an editor offered when I agreed to review an article. My department was generous in granting me a team of people to help with my social-media service duties.

I also cut back on my other research commitments. I said no to writing chapters in edited volumes that weren’t going to help me think about the book manuscript. When I was asked to give a seminar paper, I’d ask for time to think about it (and then sometimes still say no). My contributions to my group blog declined until after I’d kicked the book out the door.

I also streamlined my teaching. I taught more this year than ever, but I tried to make sure that in the weeks I was reading new material alongside my students, I was doing so for more than one class. I also stuck to a no-emails-to-students policy before 8 a.m. and after 5 p.m. on weekdays, and no emails to students at all on the weekends.

I became less flexible with my office hours, too. In the past, I would come to campus just to meet with a student who couldn’t make office hours. But during this period, if a student couldn’t make my office hours, I offered them an appointment on a day when I knew I would already be on campus. The change meant that I lost fewer of those precious all-day writing sessions.

Making all of those changes still wasn’t enough. I just wasn’t finding all the time I needed to write. I realized that if I was going to finish the first revised draft of the book, I was going to have to get up at 4:30 a.m., three days a week, because I write and edit best in the mornings, and had to teach at 9 a.m. on those days. I knew I wouldn’t write and edit otherwise.

As a result, I was more tired last semester than I have ever been in my life. In addition, my apartment got very dirty, I didn’t exercise enough, and my partner did a lot more cooking than he usually does (which meant we ate a lot more pasta). This work schedule is not sustainable in the long-term — and almost not even for a semester. I intend to use it again for future writing projects, but only for a month or two at a time.

Just when my energy was beginning to flag, and I didn’t think I had the remaining brainpower to put together a book proposal as coherent as it needed to be, I got those acceptances on my journal articles. That, in turn, spurred me to wrap up almost three years of book revisions.

As I await word on my manuscript (and, with any luck, a book contract), I’ve come to realize that it was perfectly fine to write a terrible, no good, very bad dissertation. But writing and editing are processes, and a book does not just emerge fully grown from the ugly chrysalis of the dissertation.

Rachel Herrmann is a Ph.D. lecturer in early modern American history on the Faculty of Humanities at the University of Southampton.