24x7 Editing

Turning your dissertation right side out

Category : Dissertation
Date : October 31, 2013

Most academic authors seem to assume that their subjects will interest only other specialists in their fields. Yet, as an editor who has worked on books in areas ranging from medieval Japanese literature to the political applications of game history, I rarely encounter a manuscript that does not yield an insight I find personally illuminating. True, those nuggets are sometimes buried on page 314 – but they are there. The is to excavate those rough gems and place them in the discursive foreground, to recast the book in such a way as to appeal not only to a border array of scholars but maybe even to that elusive audience of intelligent lay readers.

Some scholars are excellent researchers or innovative thinkers who simply lack writing skills. But many academic authors have the requisite skills as well as research subjects of significant appeal, yet their efforts are hampered by their reliance on scholarly style or format. In the next chapter, I’ll offer the ways to address matters of style and tone; in this chapter I want to focus on the greatest challenge facing the aspiring “crossover” author – revision of organizational structure. This almost always includes shifting the focus of the discourse to a revised central thesis and restructuring the table of contents.

What follows is a fictional case study that exhibits most of the organizational challenges I’ve encountered. Your manuscript will almost certainly not require all these interventions. Nor will your publisher likely be able to offer you the degree of editorial involvement that I describe: such “development editing” is expensive and rarely figures into the economics of first books for new authors. But reviewing your text in the light of each of these steps should be a useful exercise in vetting its structure for audience appeal. A convenient checklist appears at the end of the chapter.

In most cases, revising a dissertation for publication involves turning its structure inside out. Theory shifts from the foreground to background and content from background to foreground. A line of conceptual discourse recedes and a narrative line emerges. Actually, I think of the process as turning the organizational structure right-side out – the dissertation arrives inside out in the first place. I’m not making a value judgement here. If you look at an intricately patterned sock that has been turned inside out, what do you see? All the knots and stiches that hold it together. This view is of great interest to other makers of socks but not to the sock’s wearer. Both view are useful, but to different groups. Similarly, dissertations tend to express their theoretical underpinnings prominently while assuming that the reader knows the pattern – the content – that lies beneath.

Turning a dissertation inside out is a scary proposition. Most scholars worry that the originality of their research and thought will become camouflaged under operatic costumes and scenery- they fret that their discourse will be “dumbed down”. Indeed, this danger is real. Yet successful scholarly books walk that narrow line between theoretical discourse and traditional narrative. The challenge is no small one, but it is the challenge that faces all academic authors today.
Without further ado, let’s turn to the case of Professor Peter Wade, who has written a manuscript provisionally entitled Contested Origins: The Life of Brother Loukas of Athos. Forgive the preposterous central conceit, but I want to make sure that my example does not breach confidentiality by resembling any book I’ve actually worked on.

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