Turning your thesis into a book
Rewriting a thesis is not simply a matter of making revisions to the existing text. An original thesis should be regarded as the basis for an entirely new work, written with a new audience in mind.
This new work will address intelligent general readers who seek to be provoked, engaged, intrigued and/or seduced into reading your book. General readers do not expect you to prove to them how thorough your research has been, or how many other texts you have consulted. They simply want to know what you have found out and what you think about it.
The most important tasks in rewriting a thesis are to:
- remove all academic scaffolding;
- reorganise the material to make it more interesting and accessible;
- refocus clearly on the heart of your story or argument;
- reduce the scholarly apparatus;
- rewrite to give your text a direct and personal voice, to address the reader in plain English, to eliminate all instances of academic jargon, and to create new links for the restructured material.
1. Remove all academic scaffolding
In a thesis, the examiners expect you to explain what you are setting out to do, and how you are going to go about doing it, before you actually do it. Then, after you have done it, you are required to restate or summarise your methods, findings and conclusions.
In a book, these preliminaries and wrap-ups are superfluous. They get in the reader’s way, become repetitive and obscure the impact of the real subject matter. They also take up valuable space. The Abstract and Introduction that are both essential in a thesis are not needed in a book. Neither are the usual chapter Introductions and Conclusions. Ordinary readers want you to get straight to the point. Thus, anything that sounds like “In this chapter I will argue . . .” or “In this chapter I have shown . . .” should be deleted immediately.
2. Reorganise the material
When writing for the general reader, you should introduce the most arresting, intriguing, or unusual aspects of the work the heart of the matter immediately. The background information and theoretical discussions should come later. As a rule of thumb, start from the particular, and work to the general, rather than the other way around.
In journalism, the rule for any story is always to “grab the reader’s attention” in the first paragraph indeed, in the first sentence. It may seem strange to compare a serious academic work with a newspaper story or article, but in fact the best serious non-fiction writers follow a similar principal. The most interesting, arresting or unusual parts of the story or argument should come first to attract the interest of the general reader, you can go back later to provide the necessary background and interpretation.
3. Refocus clearly on the heart of the story
You need to “pick the eyes” out of your thesis. That is, you must decide what the most interesting or important issues or themes are, and concentrate on these, ruthlessly discarding the more peripheral material. Background material for example, surveys of previous literature, historical background, discussions of earlier and current theories, arguments, methodology, etc. if retained at all, should be moved from the beginning to the ends of the book, or incorporated in a much-condensed form into the relevant sections of the main text. Remember you are writing now for non-specialist readers. You must be aware both of what you want to tell them and of what is going to catch and retain their attention.
4. Reduce the scholarly apparatus
Most theses have a enormous number of footnotes and an exhaustive bibliography, all designed to impress your examiners with the breadth and depth of your research. Having successfully impressed them, you now need to cut or condense your notes ruthlessly, and to reduce your bibliography to a reasonable size. Keep only what will be genuinely useful to an ordinary reader.
Any discursive or explanatory notes should either be incorporated back into the text or deleted altogether. Notes should be restricted to sources only, and should be turned into endnotes rather than footnotes.
Rewriting and new writing will be necessary. Having sketched out a new structure and focus, you now have to start writing all over again to create a completely new work. As you rewrite you must move firmly away from the usual impersonal, abstract academic style.
This means hunting down and expunging instances of:
- academic jargon (find a way of expressing the concept in plain English, especially the first time you introduce it)
- long, complex, convoluted sentences (no sentence should contain more than two ideas, which should be expressed as directly as possible)
- inordinately lengthy paragraphs (break your paragraphs up as much as possible and vary them between, say, three and twenty lines)
- abstract nouns (use concrete nouns wherever you can) the passive voice (don’t say “Similar observations were made by Johnson and Smith”; say “Johnson and Smith made similar observations”)
- the third person used for yourself (don’t say “In the present writer’s opinion”; say I think).
You must learn to address your writing as directly as possible to an imagined non-specialist reader, using a natural, personal, and unpretentious voice and using plain English. Audience awareness the sense of a real, actual person to whom you are talking/writing is one of the most useful communication skills you can develop.
Try to imagine, as you write, that you are talking about your work to an intelligent, educated friend over the kitchen table or in the pub. Your friend is in another field altogether and knows little or nothing about your particular speciality, but is curious to know more about what you do. You would talk to this friend in quite a different way than you would write for your examiners. It is this friendly, straightforward, conversational style that you need to develop.
A number of academics who have become successful writers for a general audience have gained great benefit from joining a writing class in order to develop their writing skills, to enhance their audience awareness, and to unlearn the unfortunate writing habits instilled during their academic training. Courses in creative writing and non-fiction writing are widely available, and we recommend you give this option serious consideration.
A recent MUP title, Kevin Brophy’s Explorations in Creative Writing, would be an excellent place to start.