General publishing resources

There are LOTS of books out there on academic publishing, which just goes to show that lots of people know how to get published on how to get published. But I digress. Here are a few of my top recommendations – the differences are largely a matter of personal preference (links to Amazon):

1. William Germano, Getting It Published, 2nd Edition: A Guide for Scholars and Anyone Else Serious about Serious Books (Chicago Guides to Writing, Editing, and Publishing) . This book is aimed at people wanting to publish in any stage of their careers. It’s not specifically for dissertation publishing.

2. Beth Luey, Handbook for Academic Authors (5th ed.). This book covers the waterfront on all kinds of issues facing authors, from the grandiose to the mundane. It’s also for authors at any stage. Hey, it’s in its 5th edition, so you know she’s doing something right.

3. Anthony Haynes, Writing Successful Academic Books. Haynes has written a series of books on publishing, so he’s a good resource. Plus, because it’s a Cambridge UP book, the extra U’s in colour are free!

4. Susan Rabiner and Alfred Fortunato, Thinking Like Your Editor: How to Write Great Serious Nonfiction–and Get It Published. This book is designed to give you the view from the other side of the table. It’s helpful in highlighting how and why editors might ask different questions about a book than we do as authors. This book may take you deep inside the soul of your editor, so I’d recommend leaving breadcrumbs.

5. Robert Boice, Thinking Like Your Editor: How to Write Great Serious Nonfiction–and Get It Published. This is a bit dated, but some truths are timeless.

6. Wendy Laura Belcher, Writing Your Journal Article in Twelve Weeks: A Guide to Academic Publishing Success. I love this book, and be aware that it’s not only applicable to those writing articles. The first part of the book addresses the need for creating regular space and time for writing, and we can all use help with that. This is a very practical, step-by-step guide.


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Larry Hurtado’s review

I wanted to pass along a ‘thank you’ to Larry Hurtado for his kind comments on my book. You can read it in the February 6 entry at:

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The dissertation is like a car loan…

If you’ve ever had a car loan or mortgage, then you know a terrible truth: The first few years you are paying almost exclusively interest, but by the end you are paying almost exclusively principal. This is very much like writing a dissertation/book.

How so? Let me tell you about my own process. I began by writing a 27-page chapter that I sent to several people to read. I worked hard on it but soon realized that it would not ultimately survive intact. The more I wrote and edited, the more I had to cut from that first chapter. At the end of the day, that 27-page chapter survived in only 3 footnotes in my final manuscript. Was it a waste, then? Absolutely not! It was a necessary part of the process.

You may have heard it said that “good writing is re-writing,” and it’s really true. The good news, though, is that you get much better at it as you go along. Thus, the first 30 pages you write may only yield 1 or 2 pages in your book, but you still have to go through the process of writing them. Those first 30 pages may be almost all “interest.” The last 30 pages you write, however, may well yield 29 pages in your book—almost all “principal.” The more you write (assuming you are writing well), the higher the yield and the lower the waste.

If you’re in the early stages and feel like what you’re writing is not very good, don’t despair. We all have to go through a weeding out process. And if you’re in the middle of the process and worried that you’ll never pick up speed, be assured that almost all writers do pick up more momentum as they go. Eventually, nothing will motivate you like seeing that finish line in the distance!

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From Dissertation to Book: A Few Suggestions (original SBL article)

One of the first major hurdles in a new Ph.D.’s career is publishing the dissertation. At many universities this is a requirement for eventual tenure and promotion, so it is a distinct advantage to begin this process as early as possible. In this brief article I will be passing along a few tips that I have gained from personal experience and from the wise counsel of senior colleagues. These are starting points, and as I note at the end, we can continue the conversation on my blog.

The best way to publish your dissertation quickly is to write it as a book in the first place. When I was selecting my doctoral program, a significant draw to the program that I selected was my advisor’s track-record of producing graduates with books ready or very nearly ready for publication. As soon as I had finished my qualifying examinations, my advisor laid out the argument for this approach. In his words, “Why would you want to finish, but then not be done?” As he pointed out, a recent graduate with a new job typically has to relocate, find a place to live, establish social contacts, develop new courses, write lectures in areas outside her/his specialty, figure out the politics and expectations of the new institution, and of course find out where all the bathrooms are. If there is a family involved, then there are added pressures of finding employment for the spouse or partner and perhaps settling children in a new school system. All these things take time and energy, and many new faculty members find the first year or two simply overwhelming. The dissertation may sit on the shelf for 2, 3, or even 4 years. By that point the tenure clock is ticking louder and the work may need updating based on recent research. To put my advisor’s question another way: Why write a book and then have to re-write it?

Before I go any further, I need to add a disclaimer. If you are in graduate school, you need to graduate (obviously), and that means maintaining a positive relationship with your advisor. Some advisors have a “just get it done and fix it later” approach and may not welcome your pushing to publish. Others believe that graduates have not earned the right to publish a book until they have been out for a few years, or they may have other misgivings. Above all, you need to be wise about negotiating your own context, so be sure to test the waters before jumping in with both feet and expecting your advisor to follow.

That said, here are a few practical suggestions for working toward a publishable work with your dissertation:

  1. From the outset, you have to believe that you are writing a book. Throughout the entire dissertation process, my advisor never used the “D” word. He only asked, “How’s your book coming?” In my mind, there was never any doubt that I was writing a book the first time.
  2. Use conference papers as part of your writing process. Conference papers are very much like books in terms of the audience. In both cases the audience will include people who are interested in your topic but may not be specialists, so you cannot litter your prose with technical language and jargon. Book editors often say that a book needs to be accessible to an audience beyond the specialists in a particular field (the catch-phrase is “a wider audience”), and at conferences you have the chance to try out your material on exactly that kind of audience. Conference papers have the added advantage of giving you external deadlines that can push along a writing process that may otherwise get bogged down for long periods of time. We all experience periods of listlessness, and nothing motivates like knowing that we have to present in front of our colleagues. Incidentally, presenting your work is also a great way to meet important contacts. The future editor of your book may be sitting in the second row at your paper, and a few of the people who have become my most important career advocates are contacts I made in sessions in which I presented.
  3. Pay careful attention to how you frame your project. This is directly related to the issue of audience. Your introductions and conclusions should clearly frame your work and your argument for an interested, non-specialist audience. When you write journal articles, you can assume that readers are ready to dive into the middle of an ongoing discussion. You should not assume this about readers of your book. Also, think about how you read scholarly books – usually in random chunks of time and almost never in one sitting. Clear framing within the individual chapters will allow your reader to put down your book, pick it up again later, and quickly be able to reorient herself to where she is in your argument. Here’s another image to illustrate the point. I loved living in New England, but in that corner of the world they seldom put up street signs that let you know the name of the street you’re on. They must assume that I always know the name of the street I’m on, but I don’t always, and in some cities the names of streets change without warning. The framing in your book serves as the sign posts that let your reader know that she is still on the right road.
  4. Write only chapters that publishers will eventually publish. A full chapter reciting the history of scholarship is a common feature of many dissertations, but very few books. To quote my advisor again, “Why doesn’t your book just start?” The literature survey should properly be part of the dissertation prospectus. You will, of course, need to discuss this with your advisor(s), because some argue for the necessity of the survey chapter in the diss. If your advisor says to include it, then you need to include it. However, on numerous occasions I have heard publishers and editors single out the scholarship survey chapter as the first thing that has to go, and I’ve never heard of a publisher asking, “Hey, where’s the literature survey chapter?” Your book introduction will likely end up including references to a few critical works on your topic, but a guided tour of the past hundred years of scholarship—even when very well done—usually ends up on the cutting room floor. The job of a book is to plow new ground, so get plowing as quickly as possible!
  5. Writing a dissertation is hard, and striving for the next level of a publishable work is even harder. (If you feel alone in your dissertation struggles, check out this article in the latest edition of the Chronicle.) So, be generous with yourself in the midst of the process, and celebrate each little victory along the way.

There is much more to be said about this process, and everyone’s path to publishing success is different. However, these are a few tricks that I have been able to pick up along the way, and I hope you will find something useful here for your own writing process. If you want to read more on this topic, you can check out some of the other posts on this blog.

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Journal or no journal?

One of the questions that many graduate students ask is whether or not they should try to publish chapters of their dissertation in journals along the way. Given the pressure to publish and the competition on the job market, the answer may seem obvious. However, in some cases it’s not that simple. Here are some of the things you might want to consider.

On the positive side:

1. Publishing an article or two does give you something to put on your CV. It can be an indication that you are someone with promise for future publishing success, as well, and some institutions place more weight on refereed articles than they do on books.

2. The readers’ reports can help with you with your revision process. You should be getting feedback along the way from your advisor(s), but outside readers have no vested interest in your success in graduate school (they don’t even know who you are), so their assessments will (or should) be unbiased and fair. Being shown a glaring methodological error in chapter 2 of your diss can allow you to fix it chapters 3-5, as well.

3. If your article is well-received, then it can be advanced press for the eventual publication of your book. People who loved your article may be very eager to get their hands on your book.

On the other hand:

1. Some scholars are of the strong opinion a graduate student’s energy should be wholly devoted to finishing the dissertation, and there is some reason for that. Finishing is hard, and the more potential distractions one introduces, the more chance one might be overly delayed in finishing. (And the extra work involved in formatting and preparing a journal article will take considerable extra time.) If your advisor thinks this way, then you need to proceed cautiously.

2. Some people – and some institutions – are ‘book people.’ Articles are fine, but they are primarily interested in seeing if you can maintain an argument that supports the weight of an entire book. They may assume that your pre-doctoral articles are from the diss, so they may tend not to count them very heavily when you apply for a job at their school.

3. Some publishers will not publish a book if any part of it has already appeared in print. The press of the Society of Biblical Literature, for example, has this specific condition in the contract. If you have in mind the ‘perfect’ publisher for your project when it’s done, then it’s a good idea to do some research sooner rather than later to see if they have a policy. Even an informal question in the book center at a conference might suffice.

At the end of the day, you should think through this and make your own decision based on your situation, desires, and commitments. Just know that people who have taken both routes have gone on to very successful academic careers.

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Style points (continuation of SBL article)

[This post is one in a series of follow-ups to an article I recently wrote for the newsletter of the Society of Biblical Literature’s Student Advisory Board. The original article was entitled “From Dissertation to Book: A Few Suggestions.” I’ll add the link as soon as it’s available, and also be sure to check out some suggestions in the Resources section.]

Style is one of the main elements that can separate a dissertation from a book. During our time as students, we tend to write defensively. We want our professors to know that we’ve done our homework, and we tend to be tentative to put forth any strong theories of our own. Fortune may favor the brave, but yet the brave are also more likely to be shot down in front of their peers in a seminar. Safe can indeed seem better than sorry. When we reach the dissertation stage, we are suddenly expected to become THE expert on our topic, yet the old, tentative ways are constantly trying to bubble up to the surface. Book editors spot this hesitation a mile away. I often tell people that I had to re-learn how to write not once, but twice in the process of completing my dissertation book. I had to move from feeling tentative to feeling competent, and then from competent to confident. This meant taking risks, but it was a necessary step for ending up with a book that a publisher found fresh and compelling.

Here are two common examples of tentative writing, along with suggestions for fixing them:

1) Over-use of the passive voice. Prose that consistently employs the passive voice comes across as tentative and even rambling. It can create the impression that the writing is not “tight” and that the author wants to hide behind others. Do you know people who can’t ask a simple question or give you a straight answer when you ask a question? Don’t be that person when you write. Use active verbs. They make your writing clearer and more vibrant. Publishers want authors that are not afraid to state their ideas assertively. This does not mean that you should make reckless statements, gloss over the finer nuances of issues, or toss in sweeping generalizations. However, clearly articulated arguments using active verbs are easier to follow and more compelling than arguments made by passive attempts to avoid a mistake. Don’t go over the river and through the woods to grandmother’s house if there’s a perfectly good road that can take you directly there.

2) Citing extended quotations from secondary sources. There are times when the precise wording in a book or article must be reproduced exactly, but there is a tendency to over-use secondary citations, and this tendency is obvious to book editors (who also have to pay attention to copyright and fair use laws in the books they publish). Some of my old papers look like collages of quotations from other scholars (with bits of commentary sprinkled in from to time), and I had to break that habit. To fix this, maintain your authorial voice. Extensive quoting from other authors dilutes that voice. Of course, you will thoughtfully engage the work of other scholars, but whenever possible, paraphrase and explain their arguments in your own words. Your footnotes will reveal the sources. (That is their job after all, and even footnotes want to feel important.) You are the one leading your reader through the story that you have to tell, so don’t hand over the microphone to others too easily. Oh, and one more thing: Long quotations are a quick way to beef up a word count, but padding a manuscript in this way is not worth it in the end. You are the author, so be the author.

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Publishing the dissertation resources

There are various books out there on moving from dissertation to book, but in my opinion these are the 2 best (links to Amazon):

1. Beth Luey, Revising Your Dissertation: Advice from Leading Editors, Updated Edition. I actually read this book BEFORE I started writing my dissertation, and it helped me avoid some major mistakes the first time around.

2. William Germano, From Dissertation to Book (Chicago Guides to Writing, Editing, and Publishing). This book contains lots of good advice, but be aware that he advocates for some people NOT publishing their dissertations.

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