[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.