As I am working on revising my dissertation into a book manuscript, one of my former teachers recommended that I read William Germano’s From Dissertation To Book
. Graduate students know that time is scarce and one has to be judicious about which books to read. There is never enough time to read everything that is “on the radar,” so settle only for the best works. Germano’s book is definitely one of them, and should be a required reading for graduate students in political science and other social sciences. In addition to offering superb writing advice, the author does a great job of unmasking a number of techniques graduate students use for self-protection. These tactics might be useful when writing a comprehensive exam, but they are a hindrance to becoming a professional writer. Here are two examples:
All this looking over the shoulder [i.e., excessive citation] may be good for self-protection, but it gets between you and the book you would like to be writing (p. 19).
All too often, a small and perceptive idea is dressed up in clothes two sizes too large and trotted out as a theory (p. 23).
Another major point stressed by Germano is simply this: a dissertation is not a book! Here is how he explains the difference between the two:
the dissertation is the historical record of others’ ideas, supplemented by your own important insights; the book is the narrative of thinking on the subject, but primarily it’s your thinking, even though it is supplemented by the historical record of others’ ideas (p. 75).
Beyond excellent writing advice, the author has a way of capturing the most prevalent, if often not explicitly expressed, fears of graduate students and junior faculty. Why is it that only some dissertations become books? Part of the answer is that writing involves a risk:
And it isn’t the risk of being found wrong, for scholars are always moving an idea along by fits and starts. It’s the risk of finding that you have nothing to say. Learning to take that risk, even to want to take that risk, is part of a scholar’s development (p. 75).
That risk of being found out, of realizing that one has nothing to contribute, is paralyzing. That is why many graduate students turn to cynicism for protection. The publish-or-perish culture is blamed on:
the university’s, for demanding that scholars publish books ‘no one will read – least of all the administrators”; the publisher’s, for selecting ‘books that will sell’ (as opposed, presumably, to whatever the speaker herself is working on); the academic’s, for choosing topics that presumably advance a career instead of truth and beauty (p. 151).
Scholars who write and publish are probably happier than those who don’t. […] But like physical exercise, writing is a tiring thing that gives you more energy after you’ve done it. Writing is a risk, and risk is exciting, and excitement is something you will fight to sustain in your professional life as you age and your students don’t (p. 152).
There are at least four other brilliant passages that deserved to be quoted at length. Personally, Germano convinced me that writing is a skill that can be polished and should be polished. Getting a Ph.D. is a long and arduous process, and the acquired expertise is meant to be shared with others. Through teaching, of course, but also through writing. If you can write one good sentence, you can write one good paragraph. And if you can write one good paragraph, you can write (at least) one good book. Writing does not have to be limited to academic articles and books. It take take other forms, such as writing a blog… Writing is like thinking, actually writing is thinking. The odd thing about writing often is that:
You grow closer to your reader because you’re easier to understand, and then, wonderfully, you grow closer to your subject – you understand it better – because writing clears, you get to know what you think. You want your prose to speak not only to your unseen readers, but to yourself as well (p. 136).