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The Dissertation-to-Book Workbook
A guest post with a practical tool for developing your book manuscript
Hello Manuscript Workers,
This week I’m happy to share a new book written by Katelyn E. Knox and Allison Van Deventer. It’s The Dissertation to Book Workbook: Exercises for Developing and Revising Your Book Manuscript, releasing this month from the University of Chicago Press.
There are several good guides to revising a dissertation out there, but this book is the first I’ve seen that really breaks the thinking and writing process down into practical steps. And if you’ve been following this newsletter or you’ve read The Book Proposal Book, you know that I love a step-by-step guide that tells you what you actually need to do.
I figured readers of this newsletter would likely be a prime audience for this book, so I asked Drs. Knox and Van Deventer if they would like to write a guest post that introduces readers to their approach, and they generously agreed. If you have a dissertation revision on your horizon, keep reading!
Book Questions and Chapter Answers
Guest post by Katelyn E. Knox and Allison Van Deventer
If you’re writing an academic book, you know you need a strong central argument. But to define a workable argument, you need to spend many hours deep in your evidence—evidence that you won’t know how to make sense of until after you’ve come up with an argument. You want to make progress, but you don’t want to waste time. Where do you start?
We’ve worked with countless busy authors facing this difficulty, and we have a practical recommendation: start with questions. But not just any questions! In this post—adapted from The Dissertation-to-Book Workbook: Exercises for Developing and Managing Your Book Manuscript (University of Chicago Press, 2023)—we’re going to explain how to use a tool we call “book questions and chapter answers” to assess your book manuscript and distill its core insights, even before you have a complete draft. With this tool, you’ll get a bird’s-eye view of your book that will help you decide how to use your writing time efficiently.
As a first step, ask yourself whether your book has an “organizing principle”—that is, a way to define the central element that changes from chapter to chapter. You might be able to pinpoint your organizing principle by completing the following sentence: “Each chapter discusses a different _____.” Maybe each chapter discusses a different author, or a different geographical reason, or a different trope. If you have more than one organizing principle, or if you think you might want to change your organizing principle, that’s fine! Make a note of whatever you think should be your primary organizing principle. (Do you want step-by-step instructions, examples, and answers to common questions about organizing principles? Get a free copy of Chapter 2 of The Dissertation-to-Book Workbook, where we show you how to figure out which structure will work best for your book’s argument.)
The next step is to write a book question. This should be a question about your particular body of evidence—a question you can answer fully within the pages of your book, with a different answer for each chapter. To produce this question, it can help to think about the question that your organizing principle implies. Consider, for instance, George S. MacLeod’s Mediating Violence from Africa: Francophone Literature, Film, and Testimony after the Cold War (University of Nebraska Press, 2023), in which each chapter discusses a different iconic figure associated with violence in Africa. This organizing principle suggests a straightforward question: “Which iconic figures have represented ‘African violence’ for a global public since the Cold War?”
Here are a few more examples of book questions:
How did the Christian homeschooling movement of the 1990s and 2000s encourage white American homeschooling evangelicals to identify with conservative political causes?
How did a range of actors in the United States in the 20th century explain and respond to tuberculosis outbreaks at varying scales?
How did hand-drawn graphic representations of Japanese origami that circulated in the first published origami instruction manuals (1797–1869) participate in a culture of what I term a “folding logic of knowledge”?
How did the discourses and practices of the Minjung movement influence Korean theologians?
How do women in 21st-century Brazilian early educational spaces generate a sense of community?
After you draft a provisional question, take some time to look at it with a critical eye. Have you run into any of the following common problems?
The question is so broad that it’s actually about your book’s significance. You might have this problem if answering your question fully would require more evidence than a single book could muster. Take the question “What happens when we divorce history from the nation?” This is a great question to raise in your book’s conclusion—but it isn’t a book question, in our sense of the term, because it isn’t about your specific body of evidence. If you wrote this kind of question, set it aside and write a new question that’s more grounded in your evidence. (Tip: Ask yourself, “Who or what is doing things in my book?” Then write a question about those specific actors.)
The question word isn’t quite right. Maybe you wrote a “why” question, but you realize that you don’t actually have the evidence to explain cause and effect—instead, you’re interested in how the phenomenon happened. Maybe you wrote a “which” question, but you realize that changing it to “how” allows you to say more. For instance, the question “Which iconic figures have represented ‘African violence’ for a global public since the Cold War?” could become “How have various iconic figures represented ‘African violence’ for a global public since the Cold War?”
You can’t answer the question with the evidence you have. Maybe you’ve been thinking of your book as an exploration of how video games produce social change, and so you wrote your question accordingly: “How do [these specific video games] produce social change?” But when you hear that you’ll have to write an answer for each chapter, you realize that you have very little evidence that anything in society has changed as a result of the games. Instead, you have folders full of analysis of the video games themselves. Equipped with this knowledge, you can rewrite your question: “How do [these specific video games] envision better worlds?”
You’ve written a multi-part question. Many authors write questions that cover both a phenomenon and its effects, or a phenomenon and the response to it. For instance: “How did the Ivorian civil conflict create the conditions in which coupé-décalé thrived, and what were the effects of this movement in Côte d’Ivoire?” The problem here is that the answers to such a question will quickly become very complicated. The solution is simple: split the question up. You’ll end up with two questions, like this: “How did the Ivorian civil conflict create the conditions in which coupé-décalé thrived?” “What were the effects of the coupé-décalé movement in Côte d’Ivoire?”
The actions and actors need adjusting. Look carefully at who is doing what in your question. Are the main “actors” of the question (whether people, institutions, ideas, etc.) actually playing a key role in the book? Does the verb reflect what they’re doing? Can you think of a more accurate verb? Tweak your wording as needed.
When you’ve finished your troubleshooting, it’s time to put your question to the real test: generating chapter-level answers. The goal here is to map out how the core idea expressed in the question will play out across your chapters. For the purposes of this exercise, you can exclude your book’s introduction, its conclusion, and any background or conceptual chapters. For each of the other chapters, write a one-sentence answer to the question.
BQ1: In the twenty-first-century United States, how do various types of children’s picture books by Black authors communicate anti-racist lessons?
Ch1: Biographies of famous Black people highlight individual resilience in the face of racism and counter white-centric history by raising awareness of their protagonists’ accomplishments.
Ch2: Fiction about Black children that doesn’t mention racism emphasizes that all children deserve to be celebrated in narratives featuring joy, tenderness, and/or family/community bonds.
Ch3: Nonfiction books that teach explicit lessons about race, racism, and activism seek to explain social phenomena and communicate that individuals can make a positive difference.
Ch4: Fiction about children facing episodes of racism emphasizes that racism is wrong and illustrates ways children and those around them can affirm their individual worth and dignity.
This work is hard! Don’t worry if it takes you longer than you expect. And it’s fine if your chapter answers aren’t tidy or polished, or if you have to leave blanks.
After you develop a set of chapter answers, go back and assess your question again. Does it match the answers you came up with? Can you revise it so that it generates clearer answers? Next, write one or two related questions, each with a similar set of answers. We walk you through this process, with examples and troubleshooting tips, in The Dissertation-to-Book Workbook. At the end, you’ll assemble an argument based on your questions.
We love this exercise because it’s a way to poke and prod your book manuscript before you invest hundreds of hours in writing and revising it. You might realize that one chapter is unlike the others, or that a cluster of evidence doesn’t support the book’s priorities, or that the book’s actors aren’t who you thought they were. And you’ll make happier discoveries: that you can see what you need to change, cut or add; that your book has a narrative arc; that you can easily describe what once sounded like a tangle of abstract ideas.
You’ll also have language you can use in book proposals and pitches. You’ll have a framework for asking the hard questions now, long before the high-stakes milestone of peer review. And most importantly, you’ll have a much more intentional, cohesive, and compelling book project and more confidence in what you say.
Hi again, it’s me, Laura.
If you found the tips above from Katelyn and Allison helpful, please do grab a copy of The Dissertation-to-Book Workbook for yourself or request that your library order it.
I’ll be back next week with some tips on how to actually pitch a revised dissertation to scholarly publishers, including an announcement of an upcoming free webinar on the subject. See you then!