by Robert D. Priest (Royal Holloway, University of London)
When I was kindly invited to write a blog post here, obviously my first instinct was to engage in some craven marketing on behalf of my new book – or should I say my ground-breaking, empirically rigorous and elegantly crafted new volume, essential for all teachers and researchers in nineteenth-century French history? But since one of the French History Network’s laudable aims is for early career scholars to share practical advice, I decided it would be better to focus on the more useful question of how I actually went about turning my PhD thesis into a book.
I would actually like to start much earlier than my PhD, since the first thing I wrote on the topic of my book was an undergraduate essay over a decade ago. During a course on nineteenth-century Europe the reading my lecturer, Rebecca Spang, had set for the week on ‘Secularisation?’ was two controversially ‘historical’ lives of Jesus: one by David Friedrich Strauss, the other by Ernest Renan. Something was planted in my brain that ended up drawing me back to the topic of Renan when I came to start writing a PhD in 2007.
Under the weight of years of reading, writing and conversation, as well as the benevolent influence of my supervisor Ruth Harris, the project has gone in a lot of different directions since then. Is there, beneath the endless palimpsests of revision and redirection, still some feint trace of my undergrad ideas in the book that has finally emerged? It’s a haunting thought. Seeing my own students battle with essay deadlines, I wonder how much sense I ever made in those late nights in front of the computer.
The key point here is about time. Academic projects in the humanities can take absurdly long to bring to fruition – in part because research and writing are necessarily slow; in part because peer-review publication involves being part of a network where everybody is dependent on everybody else, and everybody has their own commitments and priorities; and in part because journal and book publishers still operate on what is in many ways a print model.
The tension between the reality of slow progress and the pressure for fast results is probably felt most keenly by those early in their careers, whether in the ‘publish or perish’ world of the US tenure track or the REF-driven and book-fetishising UK lectureship market. At no time is this more pronounced than during the process of converting a thesis into a book. People repeatedly tell you that the size of the task always exceeds optimistic expectations, that major revisions are always necessary, and that the annoying bits (proofreading, indexing) are a mostly thankless slog. At the same time as you receive this demotivating commentary, you are trying to build the teaching and administrative sections of your CV, put out articles and chapters. Perhaps if you are really lucky you get to think about the actual project you want to do next. That next project probably seems much more exciting than the one you have in a sense already done, and whose origins are receding ever further into the distant past.
In the end, my book appeared in print three and a half years after my viva, and it took me at least two years to do the bulk of the revisions. This emphatically does not mean I spent those years consistently revising my book. I will confess to shelving my thesis for a good few months after the viva. I read seemingly useful volumes with titles like From Thesis to Book and convinced myself that this was a form of progress. I turned my attention to teaching, side projects, long articles, and giving old papers at new conferences. When I received some very helpful reader’s comments from the publisher, I even shelved these temporarily. They were duly printed out, read once, and then filed somewhere in the nether reaches of my desk.
I don’t regret this. I think a surprising amount of thinking happens when you’re not thinking about it. Does that make sense? Certainly by the time I came back to the manuscript I had fresh eyes and the alienation I felt from my own labour had become a kind of motivational antipathy. I wanted to get the bloody thing out the way.
What did I learn, in the end, about turning your thesis into a book? Nothing profound, and nothing that nobody has said before, but certainly something:
- Spend some time away from the manuscript. This can seem hard when you feel like there is pressure to get the thing out as quickly as possible, but it pays off in the end.
- Channel your frustration. Everybody is bored of their PhD by the time they give it in, or at least bored of their own ideas on the topic. But if you harness this boredom and resentment, you can actually channel it into the merciless instinct needed to kill the thing off.
- Be methodical. When I returned to the manuscript for the final push, I repeated a procedure that has always worked for me: I went through every single chapter and page and made a list of changes I wanted to make, whether minor or major, without making them. Then I went through friends’ comments, my old examiners’ reports, and the reader’s report, repeating the procedure. I ended up with the longest ‘to do’ list I have ever seen. I then arranged the changes in chapter order. At that point, I swore I would add nothing to the list, and that I would not stop revising until the entire list had been deleted. Perhaps I had been reading the Tennis Court Oath? Certainly I stood by it and the book got done.
- Be uncompromising. I don’t think I actually found it difficult to delete things that were ‘in the PhD’, in part because they were already in the PhD. I’d already said them, I already knew them, and it was easy enough to get rid of them. One of the more productive things I did was hive off a whole section, with a little bit of further archival research, into an article. Once I’d done that, I didn’t feel bad about reducing Jules Soury from a subsection into a sentence of the book. Since he was a horrific antisemite it was comparatively easy to delete him, but I’m sure the same principle applies even to sympathetic characters.
- Get advice. The friends you foisted your PhD chapters on probably won’t want to read the revised book versions, but others might. When I went back to my supervisor with some of the chapters she gave me just the right amount of advice: nothing that looked like months of hard labour but enough that I felt like I had changed something beyond my own ambitions. This is the kind of feedback you should directly ask for. Let people know: I want your input but I’m also trying to finish this, so please be realistic.
- Creature comforts. I finished the final pages of my book manuscript in the summer while we took care of a beautiful dog named Ella, who belongs to some friends. She had an excellent habit of waking me up early in the morning, and also made me get out the house and away from the desk to take her for walks. I would strongly recommend you emulate this, but with a different dog if necessary.
You can read some of the end result, The Gospel According to Renan: Reading, Writing, and Religion in Nineteenth-Century France, on Google Books. I hope you like it. For now I can’t stand to look at it, but maybe in a few months…