Last month at the annual conference for my field in history, I skipped nearly every session. As usual, the conference catalog made most sessions sound intriguing, if not cutting edge. Many of the big names in the field were in attendance, sharing podium time with a cadre of up-and-comers, including a healthy handful of graduate students.
Up and down the hallways of the swank conference hotel, I overheard plenty of excited (and caffeine-fueled) chatter about the papers being presented. The energy was infectious, yet I resisted the draw of the main attraction. I had decided on my inbound flight that I didn't want to hear about new scholarship. I was in the middle of doing research for my dissertation and in the early stages of writing it, so I wanted to maintain my selfish little thought bubble.
Thinking about all of that on the plane led me to a single question I wanted answered at the conference: How can graduate students capitalize on the chance to meet the people behind the books—the editors?
Book fairs are a fixture of academic conferences. In what's often labeled a "ballroom," acquisition editors and marketers from about 20 university presses set up displays of their new and best-selling books. In the past, I would browse titles, order a few, or request complimentary copies for courses I was teaching.
This time, my strategy was to wait until the conference sessions started, then go into the book fair when most everyone else was leaving. Reaching across book displays to shake hands and introduce myself was a lot less intimidating than I had anticipated. For acquisition editors and marketers, making contact with potential authors and book buyers is, after all, a big part of their jobs. I was glad to keep hearing the refrain, "We are always looking for new stuff."
Almost to a person, editors told me they were happy to meet with graduate students one-on-one at these events. They said the best way to set up an appointment in advance was to send a research abstract along with an introduction mentioning your department head, especially if the chair had published with the press.
Do a little homework before writing to editors, they advised. Their buzzword for that assignment was "fit." Does your research project fit with the kinds of books the press publishes? There's not much reason to bug an editor about my dissertation (a study of federal environmental policy in the American West) if a press's catalog is full of monographs about ethnicity and gender.
So, what happens after you've winnowed down presses to a few good fits and made an appointment with an editor? What materials should you bring to a conference?
Every editor I spoke with did not want to haul home a ream of your writing, so leave the manuscripts behind. Instead, bring a concise proposal. Some presses have written guidelines for such proposals, which you can find on their Web sites. A proposal, the editors said, is your chance to answer the five basic questions of journalism (who, what, where, when, and why); to articulate your argument and explain why it matters to the audience you have in mind (and you must have one in mind); to describe the narrative arc of your story; and to show the unique qualities of your work as well as where it fits in the literature. If you can do all that in five pages or less, you will make editors very happy.
It also makes them happy to know that you are finished or nearly so when you lay a proposal on them. Most editors said graduate students should avoid looking to them for guidance early in their writing. For that, we're better off relying on our writing group, our chair, and our committee.
Knowing the difference between a dissertation and a book can help you even when you're just describing your project to an editor. When I asked what editors were looking for in a dissertation, they all grinned and offered a ready list of differences between the manuscripts they receive and the books they ultimately publish. And by differences, they meant problems. There are whole books on this topic, which many editors recommended by name, such as The Thesis and the Book: A Guide for First-Time Academic Authors and From Dissertation to Book.
One after another, they ticked off the common, necessary revisions:
- Minimize the literature review and historiography; most readers, especially those outside your narrow field, don't really care about all those other books you've read. In a dissertation or thesis, we have to prove our authority, or defend the fact that we've read all the relevant secondary literature and done a bunch of primary research. For a book, especially for a general audience, we need to assume that authority and quit trying to defend or prove it. As one editor quipped, "To be an author means to have authority."
- Cut your footnotes and quotes in half—or as one editor put it, "Sift your evidence more effectively."
- Streamline theory, method, and argumentation. Get rid of the "I've described this, now I'm going to describe this," language. Cut the meta-narrative about why you're doing what you're doing. As the ad advises, "just do it."
- We tend to rush our projects to completion in a scramble to meet defense deadlines. So once we've defended, we ought to pat ourselves on the back, then get back to work paying particular attention to cleaning up the last few chapters and the conclusion.
- Finally, we need to tell a story, rather than just deliver information and analysis. Editors were most verbose about that point, offering a litany of problems from the overuse of jargon to the trap of getting so caught up in the details that you forget the big picture. In sum, "it needs to be readable."
I heard some exceptions to those answers, of course. One editor told me that the best way to deal with most dissertation problems was to stash it in a drawer for a year before doing any revision. Use the time to get a job and bring fresh eyes to your own writing.
I met another editor who said he appreciates talking with graduate students, or authors in general, while they're still in the early stages of their work. When I showed surprise, Mark Simpson-Vos, from the University of North Carolina Press, explained that meeting early in the process allows both author and editor to gauge "fit." And "fit" isn't just about a book's place in a publisher's catalog; it's also a matter of building a relationship.
"First-book authors don't just revise," Mark said. "They go through a psychological transition from grad student to professional. Along the way, you can go through some tough stuff, so you need an editor you trust. Ideally we should enjoy working together!"
That tough stuff meant both the long process of rewriting and the equally lengthy publication timeline. I made an appointment with Mark for the next morning to discuss my work.
Talking with editors about the writing and publication process was probably the most exciting thing I've ever done inside the walls of a conference. But the excitement wasn't because what I learned was wholly new.
I had heard most of the same advice from my department chair, just as other academic friends had told me the names of helpful books on revising a dissertation. It's not that I discounted their advice before; far from it. But hearing the same thing directly from editors lent it a certain weight.
My college running coach used to say something like "repetitio est mater studiorum." Whether it comes to being fleet of foot, more nimble of mind, or any other task, I still believe he was right—that repetition is the mother of all learning.
With that in mind, I wrote down all of the editors' advice in a notebook, and I plan to revisit it every morning before I write until this dissertation is done.