Post Academic

Transforming your diss chapter into an article

Picking up on last week’s post on how to work through writer’s block, I thought I’d cover the process of how I have excerpted essay-length pieces out of dense, lengthy dissertation chapters.  In my own case, this process has met with mixed results, so take my advice for what it’s worth: On the one hand, it did culminate in a published article that went through multiple self-imposed revisions, but, on the other, it also yielded an essay submission that was in limbo forever before I decided to give up on it.  Still, even with the latter, I think that the revised essay was an improvement over the original chapter, in part because the writing was much tighter, due to constraints on length as well as the need to find a more focused argument for a proposed article.

""BotCon 2006 Costumes" by Bedford (Public Domain)

Of course, this works from the assumption that you are starting with a big chunk of a diss chapter to begin with and not the other way around, where you start with an essay that you turn into something bigger and better.  So if that’s the way you work, please feel free to chime in and let us know how you go about things!

Be practical: Before you start to look for a coherent essay in the midst of a tangled jumble of a diss chapter–whether in progress or completed–know what the parameters of your end goal should be.  That means figuring out the length requirements for the journal you’re planning on sending a submission to, so that you have a target to aim for.  It’s probably not a bad idea to try to compose a 20-25 page essay out of your source material, since that’s a good length for an article and useful, too, for job application writing samples.  I know from experience that there’s nothing more nervewracking than having to tailor a 30-pp proposed article down to 20-pp essay on the fly when you receive that email from the search committee with a writing sample request.

More conversion tips below the fold…

Know your argument: Sometimes the argument of your essay will be the same as the chapter, sometimes it won’t.  If you’re good at sub-heading your chapters, start there–maybe the essay conversion process is as easy as choosing a good, self-contained section of the diss chapter, with minimal adornments and making a few connections.  In other cases, it might be more complicated finding a strong, focused argument within a mass of writing.  It might not be a bad idea to recall what your favorite ideas from the chapter are, then build around it.  That has the advantage of taking what’s best from your research and highlighting it, rather than just carving out a 20-pp chunk and assuming that it stands on its own.

"Various scalpels" (Public Domain)

Hatchet and scalpel: Once you know what you’re trying to do, then you can figure out when/where to break out the hatchet for heavy-duty edits or the scalpel to finetune things.  Chances are you’ll need both.  Logic dictates that you should start with the former, chopping away big hunks of things that probably work great for the diss, but might not fit a more concise, targeted essay.  Some good places to start are paring down long block quotes or whatever you add for effect and emphasis in a chapter that might be redundant in a shorter piece.  Here’s where the X-acto knife comes into play, too, as you discern all that you need from your primary materials and secondary sources, but nothing more.  Sometimes, a secondary source that’s fundamental to your diss might not be so much for your edited piece.  And if you’re prone to using a lot of adjectives and adverbs, look to slice a few of those off as well.  Every word counts when you’re looking to make a word-count restriction.

Your writing is not a precious resource: Writers–myself included–can sometimes be too precious about their own writing to effectively edit themselves.  That’s why, when I hit an editing wall, I always tell myself that I have to cut some pearl of an idea that I’ve become way too enamored with.  After cutting a 60-pp diss chapter down to 27-pp only to realize you need to get to 20-pp, you probably feel like quitting, so you’ve got to give yourself a kick in the pants to keep going.  Once you can give up something you’re really attached to, it makes continuing to edit a lot easier.  And in many cases, you’ll realize that that favorite sentence might not have been as relevant to what you’re trying to accomplish as you initially thought.  Besides, those thoughts are still in the dissertation, so they’re set in stone somewhere.

Keep track of things: Like me, you might want to keep different revisions of your edited-down essay to use for different purposes.  Often, the shortest version of the piece is just too short, but you’ve gotta follow the rules.  So I usually hold on to a 20-pp version, a 25-pp version, and a 30-pp version, and send out the best one whenever there are no restrictions on length or word count.  But if you’re also like me, you can get easily confused by all the different files, so be sure to keep track of them so that you have the right length and the most updated revision.  What I do is list the page count and date in my file name, just to keep things as clear as possible; you can even include the title of the publication/name of school you’re sending it out to.  Whatever the case, the last thing you want when you’re editing and revising is to create more digital clutter.

Hope these tips help!  And for those of you who have been more successful in getting published and/or getting jobs, we’d happy to see what other secrets of success you’d like to share…

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