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the book thesis

Purdue Online Writing Lab College of Liberal Arts

the book thesis

Developing a Thesis

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This handout covers major topics relating to writing about fiction. This covers prewriting, close reading, thesis development, drafting, and common pitfalls to avoid.

Once you've read the story or novel closely, look back over your notes for patterns of questions or ideas that interest you. Have most of your questions been about the characters, how they develop or change?

For example: If you are reading Conrad's The Secret Agent , do you seem to be most interested in what the author has to say about society? Choose a pattern of ideas and express it in the form of a question and an answer such as the following: Question: What does Conrad seem to be suggesting about early twentieth-century London society in his novel The Secret Agent ? Answer: Conrad suggests that all classes of society are corrupt. Pitfalls: Choosing too many ideas. Choosing an idea without any support.

Once you have some general points to focus on, write your possible ideas and answer the questions that they suggest.

For example: Question: How does Conrad develop the idea that all classes of society are corrupt? Answer: He uses images of beasts and cannibalism whether he's describing socialites, policemen or secret agents.

To write your thesis statement, all you have to do is turn the question and answer around. You've already given the answer, now just put it in a sentence (or a couple of sentences) so that the thesis of your paper is clear.

For example: In his novel, The Secret Agent , Conrad uses beast and cannibal imagery to describe the characters and their relationships to each other. This pattern of images suggests that Conrad saw corruption in every level of early twentieth-century London society.

Now that you're familiar with the story or novel and have developed a thesis statement, you're ready to choose the evidence you'll use to support your thesis. There are a lot of good ways to do this, but all of them depend on a strong thesis for their direction.

For example: Here's a student's thesis about Joseph Conrad's The Secret Agent . In his novel, The Secret Agent , Conrad uses beast and cannibal imagery to describe the characters and their relationships to each other. This pattern of images suggests that Conrad saw corruption in every level of early twentieth-century London society. This thesis focuses on the idea of social corruption and the device of imagery. To support this thesis, you would need to find images of beasts and cannibalism within the text.

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Finding the Thesis

You have plucked one idea (or closely related group of ideas) out of all of your possible ideas to focus on. Congratulations! Now what? Well, now you might write about that topic to explore what you want to say about it. Or, you might already have some idea about what point you want to make about it. If you are in the latter position, you may want to develop a working thesis to guide your drafting process.

What Is a Working Thesis?

A thesis is the controlling idea of a text (often an arguable idea—you will learn more about this in a bit). Depending on the type of text you are creating, all of the discussion in that text will serve to develop, explore multiple angles of, and/or support that thesis.

But how can we know, before getting any of the paper written, exactly what thesis the sources we find and the conversations we have will support? Often, we can’t. The closest we can get in these cases is a working thesis, which is a best guess at what the thesis is likely to be based on the information we are working with at this time. The main idea of it may not change, but the specifics are probably going to be tweaked a bit as you complete a draft and do research.

So, let’s look at one of the examples from “ Strategies for Getting Started ” from the “Prewriting—Generating Ideas” section of this book: the cluster about the broad central idea of danger. If the main idea is “danger,” maybe the conversation you decide you want to have about it after clustering is that sometimes people step into danger intentionally in order to prove ourselves in some way. Next, you might make a list of possible thesis statements. For the sake of example, let’s say this is for an assignment in response to the film The Hunger Games . Some thesis statements that fit this situation might look like this:

If you were writing a summary, the first example in that list might be a good thesis to work with. If you were writing a review, the second one might be the better option. Let’s say, though, that you’ve been assigned to write a more traditional college essay, something a little more focused on analysis. In that case, the final example in this list looks like a good working thesis. It might not be quite the same as the thesis you end up with in later drafts, but it looks like a strong idea to focus your ideas around while you’re first getting them on the page.

The Word on College Reading and Writing by Carol Burnell, Jaime Wood, Monique Babin, Susan Pesznecker, and Nicole Rosevear is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License , except where otherwise noted.

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Getting Started, Again

A young scholar completes a Ph.D. thesis and is congratulated by the supervising committee. A first-rate work, it deserves the applause. “You must publish this, Pat, and soon,” one committee member says, and goes on to suggest two or three publishing houses to which Pat might now write. Encouraged by the response, Pat sends off the manuscript, fresh from the defense. Then the author waits, but it’s not a long wait. The manuscript comes back from the publisher. The pages, which appear not to have been disturbed, are accompanied by a note. It isn’t even a personal note, just a form letter. “Dear Author,” the letter reads, “Terribly sorry. We don’t publish unrevised dissertations.” The new Ph.D. is understandably frustrated. “If scholarly publishers don’t want what I’ve just written, why was I advised to write this, and to write it this way? I’m encouraged to publish quickly. My committee praised my work. But publishers don’t want it. What am I doing wrong?”

The answer is easy. Pat wrote a thesis, not a book.

A dissertation is written under the watchful eyes of a director and an advisory committee. Sometimes that structure may be a burden, or even an obstacle, for the writer. Having the wrong committee can make writing slower and more difficult than it need be. But whether one’s doctoral advisors form a well-knit team or a dysfunctional family, they form a support group, one handed to the writer by the university.

Once you leave the institution where you were awarded your degree, that support structure can seem, in retrospect, a great asset no longer in reach. Your university’s requirements, down to the language of your dissertation proposal and the number of chapters your committee insists you produce, constitute a set of rules—a grammar, if you like—within which you produce the dissertation. That framework is both a harness and a help, and it determines the shape of an argument, the nature of the prose, the pace of writing, even the place where the writing will be done.

Pat, the new Ph.D. whose unrevised dissertation has just been rejected by a publisher, isn’t doing anything Pat hasn’t been led to believe is right. But the operating instructions of scholarly publishing rarely form a part of graduate training, which means that young scholars are usually thinking about the academic book business for the first time when the dissertation is already complete. That’s late.

In today’s market, even a first-rate dissertation may fail to find a publisher, at least on the author’s first try. Who then is at fault? An inexperienced writer? A cautious editor determined to minimize financial risk for the publishing house? A dissertation committee out of touch with scholarly publishing today? The tenure system, with its demand for book-length publication in the face of increasingly unattractive odds?

Open Secrets

To scholarly publishers it seems that for generations, dissertations have been built on a surprisingly simple formula. Choose a topic, preferably one sufficiently narrow that no one else has elected precisely the same territory for exploration. Read everything written on the topic. Demonstrate, with less or greater subtlety, that you’ve actually done this reading via hundreds of endnotes, footnotes, and superscripts. Disagree with some aspect of received opinion about your topic. Document everything. Offer analyses that support your position. Although that may be the recipe for a dissertation, it isn’t the formula for a book.

This isn’t to say that dissertations aren’t valuable works of scholarship. Each year graduate students complete interesting, provocative, even groundbreaking dissertations. Their advisors are encouraging fresh subjects, as well as fresh approaches. Each year dissertations appear that will become books. (Become—not are already—books.) To judge by the manuscripts that scholars send to publishing houses, the majority of the theses for which the Ph.D. is awarded are still highly limited enterprises—confident treatments of narrow subjects, making claims to boldness but doing so by means of elaborate reference to the work of others. The average dissertation wears its confidence and its insecurity in equal measure.

That mixture of diffidence and bravura shows up in almost all doctoral work. When a dissertation crosses my desk, I usually want to grab it by its metaphorical lapels and give it a good shake. “You know something!” I would say if it could hear me. “Now tell it to us in language we can understand!” It isn’t the dissertation I want to shake, of course, it’s the dissertation’s author. The “us” I want the author to speak to isn’t just anyone, either, but the targeted readership that will benefit from a scholarly book. The recalcitrant garden-variety dissertation—lips sealed, secrets intact—will find a readership among two hundred library collections at best. Most won’t make it even that far, but linger at the ready in electronic format waiting for some brave soul to call for a download or a photocopy.

It’s hard to pick up a dissertation and hear its author’s voice. Dissertations don’t pipe up. Like the kid in the choir who’s afraid she cannot carry a tune and doesn’t want to be found out, the dissertation makes as small a sound as possible. Often that sound is heard by a committee of from three to five scholars, and no one else. Revising a dissertation is partly a matter of making the writer’s text speak up.

But what is it about the dissertation that makes it so unlikely that it can be made to speak? One senior scholar, veteran of many dissertation committees, cheerfully told me that the doctoral thesis was, at heart, a paranoid genre. “You’re writing it to protect yourself,” the professor observed, and meaning, too, that you are therefore not writing in order to create as bold and imaginative a work as possible. The dissertation is always looking over its shoulder. If you’re writing in literary studies, for example, your dissertation may be looking backward to be sure it’s safe from Foucault, Freud, Butler, and Bhabha, not that any of these worthies are threatening either you or your thesis in any way. To disarm your deities, you cite, paraphrase, and incorporate the ideas of leading scholars now at work. You pour libations to the loudest of the influential dead. The more you do this, the more difficult it becomes to see where your own work ends and the ideas of the Masters begin, so thoroughly has your writing absorbed a way of expressing itself. Then there are the scholars who sit on your dissertation committee. They may not be famous, but for the moment they are the Kindly Ones—the Eumenides—and you will want them on your side. These are natural responses to authority, to one’s teachers, to those who will pass judgment on your work. All this looking over the shoulder may be good for self-protection, but it gets between you and the book you would like to be writing.

The Not-Yet-a-Book

Many factors militate against a dissertation becoming a book. Yet some dissertations do, and many of these have the potential to become quite good books, a potential they often do not fulfill. The process by which a dissertation becomes a book has several intermediate stages, the most important of which is the transformation from one kind of unpublished manuscript into another, that is, from an unpublished Ph.D. thesis into an as-yet-unpublished book manuscript. Each is by the same author, each contains many of the same words and ideas, each is unpublished. The first is a stack of paper an editor simply won’t consider for publication, and the second is one the editor will look at with professional interest. You need to pique that interest.

Revising is lonely work, even for a young scholar trying to make sense of a freshly completed dissertation. Maybe you’ve completed your degree by now. You may or may not have a job. In the evenings, and on weekends, you’re working on the book based on your dissertation. This thing you’re working on now has no advisor, no committee. Unless you’re already under contract to a publisher, no one is demanding that chapters of your book emerge from your printer according to a strict schedule. You might, of course, arrange an informal committee to spur you on, but it will be a committee of your own making, probably friends and colleagues corralled into reading drafts and chapters. As they read your work, they will be weighing both their words and the strength of your friendship. Unlike a dissertation advisor, your best friend probably won’t read a sloppily written stretch of prose, look you in the eye, and say, “This won’t do.” A good dissertation advisor will say exactly that, and then go on to suggest how you might fix it. Unfortunately, that same good dissertation advisor may not be on call six months after you’ve been awarded your doctorate and are sitting down, by yourself, to turn a humble thesis into something glorious and public.

In some ways it would be simpler not to revise your dissertation at all and just begin with a fresh subject. Discard the whole thing—the research, the structure, the prose. Some writers do just that; picking up the Ph.D., they lay down the dissertation and never look back. One can even argue that it isn’t a total loss, since what the student learned from writing the dissertation doesn’t evaporate, and the expertise garnered in writing it will now hold the author in good stead. But a new idea is stirring in the author’s brain, and this time, he says to himself, he will do it his way. It’s my guess that many writers of dissertations wish they had the luxury of doing something like this—a great new idea, the courage to turn away from the recently completed thesis, and the institutional freedom to spend the next year or two on something entirely new.

Before you begin, you may have to do something so tough it can be crippling: overcome your boredom—maybe even revulsion—at what lies in front of you. Every scholar knows what writer’s block feels like, and dissertation writers are a target group for this disorder, especially in the twilight period of postdegree revisions. After having spent so much time working on a long and difficult project, some scholars simply cannot return to it. Suddenly, it’s easier to do nothing or to send it out unrevised.

Resist that temptation. An unrevised dissertation is a manuscript no one wants to see, but that doesn’t necessarily mean leaving yours in a desk drawer. As long as your work has potential, you owe it to yourself to find out what it can do. Rethink, decide, make your plans for revision and carry them through. Until you know what you have, you can’t know what remains to be done. Revising the dissertation may be going back to square one, stripping the whole project down to its chassis, or it might be something much less drastic. At least the material is familiar. At the moment, however, the thing before you, the manuscript that only a couple of months ago was your dissertation, is now something transitional, the not-yet-a-book. Once you can face your dissertation as actually something in the middle of its journey, you can begin to see it as others might.

What an Idea Looks Like

Like all writers, scholars depend upon words used as precisely as possible. In contemporary academic English, “thesis” and “dissertation” are almost interchangeable, and in this book I’ll use them that way merely to provide some variety. A thesis can, of course, be a master’s thesis or an undergraduate thesis, but a dissertation is always written for a doctoral degree. The dictionary’s succinct definition of a dissertation omits any mention of a proposition to be defended, and length seems to be the dissertation’s principal characteristic. A thesis might be very brief indeed. Martin Luther came up with ninety-five of them, and crammed them all onto a document correctly sized for a church door. For modern-day academics, a dissertation is expected to contain a thesis, that is, this lengthy exposition of evidence and analysis is supposed to contain a core argument. It might be said that the thesis inhabits and animates the dissertation. Unfortunately, it sometimes seems, at least to publishers, that the thesis—the heart of the dissertation—has stopped ticking. Argument gone, all that is left is length.

As they are bandied about by scholars, journalists, and the academic reading public, the words “thesis,” “hypothesis,” “theory,” and “idea” have become hopelessly entangled. In the Great Age of Theory, that heady period from the late sixties through the late nineties, many a modest idea came packaged as a Theory, with bona fide credentials leading back to Continental masters. The humanities yearned for the authority of abstraction. The social sciences were hardly immune—many of the most important theorists, such as Pierre Bourdieu and Anthony Giddens, came from the social science world. If theory aspired to a condition of intellectual purity, or inspired thousands of scholars to do so, it was a condition impossible to sustain for long. Theories of everything sprang up, with a concreteness that made it possible for a reader to connect a Big Abstract Franco-German Idea with educational practice in Illinois or the use of personal pronouns in Shakespeare’s late plays.

As theory became the queen of disciplines, it seemed that every young scholar was under the double obligation not only to come up with a theory, but to do it in a way that was—truly, madly, deeply—theoretical. A good idea might be an embarrassment when what was wanted was a highly philosophical examination of the subject, enriched with the work of German and French thinkers. “As Foucault has said,” “According to Hegel,” “As Derrida has written,” became the incipits of much academic writing, both at the professorial and graduate student levels. Theory meant many things to many people.

Even today, many dissertations fall into the trap of making claims too grand for the evidence mustered by the author. All too often, a small and perceptive idea is dressed up in clothes two sizes too large and trotted out as a theory. Publishers understand that a graduate student needs to demonstrate what he or she knows. But the book that a dissertation hopes to become won’t work if it appears to be a cottage built somewhere on the rolling estate of another scholar’s work. It would be healthy if dissertations could be entitled “My Footnotes to Jameson” or “Two Small Thoughts about Bretton Woods”—healthy, honest even, but unlikely to win the author a job.

A thesis is a work of scholarship and argumentation, and its primary function is to demonstrate that you are able to undertake professional-level work. It isn’t necessarily professional-level work in itself, though sometimes it can come close to that. Much is made about the idea of the writer’s “thesis”—the argument within the dissertation—as if each of the new Ph.D.’s created each year were expected to come up with a blinding insight. It was never so. Most dissertations have been written on the shoulders of giants. Many do even less, and just step on the giants’ toes. A wise dissertation director once counseled a nave graduate student that the dissertation would be the last piece of his student writing, not his first professional work. (It was good advice, and I’ve never regretted him giving it to me.) Every editor at a scholarly publishing house knows this, and most dissertation directors know it, too.

A dissertation demonstrates technical competence more often than an original theory or a genuine argument. This is, in fact, another of those open secrets of academic publishing: a book doesn’t actually need an original theory. It’s often more than enough to synthesize a range of ideas or perspectives, as long as one can do it in a way that creates a new perspective (your own) and provides the reader with further insights into an interesting problem. As academic publishers know, the first book manuscript will try to make claims it can’t fulfill. Your book does need a controlling idea, though. A thesis isn’t a hypothesis. Back in junior high, when the scientific method first came into view, most of us tested ideas on the order of “My hypothesis is that a dry leaf will burn faster than a green one.” Or “Snails will eat pizza.” We learned something about method, even when the green leaf failed to burn and the snails ignored the half onion, half extra-cheese. The first hypothesis was proven true, the second false. A doctoral thesis doesn’t test an idea in the same way. You couldn’t, for example, write a dissertation that tested the validity of the idea that terrestrial mollusks will consume fast food; there are better things for a biologist to be working on, and the result isn’t likely to be something that would make a book. You could challenge someone else’s thesis—for example, the art historian Millard Meiss’s idea that the plague in fourteenth-century Italy changed the way painters represented God. But in challenging it, you had better come up with a conclusion that takes exception to Meiss. It won’t do to “test” the thesis and conclude that Meiss was right. And you can’t posit a dubious idea merely to test it and find it wrong. “Dickens was the least popular British novelist of the nineteenth century.” This is false, and there isn’t any point in “testing” it merely to prove that the idea is groundless. I’ve offered examples that are intentionally exaggerated, but a more uncomfortable scenario might concern the thesis that argues an intelligent point badly, draws false inferences from good data, or builds a structure on a few readings as if they could by themselves map your universe of possibilities.

Some dissertations wrestle with their origins. Can you outmaneuver your famous dissertation director? Challenge the dominant paradigm in your field? Attack the work of the chair of the most important department in your discipline? Any of these forays will create controversy, and controversy isn’t necessarily bad. But it doesn’t mean that a dissertation that gets you into hot water within your field is automatically one that will be publishable as a book. Sometimes a young scholar needs to stage certain arguments in order to break free of powerful influences, and sometimes that will be liberating for the writer. But the contentious dissertation isn’t de facto more publishable than one that picks no academic quarrels.

A thesis is an argument, not a proposition to be tested. A doctoral thesis, however, is quite often not an argument at all, but only a very small part of a bigger argument taking place in one’s discipline or in American society or in culture more broadly. There’s a tension here between the imperative to be creative and the need to take a place in the larger conversation that is one’s scholarly field. A good dissertation director will skillfully guide a graduate student to a dissertation project that will give her the opportunity to show her stuff and not fall off a cliff or get stuck in a corner.

A good academic idea is connected to what has gone before it, modest in acknowledging the work on which it depends, but fresh. It’s not necessary for the idea to be startling or implausible on page 1, wrestling for the reader’s consent, and winning it by a fall on page 350. An idea for a book can be quiet, noisy, insidious, overheated, cool, revisionist, radical, counterintuitive, restorative, synthetic. Ideas are as different as the minds they inhabit. Some writers find it terribly hard to say what their idea is. “If you want to know what I have to say, read the manuscript!” a frustrated author declares. In a sense, that author is right—if you want to know what a writer has to say, read her thoroughly and with care. But that doesn’t mean that it’s impossible to summarize her work or to find in it something we are happy to call her '“idea.” Your idea may be a massive corrective—think of the work on Stalin’s Russia made possible by declassified documents—or a study that looks at St. Paul’s well-studied writings in what Dickinson calls “a certain slant of light,” finding nuances and making small connections because you were there, thinking, at a certain moment. I keep an Ansel Adams poster in my office. More than we admit, books are like photographs, possible only because the camera and the eye were fortunate to be somewhere at the very moment when the clouds held their shape just long enough.

Copyright notice: Excerpt from pages 12-21 of From Dissertation to Book by William Germano, published by the University of Chicago Press. ©2005 by the University of Chicago. All rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that this entire notice, including copyright information, is carried and provided that the University of Chicago Press is notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the consent of the University of Chicago Press. William Germano From Dissertation to Book ©2005, 152 pages Cloth $35.00 ISBN: 0-226-28845-5 Paper $16.00 0-226-28846-3 For information on purchasing the book—from bookstores or here online—please go to the webpage for From Dissertation to Book . See also: Getting It Published: A Guide for Scholars and Anyone Else Serious about Serious Books by William Germano • Read an excerpt . A catalog of books for writers, editors, and publishers A catalog of reference books Other excerpts and online essays from University of Chicago Press titles Sign up for e-mail notification of new books in this and other subjects

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Umberto Eco at the blackboard

A Guide to Thesis Writing That Is a Guide to Life

the book thesis

“How to Write a Thesis,” by Umberto Eco, first appeared on Italian bookshelves in 1977. For Eco, the playful philosopher and novelist best known for his work on semiotics, there was a practical reason for writing it. Up until 1999, a thesis of original research was required of every student pursuing the Italian equivalent of a bachelor’s degree. Collecting his thoughts on the thesis process would save him the trouble of reciting the same advice to students each year. Since its publication, “How to Write a Thesis” has gone through twenty-three editions in Italy and has been translated into at least seventeen languages. Its first English edition is only now available, in a translation by Caterina Mongiat Farina and Geoff Farina.

We in the English-speaking world have survived thirty-seven years without “How to Write a Thesis.” Why bother with it now? After all, Eco wrote his thesis-writing manual before the advent of widespread word processing and the Internet. There are long passages devoted to quaint technologies such as note cards and address books, careful strategies for how to overcome the limitations of your local library. But the book’s enduring appeal—the reason it might interest someone whose life no longer demands the writing of anything longer than an e-mail—has little to do with the rigors of undergraduate honors requirements. Instead, it’s about what, in Eco’s rhapsodic and often funny book, the thesis represents: a magical process of self-realization, a kind of careful, curious engagement with the world that need not end in one’s early twenties. “Your thesis,” Eco foretells, “is like your first love: it will be difficult to forget.” By mastering the demands and protocols of the fusty old thesis, Eco passionately demonstrates, we become equipped for a world outside ourselves—a world of ideas, philosophies, and debates.

Eco’s career has been defined by a desire to share the rarefied concerns of academia with a broader reading public. He wrote a novel that enacted literary theory (“The Name of the Rose”) and a children’s book about atoms conscientiously objecting to their fate as war machines (“The Bomb and the General”). “How to Write a Thesis” is sparked by the wish to give any student with the desire and a respect for the process the tools for producing a rigorous and meaningful piece of writing. “A more just society,” Eco writes at the book’s outset, would be one where anyone with “true aspirations” would be supported by the state, regardless of their background or resources. Our society does not quite work that way. It is the students of privilege, the beneficiaries of the best training available, who tend to initiate and then breeze through the thesis process.

Eco walks students through the craft and rewards of sustained research, the nuances of outlining, different systems for collating one’s research notes, what to do if—per Eco’s invocation of thesis-as-first-love—you fear that someone’s made all these moves before. There are broad strategies for laying out the project’s “center” and “periphery” as well as philosophical asides about originality and attribution. “Work on a contemporary author as if he were ancient, and an ancient one as if he were contemporary,” Eco wisely advises. “You will have more fun and write a better thesis.” Other suggestions may strike the modern student as anachronistic, such as the novel idea of using an address book to keep a log of one’s sources.

But there are also old-fashioned approaches that seem more useful than ever: he recommends, for instance, a system of sortable index cards to explore a project’s potential trajectories. Moments like these make “How to Write a Thesis” feel like an instruction manual for finding one’s center in a dizzying era of information overload. Consider Eco’s caution against “the alibi of photocopies”: “A student makes hundreds of pages of photocopies and takes them home, and the manual labor he exercises in doing so gives him the impression that he possesses the work. Owning the photocopies exempts the student from actually reading them. This sort of vertigo of accumulation, a neocapitalism of information, happens to many.” Many of us suffer from an accelerated version of this nowadays, as we effortlessly bookmark links or save articles to Instapaper, satisfied with our aspiration to hoard all this new information, unsure if we will ever get around to actually dealing with it. (Eco’s not-entirely-helpful solution: read everything as soon as possible.)

But the most alluring aspect of Eco’s book is the way he imagines the community that results from any honest intellectual endeavor—the conversations you enter into across time and space, across age or hierarchy, in the spirit of free-flowing, democratic conversation. He cautions students against losing themselves down a narcissistic rabbit hole: you are not a “defrauded genius” simply because someone else has happened upon the same set of research questions. “You must overcome any shyness and have a conversation with the librarian,” he writes, “because he can offer you reliable advice that will save you much time. You must consider that the librarian (if not overworked or neurotic) is happy when he can demonstrate two things: the quality of his memory and erudition and the richness of his library, especially if it is small. The more isolated and disregarded the library, the more the librarian is consumed with sorrow for its underestimation.”

Eco captures a basic set of experiences and anxieties familiar to anyone who has written a thesis, from finding a mentor (“How to Avoid Being Exploited By Your Advisor”) to fighting through episodes of self-doubt. Ultimately, it’s the process and struggle that make a thesis a formative experience. When everything else you learned in college is marooned in the past—when you happen upon an old notebook and wonder what you spent all your time doing, since you have no recollection whatsoever of a senior-year postmodernism seminar—it is the thesis that remains, providing the once-mastered scholarly foundation that continues to authorize, decades-later, barroom observations about the late-career works of William Faulker or the Hotelling effect. (Full disclosure: I doubt that anyone on Earth can rival my mastery of John Travolta’s White Man’s Burden, owing to an idyllic Berkeley spring spent studying awful movies about race.)

In his foreword to Eco’s book, the scholar Francesco Erspamer contends that “How to Write a Thesis” continues to resonate with readers because it gets at “the very essence of the humanities.” There are certainly reasons to believe that the current crisis of the humanities owes partly to the poor job they do of explaining and justifying themselves. As critics continue to assail the prohibitive cost and possible uselessness of college—and at a time when anything that takes more than a few minutes to skim is called a “longread”—it’s understandable that devoting a small chunk of one’s frisky twenties to writing a thesis can seem a waste of time, outlandishly quaint, maybe even selfish. And, as higher education continues to bend to the logic of consumption and marketable skills, platitudes about pursuing knowledge for its own sake can seem certifiably bananas. Even from the perspective of the collegiate bureaucracy, the thesis is useful primarily as another mode of assessment, a benchmark of student achievement that’s legible and quantifiable. It’s also a great parting reminder to parents that your senior learned and achieved something.

But “How to Write a Thesis” is ultimately about much more than the leisurely pursuits of college students. Writing and research manuals such as “The Elements of Style,” “The Craft of Research,” and Turabian offer a vision of our best selves. They are exacting and exhaustive, full of protocols and standards that might seem pretentious, even strange. Acknowledging these rules, Eco would argue, allows the average person entry into a veritable universe of argument and discussion. “How to Write a Thesis,” then, isn’t just about fulfilling a degree requirement. It’s also about engaging difference and attempting a project that is seemingly impossible, humbly reckoning with “the knowledge that anyone can teach us something.” It models a kind of self-actualization, a belief in the integrity of one’s own voice.

A thesis represents an investment with an uncertain return, mostly because its life-changing aspects have to do with process. Maybe it’s the last time your most harebrained ideas will be taken seriously. Everyone deserves to feel this way. This is especially true given the stories from many college campuses about the comparatively lower number of women, first-generation students, and students of color who pursue optional thesis work. For these students, part of the challenge involves taking oneself seriously enough to ask for an unfamiliar and potentially path-altering kind of mentorship.

It’s worth thinking through Eco’s evocation of a “just society.” We might even think of the thesis, as Eco envisions it, as a formal version of the open-mindedness, care, rigor, and gusto with which we should greet every new day. It’s about committing oneself to a task that seems big and impossible. In the end, you won’t remember much beyond those final all-nighters, the gauche inside joke that sullies an acknowledgments page that only four human beings will ever read, the awkward photograph with your advisor at graduation. All that remains might be the sensation of handing your thesis to someone in the departmental office and then walking into a possibility-rich, almost-summer afternoon. It will be difficult to forget.

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Illustration by Javier Jan Karen A. Racz  Courtesy the Author

By Mary Norris

A pair of Harvard alumni on campus for commencement in 1977.

By Joshua Rothman

the book thesis

By Nathan Heller

the book thesis

By The New Yorker

The University of Tennessee, Knoxville

The graduate school, books based on the thesis/dissertation.

We realize that some students, especially in the humanities, prepare books related to their theses or dissertations. In general, it appears to be the case that electronic release of early versions of a book leads to greater sales of such books. Indeed, having an electronic work made available on the Internet, and telling a publisher that there have been a large number of electronic accesses to that work, may help you land a book contract.

Usually, books that relate to theses or dissertations turn out to be significantly different because they are revised as part of the editorial process. This makes it likely that those interested in your work will buy your book when it comes out, even if they have reviewed your thesis/dissertation.

However, since publishers vary widely in their policies, you should confer with publishers to which you are likely to submit your work prior to final submission .

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The Thesis and the Book: A Guide for First-Time Academic Authors

Edited by Eleanor Harman , Ian Montagnes , Siobhan McMenemy and Chris Bucci

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Published: May 2003

Product Details

Imprint: University of Toronto Press

Page Count: 176 Pages

Dimensions: 6.00 x 9.00

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176 Pages , 6.00 x 9.00 in

ISBN: 9781442690912

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The academic caveat Publish or Perish is not a new one, and for over a quarter of a century, The Thesis and the Book has come to the aid of graduate students in their quest for publication. The doctoral dissertation, usually the first book-length study completed by a scholar, is, however, only rarely publishable as a book. Understanding the differences between the two forms is a crucial part of one's education as a scholar and is equally important in appreciating the endeavours of scholarly publishers. The Thesis and the Book: A Guide for First-Time Academic Authors , revised and expanded in this second edition, will continue to provide the best overview of the process of revising a dissertation for publication.

Drawing on the expertise of the contributors, all of whom are editors, publishers, and scholars themselves, the chapters present the rudimentary differences between a thesis and a book (including matters of purpose and audience), give guidance on the necessary stylistic, technical, and structural revisions to the dissertation, and offer advice to first-time authors who must not only revise their work to satisfy prospective publishers, but also learn a good deal of the ins and outs of scholarly publishing.

The Thesis and the Book will continue to be of great value to graduating doctoral students seeking publication and to the faculty members who supervise these students. It will also be of value to acquisitions editors at scholarly presses, who must contend with the submission of revised dissertations for publication.

Eleanor Harman was the founding editor of Scholarly Publishing: A Journal for Authors and Publishers .

Ian Montagnes was formerly Editor-in-Chief of University of Toronto Press.

Siobhan McMenemy is an acquisitions editor at University of Toronto Press.

Chris Bucci was formerly an acquisitions editor at University of Toronto Press.

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