Transforming a Dissertation Chapter into a Published Article

Effective thesis chapters and publishable journal submissions have important differences, so it's a matter of adaptation and not simple extraction, advise Faye Halpern and James Phelan.

August 27, 2020
 
 
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As a dissertation writer, you are extremely well positioned to produce a publishable journal article because you know the current scholarly conversations on your topic intimately and have figured out ways to intervene in them. In fact, it might seem that the journey from dissertation chapter to journal article ought to be a relaxing day trip: extract the chapter from the rest of the dissertation, delete any references to other chapters and to your new manuscript as itself a chapter, trim as necessary to fit the word limit of your chosen journal, and send it off.

You might round off the day by kicking back and rewarding yourself with an adult beverage. Such thinking is likely to feel intuitively correct because of a common way we conceive of the dissertation’s purpose: to demonstrate to already-certified members of your profession (aka your committee) that you have mastered the fundamental research skills of that profession by carrying out a well-designed and original research project.

But our experience as editors of scholarly journals has taught us that effective chapters and publishable journal submissions have important differences. Indeed, the cumulative effect of those differences makes the two modes closely related but ultimately distinct genres. Consequently, moving from chapter to article is an act not of extraction but of adaptation.

To be sure, the challenges of this generic adaptation are not as great as those involved in adaptations from one medium to another (e.g., Greta Gerwig directing Little Women), but we believe that thinking about your task as more than an extraction-cum-copyediting will increase your chances for success. In what follows, we will focus on the nexus of writer, audience and purpose in each genre in order to highlight their differences and, thus, help you identify strategies for your adaptation.

To illustrate our points, we will refer to a hypothetical dissertation within our shared field of literary studies: an investigation of the uses of unreliable narration in the British and American modernist novel that seeks to contribute to conversations within the fields of narrative theory and modernist studies. While this one example won’t represent all dissertations in all fields, we hope our commentary on it will help you think through the opportunities and challenges of your own possible adaptations.

Audiences: In-House/Out in the Field

Attending to audience helps identify what are paradoxically the most subtle and most significant differences between the genres -- subtle because their effects are easy to miss, significant because they influence so many other properties of the two genres. You write your dissertation chapters for your committee members, and you write your journal articles for a much larger audience of scholars in your field, most of whom don’t know you from Adam. Since your committee members are representatives of your field, you have reasons to think that writing for them shouldn’t be different from writing for the audience of a scholarly journal. If your committee members judge your work highly, won’t readers for journal articles do the same?

As the adage has it, appearances are deceiving, and thus the answer is “not necessarily.” Your committee members do not apply the same standards to your chapters that they do to others’ journal articles, and readers for journals will not apply the standards of your committee members to your submissions. Understanding why opens up the differences between the two genres.

Let us return to the purpose of the dissertation: to demonstrate to already-certified members of your profession that you have mastered the fundamental research skills of that profession by carrying out a well-designed and original research project. In contrast, the purpose of a journal article is to make a contribution to scholarly conversations about significant issues in a given field that substantially alters the dimensions, directions or stakes of those conversations.

Again, the differences may appear insignificant, but thinking about them, first from your perspective as writer and then from the perspective of your committee members as readers, uncovers their importance. From your perspective, one of the main challenges of writing a dissertation is that you’ve never written one before. Consequently, you’re undertaking a task that you learn how to do only by doing it, a situation that puts you in the Kafkaesque position of being fully ready to write your dissertation only after you’ve finished it. What is true of the dissertation is also true of its individual chapters. It’s therefore unlikely that a simple extraction will be sufficient.

In addition, the criteria for assessing quality in each genre aren’t exactly the same. Your committee members apply three main criteria: 1) Does the chapter answer the so-what question and thus make a worthwhile contribution to the relevant scholarly conversations? 2) Does it demonstrate that you have acquired the skills -- from doing thorough research to analyzing your objects of study to marshaling these materials into a coherent argument -- to do publishable research? and 3) Does it fit well with the rest of the dissertation? For journal reviewers, the question of fit is off the table, and the demonstration of skills is simply a necessary condition. Thus, their main criterion is the answer to the so-what question, and they put an even greater premium on the significance of your answer.

Suppose the writer of our hypothetical dissertation seeks to adapt a chapter on Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms that traces the evolution of Frederic Henry’s narration from unreliable to reliable and concludes with a few paragraphs linking this evolution to Hemingway’s innovations with the genre of narrative tragedy. The writer’s committee has applauded the chapter for its insightful close readings of the narration, its move from the fine-grained analyses to a big-picture argument, and its fit with the larger dissertation because it shows how Hemingway adds a distinctive use of unreliability within the period.

But to make the work publishable, the writer would need to adapt the chapter so that it clearly identifies both its central question(s) and the significance of its response to the so-what question. Perhaps the writer would shift the focus so that the dominant question is about Hemingway’s generic innovation with narrative tragedy, creating the need to give more prominence to his handling of the plot. Perhaps the writer would decide to offer a direct comparison/contrast between Hemingway’s handling of unreliability and, say, William Faulkner’s. This shift would of course involve drawing on material from the chapter on Faulkner, but it would also mean deciding on whether to use that material primarily in the service of highlighting Hemingway’s technique or to give it equal standing and thus seek mutual illumination.

The writer’s choices about the central question(s) would also have consequences for how they make the case for the significance of their intervention. Guided by the need to establish that significance, the writer would adjust their treatment of work by other scholars, engaging more or less fully with those discussed in the chapter and even perhaps bringing others into the conversation.

Core Argument: Interdependence/Self-Sufficiency

Since an effective chapter is well integrated into the larger argument of your whole dissertation, it is interdependent with other chapters. Since a journal article, by contrast, is a stand-alone entity, you need to find strategies to move from interdependence to self-sufficiency.

A first step, as noted above, is to identify the presuppositions or ideas from other chapters you and your committee members bring to this one. A second is to identify the elements of the chapter that tie it to the rest of the dissertation. These elements may be extended passages or allusions to what comes before or after, or, indeed, things taken for granted because already discussed.

A third step follows closely from the second: examining whether those elements are crucial to your case for the specific contribution you want the journal article to make. If so, then you need to find a way to include them that will be clear to readers who are not part of your dissertation conversation. If not, you obviously need to delete them, but you should also ask whether deletion by itself will be enough. Perhaps it will reveal a hole that must be filled with other material so the adaptation results in a self-sufficient argument that makes a substantial intervention.

Suppose the writer of the hypothetical dissertation decides to do the comparison-contrast between Hemingway and Faulkner in order to provide mutual illumination. The writer would need to do at least the following: draw on material from the dissertation’s introduction that stakes out the writer’s position in the debates about unreliability, select and refashion material from both the Hemingway and Faulkner chapters to fit the new purposes of the essay, and cut back on the discussions of material not directly related to each author’s use of unreliability. As the writer made these revisions, they would be guided by their purpose of changing conversations about Hemingway’s and Faulkner’s handling of narrative technique.

Voice: Other Scholars’/Yours

What about the dissertation chapter whose contribution to the whole involves a recognizably distinct intervention in a scholarly conversation? Even then, there might be salient differences between the two genres. Journal articles need to let readers know within the first one or two pages what their scholarly intervention is, whereas dissertation chapters often spend many pages laying out what other scholars have said before turning to how they add to that conversation.

Why? Dissertations want you to give equal weight to two sometimes conflicting aims: 1) demonstrating you know the field and 2) making a contribution to it. In demonstrating you know what previous scholars have said (which might also, as an apprentice scholar, feel like paying necessary homage to the leading lights in your field), you are allowed to sideline your own voice for long stretches.

The case is different for journal articles. Even as it’s crucial for you to situate yourself within conversations among other scholars, your voice needs to ring out loud and clear from beginning to end.

In another article, we've recommended thinking of the introduction to a journal article as requiring a “hook and an I”: authors need to provide a scholarly context that allows readers to see how the author’s own intervention advances the field. We cautioned against ignoring one in favor of the other. In adapting a dissertation chapter, you’re more likely to have favored the hook, so you need to emphasize the “I.”

Beyond the introduction, journal articles need you to refer throughout to what other scholars have said concerning different points you make -- you need a hook line -- but you should keep your voice prominent as you play out that line. Strategies include shaping summaries of other scholars’ arguments to highlight your difference from them and using footnotes rather than the body of your essay to bring in work that is related to but not as directly pertinent to your argument. Dissertations allow you to sideline your own voice in other ways. Dissertation chapters often include a myriad of examples. One of us, Faye, has a friend in a history department who told her that she took great pains to include examples from different primary sources to support each claim she made. She carefully chose these examples to demonstrate to her committee members that she had visited many different historical archives, and they were duly impressed.

But journal reviewers of an extracted chapter would be far less impressed. They don’t need you to prove you have done the research. Instead, they need to understand what your argument is and how it offers a substantial answer to the so-what question. If you think of your examples less as a means to underline your argument and more as occasions to advance it, you will be better able to decide how many -- and which ones -- to use.

Scope: For a Chapter/For an Article

Dissertation chapters and journal articles often differ in the scope of their concerns and in the size of the claims they make about their respective arguments. Many dissertations produce their scholarly intervention more at the level of the whole project than at the level of individual chapters. Because chapters are not stand-alone pieces, they can have diverse functions -- some of which have little to do with making a scholarly intervention of the kind found in journal articles. Some chapters can be devoted to providing methodological or theoretical groundwork, others to extending a previous argument by treating more examples that support it. Indeed, when the dissertation makes its intervention through the cumulative weight of the whole, it may not have a single chapter that directly attempts to meet the criteria for journal articles.

Ah, you might think, in that case I’ll just condense my whole dissertation into an article-length piece. But the result is often that no aspect of the article gets sufficient time, leaving reviewers scratching their heads at the leaps in logic and turning up their noses at the inevitably superficial consideration of examples. Your dissertation does more, as a whole, than any journal article, but a single journal article does more than any individual chapter.

We advise a different strategy. Rather than shrink your dissertation to fit, isolate and expand. What are the smaller, original claims you make along the way to making the big one? Maybe you can flesh out one of those claims and clarify its significance by elaborating on the evidence that supports it and bringing in new evidence. Conversely, maybe you have a striking piece of evidence you use in your dissertation that can be analyzed to yield a substantial claim that you hadn’t yet considered.

Your dissertation is not a display case for a single fully formed diamond. It’s a storeroom of gems in various stages of processing, and you are the lapidary.

Fit: For the Dissertation/For the Journal

Finally, although the dissertation gives you the freedom to choose the scholarly conversations you want to respond to, submitting a portion of it to a journal requires finding a match between your choices and the scope of the journal. More often than not, finding that match will involve some adjustment of your chapter.

Suppose the writer of our hypothetical dissertation wanted to submit something to Narrative. Doing so makes good sense because unreliability, a narrative technique that has generated considerable scholarly debate, is a topic of interest to the journal’s readers. But the hypothetical chapter would need to be revised before it would fit with the journal’s mission, which is to publish work that sets up two-way traffic between narrative theory and interpretation.

Consequently, the writer’s submission would need to do more than analyze Hemingway’s uses of unreliability. It would need to link those analyses with one or more issues in the debate about unreliability and indicate how Hemingway’s practice warrants some revisions or extensions of particular positions in the debate, or even perhaps opens up new ways of thinking about unreliability.

We close with a personal anecdote about what we call Genre Conflation Syndrome, the more general condition underlying the assumption that chapters and articles belong to the same genre. Faye vividly remembers the comments an external reader gave her about what she thought was the clever opening of an article she had submitted to a journal. The opening subtly parodied the esoteric, jargon-laden voice of expertise that, in her view, scholars in writing programs often adopted in order to persuade faculty in other disciplines to listen to what they had to say -- a voice she argued in the rest of the article against adopting. The problem was that readers of the article, acting in good faith, put time into struggling to understand this parody, only to find out they needn’t have bothered. The external reader described feeling manipulated and disinclined to trust the author for the rest of the article (which the reader ultimately advised rejecting).

Faye was baffled: it had worked so well as the opening of a talk! She conflated the genres by assuming that talks are just like articles, just shorter and with fewer examples. It was only after Faye thought through the differences in audiences and purposes between talks and articles (e.g., that talks, paradoxically, have more room for an extended display of wit) that she was able to make the adaptations necessary to turn the talk into an article.

We hope our reflections here will enable you to successfully engage in the necessary generic adaptations as you move from chapter to article -- and that such success will inoculate you against any future bouts of Genre Conflation Syndrome.

Bio

Faye Halpern is an associate professor at the University of Calgary and co-editor of ARIEL: A Review of International English Literature. James Phelan is Distinguished University Professor of English at Ohio State University and has been editing Narrative since 1992.

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