six differences between thesis and book chapters

This post is in response to a question about chapters in books and dissertations. I do try to answer questions, although it sometimes takes a while!

There ARE some key differences between a thesis and a book chapter – here are six of the most important.

(1) The reader. The thesis chapter reader is the examiner, while the book chapter reader is someone who has either picked up and is browsing, or has bought or borrowed, an edited collection because they are generally interested in the topic. While you can rely on the thesis examiner to read the whole chapter, you have no such luxury with a book chapter reader -you must hold their interest from start to finish. The examiner has particular expectations about chapters and their form, while book chapter readers do not necessarily have firm ideas about what they will encounter. I explain this difference through the next five points.

(2) The point and the angle. Thesis chapters often deal with more than one big idea at a time. However, like a journal article, a book chapter generally deals with only one big idea and has one major point to make. Readers of book chapters will not know what you are trying to say if you try to say too much. And again like a journal article, the book chapter must have a slant that is potentially new, different, interesting. This is not the case with thesis chapters. An empirical thesis chapter for example might end up reporting much the same set of results as can be found in other people’s work, but this doesn’t matter in the overall scale of the thesis because more interesting material is found elsewhere. (But it’s good to remember that the thesis chapter with the familiar material may well be able to be reworked for a book chapter if you simply take another angle… But keep reading for the caveats about doing this.)

(3) The place in the text. The thesis chapter is not stand-alone; it can rely on work done in other chapters to make sense of the context. Depending on what the thesis chapter is about, it might depend on other chapters to locate the topic in the literatures, and establish the trustworthiness of the process used to generate the chapter material. The book chapter must do all of this work itself. Just as with a journal article, the book chapter has to situate the topic in a way that will connect with a reader no matter where they are in the world. The book chapter writer must also establish the topic’s location in the relevant policy/practice/debates/literatures (which ever is most relevant to the book) and say something about the basis on which the writer makes a claim for ‘truth’ for the argument. Then they can get on with the chapter argument proper.

(4) The connection with other chapters. Thesis chapters typically have extensive signposting at the beginning and end which signal how the self-contained internal chapter argument connects with the longer larger argument being made in the whole text. The examiner is set up, in the introduction, to understand how each chapter advances the argument overall, and what they will find as the writing proceeds. At the end, they are reminded of the key points of the chapter and given some indication of where the text goes next. The book chapter on the other hand has none of this to deal with. The writer is free to make their own connections to the overall focus of the collection, and while you may refer to other chapters, your chapter is intended to stand on its own merits. It is worth remembering that book chapters are often used for teaching purposes, and thus you can anticipate and answer the usual questions that readers will have – why this topic, what is it relevance, where does it come from, where is the argument going, so what?

(5) The length. Now this might seem like a trivial thing, but it is actually very important. Typical thesis chapters are 10 – 12,000 words long. Book chapters can be quite short – say 5,000 words – and are rarely much more than 8,000. Given that there is additional work to do in a book chapter (see 4 above) this means that there is much less in your word budget to use to make the point. It is thus important, no crucial, for you to plan the book chapter very carefully, choose examples judiciously, use quotes only where necessary, cite economically and above all else – don’t try to do too much. And don’t forget, It might seem logical that a thesis chapter can be simply converted into a book chapter, but the length issue alone means this isn’t so. Just trying to reduce a thesis chapter to book length is rather like trying to jam a week’s clothes into an overnight bag… it doesn’t fit.

(6) Conventions about tone, style and genre. While it is not uncommon for thesis writers to use non-standard forms of academic writing – autobiography, interview, extensive use of images, fiction and poetry – these are much more common in book chapters. In a thesis the writer has to explain and justify – generally quite extensively – the use of a more creative approach. However, quite often book chapters can just BE in a different genre, or provide a very brief orienting explanation of the style for the reader. Editors often appreciate the variety that is offered in a collection by having one or two chapters that ‘break the mold’; it makes it more interesting overall for readers. This is why book chapters can offer the opportunity to try out new approaches, to experiment with ‘voice’ and to write about topics that don’t fit into the thesis very neatly.

So, six reasons why the book chapter is not the same as the thesis chapter. It might seem reasonable to think that chapters from the thesis can be effortlessly turned into book chapters, but this is not necessarily the case. Good book chapter writers very often take a part of a thesis chapter as their raw material and then do a fresh version – or at the very least, a very substantial rewrite.

Other posts about book chapters:
Why write book chapters?
Is writing a book chapter a waste of time?

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About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in argument, chapter, examiner, reader, signposts and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to six differences between thesis and book chapters

  1. Jane S says:

    Dear Professor Thomson ~ I’m printing out more & more of your posts on thesis writing; enough, I figure, for a book! And certainly MUCH more use than many of the ‘How to …’ volumes on offer. Your advice is always clear, cogent and concise – very relevant for researchers, sciences or A&H, who experience (frequent) dips into the Slough of Despond. ;-)

  2. pat thomson says:

    Glad you’re finding it useful.

  3. Pingback: To be a doctor… | Katrina Kennett

  4. M-H says:

    These are important points, Pat. There are similar reasons why a thesis chapter won’t necessarily stand alone as a journal article. I don’t think that the subtleties in genres of academic writing are always well understood. I am working on two articles from my thesis at the moment: one is about an issue that I addressed one way or another in every chapter, so I can take all those ‘bits’ and bring them together in a way that says something important that was necessarily diluted in my thesis. The other is a new angle on something I wrote about abut have thought more about since, which will use some of my data in a new way. It’s hard to do this until your PhD is really over though; the thesis casts a long shadow over your thinking.

  5. Megan says:

    Thank you Pat. I knew you were the right person to ask this question. It has clarified some of my thoughts about the chapter and focused the argument.

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