thesis to book: you may need to change your writing ‘voice’

Unlike thesis examiners, academic book publishers are looking for something that is, above all else, a decent read. A first book is by definition written by an author who isn’t widely known, so publishers will be particularly keen to see if they can write text that a casual browser will be attracted to.

Imagine the scenarios…. the potential reader has stumbled across the book of the thesis online and can easily get at a few pages….. the book of the thesis is on a stand at a conference and a potential reader picks it up… the book reviewer is sent the book of the thesis out of the blue. The publisher worries that a potential book of the thesis reader might want to give up after a few pages, be put off by obscure and difficult writing.

Academic publishers are not silly people. They really do understand that thesis writers often haven’t had a lot of time and support to attend to their narrative ‘voice’. They know that being readable may not have been a priority during the doctorate. And after all, it’s not as if the PhD is alone in being hard to read. It’s quite possible to go out and pick up a published book, written by a terribly smart person, and find writing that is dense and difficult. But the publisher is hoping that one of these dense tomes isn’t going to be the model for the book-of-the-thesis that they are being offered.

So what do publishers want? Well, they often have an aversion to what might be described describe as ‘thesis language’. They understand this to be:

• An over-reliance on citations and references, page after page bristling with brackets. While it is clearly important to back up and acknowledge where your work builds on that of others, it doesn’t mean listing everything you’ve read.

• The over-use of statements of intent – I am now going to – and summary – I have argued that… lots of words are taken up with explaining what is about to come and what just happened. A book reader, as opposed to a thesis examiner, is less likely to be tolerant of a surfeit of signposting.

• An excess of the passive voice. While some passives are necessary, too much creates a kind of stuffy distance. If you always write in the passive then you’ll produce a sort of pseudo-scientific style that many contemporary readers find alienating.

• Sentences are too complex. Sentences are choked with phrases and clauses separated by commas, semi-colons and colons – and/or cobbled together with conjunctions. It’s worse when there are whole paragraphs of these complex sentences strung together one after the other. This can make the reader feel is if they are swallowing cotton wool.

• Too much thingifying, too many nominalisations altogether. When you make lively little words into big abstract things, you not only hide who does what, but you also create what Helen Sword calls zombie nouns. Some nominalization is necessary to sum up the key concepts that you are working with. But you string lots of them together readers can’t work out which is actually key to your argument. You might want to watch this small clip about zombie nouns which explains this in more detail, with examples.

So the first step in finding your book, as opposed to thesis, voice is to get rid of the excesses of thesis style. You can stop doing it now, hurrah. You’re not being examined any more. These writing habits have done their job, they can now rest easy.

And, having talked about what you need to stop, in the next post I’ll look at what you might want to start doing as an alternative to thesis talk.

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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 Helen Sword, nominalisation, signposts, thesis, thingification and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to thesis to book: you may need to change your writing ‘voice’

  1. Jane S says:

    Classics and Classical studies are prone to dense soupy prose, endless sub-clauses and obfusc – but my thesis problem’s the opposite: trying to sound more academic. An ancient Roman once said, *verba volant, scripta manent,* but turning *ad vocem* into *scriptis academica* is a tricky art.

    I’m not fazed by narrowing to a precise focus; it’s actually a relief to go from the general to the particular and see something emerge. The annoyance is MS Word™’s endless nagging about ‘the passive voice.’ Word doesn’t approve of the passive, and it seems the grammar police have remote access to my thesis drafts. Although the officious observers issue cautions I have a writer’s addiction to flow, to telling a story.

    The prescribed ‘I’m going to tell you’ / ‘I’ve told you’ etc drives me insane. Signposting not only ups the total word count with unnecessary verbiage but probably encourages weary examiners to skip whole paragraphs …
    Fiction editors advise, ‘Grab ‘em on the first page – the opening sentence if you can!’ If you’re not readable, surely people give up? Esp. when they have a whole slew of scripts to get through.

    My watchword’s K.I.S.S., bearing in mind *I* know what I’m talking about but my readers may not. I also try to vary my narrative with explanation and / or illustration. There’s more to a thesis than a pedestrian monologue and Harvard inline citations or footnotes.

    BTW, Sword’s short clip on zombie nouns is brilliant. ;-)

  2. Haitham Al-Sheeshany says:

    I guess until a thesis is finished the “getting rid of the excesses of thesis style and language” would be hard. (I figured that one all on my own, yes!). Nevertheless, it is crucial to spot the differences between a thesis-embodied writing and the “other” more human writing. Looking forward to the alternative way for starting “doing” that in the next post.

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