Short, snappy; bellicose

Have you ever read a PhD dissertation? For fun, rather than profit, say? As pieces of written work, PhDs are not pretty or elegant. At best, a PhD dissertation can be succinct. At worst, perfunctory. Actually, I suspect at worst they can be largely unreadable (where “at worst” I am referring to something which qualified the candidate to graduate), but let’s be kind and not cruel to those poor souls who have suffered through the last six weeks of completing a PhD. Frankly, if towards the end of writing a PhD someone can produce a sequence of words which obeys some cousin of grammar, well, that’s a triumph!

PhDs are readable in the same way a good instruction manual is. It’s a form of writing that both tells you what you want to know (and doesn’t linger on irrelevant details) and one that screams out “Give me a PhD! I’m bloody brilliant! And also slightly anxious that everyone is going to work out I’m a fraud…”

You wouldn’t buy an instruction manual, though, would you? Not for the sheer pleasure of reading it. ((I realise that, having typed this, it will turn out at least one of you enjoys the genre of the “instructional manual”. I apologise, but that’s very sad.)) In the same respect, you don’t tend to choose to read a PhD unless you really have to. This, I believe, is one of the reasons many publishing houses reject “thesis conversions”: the amount of work required to make a dissertation readable is…

Well, it’s more than I expected.

Sounds like whinging, doesn’t it? Poor me and my book contract. Wah! And it is whinging, but it’s interesting whinging (well, that’s my gloss on it), because there’s a lesson to be learnt about rewriting a PhD that I’m just not getting.

Hopefully by writing about it, I’ll get around to taking my own advice.

My PhD, “In defence of conspiracy theories” is a coherent argument, written in a style which, although readable, is perfunctory. The forthcoming book, “The Philosophy of Conspiracy Theories” needs to be bright, it needs to be cheery and it needs to breezy (as well as coherent and well-argued). It will have the same basic structure as the dissertation upon which it is based, but with the added luxury of fifteen thousand more words. Most of the new material is new and novel content–the kind of thing which, if I wasn’t writing a book, I’d be writing up as articles. ((I’m still likely to write some of it up as articles, since the new material will be quite sketchy in the book. Hurrah for academic foreshadowing.))

Currently I am tinkering with the inherited prose from my PhD. Sometimes this works: there are a lot of redundant paragraphs in “In defence of conspiracy theories” and I must admit to, on occasion, describing an issue in excruciating detail. The downside to this approach is, though, that most days I will spend three or four hours hacking the PhD to pieces when more profit would have been had by writing an entirely new section covering the same points.

Think of the issue this way (I keep trying to tell myself): the dissertation was written in thesis-speak–a perfunctory, award-me-a-PhD style of writing–and converting thesis-speak into (possibly award winning) prose is like trying to turn an instruction manual into a novel.

At the moment elements of “The Philosophy of Conspiracy Theories” reads like the Dan Brown version of academic writing.

The easiest way to avoid this trap would be (I keep telling myself) to write everything from scratch, following the general structure of the thesis, in a breezier style. But, psychologically-speaking, this is hard. I mean, I already have tens of thousands of pre-written material. Why wouldn’t I want to reuse those?

Why would I want to jettison my children into the cold, hard vacuum of space?

Well, because those words are awkward, that’s why. They look especially out of place compared to the newly written sections. I keep telling myself “Rewrite! Rewrite! Rewrite!” and yet I can’t stomach the thought of throwing away sentences I (in some cases literally) cried over.

This really is a problem.


gregdl says:

The process i’ve used for re-writing things (often drastically) is to print out the draft I’m revising from (or put on a second screen) [which may have annotations, comments, etc for next drafts] and then physically *re-type* everything. I found I was much more cognizant of everything than if I was working in a computer window and typing around previously written things, or cutting & pasting.

That’s a nice idea, actually. I might try that with the current chapter.

gregdl says:

I should say I stole that method from Eviatar Zerubavel’s The Clockwork Muse book about writing (