Writing a First Book that isn’t based on your PhD Thesis?

For an embarrassingly long time, I’ve been meaning to write a post about publishing a first book that isn’t based on your thesis, and I’ve been giving myself the excuse that my book wasn’t really done yet, not quite …. but now it’s not only done but also out, I’ve run out of excuses.

The book is Female Desire in Chaucer’s Legend of Good Women and Middle English Romance; it’s currently on offer at Boydell (until 31st December 2020), with the code BB135. This isn’t a post to publicise the book (I’ll probably do one later), but please feel free to recommend to your library etc. The reason for this post is that publishing a first book is quite daunting, and there are a lot of things I wish I’d known earlier on. I love to recommend Laura Varnam’s tips on publishing, which have been absolutely invaluable to me. However, there’s one aspect of the first book experience that rarely gets talked about, simply because it’s not the norm: and that’s publishing a first book that isn’t based on your PhD.

Most people in Arts subjects publish a first book that’s based on at least some aspect of their PhD. Often, it’s the same broad argument with bits tidied up, with maybe a wayward chapter quietly discarded or a new case study brought in. Almost always, it is at least recognisably related to the PhD thesis. This makes obvious sense: a PhD is roughly book-length and roughly book-shaped (though William Germano’s excellent From Dissertation to Book is very helpful in showing why an unvarnished thesis is usually really really not yet a book). Given the pressure to develop a publication record asap, publishing from your dissertation could seem like a no-brainer. I’m very glad I didn’t, though, and so I wanted to write about what I did instead and what I got out of it.

So should you try to write a first book that isn’t your thesis? For me it was a gradual decision, and here are five of the questions that nagged away at me. I think if I’d weighed them up more consciously, I might have come to a decision faster. After that, I’ve listed four things I think worked really well for me, taking this route.

1) ‘It’ll take much, much longer than you think’.
It did! So many people said this to me. It’s absolutely true advice: I graduated from my PhD in 2014, and my book came out in September 2020. That’s a six year gap. I was only employed full-time for three of those years (and the third year I was contracted to be working on something else, so book-related time had to come out of my own pocket), so it’s not a super-slow publication time. But undeniably, people do get first books out much faster than this, and it is (obviously!) very good for your CV if you can.

What I needed to take into consideration was the way I was paying my bills. My first job was teaching-heavy. I had to write 40 hours of new lectures in the first year, and I re-wrote a lot for the second and third years. That’s a lot of words on the page, and since I could pretty much choose my topics (you may not always be able to do this, but if you can, it’s a gift), it meant by the end of my first year in my job I had roughly a book-length set of lectures. A lecture isn’t a book chapter, but it is a good building block. All of my chapters have been parts of lectures at one time or another, and listening to students interacting with what I was saying was hugely helpful in working out what I wanted to write about and how I thought this book might fit together with wider conversations in medieval studies and English literature. All things that are, in my view, a lot harder to do with a PhD.

Writing from lectures into a book is great, because when you give a lecture, you are there to keep people’s attention, and the presumption is you know (or should know) what you are talking about. You therefore get in the habit of speaking with at least some authority, and being at least reasonably entertaining or lucid … or you see the audience falling asleep. If you get into the habit of drafting lectures that hit the mark, you can translate this into the style of the book. The first thing everyone tells you when you try to rewrite your PhD thesis into a book is that you need to ditch the lit review, the sentences that start ‘It could be argued that …’ and the equivocatory paragraphs of careful acknowledgment of every single other academic point of view on the subject since 1848. It’s not fair to say that all PhD theses are stylistically dull, or nervously written, but those are known risks of the genre. You can more easily avoid them if you’re not writing a book based on a thesis.

Takeaway: yes, it’ll take longer than you think, but if you have a teaching-heavy job where you need to create a lot of content, it might be a good use of time; if you worry you’ll never be able to write excitingly about the subject again (PhD fatigue is common!), it might also be a welcome change.

2) ‘Won’t people think there’s something wrong with your PhD?’

This bothered me for a long time (both because I thought other people might assume my PhD was a crashing failure, and because I was secretly worried it really was). I don’t love my thesis; I’m not keen to publish from it (though I think it would be a very sensible strategy to bang out a couple of PhD based articles early in the process of writing a non-PhD first book). But I hugely valued what I learned about myself as a researcher while I did it, and I still have the skills it taught me. But actually, no one has ever asked me if something catastrophic happened with my PhD, and nothing really did. Like your GCSE results, it turns out that PhD theses are one of those things people care about much less than you think once you’ve finished them.

3) ‘You’ll have to write the whole thing before you find a publisher.’

This one is worth including because I’ve found a lot of new PhDs don’t realise you don’t have to do this. Some large and fancy publishers (CUP, for example) do expect you to finish the whole manuscript before they’ll even consider you. But others don’t. My publisher is Boydell and Brewer, who were quite happy to give me a contract based on two sample chapters and a detailed proposal describing what the other chapters were going to be about. I cannot stress enough that this isn’t a binding promise: as is probably pretty clear, I didn’t finalise parts of my argument until very late on. I think (publishers/editors might disagree, I don’t know!) that the idea of this proposal is at least in part to demonstrate that you’ve got something that sounds feasible and sensible, rather than to give a cast-iron promise of content.

I got my contract in 2017; in retrospect, I should have submitted a proposal earlier, because it’s not that difficult to do, and in terms of labour expenditure, it’s not very different from a large job application. Getting a contract early on is useful in CV terms; it’s also useful in itself. For me, the whole process of publishing like this was helpful: I got detailed feedback on my initial submission of two chapters; I got more feedback on the full manuscript, and altogether I wrote a better book because potential problems and weaknesses were headed off at the early stages. You could easily hedge your bets if you were still deciding between publishing from the PhD or from new work by, say, writing one journal article (lightly tweaked into a chapter) and one chapter, and submitting a speculative proposal. At worst, you’ll still get helpful feedback that’ll give some sense of the validity of the new project.

4) ‘How do you know that idea can be turned into a book?’

This one is scary. During your PhD, you get incremental reassurance that you are broadly on the right track. Someone admitted you to the programme; someone reassessed you midway through; you met your supervisors regularly or irregularly; you passed your viva. During that period, people keep insisting you justify what the central idea of this thesis is. It is easy to feel that you need confirmation of the validity of what you’re doing, and that if you choose a wrong topic, it would be catastrophic.

This one is easy to solve, though. You can build your own incremental reassurance about your new book – you present at conferences, you write articles, you lecture on it, you get a friend to read a chapter. The feedback on a proposal to a publisher is incremental reassurance, too. I wrote my first book-related article in 2016-17, and I wish I’d been brave enough to do it earlier (it’s a cracking article IMHO; I enjoyed writing it). You could also blog about your work; I did this a lot early on and I really recommend it. You own the copyright to what you blog (as should be obvious); in my experience it is far less likely to be ‘stolen’ than a conference paper (or, worse, those conversations in conference breaks, which people can lift without even noticing they’ve done it, and it’s absolutely gutting when they do).

Testing your ideas like this is quite liberating. A deadline like a lecture or a conference paper is great for forcing you to shape your ideas into something that is coherent for now. The important thing is that it’s persuasive: the argument hangs together, and if there’s something uncertain, you acknowledge it front and centre (‘do we think The Legend of Good Women is celebrating women, or not? I don’t know yet!’). It needn’t be the finished version; you might change your mind (that drove my supervisors nuts, because I change my mind a lot). And that leads on to …

5) ‘But why would you want to waste what you learned during the PhD?’

Obviously (I hope!) I don’t think I did waste what I learned. But I also think that the PhD and me didn’t quite get along.

Personally (and this may be a bit of a dyslexic thing), I would say that writing a book on my own was actually more suited to my thinking style than a PhD. I loved my PhD supervisions; they kept me feeling energised during what was in retrospect quite a difficult personal time, and they were fun. My supervisors were great, and they taught me a huge amount. But it always felt a little bit as if the cogs weren’t all quite meshing. I remember my supervisor, one time quite close to my viva, saying slightly bemusedly ‘you know, I still don’t really think I know what this thesis is about‘. It’s true I swapped supervisors mid-PhD (which isn’t great for this sort of continuity), but the basic problem here was that I’m not actually great at knowing what I’m leading up towards until I’ve written my way there. It’s not a good trait in a student: it must be a bloody nightmare supervising someone who is doggedly fairly convinced they’re onto something, but who is unable to tell you exactly what it is or why.

PhD programmes require you to plan; they are based on the premise that you propose a topic or a question, and you spend three or four years answering it. It’s often a thinly-disguised fiction, of course: people change their ideas and their questions shift, but we still cling to the idea that there’s a sequence to be followed.

I found it helpful to break away from this structure. It was very low-stakes at first: I just thought I had an idea about Chaucer’s Legend, so I tried it out in a lecture and then worked it up into that first article. Then I chipped away at other ideas. I found that the first thing I knew was that I was going to write about Chaucer’s Legend, and that this also needed to be about Middle English romance. So, for symmetry, I knew I’d want three chapters on the Legend paired up with three on romances. Choosing how to cover most of the Legend in three chapters, and how to pick the romances, wasn’t something I finalised for a while. Now, if that were a PhD proposal, it’d be a non-starter. You cannot simply say ‘I like these texts and I’m fairly sure I can make a coherent argument them’. But that’s how it worked for me, and that’s fine. I realised later on that I tend to think from small to large; I gravitate towards texts or examples without quite articulating why, and the more close analysis I do, the more I find a big picture is emerging. The nice thing about writing a first book on my own was that I could do this without being accountable to anyone. As long as my lecture (or conference paper, or article) made sense as a unit, it didn’t matter that the big picture didn’t come together until pretty late on. I had the freedom to explore ideas without having to make my thought process as linear as PhD programmes often seem to want to be.

So much for the nagging questions: what about the good things?

1) I do not have ‘difficult second album’ syndrome. This was the difficult second album – and now, I feel fairly confident about writing a book that didn’t start out as a PhD, because, well, I’ve already done it. I am really enjoying writing my new book.

2) I got to work on something I really loved and enjoyed through some of the scariest bits of being ECR. I know some people love their theses even when they are polishing them up into first books, but honestly … most people feel at least a tiny bit exhausted, even (dare we say?) depressed by the prospect of looking at all of this material yet again.

3) I got to get to know a whole new network of academics while I was writing. I think this is such a great thing about starting a new project: you can jump in, chat to everyone, go to new conferences, branch out – and I think for me it made the transition from PhD to first job much, much easier. I discovered conferences I’d never been to (like GMS and NCS); I found the lovely friendly network of queerdievalists and found some of the people whose work I value the most.

4) It gave me confidence to write on something canonical, and something polemical. For all sorts of reasons (hello, gender-related imposter syndrome …), it never occurred to me during my pre-PhD days that I could be entitled to work on something as central as Chaucer. I subconsciously categorised it as something that belonged to much more erudite, well-respected (male) PhD students: people who felt they belonged in academia. So it never occurred to me to try to get into that world. But at the same time, I didn’t want to risk working on gender and sexuality: I’d heard a few too many sneery comments about that, and I felt I had to do something ‘serious’ to prove myself. The space between those two positions was quite narrow! But, because I started writing my book while I was lecturing, I was spending most of my time thinking about canonical texts, and I could see a clear ethical reason for teaching students from feminist and gender studies perspectives. That gave me a lot of confidence to write a book that’s much more centrally positioned and much more theoretically informed than the book of my thesis would have been.

So there we are. I hope this post is helpful. I had a great time writing my book, and I hope that comes through!