On redrafting the dissertation

Writing a book is hard. Converting a PhD dissertation into a text which people might want to read for purposes other than assessing a candidate’s worthiness for being given a PhD is possibly harder than writing a book from scratch (this is supposition on my part and I will not be held to it in a court of law), given that there’s a strong temptation to keep as much of the original text even though a lot of that text could be described as “functionally written for the purposes of being given a PhD” (that’s me quoting me, by the way).

At the moment my hands are cold, which seems particularly unfair, because it’s my birthday and I thought by the age of thirty-six I’d be living in insulated housing. I mention this because it’s a complete non sequitur designed to move from one problem to another. Because the other problem with converting a thesis into a book is the constant feeling that most of it is written, when, really, it isn’t. The dissertation gives me a nice structure to work with, and the arguments are all developed, but the book should say/do more than the thesis, otherwise, for the reader, what’s the point?

So, in order to say/do more, I have, over the last two months, been reading and rereading a significant (and hopefully representative) proportion of the academic literature on conspiracy theories. There are things to be said about that literature, which hopefully I will be able to express more verbosely than what I am currently doing, which is shouting “Why are you so confused?” whenever I look at my database of reference materials.

What I can say is that my new reading of the literature confirms some of my previously expressed worries, thus giving me more citations to illustrate said concerns. On occasion, I even have found a nice turn of phrase which supports some argument I had already made.1. All of which is nice and feels remarkably like work, even though the writing I am currently doing is really cut-and-pasting my notes in between sections of the old PhD.

One benefit (of many, probably) to having a nice (and peer-reviewed) structure to the book already in place is that it’s easy to work out, approximately, where new material should go and where to place these nice turns of phrases. With the exception of three chapters (of eight), the book is mostly readable. Sure, there are moments where the text becomes heavy with quotes sans much in the way of commentary, but those moments will, in the next six months, become largely indistinguishable from the rest of the text.

However, therein lies the danger, once again, of the dissertation being the backbone of the book; it’s mightily tempting to write the new sections in the style of the old (a style which is dry and lacking in excitement; a style which is perfect for a PhD but lacking in the kind of joy you might expect of someone’s first book).

Which leads to problem number three. Because I wrote my dissertation in TeX I have an awful lot of hashed out text in my thesis, some of which are the ancient ruins of great ideas whilst others are the degenerating results of badly chosen paradigms. Some of the hashed out material is material I never got around to finishing, a lot of which turned out to be tangential to the goal of completing a succinct, snappy PhD. I have been resurrecting some of these lost ideas, which at first felt good, until I started finding the comments from my supervisors.

Like any good scholar, I keep a record of feedback on my work. Should I want to revisit something, then I can quickly learn why I might have discarded the idea in the first place. Some of the tangents in my PhD have associated hashed out notes from my supervisors and, frankly, the experience of reading those pieces of feedback are (not always) associated with a visceral feeling of the last few months of finishing the PhD, when I just wanted to roar constantly:

“WHY DOES NO ONE APPRECIATE MY GENIUS!”

Like any good scholar, I should appreciate criticism. Outside of my PhD work I can take criticism with grace and just a little charm, but the memory of those last few months of being a PhD candidate still loom large and those comments, helpfully left in by past-Matthew, rankle current-Matthew so much that I have decided to leave them in place for future-Matthew to deal with.

Which kind of makes me out to be (even more of) blight on my own existence, doesn’t it?

Notes

  1. Sometimes these turns of phrases are things I could never have read prior to the thesis being submitted (mostly because they post-date September 2011), and sometimes they are things I could have (and in one case, should have) read but I never got around to it. Not because of laziness (well, not necessarily because of laziness), you understand. There’s only so much material you can read before you have to start writing.

About Matthew Dentith

Author of "The Philosophy of Conspiracy Theories" (Palgrave Macmillan), Matthew Dentith wrote his PhD on epistemic issues surrounding belief in conspiracy theories. He is a frequent media commentator on the weird and the wonderful, both locally and internationally. On occasion he can be caught dreaming about wax lions but, mostly, it is rumoured he works for elements of the New World Order.

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