Thesis vs book

13 May 2013

In my previous post, I asserted that ‘a thesis is not a book’ without offering any grounds for this claim. In this post I shall substantiate my claim by describing and commenting on the main differences between a typical thesis and a good scholarly book. Obviously, some theses are more book-like than others while a fair few academic books are not particularly good in their scholarship and/or in their authorship.



Thesis: To test the student’s competence and establish academic credentials.

Book: To communicate ideas/research results.

Comment: The difference in purpose, as in author and readership (below), means that the thesis and monograph are profoundly different.


Thesis: Often book-like but usually amateur in appearance.

Book: It is a book and normally is produced to professional publishing standards.

Comment: Producing a book-like thesis is risky but may be unavoidable. My previous post explores this issue.


Thesis: Often a lower limit, but not always an upper limit (sometimes the assumption being that the greater length, the greater the scholarship).

Book: Limited by market forces (printing cost, shipping weight, retail price, reader expectations, etc.)

Comment: The whole issue of book length (and word count) is explored here.


Thesis: Student (writing to pass scrutiny and assert academic credibility).

Book: Writer (aiming to communicate but with obligations to readers).

Comment: Arguably, the student is an involuntary author whereas the writer has choice (but that is to deny the enduring power of the old adage ‘publish or perish’; teachers have other obligations but researchers especially are chained to a publication treadmill).


Thesis: Panel of examiners tasked to evaluate the student.

Book: Colleagues and anyone else interested in the subject and in learning.

Comment: The difference in readership (between a group that is known and self-contained and one that is amorphous, undefinable and largely anonymous) is subtle but means that the thesis and monograph are profoundly different.

Focus on

Thesis: Author (the student, who is being examined).

Book: Reader.

Comment: Again, the difference in orientation creates a subtle but profound difference between thesis and book.


Thesis: Exposition required (to demonstrate knowledge).

Book: Absorbed and built on (to frame discourse).

Comment: Theoretical framework is not the only issue here but it is a major one that I explore in greater detail here.


Thesis: Defensive exposition (to panel of examiners).

Book: Open disclosure (‘selling’ an argument/research results to often unknown and possibly sceptical peers).

Comment: Another reason for the subtle but profound difference between thesis and book.

Treatment of subject

Thesis: Often highly technical and very detailed.

Book: Avoids unnecessary technical detail.

Comment: Many factors are at play here, not only length and approach (as above) but also things like how experienced the author is as a writer. That said, remember that we are comparing the typical thesis and a good scholarly book; there are plenty of experienced authors with an obsession with detail.


Thesis: Often obscure, abstract and heavy on jargon.

Book: Clear with judicious use of technical terms where needed.

Comment: As per treatment of subject (above) but substitute ‘impenetrable prose’ for ‘an obsession with detail’.


Thesis: Often progressive recitation (along a preordained railway track).

Book: Organic unity, with narrative thread drawing the disparate elements together.

Comment: Arguably, the difference is more about the author’s skills and experience as a writer than any inherent distinction between thesis and book.

Narrative flow

Thesis: Orderly exposition but argument not built; often excessive signposting.

Book: Builds argument, linking chapters with subtlety; has pace and momentum.

Comment: As per structure (above), i.e. more about the writing skills and experience (less likely among new authors).


Thesis: Often ends quite abruptly.

Book: Wrapped by conclusions.

Comment: Structure and narrative flow (above), hence writing skills and experience, are usually at work here.


Thesis: Detailed description required.

Book: Description only if and when relevant.

Comment: Methodology has much the same role as theory – see scholarship (above).


Thesis: Often far more than strictly necessary.

Book: Only what is necessary.

Comment: Excessive referencing is typical of the ‘exam bunker’ mentality found in many theses but is not unknown among experienced authors. Unfortunately, every citation is a ‘speed bump’, reducing the readability of a text.


Thesis: Necessary, often extensive.

Book: Limited use.

Comment: Also typical of the ‘exam bunker’ mentality is excessive quoting of the work of other scholars (both in length and frequency). Usually, students can get away with this in a thesis but the same excess in a published work (whether a book or article) could provoke accusations of breach of copyright and ‘fair use’.

Evaluation before completion

Thesis: Feedback from supervisor; final assessment by panel of examiners.

Book: Publisher’s commercial assessment, peer-review process and editorial input.

Comment: The difference in part relates to readership (above) but never assume that the commercial interests of a publisher and the academic needs of an author are completely aligned (far from it). A detailed description of editorial input begins here.

Evaluation afterwards

Thesis: Formal defence.

Book: Reviews published in journals and other external forums.

Comment: As per evaluation beforehand (above), readership plays a part but ultimately purpose (above) is especially important here.


Where now?

As you can see, there are differences between a typical thesis and a good scholarly book. However, every thesis is different, likewise every monograph. The question is, then, where does your thesis fit in this matrix and what do you need to do to transform it into a career-building book?

Time to put on your analyst’s hat and start planning. In a subsequent post, I shall follow this process.

How much can you change at proofing?

4 March 2010

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the mental shift required of authors in the transition from editing their manuscript to typesetting their book, of the need to let go, give their book its freedom. However, sometimes this shift only truly comes at the proofing stage when the author suffers a rude awakening about what changes are actually allowed. Suddenly, there is heard the discordant sound of money being demanded with menaces.

How can this be?

Typesetters must be paid

Today, more likely than not, the typesetter of your book isn’t someone beavering away in a dungeon beneath your editor’s executive suite. Rather, he is a freelancer whose office looks out on cows and crops somewhere out in the countryside or an employee of one of the big Indian outsourcing firms in an industrial park on the outskirts of Chennai. Either way, the typesetter is paid for his work – and often on a per-page basis, not by the hour.

(See here for more about typesetters – and designers – and how they tick.)

In these circumstances, it is hardly surprising that typesetters try to avoid being saddled with extra, unpaid work by threatening publishers with penalty charges. In turn, to protect itself, the press will seek to pass responsibility for any such costs over to the author.

Contractual consequences

Has your contract a clause something like this?

If so, you are in good company. This sort of wording is pretty standard among publishers. Indeed, sometimes it can all get quite mathematical. The terms of a contract may well include a maximum amount of proof corrections that authors can make at the publisher’s expense. Anything over and above that level will be charged back to them. What of course the press is doing here is to protect itself against any extra charges levied by the typesetter for ‘unnecessary’ changes.

While most publishers would accept some changes, please bear in mind that alterations to proofs are time-consuming, costly and can introduce further errors. Many typesetters thus charge publishers for every single correction apart from those that relate to fixing typesetting errors, not least those arising from the file conversion, as we have seen. (Not even typos are exempt; after all, these should have been picked up during copy-editing.) Charges can escalate rapidly, and eventually (as seen above) your own pocket could be at risk.

Proofing on a short leash

Perhaps because she doesn’t feel comfortable with this situation, your production editor is likely to work hard to avoid any possibility of such charges raising their ugly heads. Pre-emptively, she will do this by clamping down hard on what changes you are allowed to make to the proofs.

Arguably, this is quite reasonable. The time for resolving ifs and maybes was in the writing phase. Clarifications, restructuring and polishing your text belonged to editing, likewise any last-minute content changes. Thereafter, it is only reasonable to expect that the text delivered for typesetting is final. Consequently, your job now is only to correct any typesetting errors but otherwise to make no changes.

That’s all very well and good but, out in the real (scholarly) world, something pertinent to your text may well have happened that absolutely must be mentioned in your book, or there could be typos and factual errors that (true) should have been but were not picked up in the editing process. As I said above, most publishers would accept many such changes but expect that the patience of your production editor will rapidly wear thin. Some leeway will be given with the first, unpaginated proofs but almost nothing with the final, paginated proofs.

As for feedback on (and suggested changes to) the page design, something that I raised as a possibility here during the first proofing and that I’ll elaborate on in my next post about the final proofs, expect that here especially you will encounter quite stiff resistance.

That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t still take a step back and look at your book with a critical eye. You can be sure that others after publication will be doing the same. You may not win the argument in every respect but you could still achieve a better look for your finished book.

(Post #8 of the Proofing section of a lengthy series on the book production process, the first post of which is here.)

Common editing and proofing marks

4 March 2010

The following list of editing and proof-reading symbols is not exhaustive, nor does it cover every eventuality. However, listed here are the most common marks (both international and local variants) that you will encounter during the editing and proofing of your book.

(These are divided into three ‘clumps’ as they have been copied directly from our book.)

First ‘clump’ of marks:

Second ‘clump’:

Third ‘clump’:

Whether or not you use this mark-up method is another matter; there are alternatives (as described here).

(Post #7 of the Proofing section of a lengthy series on the book production process, the first post of which is here.)

Why proof your book?

26 February 2010

OK, so the typesetter has delivered the first proofs of your book and the production editor has forwarded a copy on to you.

What to do with these proofs?
How about use them to proof your book.
Fine, you may think, a good idea to check that no photo is upside down, that sort of stuff.
Ah, but no photos are to be inserted until after this proof.
So you wonder perhaps, what more is there to be done?
Sorry, let me repeat myself. I suggest that you should use these proofs for what they are intended, to proof (as in P-R-O-O-F) your book, to check the entire volume, word by word.
Really, is that necessary?

The checking has already been done

It is not as if yours is a raw text received back from the typesetter. During the writing and editing phases, it has been subjected to quite a lot of scrutiny.

To be sure, at the beginning you might have been naive, thinking that – in these days of spell-checkers – it was no longer necessary to hire someone to check your spelling. Then you discovered that spell-checkers are not exactly intelligent; nothing was flagged when you wrote ‘though’ instead of ‘thought’.

But by now your text has been edited by real people, too – perhaps more than once (at times it seems to have been crawling with editors) – and frankly you are sick of the whole process. Even the typesetter has got into the act, pointing out that the dramatic reconstruction of events used to spice the beginning of your book is wrong; the historical character who is central to your study was actually left-handed (a minor blemish in your text that no-one else picked up but somewhat embarrassing).

So, why waste more time proofing the typeset text? Why indeed.

New errors

The problem is that there is a world of difference between a word processor like Microsoft Word (which it’s likely you have used) and a typesetting program like Adobe InDesign used to set your book. Much of this difference is positive; your text will look better as a result of the typesetting. The downside, however, is that the two types of software are different and that your text must be converted from one format to another. In this process there can occur conversion errors, as I have mentioned earlier.

At NIAS Press last year we were hit by a particularly tricky conversion error. This caused by a software glitch in InDesign that thankfully was soon fixed by Adobe. When imported into InDesign, certain character combinations in the text (say, ‘ts’ – I cannot remember the actual ones) were converted to a full stop. When setting a particular page, our typesetter noticed a sentence ending with two full stops. She deleted the second then noticed that the end word was misspelt.

This too she corrected but thankfully had the presence of mind to search for further instances of a double full stop. There were more, quite a few more. And when she discovered that each of these involved a misspelt word and, worse, she found a full stop in the middle of a misspelt word, she knew that we had a serious problem. The result was an extra careful proofing required of both press and author.

Ultimately, however, it is irrelevant if the errors in your text are old or new. The point is that they may be there and (if so) they need to be found; someone must proof-read your book. The big question is, who?

(Post #2 of the Proofing section of a lengthy series on the book production process, the first post of which is here.)

Tedious work

19 February 2010

If writing a book is hard work, at least it is your work, your words. Editing and typesetting have their attractions; it need not be humiliating but in fact can be a revelation to see a wordsmith at work, cutting and polishing your text, while it should be interesting to see how your text can be transformed from ordinary words on paper into something extra, a visual experience.

But proofing? In a word, tedious.

Tedious though it might seem, proofing is unavoidable so let’s get moving. (Or is it unavoidable? Something to consider, as you will see in an upcoming post.)

In an earlier post, I outlined a common sequence of phases in the typesetting and proofing of a book. These were:

  • Initial typesetting
  • Output of first proofs
  • First proofing
  • Completion of typesetting
  • Output of second (often the ‘final’) proofs
  • Second (or ‘final’) proofing and indexing
  • Output of print-ready copy
  • Final-copy check

The typesetting part of this sequence has been described already. Indexing will be treated separately in a thread of posts following this section on proofing. And, as for the final two steps above dealing with the print-ready copy, these will be picked up in the section on printing your book.

In the meantime, however, we shall follow a thread of posts on the proofing process. Here, I shall look more closely at the first and second proofs as well as issues related to them.

Tedious? Not necessarily.

(Post #1 of the Proofing section of a lengthy series on the book production process, the first post of which is here.)

Letting go

11 February 2010

Letting go is not easy, whether you are a parent or an author (or both). This is quite understandable. While it is human to hold tight to (and be protective of) your children, the critical (and often treacherous) nature of the academic world teaches us to be equally guarded with our research results. Fear turns many a scholar into a serial polisher of his text, forever hesitating to expose it to possible ridicule or theft.

Ultimately, however, you have to let go. No child can grow and thrive if still clamped in their parent’s embrace, nor a scholarly work shine if hidden in a dark, lonely drawer.

Separation may be a lengthy business. And the angst begins early, already during the writing process. For many authors, the hardest stage here is to

  • actually finish the manuscript
  • place the last full stop
  • recognize that this is as good as it is going to get and that any more fiddling about with the text will add only time without contributing quality
  • let go and send your final words out into the world to stand or fall on their own merits.

That can be very difficult indeed.

The ripping feeling intensifies during editing. This, you are told, is your last chance to make sure that the text is just as you want it. From this point onwards, any changes to your text will be met with the greatest reluctance by your editor. Slowly but irrevocably, the book – your baby – is slipping beyond your grasp.

It is at typesetting, however, that the separation becomes irrevocable. As noted earlier, it is at this stage that your material is converted to other formats. Text and image files are placed in the typesetting ‘container’; essentially, there is no longer any live link between these files and the text and images found in the typeset book. As such, any changes to (say) your original Word files and JPEG images are pointless. All changes to the book’s text or illustrations can only be made by the typesetter.

And, as we shall see in a forthcoming post on proofing, chances are that the typesetter will be reluctant to make ‘unnecessary’ changes without an extra (penalty) payment.

Time to let go, indeed.

(Post #20 of the Design & Typesetting section of a lengthy series on the book production process, the first post of which is here.)

File conversion errors

1 February 2010

A key point with typesetting is that (as mentioned earlier) all of the text and image files are imported into a ‘container’ and then manipulated there. Little may be done to an imported illustration apart from resizing or cropping (all the other enhancement work has already been done in an image editing program like Photoshop; indeed, this will usually be where any further editing is done, the typesetting file simply updated with the revised image file).

In contrast, the imported text is converted at import and in most cases any dynamic link to the original text file is lost.

Errors often occur with these file conversions. Use of special text (as discussed in my previous post) is often a cause of later grief but it isn’t the sole cause, however (indeed, we are sometimes totally mystified why this or that text corruption occurs). Here are a few examples:

  • Your fancy Arabic script, keyed in Word from right to left, may turn into left–right nonsense (though to anyone other than an Arabic specialist it still looks fine – it looks Arabic).
  • Macrons (like those above the ‘o’ here in Tōkyō) are relatively simple to key in Windows but can turn to junk on the Mac.
  • Italicized text becomes roman.
  • Superscript characters (e.g. note markers in the text) become normally aligned.
  • There may be a software bug in the typesetting program that arbitrarily changes certain character combinations to something else (a recent bug in InDesign – since corrected – changed certain characters to a full stop; this was tricky to pick up).

Obviously, conversion errors can also happen with image files but this is far less common.

The typesetter keeps an eye open for such conversion errors but ultimately it will be your responsibility at the proofing stage to pick up any such problems. I’ll return to this in a later post.

(Post #13 of the Design & Typesetting section of a lengthy series on the book production process, the first post of which is here.)