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.

start-bridge

Purpose

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.

 Form

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.

 Length

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.

 Author

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).

Readership

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.

Scholarship

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.

Approach

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.

Language

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’.

Structure

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).

Ending

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.

Methodology

Thesis: Detailed description required.

Book: Description only if and when relevant.

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

Referencing

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.

Quotations

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.

footbridge

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.

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Formatting your index

8 April 2010

In addition to structuring your index in terms of hierarchy and internal structure (as discussed in my previous post), you will also need to format and fine-tune your index. Although each publisher may have a different style, the following pointers are accepted by most. And, to illustrate my points, let’s revisit the example used in my last post.

English
xxxxacademic standard
xxxxquality
xxxxtranslation
xxxxUS/UK
xxxxsee also Cultural Issues; Language
[…]
Language
xxxxcorrect usage/spelling
xxxxplain English
xxxxtools. See Language tools
xxxxsee also English; Presentation; Style
Language tools
xxxxreference works
xxxxspell checkers
xxxxsee also Language

Text layout and format

Although your typeset index may appear in two (or even three) columns, make everyone’s life simpler: prepare your index in a single column, each entry/sub-entry comprising a separate paragraph.

Note that index entries are flush left and sub-entries are indented. The proper way to do this is by assigning paragraph styles to the different entry types (preferably just ‘Index-1’ and ‘Index-2’). Alternatively, do everything in ‘Normal’ and tab indent your sub-entries.

In fact, your publisher may have a preference on whether sub-entries should be indented below their main entry or run as continuous text. Certainly, the former is easier to read, but space limitations may force adoption of the latter, more condensed arrangement. That shouldn’t be your decision to make, however. Best that (as recommended above) you stick to separate paragraphs for each entry/sub-entry and then indenting of sub-entries; this is cleaner, simpler and quicker.

Note that See and See also in cross-references should be italicized but otherwise keep any formatting to a minimum – but be consistent (see below).

Ordering

Publishers vary somewhat in their usage here but the generally accepted rules are as follows. Order your index alphabetically, numbers coming before ‘A’. With sub-entries, ignore any initial pronouns, prepositions and the like (for instance, in an entry for ‘slave trade’, the sub-entry ‘high tide of’ comes after ‘in African records’ but before ‘as understood in 18th century’ – alphabetizing on ‘African’, ‘high’ and ‘understood’).

Consistency

Remember that your index is part of your book and as such your entries must appear in the index in the same form as in the body text (e.g. upper vs lower case and use of italics). Likewise, the page numbering should follow the same convention as the rest of your book. If page ranges are expressed as ‘123–126’ in the body text and references, then they should be expressed the same way in the index (and not, say, as ‘123–6’ or ‘123–26’).

Junk entries

Any entry or sub-entry that has more than about 15 associated page references is a junk entry, i.e. it spans such an extent of material that it is useless for searching purposes. Abandon it, or break it up.

Cross-references

Something that can really make an index useful is a judicious number of cross-references (as discussed in my last post). In addition, if a term appears in two forms in your book (such as ‘International Monetary Fund’ and ‘IMF’), let one index entry simply refer readers to the other entry. Use your common sense, however. Sometimes (especially for minor entries with few page references) it is better to repeat an index element under both entry names rather than to refer the reader from one entry to the other.

Now all that remains is to finalize your index, the subject of my next post.

(Post #10 of the Indexing section of a lengthy series on the book production process, the first post of which is here.)


Structuring your index

19 March 2010

An index is an index is an index, ne c’est pas? Well, actually, no. An index can come in all shapes and forms – though, as we shall see, in fact your options are reasonably limited.

However, what I shall briefly consider in this post is how many indexes you need, how many levels (or layers) are possible within the index, and the implications of these two factors on the internal structure of your index(es). Thinking through these issues must be done before you start creating any index entries.

Using the mind map

If you have indeed prepared a mind map of your study beforehand (discussed earlier), then its value will be immediately apparent at this point. The mind map is the structure of your index; its contours can be mapped into a skeleton index without a huge amount of additional work (though, as we shall see, if your mind map has a ‘deep’ structure then it will need to be reworked to accommodate a flatter one).

Indeed, all that you need to think about after this is the internal organization and consistency of your entries (plus the use of cross-references), the subject of my next post.

How many indexes?

A single, all-inclusive index may be normal but separate name and subject indexes are quite common. Indeed, in certain literary studies, for instance, it wouldn’t be unthinkable to have three indexes: the general index plus a separate index of authors and another of literary works.

That said, just because something isn’t unthinkable, that doesn’t mean that you need to do it. You will find it a far less complex task to create a single index. I suspect your readers will also thank you for it, too. Ultimately, however, if you are wanting to do anything out of the ordinary, it would be a good idea to talk to your production editor first; there is no point spending a whole lot of time and effort producing an index if it is then rejected.

How many levels?

Likewise, there is the issue of levels within your index(es) to consider. Theoretically, you could have as many levels as you want but in fact you are limited by the layout of the index. There are two factors here:

  • Page layout. Most indexes are laid out in two columns per page (I have seen indexes squeezed into three columns but they look awful and are hard to read). The width of each column will be no more than 6 cm (less than 2.5 inches) wide.
  • Arrangement of sub-entries. The convention with indexes is to indent each level of sub-entry. An index with three levels thus has a huge amount of indenting (and wasted space) to fit into such a narrow column.

In reality, then, the physical constraints of the index limits its depth to two levels. Such a flat structure is also much easier to work with and the resulting index is also easier to read.

Internal structure

Adoption of such a two-level structure has huge implications for the internal structure of your index, especially if you are working from a mind map (as undoubtedly, it will have entities with more than two layers of complexity). Flattening this structure will require:

  • creation of new related entries out of the old entry
  • judicious use of cross-references

Perhaps the best way to illustrate this point is by taking a portion of the mind map that I used earlier and translating this into a skeleton index.

Mapped as:

English
xxxxacademic standard
xxxxquality
xxxxtranslation
xxxxUS/UK
xxxxsee also Cultural Issues; Language
[…]
Language
xxxxcorrect usage/spelling
xxxxplain English
xxxxtools. See Language tools
xxxxsee also English; Presentation; Style
Language tools
xxxxreference works
xxxxspell checkers
xxxxsee also Language

Note here that the mind map is not perfect (hence the index created is not a faithful reproduction) but it will have to do. Hopefully, you will get an idea of what I mean by this as a result.

At this point, you have all of the information needed to index your book. My next post shall be looking at the formatting of the actual index entries.

(Post #9 of the Indexing section of a lengthy series on the book production process, the first post of which is here.)


What to index

16 March 2010

Apart from the number of pages available, there is another important factor determining the length of an index: just what is to be indexed. This is not an issue considered in advance by most authors, I suspect, but your choices here will add to readers’ perceptions about the index and your book.

Does it look as if the indexing job has been thoroughly done – but not overblown – or is this a skimpy (even sloppy) affair? Although a threadbare index useless to its purpose will immediately signify that the rest of your book is equally inadequate, more is not necessarily better. There are limits.

So what material should be indexed in your book?

Obviously, your body text must be indexed, but what about notes that comment on the text? Citations and bibliography are usually not indexed; will you follow that practice? Some publishers think it unnecessary to index a glossary (indeed, sometimes an index becomes a kind of glossary), but consider it essential to index any illustrations and captions. What does your publisher say?

With luck, your publisher will have guidelines on all of these matters but otherwise simply use your common sense.

As you can see, decisions need to be made here but they are not life and death issues, nothing even to lose sleep over. Indeed, although what you chose to index can be significant, the ultimate quality of your index depends on other factors, not least the intellectual conceptualization of the index (or mind map, discussed here) and its ‘visualization’ in the index structure, the subject of my next post.

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


When to start on the index?

9 March 2010

The typical index is done at the time of the second (final) proofs and usually under a great time pressure. Not surprisingly, the indexes produced by first-time authors (and indeed many more experienced authors) are not always of a high quality.

Your index could be better.

Avoiding the last-minute rush

Let’s be honest, producing a great index is much more than a matter of timing. As important (if not more so) is that you successfully handle the issues raised in my previous post – issues like structure and format that my following posts will discuss in greater detail. Nonetheless, timing is important; indexing need not be a last-minute affair.

After all, what is an index? Superficially, it is an alphabetical list of cross-references to material in your text, each entry comprising a term and a page reference. (On a more sophisticated level, as described in an earlier post and in much greater detail in my next, an index is also a mind map.) So what is holding up your index, making its finalization a last-minute affair? Not the list of terms; theoretically, this could be devised before you even began writing your book. No, what’s holding everything up is having the correct page references – and there’s nothing you can do about that until your book is in its final, paginated form.

The secret to having a great index, then, is to ignore the lack of page numbers for now and to focus on all the other, more important issues. This means that you can start imagining the index much earlier than at the proofing stage, start even while writing your book.

Alternative approaches

There is a big advantage here if you do. It gives you time to create a mind map of your study and its index, if you so choose (more about mind maps in my next post).

Of course, you don’t have to create such a mind map. If you feel confident that the text sent for typesetting will change very little during the typesetting, you can instead simply start indexing your book straight after editing. To do so, all you need to do is create a single book file from the text in MS Word (or whichever word-processing program you use) and begin entering index tags. (This is indexing method 3, which I describe in much greater detail in my next post but one.)

That’s not all

Whichever approach you follow, you’ll need to bear in mind how much space you’ve got to play with, how the index is to be structured, etc., etc. – issues described in subsequent posts.

In the meantime, with a bit of breathing space before the index must be delivered, you actually may have time to enjoy its creation, time to unlock the intellectual puzzle of your study.

(Post #4 of the Indexing section of a lengthy series on the book production process, the first post of which is here. This is a complete reworking of an earlier post on the same subject.)


Who should do the indexing?

8 March 2010

You. The big finger is pointing directly at you. Just as probably it was you who had to key the copy-editing changes, you who maybe got to help design the cover, and you who definitely had to do the proofing, so too is it you who’s now expected to index your book – and in double-quick time.

Choice

This need not be so. No one is forcing you, personally, to do the indexing. After all, this is skilled work and you may not feel up to the task.

You could instead hire Anthony, an indexer we’ve used on several occasions when the author was unwilling and had the cash to hire a professional. Anthony is reasonably priced (surely he cannot live off these earnings) and not only does he turn out good indexes but also – in effect and free of charge – he gives the book another proofing; tacked onto his indexes is a page or two of comments about errors and discrepancies that he’s found in the text. In short, a professional indexer like Anthony could be just what you need.

But maybe not.

People like Anthony cost money, you cannot be sure you are hiring a good indexer, and they may not be available when you need them. Moreover, an outside indexer has no hope of ever knowing your book as intimately as you do. And, if it is you to do the index, then you can make an early start and refine the index as editing and typesetting progress. It has the added advantage that you can work with the mind map described in my previous post.

Definitely, this issue is something to think about carefully and to fully investigate in good time.

Hiring a professional indexer

If indeed you engage a professional indexer directly, then book a time slot early, and keep your indexer informed as the actual start date firms up. Most important, prepare a clear indexing brief that specifies what you want – issues such as these that will be covered in my following posts:

  • When will you deliver the proofs for indexing?
  • What is the indexer’s deadline for finishing the job?
  • What is the agreed price?
  • How long should the index be?
  • What should be indexed?
  • Is it only one index required or several?
  • How many levels should it have?
  • How should the entries be formatted?
  • Are there any special considerations to note?

Doing the job yourself

If, however, you decide to do the job yourself, then prepare a clear indexing brief for yourself, too. You’ll also benefit from taking note of the other issues and advice found in my following posts.

And whatever else you do, do not skimp on the job. A poor index signals to the reader that this is an inferior book. Do not fail your book at this last hurdle, mere days before it goes to the printer.

(Post #3 of the Indexing section of a lengthy series on the book production process, the first post of which is here.)


Elements of a book

28 September 2009

Planning a successful book requires that you first conceptualise your study (more about that another time). But, once you have done that, then it’s time to plan in detail. Essentially, you need to build a structure for your book, one that not only considers how best to present your argument but also ensures that it is of a suitable length, that it includes what needs to be included (and excludes the rest), and that it has the narrative pace and coherence that will draw the reader through your text – in short, that it is a satisfying (even uplifting) experience for the reader.

One of the first steps in this process is to map out your manuscript. Here, it is a good idea to be quite clear what is (and need not be) required – in short, to understand the various elements that should eventually constitute your book.

Generally, these elements come in a specific order:

  • (Half title page – something the publisher makes)
  • (Half title verso page – also something the publisher makes)
  • Title page (your publisher will change this, of course)
  • (Copyright page – something the publisher makes)
  • Table of contents
  • Lists of figures and tables
  • Preface
  • Acknowledgements (if not part of preface)
  • Author’s notes, lists of abbreviations, chronology, etc.
  • Introduction
  • Body chapters
  • Conclusion
  • Appendices
  • Glossary (if not in front matter, a placement common with many European publishers)
  • References/Bibliography
  • Index

Not all books contain all elements, but before you start it is useful to have thought through if, say, your book should include a list of abbreviations or a glossary, as these are much easier to write as you go along rather than after the main text is finished.

Note also that those elements constituting your manuscript are fewer than the final elements making up your published book. Here the difference is that your publisher will insert extra material in the prelims, most importantly a copyright page. These are bracketed in the list above.

These are elements which you need not worry about. Focus instead on shaping (and getting started with writing) your manuscript.