#32: Cannibalizing Your Work

Dear Story Nurse,

I have been meaning to rewrite my thesis for a year and make it suitable for publication as a monograph or as separate articles and I am struggling. It is not as much the writing but the rewriting that is giving me nightmares. I’m avoiding it because I don’t know how to do it. I can plan writing and am good with the process, but going from one text to another… I don’t know how to plan a new text out of a previous one. How to rewrite text that took forever to write?

—karmaku (she/her)

Dear karmaku,

I can completely understand that you’re reluctant to take apart something that took so much time and effort to put together. Fortunately, the original thesis will always be there, and will always be a testament to your hard work.

It might help to literally make copies of the thesis. Duplicate the file, say, ten or fifteen times. Some absurd number. Fill an entire folder on your hard drive with copies of your thesis. Emphasize to your subconscious that you can play around with this document; whatever you do to the copies won’t harm or diminish the original.

The next question, as with any piece of writing, is who your audience is for the monograph or the separate articles. For example, if your thesis is on some aspect of astronomy and you want to send some articles off to Astronomy News Today, you can look through the articles at Astronomy News Today and see what sorts of things they publish. Who are their readers? How advanced are the topics? How much is explained, and how much is the reader expected to know? How long are the articles? Every publication venue has parameters that can help give you direction when you’re feeling lost.

Try tapping into your skill for planning writing by treating your thesis as though it were someone else’s work that you have permission to plagiarize. Write a paper about your thesis, regarding your thesis as a significant research source. You know how to do that; you’ve written lots of papers that way. The only difference is that you can copy and paste information from your thesis into the piece you’re writing instead of having to quote and cite it. It’s research on easy mode.

The audience question can also help you practice rewriting. Take the main topic of the thesis or a subtopic and try to summarize it for young kids, high school students, adult laypeople, adults working in a related field, adults working in your field, a student in a class you’re teaching, a senior faculty member in your department, etc. You’ll find that each audience requires a different voice and a different approach, and that some are easier for you than others. If one version is especially easy or enjoyable to write, focus your publication efforts in that direction, looking for venues that target a similar audience. And the exercise will generally help you get comfortable with shifting your focus away from the words you created for your thesis and toward the notion of communicating your findings. That’s all any words are: a method of communication. You can always make more words if you need to communicate with a new audience or in a new way. It takes effort to make those words, but you wrote a whole thesis, so you know making words is something you can do.

If you’re aiming for publication in journals aimed at people working in your field, there’s probably much less rewriting to do here than you’re fearing. Look for sections of the thesis that roughly follow the arc of a typical paper: premise, experimentation or exploration, analysis, results. Write a new introduction and conclusion, tailor the voice to your publication venue, and you’ve got an article.

As for publication as a monograph, that sounds like something an editor or colleague could help you with. Do you know people in your field who’ve similarly turned their theses into publications? If so, consult with them about the process. If not, contact your adviser or mentors or whomever you generally go to with “how do I ______ in our field” questions. The knowledge is out there, and you can find ways to access it.

Happy re/writing!


Story Nurse

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