An Editor’s Dating Advice

A new Ph.D. writes,

So here’s the question: My dissertation was on [a literary topic], so how do I even start the process [of turning it into a book]?
Try to remember why you were ever interested in this topic. (Since for years it has been the bane of your existence, you may find that a difficult task.) Then reread your manuscript, always asking yourself, “Would this hold my interest if I were not a college professor?” Conduct this exercise while holding a pen with bright red ink and a wide nib. You will be told not to use such implements on student essays, since you might damage your charges’ delicate psyches, but you needed worry about that with your own work: you’ve been to graduate school, so your psyche can be assumed to have been damaged beyond repair.

Ruthlessly cut everything that strikes your “common reader” alter ego as boring. Kill the references to scholars and theorists you put in only to show that you really had read them. Cut the nouns doing the work of verbs. In fact, cut any noun you cannot imagine the owner of an independent bookstore using over a cup of the espresso he sells because he can’t turn a profit on books. My guess is that he doesn’t pepper his conversation with alterity, herteronormativity, subaltern discourses, and post-post-modernist. Say whatever you want, but say it as a person talking to other people, not as a member of a lodge using some dorky lingo like a secret handshake. 

Once you have translated your work into something like English, read it out loud to your girlfriend, as long as she isn’t a fellow Ph.D. This exercise will have two immediate effects: First, you will break up. That is just as well: you can’t afford a steady girlfriend until you have tenure. Second, you will realize that your prose is still not fit to be let out in public. Mark every sentence you are embarrassed to hear passing your lips. (If you are past the point of being embarrassed to discover that you sound like a pseud, a pedant, or a victim of brainwashing, give up teaching and sign up for a stint in the army or the peace corps and don’t come home until you learn to recognize b.s. when you hear it.) Revise or cut those sentences. Then ask her what your point was. (She’ll feel guilty that she’s decided to dump you, so she’ll try to be helpful.) If you don’t recognize your point from her description of it, try to sell the MS to Peter Lang as is, count on nobody reading it if they take it, and start from scratch, trying to explain to the common reader why you were ever excited about some marks on a ream of paper or a bunch of grown men and women playacting on a stage or in front of a camera. Do not think of proceeding with this project until you have created a first paragraph that you can use as an "elevator pitch.” In fact, don’t go on until you have a first paragraph that makes you sound charming on your next first date. Once you’re happy with that paragraph—i.e., have got a second date—carry on and try to write more that appeals to real human beings. Just remember: editors have read plenty of student papers and don’t want to read any more of them. But we always like to be charmed. Treat us as if you know you have to earn our attention and will be lucky to get it. We all have cab fare and freezers stocked with cookie dough ice cream, so make an effort to please. We’re not going to sit though pages of tedium just to be polite.