1. Know your audience. This advice is basic to all writing, history included. Why? Knowing you audience will shape how you structure whatever you are writing, affecting considerations like language, structure, and pacing. Such is the case even for academic writing.
2. Buildup. The dissertation is where many grad students flame out and fail to earn their Ph.D. The reason for this failure is an understandable one. Writing is a lot like running. The skills that it takes to run a 100 meter dash are significantly different from what it takes to run a marathon. Likewise, writing a book review or 10 page seminar paper is different from writing a book. In grad school, most students are asked to write short papers. Most programs require only one or two research seminars, and during my student days I saw many people reluctant to take those classes. Through a series of accidents I ended up taking four research seminars before I entered Ph.D. candidacy and began work on my dissertation/first book. Like many, many other grad students I ended up turning one of my research papers into the dissertation. That research paper also became my first academic publication. Nothing unusually there. What was unusually, though, was the amount of preparation I had done in preparing for the transition. It helped…a lot.
3. Research/Logistical Support. When trying to find a project to write on there are a number of factors to consider. Not all of them are intellectual in nature. Some of these issues include: What will your main professor agree to supervise? How long will it take to research and write? Where can you go for grant money? How much research and travel will it require? What kind of contribution to historical understanding can you make? The last one is the issue that most grad students focus on—and they should—but a lot of these other issues are important. Having been a professor supervising thesis work at the undergrad and MA level, I have had some people come in and say they wanted to write on a certain topic. They were interesting topics, but ones on which I as a diplomatic historian knew nothing—a biographical study of Ernest Hemingway for example. You also do not want a topic that is going to take a decade to write or cost you significant sums of money, particularly if you do not have the funding.
4. Big versus small. There are two types of
dissertations/books. The big study and the small study. What does this all mean? It has nothing to do with page length. It has to do with impact. Consider two fictional studies: the first is a biography of Field Marshal Friedrich Paulus, the other is a book that offers a new interpretation of why Nazi Germany lost the war. Let us say that interpretation is that Germany had no natural zinc resources. Which do you think is going to get more attention the Paulus book or the zinc book? Paulus is a real individual; the zinc example is totally fictional, but ask yourself how much distance you would get out of a biography on the Field Marshall versus a book that offered a new interpretation on the outcome of World War II?
Go big. That is my advice on picking a dissertation topic. Bigger is better and will service your career the most. The bigger argument will get you more notice among other historians, which will translate into better job options. This runs against the natural tendency of historians, which is to go small. That habit is understandable. It is easy to get enthralled with documents and tell interesting vignettes. The real challenge is to give meaning to these stories and explain their significance.
There is a caveat to this advice—and it is important—go big, if you can. For a lot of people, the object of running a marathon is not trying to win the race, but to finish. A book is an intellectual marathon, and if you have never tried to write something that long, your goal might just simple be to write something that is good enough to get you your degree, get published, and get you tenure. Trying to win the race and get the gold medal might be a goal for the next book when you have a little more experience and understanding of what you are trying to do.
5. Self Definition. There is another factor to keep in mind and something I did not really appreciate until after I was in the professoriate ranks and that my own advisors mentioned only in passing: a dissertation does a lot to define you as a scholar. Think of the writing of the dissertation as something like product branding and you as the raw goods. Let say you write a dissertation on Vicksburg with the title: City at War: Vicksburg, 1826-1914. Given that title there is probably a lot more to your book than just the Civil War battle, including an analysis of its legacy on Mississippi politics. You might think you can apply for any Civil War, urban history, military history, or southern history positions advertised out there, but that is not the case. Well, you can actually apply for the position, but you might not be a viable candidate if the department wants a southern history position and your book is primarily a battle history. To a lot of search committees that book makes you look like a military historian, end of story. You might think you can go for positions advertising for a historian of the Gilded Age, but that committee is going to look at your study and assume that the bulk of it focuses on the battle and say, “military historian.” Even if the department is receptive to military history, they need to put their institutional interests first. If their need is to fill a slot with someone who can teach classes on the 1880s and 1890s, you might not be the strongest contender compared to someone who did a dissertation on Mark Twain.
6. Long Term Planning: Gaddis versus Ambrose. Writing a book also requires that you think about its reception. This statement does not mean marketing, but it is similar to the big versus small issue that I discussed earlier. Let me offer two historians as examples of individuals that have done well in this area: the diplomatic historian John Lewis Gaddis, and the late Stephen E. Ambrose. Most historians are doing well if they write one book that is in print 30 years later or that people are discussing decades after its publication. Gaddis has done that at least twice and probably three times. Why? Well, he is good, but he has also done very well in taking on issues that are at the center of the debate. As a result, he is cited all over the place and his ideas must be at least considered and in a number of cases have carried the day. Then, there is Stephen E. Ambrose. Although now known as a popular historian, Ambrose was for most of his career a military historian. Early on, he made Dwight D. Eisenhower the central focus of his writing. Ambrose was one of the pioneering Eisenhower revisionists—historians who argued that Eisenhower was far more hands on and responsible for the policies of his administration than political observers at the time believed. He did many other projects, but the majority of his work revolved around the military aspects of World War II. Ambrose did well for himself in sticking to this topic and had books come out tied to anniversaries: the Eisenhower centennial in 1990 and the fiftieth anniversary of D-Day in 1994 to give two examples. His biography of Richard Nixon—Eisenhower’s vice-president—also put him in position to be a commentator on the declassification of key Nixon documents in the 1990s. Both of these approaches gave these historians a lot of influence and are good examples of career management that other historians would do well to consider.
7. Nest your strategy. Your book publishing strategy should cascade down from a larger plan. It should be part of a larger publishing plan that lists the type of topic you want to examine, or a career plan that details what you want to do professionally. Don’t be surprised if you are in a job interview and someone asks you what your next project is on. It happens…a lot.