ANZJFT - From Thesis to Journal Articleby Hugh Crago
"Oh, this is great stuff. You know, you should publish this. Look good on your CV! Why not try that little thing the family therapists put out, you know the one I mean. I doubt if it's very hard to get into. Mention my name."
After all their work, how depressing it must be for graduate students when the Editors' letter, excitedly opened in anticipation of rapid publication, advises that their paper "really needs a lot of work to turn it into a publishable article"! The hard truth is that a thesis is not a book, and a thesis chapter is not a journal article at least, not usually. If supervisors offered them focused advice on how to prepare material for publication, not only research students, but editors and assessors too, would be less often disappointed.
Real writers write because they must, not because someone else (even their supervisor) tells them to, or rewards them with jobs and promotions for doing it. The wish to see your work in print must come from you, in the first instance. Writing for publication is hard work; it takes patience, persistence, and humility. The fire that sustains our writing cannot come from anyone else, though a supportively critical network is immensely helpful in keeping the flame high.
Have something to say
A research thesis, empirical or theoretical, is an exercise in proving what you know about the field you have chosen. It will often include new insights and findings, but much of it will be a summary of what others have said, or a replication of what others have found. It is not likely that the latter aspects will lend themselves to publication. By contrast, a journal article must have something to say. It cannot simply be a demonstration of what you have read and understood.
Does that mean that your Literature Review cannot ever be submitted for publication? Not necessarily. You may have that rare gift of being able to summarize the work of others freshly and interestingly. If, instead of a wearisome plod that leaves readers little the wiser, you can plot a pathway through the thickets of the literature, showing a reader where the research has clustered, where the "gaps" and bare patches are, what the overriding themes and assumptions have been, and what questions remain to be answered, then you may have the foundation for an article.
Write because you have a story to tell
Lynn Hoffman's Foundations of Family Therapy offers a model for turning a routine historical survey into a compelling narrative in which each new theory or technique answers a gap or speaks to a mystery left unsolved by the previous "school". When I speak of "telling a story", I don't mean "story" in the narrow sense of a clinical anecdote or case study. Rather, I mean narrative as an organising principle, as a way of ordering the world. Even a set of new research findings can be presented as a "story", although if psychological reports were taken as the best paradigm, such "stories" would begin by giving away the punch line, and proceed to systematically undercut any possibility of "plot development" along the way!
It is extremely seductive to think that you can produce an article (or several) out of a thesis simply by using "cut" and "paste" on your word processing program. Unfortunately, few researchers have sufficient perspective on their own work to convert a "cut and paste job" into a seamless whole. They include too much (because they "can't sacrifice all that hard work") and the resulting article "bulges" in the wrong places!
It is 'usually better to start again from the beginning. Decide on what your subject is, and what your "story" will be, what you most want to get across to your readers. Write for those readers, not for the academics who examined your thesis! Be aware of what your new audience know already, and what they might need explained. All the hard work you've done won't be wasted: your familiarity with the subject will make it easy to produce new words. But these words, unlike a cut-and-pasted compilation of your previous words, will flow more easily, will develop more naturally, and will gain your readers' attention more readily, because it will embody the fresh energy you've brought to it. There is more to be said about this topic!