Dissertation Guide

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How can I revise my original structure?

“Some people go back to the same methods that were used in establishing the original structure – post-its or postcards summarising each section, pieces of paper that you can shuffle to see what path you should follow in the new draft.”

“The introduction was the hardest bit to write. With a PhD thesis the Introduction is always a good three chapters long, and each chapter is around eight to ten thousands words, so there’s an awful lot of introduction. It’s a literature review really. I had an introduction chapter which was only a few pages long, which I wrote at the end. I had three literature-review chapters, one which dealt with the methodological side and two which dealt with the two areas of research which I was bringing together in my thesis. And those were the hardest bits, and those were the bits that I started on in the first year and then reformed and reformed and so on. Each individual chapter that was reporting on a study was itself like an academic article, and those were slightly easier to write because they had a mini-structure within each chapter. I knew that I would have to keep going back to my introduction to modify it as my middle chapters were being written because I was bringing in other research and I had to check that I had it in my introduction. You can’t keep bringing up the wider issues. That has to be done in the introduction. So the introductory chapters have to deal with everything.”

“There are times when I feel reasonably happy with something I’ve written except that I feel that the structure doesn’t quite work. Then someone comes up and says, ‘Well, frankly, I think you should put the bit at the end at the beginning’ or whatever it is and they’ve solved your problem for you. Often it can be something as simple as that, and I couldn’t see it at all. It’s the woods-and-trees thing again. You get too involved in the detail. Or you just know it should go at the beginning but you’re so convinced you want to put it at the end that you can’t bear to do it.”

“The discussion chapter was a pleasure to write, I really enjoyed it. The way I did it was that I went through all of my research and picked out the main points. I just highlighted all the main points and I wrote them all down. Then the discussion chapter itself has to be structured, so really those main points were the headings within the discussion chapter. It wasn’t all that easy to structure because you always have to think outside the box. You can’t really go and structure the discussion based on your thesis so far. You have to bring in a new perspective.”

“I certainly look for feedback on structure. I find that one of the things that students and young researchers struggle with enormously is structure. It’s only later that you come to a narrative structure, where you have some sort of story to tell and it has a beginning, middle bits and an end, and it has a flow to it. It is an enormous challenge to the inexperienced writer who somehow can’t foreground the string that runs through the piece. Often what you then get is what appears to be a pick and mix of ideas, almost thrown together in a way that you can’t quite understand, and possibly that’s because there never was a phase in the writing where enough time was spent thinking about what that structure might be. It doesn’t doesn’t necessarily have to be done before the first draft but at some point they had to sit down with the headings, sub-headings and the bullet points and think ‘Well, okay, does it make sense?’ I guess that’s one of the things I’ve learned to do, sometimes when I’m struggling, is to go back and think, ‘If I print this article out or draft, 15 pages or whatever, and get some coloured pens or something and think, “‘Can I just quickly note what I think the argument is going through this, where’s my first sub-heading, where are the bullets, where’s my second sub-heading, etc”.’ Then, if I pull those bits out, and put them down as a skeleton, does it look like an argument?”