Dissertation Guide

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How do I generate a provisional structure or outline?

“The main thing to remember is that there is no perfect way to structure your thesis. Whichever structure you choose will be a compromise. Just make up your mind, have some sort of a structure that sort of makes sense, and then get on with the writing.”

“Right from the start of my writing career, back in the mid-seventies, my basic approach has been to plan carefully and then try to write quite fast. The first stage of my planning is to note a quick and instinctive overarching structure of the book in broad terms. This is back-of-an-envelope stuff but absolutely crucial. Within this structure a lot may happen, but somehow it can all be held together if this larger structure is in place. If it’s a huge book I have different parts to the book, so that the chapters fit within the parts. I may make some later decisions about chapters but I certainly have the parts worked out.”

“Some people use the mapping technique, where you put the main subject or idea in the centre of the page, and then start drawing out lines from it whenever anything occurs to you. Branch lines will be formed and the eventual diagram can be converted into a skeletal outline with chapter numbers and section numbers.”

“The basic structure comes from the discipline itself. For example, in psychology there is a structure of Introduction, Procedure, Method, Results, Discussion and Conclusion. And so the structure is there. And then the Abstract which you’ll write at the very end even though it comes at the beginning.”

“I always do my plan on the screen. I do most things on the screen because you can play with them very easily, move them around, and I think with all plans, be they synopses or timetables, you know you’re going to have to change them and therefore the obvious thing is to do it electronically. I try to keep it as simple as possible. I get a lot of synopses and book proposals across my desk, some of which make my heart sink; they tend to be a few headings with big blocks of text in between (a long and wordy description of what each chapter will contain) and I can barely bring myself to go through them. I write things that look simpler on the page, both for myself and for others. I would sketch out the chapter headings and number them and then within in each of the chapters I would try to break it up into some sub-heads and then, if I was going to go further, under the subheads I would do bullet points, maybe quite detailed bullet points. And I wouldn’t go any further than that usually. The ‘three headings’ rule.”

“When I think of an outline, I always think of those old books which forewarn the reader at the start of each chapter with the words ‘in which’. Such as Tom Jones. You know, like ‘Chapter 23, in which our hero falls in love, our hero leaves home, our hero has a surprise at the inn …’ That sort of thing.”

“I deal with huge amounts of material. Sometimes I despair at the amount of material. It means that I have got to get the structure right and then I can systematically work my way through the material. I read my material very carefully until I know roughly what it comprises, and at that point I work out a more detailed plan, by which I mean chapter by chapter, section by section and paragraph by paragraph. (By sections I mean a certain number of paragraphs before a gap, which is denoted by an asterix; if it is a long chapter, each section is quite substantial, so I will do the writing section-by-section.) Then I go through my material very carefully and very slowly, assigning stuff to different paragraphs.”

“I’ve got two or three book proposals with publishers at the moment, each of which has a fairly typical academic book synopsis which endeavours to persuade the publisher that they should commission this book. I think I’m both quite good and quite poor simultaneously at these things. That is, I’m good enough to get the contract but the synopsis turns out not to be very good in the end, and I have to change it a great number of times. The book that’s coming out next week is probably not a good example because I probably put more effort into the synopsis than I have for many because I wasn’t writing the whole thing and therefore didn’t have the flexibility of changing the structure in mid-stream that you do if you’re completely in control of the task, like a thesis. So I had to have it fairly well pinned down in advance because I had to brief other authors. I guess that’s an example of one of the games that you can play to be more disciplined in writing an outline – you could imagine that other people were writing some of the chapters of the thesis and you are having to brief them by giving them an outline of what it was that this chapter should contain. I’ve not done that but I can see that it might well work …”

“I try to tackle things in chunks, and those chunks make up the structure in the end. Obviously you can’t start with a structure because you need to see what’s involved. You need to look at all the readings, and see what’s involved before you can set out your structure in stone.”