The Order of the Thing

Also titled: Why people write thesis chapters in certain orders – and why I didn’t.

I’ve talked about thesis chapters before. About how to create an outline for your chapters, and roughly what sort of chapters are needed for a thesis. But I haven’t actually broken that down much further, so here is the first post wherein I talk about actually formulating and writing said chapters in more depth.

Everyone, (including my supervisor) said ‘don’t write the introduction first!’

I politely told everyone to please go away.

I am a logically ordered person. Beginning, middle, end. I read this way. I write this way. I think this way. Just because everyone tells you to write your thesis in a certain way, does not mean that way will actually work for you. So consider any advice (including this) that you get. If you are not used to writing a certain way, or you are unsure of how to, your PhD thesis is probably not a good time to experiment.

Having said that, I know a lot of people who did what they were told. That’s fine. If you want to try that, go ahead.

But if you absolutely cannot (ie. if you’ve been staring at a flashing cursor for a month or more), then go about writing how you always have. If it’s worked before, it will work again.

So I started with chapter 1. Part 1.0. And then I wrote 1.1. And then 1.2. And then all the way to 1.9. And then I wrote chapter 2. Etc.

All the way to the conclusion. Which you should write last anyways (thankfully).

Was it hard to write Chapter 1 first? Yes, of course it was. I had no idea what the rest of my thesis would be, beyond a general outline. I knew roughly what my literature review and theory chapters would have, but I was still doing my data analysis when I started chapter 1, so I had no real idea what my later chapters (or conclusions) would be. But you don’t need that to write chapter 1. Whatever you write will get rewritten and edited. My final chapter 1 was not so different from the first draft, but it included my conclusions and a final outline of the thesis.

In the introduction, you can write about the theories you are using (in brief or in detail), your methodology (as I did – I didn’t have a methodology chapter), an outline of what the rest of the thesis will be, your conclusions, brief literature reviews – i.e. the most integral literature to your thesis, and – most importantly – your aims and objectives. Some theses will not include all of these in chapter 1, but mine did, so it’s certainly possible to.

I started by figuring out what had to go into chapter 1 (see above list). Then in what order those worked best. Then I literally created a Word doc. that had subheadings for each section. Then I started at the beginning with introducing my thesis, the RQ and sub questions, the aims and objects. Then I moved on to literature, then theory, then methodology, then the thesis outline. When I started each section, I broke it down further. This was most important for methodology, as it was the longest section. It had 7 subsections (each type of research method I used for qualitative collection, each case study museum, the method for data analysis – in brief, I talked about this in depth later). Once you get to that many subsections, you’re talking a few hundred to a thousand words for each. And that’s much less scary!

I continued how I started. Each chapter was the same way. Headings, followed by breaking them down to subheadings when I reached each new section. I wrote in 500-word sections, most of the time, and it pretty much worked out.

But it was logical. It was sequential. It was the only way. It may not be your way, and if so, then you’re doing what everyone advices you should do. But if this is your way, know that it’s okay. That it does work. Write how you know (and then write what you know) and you’ll have a thesis in no time.