story-boarding the thesis structure

As is generally the case, one of my two posts for the week focuses on academic writing. This time I’m looking at putting the thesis together.

It usual for people to start writing their thesis text in the middle – that is with the actual NEW stuff that’s been done. Some people might not, and that’s fine, but beginning with middle work is a very common pattern. The reason for starting in the middle is that once you know what you have to say, then you can construct the argument for rest of the thesis.

So after the middle work you go back to the beginning to sort out how the whole text will be structured, knowing where its all going. Getting the middle in shape allows you to answer the question – What do I have to say in my thesis and to whom? What is my ‘material’? What is the best way to organise and present it?

Now this sounds as if middle work ought to be really simple. However it’s not. The big challenge after the field work is often not in the analysis per se, but rather it’s in breaking the analysis up into two or three or four chapters that ‘work’. To do this successfully, have to find two, three or four meta-categories – these become chapters – that you can then use to gather together the material that constitutes your results.

The process of finding the meta-categories often happens iteratively. As you are working the data, you start to get a bit of a sense where it might be going. You start thinking about the bigger picture and how it might be organized. As you analyse more ‘stuff’, you think and rethink the possible ways that it might be put together. Analyse, adjust, analyse, re-adjust.

Sometimes, for some people, the organization just emerges – there is an overarching Big Idea that becomes clear – this is what Brecht would probably call the major action of the thesis – it’s an organizing line of argument that allows all of your material to be sorted into an order. For some lucky people there is a thunderbolt Eureka moment of how-to-do-it. Sometimes – probably most often – the structure doesn’t become clear for some time, and getting at it requires lots of working and reworking the various possibilities. The structure has to be coaxed, seduced and teased out of the analysis you’re doing – or have done.

It can help to ask questions of the analysis such as:
What do I know about x now that I didn’t know when I started?
Why did x happen? How can it be explained?
Why do I think that my research shows y?

But if you are one of those people who hasn’t been blessed with the Eureka moment, then the task of knocking the middle into shape might be assisted by storyboarding. Storyboarding is a little like plotting a novel, except that theses are generally arguments, not stories in the way that novels are.

You can storyboard in any number of ways and there are programmes available to help – mindmapping tools will do the job, as will Scrivener’s corkboard. Mac have a programme called Storyboard which I haven’t used but have been told is good. But for those of you who still work manually with objects, here’s two ways to start storyboarding – and I’m sure that you will think of others.

Top down
You have the big idea and you know the two or three or four big meta-categories. These are the chapters. Make a page for each one. Lay them out on the floor or a big table or pin them on the wall. What sequence should they be in? Put them in that order and number them. Now get some post-its. Convert the smaller bits of data analysis into no more than two or thee sentences per post-it. These smaller pieces might be themes in qualitative data or clusters of survey results for example. Put the post-its together on the relevant chapter pages. Then arrange them in order on the page to make the chapter argument. You may find that you have to move things from page to page in order to get the best sequence.

Bottom up
Put all the bits of stuff that you have onto post-its – two or three sentences only for a theme or cluster of analysis. Now start to make patterns from the post-its. Which ones clump together logically? Try to work up to two three or four sets of post its. Transfer these to a page and think of it as a chapter. What is its overall meta-category? What is its name? Pin the pages on a wall, or put them on the floor. Now arrange the post-its in logical order as in the top down process, moving them around if they work better elsewhere.

As you are sorting through the order of post-its for each chapter it can help to talk through what an abstract of the chapter might be. Talk this aloud not in your head. Yes, aloud. The next step is to write a long abstract for each of the pages. You can of course simply use the pages and post-its as the outline to guide your writing, but a further iteration of the internal chapter argument via an abstract provides a good road map for the larger task.

And if you’re interested in this process – see storyboarding as plotting a novel on:

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in academic writing, dissertation, middle work, storyboarding, thesis and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to story-boarding the thesis structure

  1. Sent this post out on Facebook and several students in our department who are doing a thesis are now avid “patter” readers. Thanks for this wonderful resource.


  2. Anne Lise says:

    Thank you so much for this gold mine of information for PhD students!


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  5. timdockins says:

    Reblogged this on timothydockins and commented:
    I’m still working out my dissertation process. Storyboarding seems like a very organic way of working for me; placing big boulders and then refining.


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  9. Seamas O'Driscoll says:

    I would highly recommend looking at The Brain as another way of finding insights and relationships. It’s an excellent writing tool.


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  12. Ernestina says:

    These are really helpful and quality pearls of doctoral research wisdom given freely. Thank you.


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