Organising your notes
A good way to start planning is to organize your notes under headings and sub-headings. This will help you to gauge how much material you have in different areas, and what points your textual evidence might lead you towards. This is only the first step in planning, however: it doesn’t ensure that you actually have an argument, so don’t stop here…
Constructing an argument
Identifying an argument
Ultimately, you are aiming to produce a series of propositions in relation to your material: usually a main proposition (thesis or argument) with some sub-propositions.
Asking yourself the following questions may help you think critically about your material and identify some potential arguments:
- How can I bring together the various different ideas that interest me about my topic?
- What difficulties am I experiencing in organizing my material, comparing texts or coming to conclusions about them? Are these difficulties significant, i.e. do they tell me something interesting about the nature of the material I am dealing with?
- Did my reading and research throw up anything unexpected?
- What are the polemical aspects of this topic? How can I bring out those contradictions, account for them or investigate them further?
- How do my interpretations converge or diverge from analysis that has already been published on the topic?
- Does my analysis support one or more viewpoints in an existing critical or theoretical debate in the wider field?
Writing summary statements
You need to reach the stage at which you can reduce your argument(s) down to one or more full sentences. Imagine explaining the central idea of your dissertation to a supervisor or fellow student. Try to express your main argument in a couple of summary sentences, and then expand these into four or five sentences, giving greater detail or including sub-points. It is best to have a draft of your summary sentences ready before you start writing, as this will dictate how you should organize your material. But it is entirely normal (and very healthy!) for your ideas to change as you start writing. If that happens, simply go back to your summary and your plan and make sure they reflect your current thinking. It is also very common (and again, a good sign) for your argument to change or develop quite radically after you have composed your first draft. Think of it as a continual, circular process: of refining your summary argument(s), which leads to changes in your written draft, which lead to further refinements of your argument(s), which lead to more alterations to the draft, etc.
Producing original work
You will see from the Faculty marking criteria that the best dissertations make some kind of original contribution to the subject. This is what is meant in the criteria by references to an ‘individual argument’, a ‘new approach’, or work that is ‘independent and enterprising’.
The challenge of coming up with an original argument or approach for your dissertation can seem extremely daunting, but the following clarifications may help.
Originality does not need to mean coming up with a world-shattering new theory which will change the direction of your discipline. It can emerge through:
- the careful comparison of different texts or critical viewpoints
- reading a text in the light of a new or revised critical framework, or a particular set of concepts/theories
- tracing links between a text and its context
- taking an idea already outlined by a critic and developing their insights further, either in relation to the same text(s) or different ones
If you feel that everything has already been said, take some time to go back to your primary texts and think critically about what has been published on them. The analyses you have read might be accurate, but is there another side to the story? Is there a different emphasis you could bring to balance the perspectives offered by other critics? Have they ignored some contradictions in the text(s)?
Structuring your ideas
The structure of your dissertation should be determined to a large degree by your argument. A dissertation should not be the sum of your knowledge of a topic, but a highly selective set of analyses which drive towards a specific conclusion. This means that some points or sections may need to be eliminated as – although interesting – they do not contribute to your main argument and are therefore irrelevant.
Keeping your central thesis in mind, think about the best order for your points and sections.
- Do you need to set up one idea before you can introduce another?
- If you are focusing on two or more texts, are you going to analyse them sequentially, or divide your material according to a thematic structure? Think about the pros and cons of these different structures: the first may allow you to present the analysis of individual texts more coherently, while the second may allow you to build a progressive argument more clearly.
- If you are engaging in a polemical debate, it is often more effective to set out the arguments of the opposing view first and then move on to suggest problems with these and/or to construct an alternative argument.
Do not be surprised if structuring your dissertation presents a significant challenge: it is very likely to do so. This is partly ...
- because you will have had much less (or no) experience of writing a piece of this length.
- because it is a challenge which is intrinsic to the exercise – the critics whose work you have been reading have almost certainly gone through the same experience. Battling with your structure is part of the important brainwork behind a longer piece of writing. When you are struggling to decide where points fit, you are also deciding on the hierarchy of ideas in your dissertation: what is more or less important, which points are related to others, and how they contribute to a final, coherent, cumulative argument. There are no short cuts to this process: be patient and be prepared for some brain-crunching as you sort through ideas and gradually shape them into a suitable order.
- because the nature of texts, ideas or historical events mean that they do not always fit into our neat categories. This is what makes them interesting! If you get stuck, try thinking about why they don’t fit – can you take a step back and write about why a text resists interpretation in a specific way, or why a text you are comparing with others really won’t fit into the categories you have set up? Often such questions lead on to some revealing conclusions.
It is often a good idea to divide your material into separate chapters or use sub-headings. These help to guide the reader through your work. Even if you decide not to use them in your final version, they can be helpful to you as you go through the drafting stages.