By Susan Carter
In our writing class we were talking about the structure of academic writing. Although structure is a framework that can be revised through ordinary workerly diligence, its effect works at a deeper level, showing authority and conveying purpose. Carefully controlled structure will support the argumentation. Thus the structure of a research thesis–the overall shape and its framework joinery–is important to the success of the argument.
Ann tells of her experience back when she was a thesis writer: ‘I visualized the hard-bound thesis, complete with my name on the spine, as being an “argument” from beginning to end. I designed every chapter to have a punch-line, which would contribute one major argument in support of a holistic contention’ (Carter, Kelly & Brailsford, 2012: 56). Her envisioning ahead of doing (a helpful strategy in itself) shows she was aware of the need for structure to really work in holding the argument in place consistently right through the thesis.
It is a good idea for each chapter to be framed with an introduction and conclusion that deliberately takes the holistic argument forward. Often this will be installed only towards the end of the thesis writing process, as it is only then that the overarching argument becomes clear and, hopefully, well-articulated.
But a sentence that says what this chapter needs to contribute to the thesis written early on can also act as an anchor to hold the author to the chapter’s purpose. Usually somewhere along the route of thesis writing students will need to learn to cut back on what is not relevant to their research question, problem or hypotheses, their research and their argument. Knowing the precise purpose of the chapter can guide this cutting back.
Readers (and supervisors) vary in terms of how much they like to have a mini-roadmap at the start of each chapter. Giving two or three sentences to how the chapter’s argument is made up, and the order of what is coming, always seems sensible and courteous to me, although some readers hope to be held on the argument’s path by the riveting quality of the prose and its unmistakable drive forward alone. Examiners, though, often read the thesis they are evaluating at night when they are tired and in short bursts: it never hurts to remind them where they are.
A firm line of argument can be held in place by the use of subtitles and what Elizabeth Rankin calls ‘echo links’ (Rankin, 2001: 30), clusters of words embedded within the thesis rather than placed in subtitles that assure the reader the themes within the argument are woven consistently throughout. Barry White (2011: 132) gives examples of what he calls ‘preview, overview and recall.’ White scripts an example of preview and overview:
The following analysis is presented in two stages. In the first the current perspectives on…are evaluated. The second is a critical evaluation of….In this chapter the reason for….has been discussed. In the next section, this discussion will be elaborated by…
His example of recall is ‘back in the introduction.’ In our class, a nice example of recall was found when we looked at introductions and conclusions in articles chosen for their strength: the conclusion began, ‘To return to our research question….’ Linkages like this can be installed during the final revision process, when one sweep through the entire thing could be with the purpose to check for structure and to install linkages.
I guess the main point of this post is to emphasise that structure should relate to the argument and purpose of the thesis. The conventional headings of introduction, literature review, methods, findings, discussion and conclusion do this to some extent: they signal covertly that this written work describes an authentic bit of research that is contextualised within its discourse and follows acceptable methods in its epistemology. But that just focuses on the thesis as a thesis. The reader wants to know what its original contribution to knowledge is, that is, what argument it is putting forward. I recommend that thesis writers deliberately and decisively make use of structure to very clearly show the argument that their research allows them to make.
Carter, S., Kelly, F. and Brailsford, I. (2012). Structuring Your Research Thesis. London: Palgrave Macmillan.
Rankin, E. The Work of Writing: Insights and Strategies for Academics and Professionals. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
White, B. (2011). Mapping Your Thesis: Techniques and Rhetorics for Masters and Doctoral Researchers. Camberwell: ACER.