One of the things inexperienced writers struggle the most with is getting the structure right!
And I’m not talking about… ‘first comes the introduction, then the literature review, then the methods, data analysis, results and so on’…
That’s the easy bit. Everyone gets that.
I’m talking about writing the actual chapters and arranging your content in a way that makes sense. That’s when the text suddenly loses its structure. And like a body without skeleton, the whole thing just falls apart.
If you constantly receive feedback along the lines… ‘this chapter is unclear’… ‘there are lots of repetitions’… ‘I cannot see where you are going here’… ‘what is the point you are trying to make?’… ‘I think these paragraphs completely lack focus’… chances are the problem may be in the structure (or rather lack thereof!).
In fact, these are just a few examples of the feedback some of the students I coach receive from their supervisors.
It is frustrating, both for the students and for their supervisor.
So what I try to do first and foremost when I work with these students is to take them through a process of creating a structure.
I do not claim that this is the only way to do it, but it works for me. And for my students.
I describe it here in the hope that it can help you too.
1. Make a mind map.
Mind maps are a great tool to quickly generate a comprehensive overview of what you want to put in your chapter. One of the main advantages of this approach is its ‘scalability’. You can use a mind map for your entire thesis, for an individual chapter, or even for a section. The principles remain exactly the same. If you have never done one before, here are some practical tips.
Take a piece of paper (landscape orientation works best) and write in the middle the core topic. For example, literature review, or data analysis, or the name of whatever other chapter you are working on.
From this central ‘node’, start drawing a line (just like the branch of a tree) and at its end write one of the topics that you want to include in this particular chapter. This could be one section. From there, branch out to other bits that should be included in that particular section: draw one branch per item. If appropriate, you may also link items with other lines, just to show that there is a connection or a relation between the two.
When you have exhausted all the topics for that section, move back to the main node (your chapter) and start another branch: a new section. Again branch out with its sub-branches to the various bits that will go into this other section.
Keep going until you think you have included all your key ingredients in your map.
For example, If you are trying to write a literature review to discuss the experience of women in the labor market in your country, your mind map may look something like this:
2. Revise your mind map to give it some structure
Most likely your mind map will look rather messy. That’s fine! That’s how is should be.
Remember, a mind map is a visual representation of what you have in your mind when it comes to ‘which items am I going to include/present/discuss in this chapter?’.
But probably, there will be far too many details that you do not want to have into the actual layout of your chapter.
So, an intermediate step may be needed before you get to your final goal (i.e. producing a layout of the chapter’s structure): re-arrange the various nodes and possibly cut down some branches.
This doesn’t mean you are going to leave out the corresponding topics from your text, but you will leave them out from your layout.
A revised version of your mind map may look like this:
3. Turn your mind map into a structured layout
Now it’s time to create your chapter’s layout. This is critical because it will provide the bare bones structure for your ‘meat’.
Unlike a mind map, a layout represents an ordered and logical (I repeat, ordered and logical) sequence of the topics in your chapter.
It will showcase the content in a way that should (ideally!) make sense for your reader.
So, this step now is all about looking at the mind map you have just produced and decide which box (with its branches) comes first (in a logical sequence).
Say you are describing the situation of women’s employment in your country and want to compare it to that in different welfare state types.
A good logical sequence would be to provide a brief general introduction about different welfare states FIRST, and THEN about the specific situation in your country. (Remember: always from the general to the specific)
Proceed like this until you have covered all the main nodes (and their main branches) in your mind map.
Your chapter layout may now look something like this (in fact, this is just an excerpt of the full chapter):
Make sure your sections and sub-sections titles are clear and sufficiently descriptive so that your reader can quickly figure out what he/she can expect to find in them.
Eh voila’! Your chapter’s structure is laid out nicely before you.
At this point – I hope – it will become a lot easier to see what goes where and to write each section accordingly. You will avoid un-necessary repetitions and deliver your reader a much better (and clearer!) experience.
Also, once you know what the overall length of your document should be, you can plan more carefully for how many pages each section should be!
I hope this helps. If you have questions, please post them in the comments below.
[Note: the examples in this post were taken from real case drafts and have been reproduced with the author's permission]
PS If you found this post useful, you may also like: City Maps and Theses Layouts, Mastering the Art: The Two Stages of Writing, and What Can Celebrity Chefs Teach You About Writing