Friday, September 12, 2008

The Order of Things

In what order should one write the different parts of the dissertation?
Is there a best order in which to write your chapters?

One simple answer is to write everything at once. But that's a problematic answer for several reasons. It's an answer that makes most sense on the large-scale, in terms of your time and project management over the course of months. On the scale of how you spend your day's writing time, you'll need to focus on one piece.

Another simple answer would be to say that there is no simple answer to this--that each situation is different and each writer's task order will be different. This simple answer is not based on simplistic reasoning, nor on a desire to evade the question, but rather on premises suggested by Horst Rittel, who suggested that the design process could not accurately be described in terms of a sequence of phases, but rather at any time the designer might be called upon to engage in any number of different tasks. (I would have to digress through several paragraphs here to give a more detailed discussion of why I think Rittel's premise is relevant to the question of which chapter to write first; I am not interested in writing those paragraphs right now, however, as I would rather keep my focus on the question of which chapter to write first.)

Neither of those two simple answers is satisfactory, because they don't really provide enough information to help a writer plan out their writing practice.

One thing to do is consider the structure and type of the dissertation, because different structures will present different issues to the writer. The structure of a dissertation describing an empirical study is different from the structure of a dissertation examining a body of literature, or describing a history. But I don't want to go into the details of any specific type of dissertation, rather I want to talk about my first simple answer a little more.

Basically, I think that writers should try to write the whole thing at once. What do I mean by that? Instead of thinking about getting one chapter done and then moving on, I like to think in terms of cycles of review and revision: you should have at least two or three in the course of writing your dissertation. For each cycle you want to bring all the chapters up to an equal level of development and sophistication before going back and trying to rewrite any one chapter.

The way I see it the really difficult things about the dissertation project are 1) the size of the project and 2) learning to develop your own voice and express your own view of the world.

The two points are related: the dissertation is a larger project than most dissertation writers have ever undertaken (and the same is true, most likely for the average writer of any sort of thesis, whether for an undergraduate degree or a Master's). The challenge is not writing a sufficient number of pages--most students have already written enough pages over the course of their academic career--the challenge is making those pages all work together. Making them work together depends on our developing our own coherent vision of the project--a sense of purpose and our own voice about what needs to be said.

Writing a dissertation is a project that extends over a long period of time, and if you're writing throughout that period you're going to learn a lot about your project. And in learning, you will come to see the project differently than you did in the past (that's what learning is), and therefore what you have written in the first chapter you wrote may not match with the last chapter you wrote. Therefore, it is my opinion that one try to bring the whole project--all the chapters up to the same level of completeness, and once you have done so, then you start reworking all the chapters, using the insights you've gained through the process of writing.

For empirical studies, you have to propose first, so you obviously can't write all the chapters to the same level of completeness before your propose, but you can write the first three chapters together (Intro, LitReview, Methods).

The question that prompted this blog entry was from a writer who is writing up an empirical study, and who has a book that suggests that one start by writing the literature review. My first response--noted above--is to disagree. My third response (no, I've not forgotten the second--I'm just mentioning them out of order) is to note that there are many different ways to accomplish a project, and I know the author of the book has a good deal of practical experience working with writers, so there's got to be some value in the suggestion; it may well have worked for many people. My second response is that my experience shows that many writers can fall into the literature review trap: getting lost in the whole literature and not knowing when to stop with the literature and losing their own voice in the attempt to discuss the voices of others--it is this, I suppose that is my greatest worry on the practical level: unless one writes the literature review in the right frame of mind, one can lose one's own voice (see my previous comments on the literature review).

The insights that one gets from writing the introduction and methods chapters of the proposal for an empirical study help inform and shape the material in the literature review. Of course the writing of the literature review also helps inform the writing of the introduction and the methods.

It is my working presumption that anyone embarking on writing a dissertation has already done significant research and should be able to write a scholarly draft using the material he or she already has. This does not mean that the writer won't want to to do more reading and research during the course of writing, but just that writers should start writing, and thereby start the process of developing cycles of review and revision.

Now, having said that I don't believe in any one right way to start, I will say that I recommend starting by trying to write a draft of an abstract or an introduction or something in between. The abstract and introduction are both condensed descriptions of the whole project--therefore in writing an abstract or introduction, you're actually also writing a plan for what you're going to do and write in your project as a whole. So you start by writing and abstract/introduction/plan of action, then you go on to try to write other chapters, then as you learn through the writing of the other chapters, you go back and revise your abstract/introduction and plan. This plan that you develop is aligned with your own voice, and when you have a plan it's easier to avoid getting lost in the literature review.

That's my take on it, but your mileage may vary. As I said earlier, it's quite possible that the insights of the other book, though different from mine, are, in fact, a viable way to proceed.

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