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Faculty of Modern and Medieval Languages and Linguistics


Planning your dissertation: 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.