11. The Second Draft – Refining Structure and Arguments

This is the eleventh article in the fourteen-part series ‘Dissertation Writing from Start to Finish’. For the full list of articles click here

In this article we’re going to discuss how you go from a first draft towards the finished article, by considering some prompts for refining your dissertation’s structure and arguments. You might also find the First Article in this series, on mental models, helpful in this regard.

By this time in your dissertation-writing journey (roughly early Feb for a mid-March hand-in) you should have a decent amount written down. Now is the moment to step back and see the wood for the trees, to see your project in its totality. This meta step will take your dissertation to a whole new level. Only once you identify the current imbalances and imperfections can you then work to improve them.

You might for example ask yourself “Does the structure of my project somehow perform the content of the argument?” For example, if you were trying to show the progression of an author’s writing over time, it might make sense to take their books chronologically. By contrast, if you were discussing how an author conjured a sense of place, the order in which they wrote their books is largely irrelevant. You might instead find it more useful to structure your dissertation by focusing on different kinds of place. 

Next, have a think about how your chapters flow into each other. Do the chapter units fit into the overall plan? This structure should be obvious to the reader, both from how the chapters are organised in the table of contents, and from how each paragraph is organised within those chapters. 

You might also ask yourself “What is the interplay between general claims and close analysis? Does one lead into the other?” If not, and you find that for example you have chunked them neatly into separate sections, you might want to intersperse them more evenly and create clear linkages between the two so that your project reads smoothly.

Finally, consider the balance of the project. Where you put more words is where the reader (the marker) will spend more of their time; length is a proxy for importance. With this in mind you must, first, identify the ‘dynamite’ bits in your project, the bits that really make it sing, and second flesh them out properly. By the same token, less important bits should be afforded the bare minimum words to make them make sense. You can take this one step further; if something’s not essential, and isn’t helping to prove your point, why is it there?

Next steps

Thank you so much for reading, and I hope this was helpful in testing your understanding of your own project, and hopefully allowing you to refine it.

In the next article we’ll discuss why signposting and cross-referencing are so important for making your dissertation cohere into a single, whole piece of work, and some practical tips for doing just that; read it here.

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