Outline

Today we have naming of parts. Yesterday
We had daily cleaning, and to-morrow morning
We shall have what to do after firing. But
Today we have naming of parts.
– Henry Reed

Today we have Outline.  Saturday we had Notes. Tomorrow we have Plan. But today we have Outline.

Something that supervisors are fond of saying, especially when students are in the slough of despondency is “I can see the thesis”, or perhaps “I can see the shape of it”. Quite often this is more than the student can see… (I’ve been on both sides of the utterance). I’ve mentioned before that the thesis is as much a part of the doctorate as the research itself. It seems strange in one sense that you don’t have an outline for your thesis from day one, but as the saying goes, if it was guaranteed to work first time, it would called search. You never quite know what is going to take up your time, where the challenges are going to lie and which bit of theory is going to tie your brain in knots.

Beginning your outline is the beginning of the end. Beware of the false dawn that a mid-point review (what used to be called ‘transfer’, once upon a time, and is now called ‘confirmation’, at my institution, at least) can present. This requires a report of its own – for some researchers this will be the first report they write. On the one hand, this report will provide much useful fodder for the final thesis; on the other, things will change a lot in the following 18-24 months and the structure will need to change, sometimes radically, in order to accommodate this.

For some people, myself included, one of the hardest parts in starting to write is setting out that brand new piece of paper/word document and having the blank whiteness (or, if you prefer, white blankness) staring back at you and putting trying to put the first words down on the page. I know that I feel that I want them to be meaningful and worthwhile. I have, to some extent, learned to suppress this – get any old thing down and then you can break that spell and move on. You can always delete those first words if they don’t, after all, fit.

One way of dealing with that, and perhaps having those first words be meaningful after all, is to know what you want to say, and one way to know what you want to say is to have an outline. I’ve mentioned previously that there are certain elements to a thesis which will always be the same, and there are some things which will always need to be included, even if you don’t present them in the ‘classic’ way. However, beginning your outline is the same for everyone: what chapters do you need? What are the chapter headings? At the chapter level, these are going to be fairly broad strokes, but it is useful to make the titles descriptive and meaningful, rather than just relying on a fairly bland and generic label. Then break down the individual chapters into meaningful sections and subsections. The cardinal rule is that these are here to help the information flow, not to disrupt it. Think about the logic of what you are trying to say, and the story that you are trying to tell. In a novel, or perhaps even non-fiction with some sort of dramatic intent, you might sometimes move around within the story’s internal chronology. In a thesis, you do not have to tell the story chronologically, but you do have to tell it in a logical and meaningful way. So for example, whilst a narrative version of the ‘Goldilocks and the Three Bears’ could start from any number of points, your thesis cannot start from the point of an empty bowl of porridge or a broken chair – you have to explain that there are three bowls/chairs, and why.

In some ways, your outline is an ordering of your notes (or at least some of them): it’s the point when you look at the cards in your hand and drop the ones that aren’t relevant or don’t carry their weight. It’s the point when you look through your portfolio of figures and micrographs and choose the ‘prettiest’ ones (that are still absolutely representative…) that are going to support your text, and work out what order they need to be in. It’s the point where you finally commit to a particular story – you know how it’s going to go, you just need to work out how you are going to get there.

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