Organizing a major research project is often seen as a daunting task, especially since most researchers begin considering the question of organization after having gathered a large amount of information. As a result, it is natural for the material to seem—at first— disparate and disconnect, thus defying all attempts to shape it into a logical framework.
However, since the research, thoughts, data, and observations were collected with a research problem/issue/question in mind, there is usually a “thread” that would pull the material into a coherent whole—no matter how elusive the thread may seem.
When you begin thinking about the most effective way to organize your thoughts, you are essentially articulating an implicit argument, which explains the difficulty of identifying that elusive structure.
- Distinguish between format and organization. Your department or supervisor might ask you to adhere to a specific format. This does not mean you do not have to worry about organization. The format is a generic template meant to provide you with a general sequence of chapters. For instance, the first chapter should be an introduction while the second should contain a literature review. This does not tell you very much about the best way to structure the conceptual contents of your thesis/dissertation.
- Identify logical gaps. As you begin experimenting with different ways to structure your ideas, look for any “logical leaps” in the structure. These leaps are relatively easy to fix if identified early. They are often fixed by moving sections around or by adding an additional section. If not identified, they can undermine your overall argument.
- Justify the need for each section. Think of descriptions, examples, data, case studies, etc. as existing in order to support and advance an analytical point. If a descriptive section fails to meet this criterion, think whether it is indeed essential to your overall argument.
- Think of each section in relation to the central question/issue. Being able to link sections with the central question and/or argument would be an indication that your overall document is tightly connected—in other words, coherent.
- Decide whether you want/need a dedicated “literature review” chapter. In some disciplines, you are expected to have a chapter dedicated to existing research on the topic. Other disciplines give writers the flexibility to choose how they want to present that existing research. If you have that flexibility, you might choose to present existing research throughout the thesis/dissertation, in conjunction with the relevant discussion/analysis. Be sure to ask about your options, as choosing one of these options over the other can reshape your thesis/dissertation.
- Think about your organizational pattern in terms of both the concrete and the abstract. We spend most of our time thinking about our research in terms of the specific content. Practice translating that content into an abstract structure. For example, the abstract structure of a given section might take the following shape: problem/issue -> how should the issues/problem be addressed? -> existing approach 1 -> existing approach 2 -> critical assessments of both approaches -> proposed approach -> merits of proposed approach. Moving between the concrete and the abstract can help you identify issues in your structure and/or enhance the thought pattern you would like to follow.
- Make connections between the different parts of your material by thinking about relationships, commonalities, divergences, overlaps, oppositions, etc. Rather than structuring your writing by simply covering your material, cover the relationships between those different parts. Doing so will ensure your discussion/analysis is well synthesized.
- Practice articulating the relationship between the end of a section and the beginning of the next one. If you are able to do so, then your writing will be more likely to “flow.”
- Zoom in and out. As you write, think about both the specific task on which you are working as well as about the role that the task plays in the overall structure.
- Practice justifying your organizational pattern. Being able to articulate why you are organizing your ideas the way you do is a good sign that you are on the right track.
I. Create a tentative table of contents.
II. Write a “road map” section in which you elaborate on the overall structure.
III. Write a paragraph or two on each section in your table of contents.
IV. Add information (in bullet point format, if you wish) to each section.
V. Ask your supervisor, a colleague, or any conscientious reader you can find to critique your table of contents
VI. Make periodical revisions of your table of contents