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English Dissertation Introductions

Writing a thesis, or indeed an academic book, means constructing an extended argument. One common problem in writing a very long text is that it’s not hard in 80,000 to 100,000 words for the reader to get lost in between chapters – they aren’t sure of the connection of one to the other and of how they work together to advance the case being made, move by move. And sometimes the writer can get lost too! That’s because chapters are often written in a different order to the order in which they are read, and sometimes they are written at very different times. Of course, sometimes the text is written straight through. But whatever the circumstances, it’s easy for both reader and writer to get lost in the overall argument because there is just soooo much detail to cover.

Here is one way to address the getting lost problem and one that many thesis writers find helpful. Confident and clever writers will find their own way to connect chapters together, but if you’re feeling a bit stuck this will help. It’s just a simple frame to use at the beginning of each new chapter. The frame – link, focus, overview – can be used for writing the first draft of the whole text. Because it’s a bit formulaic, it’s helpful to play with it on the second and third drafts so it reads more easily. But even when playing with it, keep the three moves because this is a good way to keep yourself as writer, and the reader, on track.

Paragraph One: LINK
Make a connection to what has immediately gone before. Recap the last chapter. In the last chapter I showed that… Having argued in the previous chapter that… As a result of x, which I established in the last chapter….. It is also possible to make a link between this chapter and the whole argument… The first step in answering my research question (repeat question) .. was to.. . In the last chapter I …

Paragraph Two: FOCUS
Now focus the reader’s attention on what this chapter is specifically going to do and why it is important. In this chapter I will examine.. I will present… I will report … This is crucial in (aim of thesis/research question) in order to….

Paragraph Three: OVERVIEW
The third paragraph simply outlines the way that you are going to achieve the aim spelled out in the previous paragraph. It’s really just a statement of the contents in the order that the reader will encounter them. It is important to state these not simply as topics, but actually how they build up the internal chapter argument… I will begin by examining the definitions of, then move to seeing how these were applied… I first of all explain my orientation to the research process, positioning myself as a critical scholar.. I then explain the methodology that I used in the research, arguing that ethnography was the most suitable approach to provide answers to the question of…

Now, as I said, this is pretty mechanical and it doesn’t make for riveting reading. It’s meant for conventional theses and not those that break the mould. However, the bottom line is that it’s better to be dull and establish coherence and flow between chapters, than to have the reader, particularly if it’s your supervisor or the examiner, wondering what’s going on and how what they are now reading links back to what has gone before, and what the chapter is going to do. And if you’re the writer, it really does help keep you on the straight and narrow.

This post is the first of a four part series suggesting one strategy for achieving flow. Read the rest here, here and here.

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The introduction to your dissertation or thesis may well be the last part that you complete, excepting perhaps the abstract. However, it should not be the last part that you think about.

You should write a draft of your introduction very early on, perhaps as early as when you submit your research proposal, to set out a broad outline of your ideas, why you want to study this area, and what you hope to explore and/or establish.

You can, and should, update your introduction several times as your ideas develop. Keeping the introduction in mind will help you to ensure that your research stays on track.

The introduction provides the rationale for your dissertation, thesis or other research project: what you are trying to answer and why it is important to do this research.

Your introduction should contain a clear statement of the research question and the aims of the research (closely related to the question).

It should also introduce and briefly review the literature on your topic to show what is already known and explain the theoretical framework. If there are theoretical debates in the literature, then the introduction is a good place for the researcher to give his or her own perspective in conjunction with the literature review section of the dissertation.

The introduction should also indicate how your piece of research will contribute to the theoretical understanding of the topic.


Drawing on your Research Proposal

The introduction to your dissertation or thesis will probably draw heavily on your research proposal.

If you haven't already written a research proposal see our page Writing a Research Proposal for some ideas.

The introduction needs to set the scene for the later work and give a broad idea of the arguments and/or research that preceded yours. It should give some idea of why you chose to study this area, giving a flavour of the literature, and what you hoped to find out.

Warning!


Don’t include too many citations in your introduction: this is your summary of why you want to study this area, and what questions you hope to address. Any citations are only to set the context, and you should leave the bulk of the literature for a later section.

 

Unlike your research proposal, however, you have now completed the work. This means that your introduction can be much clearer about what exactly you chose to investigate and the precise scope of your work.

Remember, whenever you actually write it, that, for the reader, the introduction is the start of the journey through your work. Although you can give a flavour of the outcomes of your research, you should not include any detailed results or conclusions.

Some good ideas for making your introduction strong include:

  • An interesting opening sentence that will hold the attention of your reader.
  • Don’t try to say everything in the introduction, but do outline the broad thrust of your work and argument.
  • Make sure that you don’t promise anything that can’t be delivered later.
  • Keep the language straightforward. Although you should do this throughout, it is especially important for the introduction.

Top Tip:


Your introduction is the reader’s ‘door’ into your thesis or dissertation. It therefore needs to make sense to the non-expert. Ask a friend to read it for you, and see if they can understand it easily.

 

At the end of the introduction, it is also usual to set out an outline of the rest of the dissertation.

This can be as simple as ‘Chapter 2 discusses my chosen methodology, Chapter 3 sets out my results, and Chapter 4 discusses the results and draws conclusions’.

However, if your thesis is ordered by themes, then a more complex outline may be necessary.


Drafting and Redrafting

As with any other piece of writing, redrafting and editing will improve your text.

This is especially important for the introduction because it needs to hold your reader’s attention and lead them into your research.

The best way to ensure that you can do this is to give yourself enough time to write a really good introduction, including several redrafts.

Do not view the introduction as a last minute job.

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