3 ways to write a history dissertation chapter

1

I wrote my first chapter last year while I was still doing research. I had my dissertation map all filled out, but it was a less-structured tip from a friend that helped me actually begin. She suggested that I think of an anecdote, moment, or event that was a window onto what I wanted the chapter as a whole to say. I could start writing by narrating that moment and then let the chapter develop from there.

I chose a moment and told the story, then drawing in other primary sources that I felt helped explain this original anecdote. I developed the structure as I added more and more primary sources. The first version of the chapter was long and very fun to write. But as you could guess, it didn’t have much of an argument: analytically, I didn’t know where I was going when I began writing.

I now had to figure out what the analytic through-line could be and weave that into the text. This meant lots of reorganizing and rewriting the introduction and conclusion. It was hard to incorporate a lens onto the evidence when I didn’t have it in mind when I first chose and wrote about the sources. But the benefit of starting this way? I broke the ice and enjoyed the first part of the writing process. As I’ve written more since then, it gets easier to see how to revise that chapter in the future.

2

By the time I was ready to start the second chapter, I decided that I wanted to have an argument before, not after, diving into close analysis of my primary sources. This time, I started by studying a concept that I wanted to use in the chapter. Then, I wrote a version of the chapter introduction, laying out for myself the chapter’s argument and structure. Only then did I start to work with my sources and add them in to the text.

As I read sources carefully, I realized that the argument wasn’t quite working. I changed the introduction and then went back to analyzing more sources. I ended up rewriting the introduction many times as the chapter grew longer. This was helpful to keep the balance between a) having a direction and a point and b) actually having evidence to make that point. But I felt frustrated about so much rewriting, and once again, I found it a challenge to settle on the structure of the chapter. On the other hand, I wrote the second chapter much faster than the first, and I felt more satisfied with the argument in the end.

3

I wanted to try something else for chapter 3. I’d realized that both of my entry points into chapters–working with analysis and argument, and working with evidence and narration–were essential for me to think through my ideas, but maybe I didn’t need to ask the earliest text I wrote to ultimately become part of the chapter.

To begin writing-for-thinking, I created two documents, one for analytic brainstorming, and one for what I called source narration–writing about my primary sources. For about a month, I added things to both documents. I wrote in full sentences, completely cited my sources, and organized the evidence into categories. But I didn’t expect any of the text I produced to be my chapter. I didn’t want to feel attached to the language or organization I used while I was thinking things through.

Only then did I begin to consider how to structure the chapter. It wasn’t how I had organized the sources in the source narration document, after all: it was a better structure that fit the argument I was honing in on. Then, I made an outline for the chapter that I actually followed.

I got to work writing the sections, using a different document for each section to encourage me to just focus on one part at a time. By this time, I was teaching, so having manageable chunks to tackle helped a lot as I juggled multiple responsibilities. As I wrote, I pulled in sentences and citations from the source narration document and avoided having to go back to the original. I didn’t often open the analytic brainstorming document, but that work influenced what I wrote in the actual chapter. Once I had written all the sections–first the body sections, then the chapter introduction and conclusion–I finally put them all together. I removed some redundancies, and added a few things that seemed to be missing as the whole coalesced from the parts.

The final revisions to the chapter involved adding in some more evidence and context, sharpening and modifying some arguments, and revising some of the analytic language. The revisions felt easier than what I’d done for chapters 1 and 2. I liked that this method first gave me time to process ideas and documents in an unstructured, low-stakes way, and then encouraged me to write at a faster pace with less rewriting. (Of course, it will get revised again down the line.)

*

After a few days of work on chapter 4, I seem to be trying some new and some old tricks for the next part of the dissertation. I’m not sure the approaches I’ve used progress from worst to best–maybe some topics, arguments, or moments in the writing process are better suited to some strategies than to others. As I’ve experimented, I’ve written in my journal–the research journal has become a writing journal–about what I’m doing and how I feel it’s working. I’ve also shared my work at different stages in Google Chat meetings with colleagues/friends, had conversations with committee members, and presented at public workshops. Both affirmation and criticism from my readers have helped me to figure out what to do next. Introspection and sharing have been key complementary activities to writing dissertation chapters no matter what strategy I use.

I don’t expect to ever settle on one way to write a chapter, and I think that doing something different each time has helped me to stay engaged through this long process.

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The Dissertation Planning Map: Moving from Research to Writing

In December, having finished six months of archival research, I decided it was time to get ready to write my dissertation. I was about to leave for Mexico City, and I set a goal for myself: in addition to researching while in Mexico, I wanted to have one chapter drafted and a solid plan for the others by the time I came back to the United States.

I had a chapter outline in my dissertation proposal, but of course, ideas change and develop as the research progresses. So I decided to make a new outline, not for my committee, but for myself. I had two objectives for this outline: it had to help me prioritize my archival research, and it had to help me figure out which chapter I should write first.

It ended up as a big chart that I am calling the Dissertation Planning Map. You can download a blank one here, but basically, it looks like this:

dissertation_planning_map_image

This chart traces out not just the chapter structure of the dissertation but also the work accomplished and still to be done to actually write each chapter. Each row is basically a chapter outline that includes the title, time period covered, research questions, provisional argument/thesis, the chapter’s relation to the dissertation as a whole, the sources to use (whether collected or not), and the secondary literature the chapter will draw from and engage with.

I spent a few weeks coming back to the chart periodically and trying to fill in all of the boxes. Sometimes I focused on a single chapter (row) or took a category, like sources already collected, and filled out the boxes for one column. I didn’t worry about how clever or well-substantiated the arguments were since no one else was going to look at it. I knew that it was provisional, and I forced myself to write something in every box.

As I filled in the boxes, I continued to adjust the chapters and actually came up with a new way to organize several chapters that I had been struggling to untangle. Something about the grid helped me figure out a part of my project that I had not been able to sort out from simply narrating the structure in the dissertation proposal.

From the sources columns, it became very clear that my top research priority in Mexico needed to be gathering sources from the beginning and end of my chronological period—I discovered that I had many, many sources for the period 1920-1950 and not so many before or after.

I also realized that it was the second chapter that would be the best place to start writing because I felt the most confidence in its “provisional argument” and already had most of the sources I would need to write it.

With this preparation done, I arrived in Mexico City knowing what archival materials I wanted to look for first, and after getting settled, a few weeks ago I took the step of opening a blank Word document and putting “Chapter 2” at the top of the page, and I started writing.

After just a few hours of work, I realized that the provisional argument from the chart needed to be modified, but it helped to have somewhere to start. As I continue to write, I also find that knowing what the other chapters will discuss allows me to focus on the current chapter’s argument: when looking at a particular event or source, I know what I do not need to say now in chapter 2 because it belongs in chapter 1 or 3.

Recently, I revisited the planning map after letting it sit for two months. Because I had done some archival research in Mexico by that point, I moved some sources from the “Still Needed” to the “Already Collected” column. I adjusted some chapter arguments. I plan to come back to the map every few months to think through structural issues and record my progress with the research.

In my own planning map as well as the blank one I am sharing, I put some extra rows to fill out later on for conference papers and journal articles. These could be versions of the current chapters or other spin-off topics that do not fit into the dissertation’s structure.

The planning map has helped me keep the big picture in mind as I am combining research and writing. Now I tag sources I find in the archive with the chapter I think they’ll be most useful for. It has made it much easier to give the elevator pitch about my project. Knowing that the project is still malleable, too, takes some of the pressure off: in April, I’ll go back to the chart again, and there will be another chance to make it work better.

Let me know if you like the idea, or if you have other ways to plan that worked well as you wrote your own dissertation.