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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