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February 28, 2014 / Matthew Wolf-Meyer

The 5-Page Dissertation

Starting to write a dissertation is a daunting project. I’m all about formal conceits, though, and find that they can be very helpful in making dissertation writing a much more agreeable process. With my own dissertation, I used a method that relied on 5-page, case-oriented sections (which I’ll describe a bit below, and which you can still see the remnants of in the structure and content of The Slumbering Masses; if you feel really daring, you could also look at my actual dissertation). Each chapter of my dissertation was comprised of 5 or more of these 5-page sections, as well as an introduction and conclusion. All in all, my dissertation ended up being comprised of more than 50 of these 5-page sections, which included evidence assembled from fieldnotes, interview transcripts, and archival and textual content.

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Not every section adhered to a strict 5 pages, but my general rule was that if it was less than 5 pages long, then it wasn’t enough to count as a section — so it either needed to be paired with other data, or it needed to be expanded with more data or analysis. If it is longer than 5 pages by more than a couple of pages — i.e. it was closer to 10 pages than 5 — then it would need to be broken into two smaller sections that were clearly argued.

My general writing philosophy is that no one wants to read  about any one thing for more than 5 pages, and even if they do, they forget why they’re reading about it after page 5. So, both for the purpose of keeping people interested in your dissertation, and making sure they know what they’re reading what they’re reading, 5 page sections make sense.

Sections like I’m describing can also be fairly easy and stress-free to write. If, at the beginning of your dissertation writing, you can set aside theoretical concerns and structural conceits, writing up evidence in this 5-page case fashion can go fairly quickly. Yes, you’re deferring the heavy lifting, but it means that by the time you get to the analytic work, you have a significant amount of data, and a clear sense of what’s going into the dissertation (evidence-wise).

There’s also inherent modularity to 5-page sections. That is, if you need to move content from one chapter to another, if it’s in 5-page chunks, it’s relatively easy to relocate, and usually only requires a little rewriting in the section’s introductory and concluding paragraphs (and maybe in some of the analytic sections).

So, how did I (and how might you) structure 5-page sections?

I always tell people who are writing their dissertations to start with the evidence: just start writing up fieldnotes and transcribing interviews, beginning with the stuff that really stands out, and working from there. Don’t worry about why you’re writing this stuff up, just focus on assembling evidence. These nuggets of evidence provide the basis for your 5-page sections. These initial evidence-focused drafts can be quite short, anywhere from 1 page to 3 or 4. If they get longer than that, think about where it might be broken into 2 sections for the purpose of later development.

As you write these small sections, it’s worth marking them with keywords — these can be very straightforward descriptors or theoretical terms — which you can then use to move to the next stage. If you compile all of your sections into one document, it also makes it easy to keyword search for sections that might be associated with one another.

Once you have a significant number of these 5-page sections written (say 20 to begin with), you can start to arrange them into the skeletal framework of chapters based on similarities in themes or content. On first pass, each chapter probably needs 3-4 sections; as you move ahead, you might write new sections to complement the ones you already have, or move sections from one chapter to another. It will also become increasingly clear what other evidence you need to type up, so although you might only start with 20 or so sections written, by the end of the process you’ll have significantly more.

After assembling skeletal chapters, you can begin to write the analytic content for each of the sections and work on tying them together. This is the real difficult part of the process, and nothing makes it easier. But having solid evidence-based sections will ensure that there’s a firm foundation for each of the chapters.

You might also find that you end up with a number of sections that don’t ultimately fit into the dissertation. This isn’t cause for alarm, but instead might provide the basis for future articles or book chapters. Dissertation writing is about creating an archive of content that you can mine over the next five or more years (when the likelihood of new research opportunities is low), so the more you have by the time you finish your dissertation, the better. It doesn’t all need to be in the dissertation though, so don’t worry about producing too much since you’ll inevitably find uses for it.

Any questions about the process? Other suggestions for how to tackle dissertation writing? Desire to read a whole How-To book about the idea of dissertation writing this way and possible strategies? Post everything in the comments.

For another approach, check this out.

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