A lot of our editing clients at Ideas on Fire are working on their book or dissertation, and although they love their project, they hit a wall when it comes time to find a framework for all the research questions, objects, and ideas they have gathered. They’re sitting on pages and pages of brainstorming sketches, notes, potential outlines, and paragraphs on various topics but have yet to find the big, overarching structure or framework that ties all that stuff together into a cohesive manuscript. So here’s how to create a strong dissertation or book structure.
Gather and Describe Your Archival Objects
Your archive is the stuff—the primary sources—that you are actually making claims about. Depending on your (inter)discipline, your archive might include ethnographic interview transcripts, legal statutes or course transcripts, websites, novels, live performances you attended or have records of, polling data, activist ephemera like event fliers or programs, podcast or television episodes, video game content, films, or musical scores or recordings.
Your archive might also include scholarly material if your argument is ABOUT that scholarly material, as is the case with many theoretical or philosophical projects (so a scholarly text can be your primary source even if it would be a secondary source for someone doing a different kind of project).
Sit down with those objects and write out some thick descriptions of them. What do they look, sound, smell, taste, or feel like? Who made them, when, and where? Who is the audience for them and how do you know that? What are the major themes present in those objects? For example, if you’re looking at immigration laws from a particular time period, what are the major issues, population groups, and ideologies they address?
Find Common Themes
Once you’ve gone through your archival objects, created thick descriptions of them, and listed out their major themes, see what common themes show up across them.
Maybe you find that a set of immigration laws, a particular season of a television show, and a series of activist fliers all address the same theme of police violence.
Or maybe you discover that many different archival objects from a particular decade use similar language, despite being different in form and creator.
Cull Your Objects According to Themes
Not all of your objects will fit into common themes. And not all themes will have the same number of objects associated with them. That’s okay.
The objects that don’t share a common theme with any of your other objects should probably be left for another project. They don’t fit into your book/dissertation’s topic. They may be awesome, fascinating objects about which you have tons to say. But if they don’t have any kin among your other archival objects, they don’t fit here. Instead, you can talk about them in a separate journal article, blog post, or digital project, or leave them for your next book.
For themes that only have a few objects, or a notably fewer number than the other themes, see if there are any new objects you could add to bulk that group up. Alternatively, you could cut those lighter themes and leave them for another project.
Order Your Themes
Take your now-trimmed-down themes and put them in a logical order according to how a reader would experience them, where theme 1 flows into theme 2, which flows into theme 3, etc.
Pay particular attention to the information a reader would need to already have to understand a particular theme, and then make sure your previous themes provide that information. What are points 1–3 your reader needs to understand point 4? Let that logic guide your ordering.
Find Your Big Overarching Theme
Once you have ordered your themes, ask yourself what the big, overarching theme that links all of those smaller themes together. That’s your book’s framework. It is literally the frame that focuses the reader’s attention on what you want them to focus on.
Think about a photograph: from a given view, there are a million different photographs you could take. The photographic frame limits the viewer’s eye, causing them to focus on a specific view. That’s the job of your book’s frame, and you find it by drawing out that overarching theme.
Craft Your Argument
Your frame, topic, or theme is not the same thing as your argument.
Your frame and topic pose questions—you might have these written out as research questions, you might use them to guiding your close reading or interviews, and you’ll return to them over and over as you write.
But your argument is your ANSWER to those questions. If your topic is how queer disabled dancers navigate identity in the Bay Area dance scene, your argument is your take on how exactly they do that: these dancers do this by XYZ.
With this process, your framework and argument emerge from your objects, and you then use that framework and argument to guide your argument and analysis. And this way you can see what fits in this project and what would be better left for another one.
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