There is nothing that I find more intimidating than the blank page staring me in the face when I sit down to start working on a new article or dissertation chapter. It's so hard to know where to begin! I always have so many ideas floating around my head, or research finds that I want to share, but figuring out where to start and how to structure my ideas is incredibly daunting. I find that I work best if I take a step back from my computer screen and start mapping and outlining.
When I begin a new writing project, I like to start with a concept map. My concept maps are similar to the process described here. I start with my first big idea, and jot down any words and ideas connected to it. I find that this process helps me get my ideas out of my head and onto the page. Writing them down in a natural and informal way also helps me see organic connections between concepts. My concept maps often end up looking fairly messy by the time I'm done with them: there will be arrows all over the place, pointing out connections between different concepts. Despite appearances, though, they're a big help in organizing my ideas as I start to think about the structure of a large writing project, like a dissertation or dissertation chapter. Getting all of my ideas out is a big source of dissertation help. You could also try using software like Scapple, which allows you to map your ideas on a computer.
Hierarchy of Ideas
When I map out my concepts and ideas the result often ends up looking somewhat circular: one idea might lead to another, then another, and then back again. But a dissertation chapter needs to unfold linearly: each idea must logically follow the next. My next step in coming up with an outline is creating my hierarchy of ideas. Starting with whatever my main point or thesis is, I put the concepts from my concept map in a sensible order. I choose the points that are most important as the primary ideas in my hierarchy. Under each of these, I list other ideas that must be included, but are subordinate to one of my primary ideas. This way, I come up with a list of points to make in my chapter, with sub-points under each. Check out the Purdue University Online Writing Lab's worksheet on using parallel structures in an outline for one way to structure a hierarchy of ideas.
Once I've established a hierarchy of ideas and points, I start thinking about what evidence I will use to prove each of my points. In some cases this will be primary source evidence, and in other cases, it may come from secondary sources that I read while doing research. I go through my outline and make note of what evidence I will use, and where I will put it. When possible, I'll include full quotations that I want to use.
Fill It In!
Once you've got your ideas in a sensible order, and have decided where you'll place your evidence, you should have a skeleton that you can fill in. It's so much easier to start writing a dissertation chapter from this kind of outline than it is from a blank page!
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