Planning your thesis: three tips

Yes, I’m posting about how to plan a thesis a week after I posted about how to start writing one. No, that wasn’t a mistake. Why not? Because you can’t really start planning your thesis until you’ve developed some ideas about what you want to write about, and you can’t do that until you’ve started writing!

Your structured program and administrative deadlines will of course impose a schedule on your planning process (which can actually be very helpful), but don’t let them push you to start developing a plan too early. It really is more effective to start writing first and then use what you’ve learned from writing and discussions with your supervisors to develop your thesis plan. That way, your thesis will grow organically from your research rather than your research being warped to fit pre-existing ideas.

And while there’s no one right way to organise your thesis—the details of what goes into each chapter etc are up to you and to a certain extent your supervisors—here are my top three tips for managing the process of thesis planning.

1.Build in a word budget

It’s easy to lose track of scale when you’re working on a thesis, especially a PhD. An upper limit of 100,000 words looks like an impossible, unfillable amount—like you have all the room in the world to sprawl out and write about everything, as much or as little of it as you want. But one of the hallmarks of a good thesis is that its discussion is evenly balanced. So, when you start planning, always build a word budget into your plan, aiming for the lower end of the range for your degree to make sure that you have room to expand if needed. This allows you to do three things: keep all the parts of your thesis in balance by ensuring that each has roughly the same word count, identify when you’re having trouble developing a topic (if you can’t reach your word count without padding, this suggests that maybe it’s not substantial enough and needs to be rethought), and identify when you’ve gone massively over your word count and need to stop and rethink your plan.

A sample plan with word budget included might look something like this:

  • Introduction: ‘Fairy tales: a literary genre’. 5,000 wds.
  • Chapter 1: ‘Tales as old as time? The origins of fairy tales’. 9,000 wds.
  • Chapter 2: ‘Clever girls and cautionary tales: the French salons’. 9,000 wds.
  • Chapter 3: ‘Transcription vs editing: the Brothers Grimm’. 9,000 wds.
  • Chapter 4: ‘For children: Victorian and Edwardian England’. 9,000 wds.
  • Chapter 5: ‘American heroines: the Disneyfication of fairytales’. 9,000 wds.
  • Chapter 6: Reclaiming fairytales: writing back to Disney’. 9,000 wds.
  • Conclusion: ‘Subversive stories’. 3,000 wds.
  • Bibliography. N/A

Total word count: 62,000 words.

2.Respond to your research

Remember that your research and writing should shape your plan just as much as your plan will (eventually) structure your writing and research. A thesis plan is a living document. It should develop regularly, for at least the first third of your candidature—maybe more. And this doesn’t just mean the small details. Chapters may shift places, split up and recombine, vanish and reappear under other headings, and shrink or grow as you write. If they do, let it happen. Follow where they lead, and rethink the project around what they’re telling you as they do. You learn about your project through the process of writing it, always.

For example: In one of my thesis journals I still have an early version of my thesis plan. It includes a single chapter about tragedic and heroic narrative paradigms, orchestrator characters and female authors writing back to Tolkien. Yes, I really thought I could blast through all of that in 9,000 words (remember what I said last week about being embarrassingly naive?). But when I started reading more broadly in the relevant area, and more importantly when I started writing, I realised that I needed more space to deal with these ideas. First the tragedic villains required a more in-depth discussion. Then that grew into a complete chapter. Then I had to unpick all the variations on the comedic ethic, which required not one chapter, but three—one for each book I was studying. Then the orchestrator concept proved to be more complex than I’d originally anticipated and needed its own chapter too. Over time, that one optimistically-planned chapter grew to the point where it became almost my entire thesis (and yes, it was a much better thesis for doing so).

3.Be prepared to amputate

It always takes more words to write about a topic than you initially think it will, and most of the time that’s a good thing. For one thing, it tells you what you need to focus on. However, at the same time it’s also telling you something else: what to cut out.

A hundred thousand words doesn’t cover as much as you’d think. You’ll never be able to fit everything you want to write about inside that limit. So if a section of your plan is lying neglected because other things are (legitimately) pulling focus*, or if it’s starting to feel peripheral to your argument, or if you just can’t see any way you can do it justice along with everything else you want to write about, then it’s time to kill that darling. No matter how much you love the idea and tell yourself you want to write about it, the truth is, you’re not writing about it, and if it no longer fits organically into your developing plan, you have to let it go.

You don’t have to forget about these jettisoned ideas altogether—one of them might make a perfectly good paper some day, after all! But a thesis is a project with time, space and word count limits, and if you want to complete it you need to work within them. Be pragmatic. It helps.

Next week: writing tips and tricks

*It’s possible to get distracted and go down an unhelpful research path, but that’s why you need to stay in contact with your supervisors: they’ll help you spot if this is happening and correct your course.

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