There are two aspects of flow that are important in a thesis. ‘Flow’ makes sure that the reader does not get stuck between the cracks of the chapters and can move easily from one to the other. So each chapter must follow logically from the previous one, while also making a specific contribution to the overall argument. But it is also crucial to get flow IN the chapters as well as between them. This allows your reader to follow along with what you’re saying, rather than falling down a rabbit hole in the middle of things.
In this post I consider two ways in which you can use chapter headings to check whether a first chapter draft needs revisions in order to achieve better internal flow. I also offer a third which you can follow up elsewhere.
Now in order to do the kind of checking I’m suggesting, you need to leave the first draft of your chapter for a few days after you’ve finished it so you can get a bit of distance from it. If you are still wallowing around in the text you’ll be unable to read it again as if it was written by someone else. And that’s what required. You need to mentally position yourself as a fresh reader of the you that did the writing a few days ago.
Here are two related strategies that the now-you can use to check how well the previous-you did at achieving internal flow. (As always, the caveat here is that these are not the only strategies around, but they are ones that a lot of writers find helpful.)
Strategy One: Strip the headings
Stripping the headings is a kind of grounded theory approach to your writing – it works from the actual text upwards. Your text without headings is the ground… and you can now read this text without its headings and thematise the writing you have actually done. Stripping out the headings allows you to re-read the substance of each move in the chapter and see what the headings SHOULD be to describe each actual move. You generate the heading that suits the point the section is actually making.
Once this is done, you can compare the new headings to the ones that you initially wrote – are they the same or different? If there are differences you need to decide what the problem is – is it the original heading that is the problem or the content?
- If the new heading is different from the original, ask yourself if you now have a better heading.
- Is it the case that you didn’t actually write what you intended to write about? If you meandered, is it a problem? Is what is there now better than your original idea?
- If the new section if better than you originally planned, do you need to adjust your chapter plan – has the argument changed?
- Or perhaps, was the original plan better? And if so, do you need to rewrite the section so that it matches your original heading?
Bad old heading, good section = rewrite heading/use new heading.
Bad section, good old heading = leave original heading, rewrite section and check the overview at the start.
But… If you do think you need to change the actual sections then you also need to see whether this affects the overall flow of the chapter. Should the moves still be in the same order as before? You can now use the headings you’ve decided on to check this.Strategy two can be done as stand-alone process, or after strategy one.
Strategy Two: Strip the content
Cut and paste the introduction, then all of the headings and subheadings, and then the conclusion into a separate document. Now read through them to see if you can follow the argument being made.
There are two kinds of questions to ask here:
(1) Is the sequence of the headings right or do you need to alter the order? This is about the logic, the way that you build up the points one after the other so that the reader has a cumulative understanding of the bigger point you are making. You need to get this bit in order to understand the next bit… and so on.
(2) Does each heading actually say what is said in the section it refers to? Are there enough key words, and enough narrative to give a flavour of the point being made in the section? (You might find this post on titles from Write4research helpful) Remember that someone should be able to make sense of the flow of the argument just by reading the beginning, headings and end. ‘Clever’ headings or on word technical descriptions often don’t do this.
These two questions help you check whether the reader can progress smoothly all the way through the chapter.
You might also want to try Strategy Three: Reverse Outlines
This is a process that Rachel Cayley advocates in her blog explorations of style. The notion of a reverse outline is to signal that, rather than use an outline to write the chapter, you use an outline to check on the writing you’ve done. You might want to read Rachel’s explanation of reverse outline in full. The reverse outline works right down to paragraph level and its topic sentences and it is a very helpful way to check on how the sections under each of the headings work and flow.
P. S. And a further caveat – if you are using a more creative approach to your chapters, then you might want sharp juxtapositions between sections. If this is so, then this is not the set of strategies for you!