Planning and writing a thesis with a table of contents

This is the time of year when our Masters students are starting to think about how they’re going to write their theses. It can be a daunting concept! Having essentially learnt what ‘not to do’ when writing my own MA thesis, I decided early on in my PhD to write and actively work with a table of contents. The idea for this came from several excellent books I read on writing, including Harry Wolcott’s Writing Up Qualitative Research, Joan Bolker’s Writing Your Dissertation in 15 Minutes a Day, and Laurel Richardon’s Writing: A Method of Inquiry.

To begin with, I spent one pomodoro (a 25-minute dedicated writing block) working on my table of contents every month. I would send it to my supervisors as a way for them to see how my work was progressing. Doing a table of contents helped me keep the big picture in mind and be a more productive, focused writer.

My first table of contents looked like this:


It gave me a way of grouping together the key themes I thought would appear in my thesis. When I sat down to read or write or analyse data, I would try to focus on one particular theme or section at a time. For example, after preparing this table of contents I spent about a month reading and thinking and writing about hope as an analytical concept. Of course I would get bored with one topic and go off on tangents into other areas, but I always felt like I had this tangential reading under control because I could see how it might eventually fit into my table of contents.

After a couple of months I changed the format quite significantly. I found that using numbers to label the chapters made me feel as though I had to keep the topics in that numerical order, when in fact I wanted to move them up and down and to the side. So I named all of the chapters by colour rather than number. This gave me much more freedom to move them around as my ideas developed. I also decided to add a title, write an abstract, and assign word lengths to each chapter. It started looking like this:


Not long after I sent this version to my supervisors, they asked me to write a short description under each chapter heading explaining what it would contain. I thought this was a great idea and pretty soon my table of contents ballooned from a 1-page document to 7-8 pages in length. I spent a day putting together the first full table of contents into this style. I wrote at least one page under each chapter heading, outlining the aim of each chapter and how it contributed to my overall thesis aims as well as sketching what would be in it. As the months went by these descriptions became more and more concise (and I limited my table of contents work to one morning per month), and ended up being just a paragraph in length.

In the final, frantic, writing-up year of my thesis, I still revisited my table of contents every month. My chapters were taking shape so I listed the subheadings as bullet-points under each chapter title. I had decided to divide my thesis into four sections by then so under each section heading I wrote what its central questions would be, as well as my proposed answer. I also developed two new sections: Overall Thesis Aims (1 paragraph long) and Brief Descriptions of Parts I-IV (three paragraphs long). At the start of my final year it looked something like this:


I used the table of contents as a way of organising how I wrote. Breaking down chapters into subsections make the writing task feel more manageable, and each day I would set myself writing goals that would directly contribute to the thesis. For example, I would aim to write 500 words on fieldwork in multiple sites. Once I had done that, I was able to tick something off my to-do list and feel a small sense of accomplishment.

As my thesis submission date drew near, I stopped working on a separate table of contents and compiled everything into one long Word document. The abstract I had been refining each month became the final version in my thesis. The work I had been doing on Overall Thesis Aims and Brief Descriptions of Parts I-IV became part of my Introduction. In fact, I used most of the text from my tables of contents in my thesis, often at the start or end of my chapters.

Working with a table of contents was a useful way for me to conceptualise such a large piece of work as a unified whole. I’m a bit of a control freak so another benefit was that it let me maintain the illusion of control over what can be a very messy process. It also allowed my supervisors see how the pieces of work I would send them (in no particular order) fit into the overall thesis.

I’m keen to find out about the kinds of strategies others used to pull together a MA or PhD thesis. Did you work with a table of contents? How did you map it out? I would love to hear from you!

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