A chapter is a discrete unit of a research report or thesis, and it needs to be able to be read as such.
Your examiners may read your thesis abstract, introduction and conclusion first, but then they may come back weeks later and read a chapter at random, or select one that they are interested in (Mullins & Kiley, 2002). This means that each chapter needs to be easy to read, without the reader having to reread the thesis’ introduction to remember what it is about. At the same time, it needs to be clear how the chapter contributes to the development of your overall thesis argument. In the following pages you'll find advice on how to effectively plan and structure your chapters, commuicate and develop your argument with authority, and create clarity and cohesion within your chapters.
When it comes to structuring a chapter, a chapter should:
- have an introduction that indicates the chapter’s argument / key message
- clearly address part of the thesis’ overall research question/s or aim/s
- use a structure that persuades the reader of the argument
- have a conclusion that sums up the chapter’s contribution to the thesis and shows the link to the next chapter.
To make your chapter easy to read, an introduction, body and conclusion is needed. The introduction should give an overview of how the chapter contributes to your thesis. In a chapter introduction, it works well to explain how the chapter answers or contributes to the overall research question. That way, the reader is reminded of your thesis’ purpose and they can understand why this chapter is relevant to it. Before writing, make an outline and show it to a friend or supervisor to test the persuasiveness of the chapter’s structure.
The chapter’s body should develop the key message logically and persuasively. The sequence of sections and ideas is important to developing a persuasive and clear argument. When outlining your chapter, carefully consider the order in which you will present the information. Ask yourself these questions.
- Would it make your analysis clearer and more convincing to organise your chapter by themes rather than chronologically?
- If you were demonstrating why a particular case study contradicts extant theoretical literature, would it be better to organise the chapter into themes toshow how the case study relates to the literature in respect to each theme, rather than having a dense literature review at the beginning of the chapter?
- Is a brief literature review at the beginning of the chapter necessary and sufficient to establish the key ideas that the chapter’s analysis develops?
- What is the best order to convince readers of your overall point?
Our friend the Thesis Whisperer has written about writing discussion chapters and discussion sections within chapters.
If used appropriately, subheadings can also be useful to help your reader to follow your line of argument, distinguish ideas and understand the key idea for each section. Subheadings should not be a substitute for flow or transitional sentences however. In general, substantive discussion should follow a subheading. Use your opening paragraph to a new section to introduce the key ideas that will be developed so that your readers do not get lost or are left wondering how the ideas build on what's already covered. How you connect the different sections of your paper is especially important in a long piece of writing like a chapter.
Paragraphing techniques are essential to develop a persuasive and coherent argument within your chapters. Each paragraph needs to present one main idea. Each paragraph needs to have a topic sentence and supporting evidence, and a final sentence that might summarise that idea, emphasise its significance, draw a conclusion or create a link to the next idea. Using language that shows the connections between ideas can be helpful for developing chapter flow and cohesion.
As suggested in our page on thesis structures, a good way to test out the persuasiveness and logic of your chapter is to talk it over with a friend or colleague. Try to explain the chapter’s purpose and argument, and give your key reasons for your argument. Ask them whether it makes sense, or whether there are any ideas that weren’t clear. If you find that you express your ideas differently and in a different order to how they’re written down, consider whether it would better to revise your argument and adjust the structure to persuasively and more logically make your case in writing.
In sum, when you plan, write and edit your chapter, think about your reader and what they need in order to understand your argument.
- Have you stated your chapter’s argument?
- Will a reader be able to identify how it contributes to the whole thesis’ research question/s or aim/s?
- Does your chapter flow logically from one idea to the next, and is it convincing?
- Finally, does it have a conclusion that pulls the chapter’s key points together and explains its connection to the next chapter?
These elements are central to helpfing your reader follow and be persuaded by your work.
- Mullins, G., & Kiley, M. (2002). 'It's a PhD, not a Nobel Prize': How experienced examiners assess research theses. Studies in Higher Education, 27(4), 369-386. doi:10.1080/0307507022000011507