The fragmented narrative: writing out of order

I finished a chapter of my dissertation late last semester, the first portion of it I’ve completed. The first draft was seventy-nine pages long. After an admirably quick turnaround from my adviser and a couple other readers, I tightened and polished and cut and paste (see here) and got the thing down to a nice, lean seventy pages, ripe for mining for conference presentations, and full of nuggets that I used to go back and redraft my prospectus-cum-introduction.

Now it’s on to chapter one. What I’ve completed will turn out to be either chapter three or (more likely) chapter four, depending on whether or not I eventually produce a setting-the-stage chapter. A few other grad students in my department seemed mildly surprised that I began with a chapter that will ultimately be two thirds of the way through the finished diss, and as I wrote I sympathized with some of their points – I am going to have to go back and edit out passages like “Henry van Dyke, who became pastor of the Brick Church in 1881,” and re-reading it I wonder if I’ve already cited some of the best primary source gems that I might want to use earlier on. Because of that I’ve decided to take a crack at chapter one next.

But another point that I’ve often heard doesn’t seem to ring true to me. A Europeanist friend of mine said that he conceived of his dissertation as a single sustained narrative, a story that went on for three hundred pages. Writing out of order, he said, would disrupt that flow – both in his argument and for him as a reader as well as a writer, someone who is telling the story to himself. My dissertation, on the other hand, feels more like a connected series of essays to me; it’s topically organized first and chronologically organized second.

After I pulled my head out of the archives, it was chapter three/four that felt the most compelling to me, the one for whom the sources cried out to be used. So I wrote it first. A gut decision, I think, but one that I feel okay about going forward.

How did you (or will you) write your dissertation? In order, out of order? Why

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4 Responses to The fragmented narrative: writing out of order

  1. Jana says:

    Good question! One of my committee members suggested that I begin with the chapter that was the most interesting to me, so that’s what I’ve done (you and I are in about the same spot right now–finishing the first chapter). If I end up putting the chapters in a roughly chronological order, this will not be chapter 1. But I’m thinking it might work best as #1 because of the way it’s setting up the larger story of my project.

    So, really, I’m just not sure yet. But ask me again in a year and I will be :)

  2. thefrogprincess says:

    I’m finishing my first chapter too and it will either be my last chapter or the first chapter of my last section. Like you, my dissertation is more of a collection of interrelated essays or case studies so it didn’t really matter where I started. I’m in the middle of research at the moment so my choice in writing is dictated by the research I’ve done so far. This particular case study had been a last minute addition to the prospectus and I knew significantly less about it than some of the other topics. So I decided to do the research for what I knew the least about first and now I’m writing a chapter about it.

    I’m glad, though, that I’m not working in a strictly linear way because, when the inevitable restructuring of my dissertation happens, I’ll be less wedded to any one particular narrative.

  3. Christopher says:

    I’m a lowly MA student, so I can only speak to my experience writing my thesis, but the first chapter I wrote was the third chapter (out of four). I actually chose to write it first because it was one of the most interesting to me, because it was one that I felt made a real contribution to the literature on the subject, and because my thesis is not arranged chronologically.

    But the next chapter I started writing is the first chapter (for many of the reasons you cite, Matt).

  4. wilko says:

    I’ve finished my diss a couple of years ago, but I remember that it had been suggested by my supervisor and by another professor (alas both geographers and not historians) in Cambridge to start from the chapters about the case studies and first hand archival research “to have a story to tell”, and keep stage setting and methodology for a later point, when it was clear to me what I really needed to explain chapters 3 and 4.

    I am working now on transforming the diss into a book, and again I have started from chapters 3 and 4, i.e. from the “story”.