The Importance of Story

The argument you make in your dissertation is a lot of things.

As we covered last week, a dissertation is proof that you can produce new knowledge.

It shows that you have the resiliency and resourcefulness to conduct research and translate it to other experts.

It is proof that you can find and assess relevant secondary literature. It shows that you can identify and address a gap in your field. It shows that you can make a compelling, original argument.

Among all the other things that your dissertation is, it is, also, a story.

All good arguments are stories. They start by telling you how the world is. They end by telling you how the world should be different. Throughout, they tell you why things were the way they were and why they should change.

Because a dissertation is so many things the story part of the argument can get lost.

The biggest problem for writers at all levels is forgetting that other people aren’t in their own heads. I see this in my freshmen students, in myself, and in my coaching clients. In my experience this problem, endemic to all writers, is exacerbated in people who are writing dissertations. 

The dissertation process is designed to turn you into an expert in your field. In practice that means that you’ve spent years learning more and more about your subject and it can be all to easy to forget that the things that are basic knowledge for you are not widely known.

For instance, in my own work, I often have to remember that, while most people have a working definition of virginity, they don’t know that virginity is a term that has no fixed medical or moral definition. 

I guest lectured on this in a colleague’s class yesterday. I was doing a basic lecture I love to give about how virginity is far more important to your life than you think it is.

[SHAMELESS PLUG: I would be happy to video conferenceand give this lecture for you and/or record a version for your class.]

To do this lecture we first start with federal guidelines surrounding sex education in the United States and explain how they are related to the ideology of virginity. From there we look at how virginity, in practice, is a concept only applied to women’s bodies. Then we talk about women’s bodies and sexuality in patriarchal systems.

This is often the part where I find myself educating a room full of legal adults on the difference between the vagina and the vulva, what a hymen is, and where there is no fixed definition of virginity in either medical or religious literatures.

All of the concepts in the last paragraph are foundational to my research and my dissertation argument. None of them are common knowledge (EVEN IF THEY SHOULD BE, DAMMIT).

At the dissertation level, our research is so specialized that even our committee, made up of experts in related fields, often don’t know a lot of the basics of our subject.

In the meantime, we, as researchers and authors, can feel like we are drowning in details that NEED TO BE SHARED WITH THE WORLD and we run into twin difficulties. First, we forget what our readers don’t know. Second, we forget how to prioritize the information we need them to know.

Approaching your dissertation as a story you’re telling can solve both of these problems. 

In addition, approaching your dissertation as a narrative can help you break down a complex, difficult process. Because we are all familiar with stories, because stories are the fundamental form of human knowledge sharing, conceptualizing your dissertation as a story takes a process you will only ever do once and allows you to conceptualize it in terms of a form you are intimately familiar with.

I’ll show you how thinking of your dissertation as a story can help while using my own dissertation as an example. 

When you’re telling a story the first step is to decide what genre your story is. Is it a romance or a mystery? Is it a biography or an autobiography? Is it a suspense novel or a how-to manual? Is it a mix of genres?

In my own case, my dissertation was mostly a manifesto with a little bit of autobiography and a little bit of how-to manual thrown in. 

Once you know what your genre is you can move on to step two: plotting your story. Whatever type of story your dissertation is there are some things are common to ALL stories. The first thing you have to do is establish the stakes for your audience. Why is this story interesting? Why is it important? This is also the place to introduce your key actors, essential concepts, and necessary definitions just as a good fiction author would.

For example, in the introduction to my dissertation, I establish that the stakes of not understanding virginity are both national and personal and effects both women and men. I define how I use the terms “virgin” and “virginity” throughout and I briefly discuss the key actors/concepts I will discuss in later chapters. A little thoughtful foreshadowing, if you will.

In step three, you work on your plotting. For instance, do you tell the story straight through like The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe or do you shift point of view between chapters like A Game of Thrones? Do you follow a linear timeline or do you move forward and back in time? Does your story need an appendix like the Lord of the Rings series needs The Silmarillion

Once you know these things you can start to organize all of your data so that your reader can follow the story of your dissertation. 

In my dissertation I proceeded in a mostly linear fashion but shifting point of view slightly between chapters.

Thinking of your dissertation as a story you tell can help you make progress when you’re stuck because, while we rarely read dissertations, we consume stories constantly from novels to commercials. Knowing how to proceed with a dissertation can be difficult but knowing how to proceed with a story is, while not necessarily easier, much more familiar. 

Even if you’ve made significant progress on your dissertation you can use the story framework to help you in your edits. Read it as a story. Does it make sense? Do you know all the characters and all the story points you need to follow the plot/argument?

If you want more help on how thinking of your dissertation as a story can help you make progress and make your writing stronger use our Contact form to sign up for our FREE Dissertation as Story webinar!

 

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