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Faculty of Modern and Medieval Languages

 

Planning your dissertation: Constructing an argument

Identifying an argument

Ultimately, you are aiming to produce a series of propositions in relation to your material: usually a main proposition (thesis or argument) with some sub-propositions.

Asking yourself the following questions may help you think critically about your material and identify some potential arguments:

  • How can I bring together the various different ideas that interest me about my topic?
  • What difficulties am I experiencing in organising my material, comparing texts or coming to conclusions about them? Are these difficulties significant, i.e. do they tell me something interesting about the nature of the material I am dealing with?
  • Did my reading and research throw up anything unexpected?
  • What are the polemical aspects of this topic? How can I bring out those contradictions, account for them or investigate them further?
  • How do my interpretations converge or diverge from analysis that has already been published on the topic?
  • Does my analysis support one or more viewpoints in an existing critical or theoretical debate in the wider field?

Writing summary statements

You need to reach the stage at which you can reduce your argument(s) down to one or more full sentences. Imagine explaining the central idea of your dissertation to a supervisor or fellow student. Try to express your main argument in a couple of summary sentences, and then expand these into four or five sentences, giving greater detail or including sub-points. It is best to have a draft of your summary sentences ready before you start writing, as this will dictate how you should organize your material. But it is entirely normal (and very healthy!) for your ideas to change as you start writing. If that happens, simply go back to your summary and your plan and make sure they reflect your current thinking. It is also very common (and again, a good sign) for your argument to change or develop quite radically after you have composed your first draft. Think of it as a continual, circular process: of refining your summary argument(s), which leads to changes in your written draft, which lead to further refinements of your argument(s), which lead to more alterations to the draft, etc.