A thesis is a long and complex document that often presents very difficult and challenging ideas. Breaking those ideas down into easily digestible chunks – i.e. chapters – will help your readers to make sense of the whole.
But even an individual chapter is still a long piece of writing – often in the ballpark of 5,000 – 15,000 words. It needs some kind of internal structure to keep it well-ordered.
The opening of a chapter is a great place to ‘signpost’ what you’ve covered, what you’re going to cover, your key points, the direction of your argument, and any upcoming conclusions. It’s also a good place to signal why the content of the chapter is significant, and how it relates to your research questions.
A simple formula for beginners
I have a simple trick that I use when I’m totally uninspired with a particular chapter opening. I call it my “backwards-forwards-map” method. It’s a formula for opening a new chapter so as to create linkages between chapters, and set the agenda for the content within the chapter. It goes like this:
Backwards: “In the previous chapter, I discussed…”
Forwards: “In this chapter, I will discuss…”
Map: “I will structure this chapter as follows…”
Now of course, you wouldn’t want to use those exact words – that would be far too mechanical. But the basic idea is that, when you start writing a new chapter, you need to first look back at what you’ve already covered (backwards); then look ahead to what you are going to cover within that chapter (forwards); then provide the reader with a preview of how you’re going to cover it (map).
This is a very basic take on opening a new chapter, and it won’t create mind-blowingly original writing. But it will ensure that your writing has good flow from one chapter to another, and is easy to follow. It’s a particularly useful technique in a first draft, where you need to get your content in order. Once you’ve mastered this basic formula though, it’s time to mix it up.
Chapter openings for confident writers
If you are a more experienced writer, you may want to move beyond formulae and experiment with a number of different ways of opening chapters. Different disciplines have different standards for chapter openings, and your supervisor will be able to help you to determine what you can (and can’t) get away with. But as long as your chapters maintain that all-important through-thread of the whole thesis, you can usually take some creative liberties. Here are some chapter opening techniques you may like to try out.
The bold claim: If the body of your chapter proves a point, try stating that point boldly right up front. As long as you have solid evidence to back you up, the bold claim can be a strong and assertive chapter opening.
The springboard quote/s: Open on a significant quote from a scholar, an interview transcript, or a piece of source material. Then use that quote to ‘springboard’ into your main points for the chapter. If your chapter deals with contradictions, you may even like to choose two quotes which appear to disagree with each other. This can be more or less acceptable depending on your field, but is quite common in the humanities.
The pick-up: Try mentioning a point you made in an earlier chapter, and building upon it in a new way. This creates continuity and connects the chapter to the whole thesis. It can also jog your readers’ memories if you need to work with an idea you’ve covered several chapters back.
The anecdote: Begin your chapter by telling a story that relates to the content which will follow. I once started a chapter about depictions of scientists in books and films by describing an experiment in which a real-life scientist tried to ‘reanimate’ frogs’ legs using an electrical charge. The story was interesting and created a strong visual image; but more importantly, it related to my subsequent points about how fictional scientists are often inspired by historical figures. This can be a risky strategy – and again, not appropriate for all disciplines – but rewarding if done well.
However you choose to open your chapter, be sure that you guide your readers smoothly through your thesis. There should be a logical progression from each chapter to the next, and it should be clear to your readers how each chapter contributes to your overall claims.