Visualizing the ‘Through-Thread’

If you’ve read books / gone to workshops / heard supervisors talk about the thesis as a genre, you’ve almost certainly learned the importance of having a consistent line of argument throughout your thesis.

This idea is often expressed through the metaphor of the ‘through-thread’ (sometimes called the ‘red thread’). In theory, this ‘thread’ of argument runs through your whole thesis and ties each part together. And that’s all very well and good, for a theory. But it can be hard to see how that works in practice, for your own thesis.

How can one write a thread? *Shakes fist at metaphor*

I find it helpful to picture the through-thread as an actual, physical thread binding my thesis. This happens to be easy to visualize because, in traditional book binding, there really is a thread (several, actually… but we’ll get to that) holding all the pages together.

Book binding works* by securing together sets of pages called ‘signatures.’ Each signature of, say, 12 pages is folded into a V shape. The signatures are stacked together to form the pages of the book. Before a cover is applied, the signatures are stitched together in two ways: a thread is sewn through each individual signature; and a master thread is sewn through the bindings of all the individual signatures to secure them together. You can watch the process in action here, if you’re interested.

If you think of your thesis chapters as the signatures (little portions) of your book (thesis), then the exact same kind of thread is needed within your writing. Each chapter needs its own individual thread; the idea that holds it together. And each of those chapters needs to be anchored by one master thread that binds the whole thesis.

The master thread is absolutely critical. If you try to clump your signatures (chapters) together and glue them into a book (thesis) without that thread, you’ll have a falling-apart mess. A master thread is, broadly, the central argument of your thesis. Say for instance you want to prove that bumblebees have a more advanced navigational ability than previously known. That is your central argument — your master thread — and it needs to be stitched through every chapter. Individual chapters will have their own threads as well (perhaps one chapter argues that bumblebee anatomy is well-suited to navigation; perhaps another demonstrates experimental results showing their navigational proficiency, etc). But the master thread unites them all.

Here’s the catch though: every single chapter needs to be sewn in to that master thread. It doesn’t matter how well the chapter’s (signature’s) individual thread is sewn; if it’s not stitched into the master thread, then it will simply fall out of the book. That means that whatever your central argument, each chapter needs to reference it and support it. If a chapter doesn’t support that core argument, it’s probably a tangent and examiners are likely to question why it’s included.

It can be helpful to articulate your master thread and your individual chapter threads as you plan your thesis structure. Identify the keywords that you need to repeat and emphasize; and work them into one-sentence summaries of your through-threads. Pin them up in your office. Then when you feel yourself going off on a tangent (ahem, I might have been guilty of this a lot during my own thesis writing) you can bring yourself back to your thread. That will give you a great chance of producing what examiners often refer to admiringly as a ‘tight’ thesis – one that is bound securely to its central argument.

OK, I hope this article has helped you cotton on to the concept of the through-thread. I’ll stop stringing you along now and weave you to your writing. (Yes, I can sense you rolling your eyes at your screen right now, but we both know you’re in stitches.)

*There are quite a few different methods of book binding, but this is a common traditional one. If you’re interested in paper crafts, YouTube offers many pleasant rabbit holes of book binding tutorials. Look for coptic stitch or kettle stitch methods for a good DIY introduction to home book binding.

About Anaise Irvine

Dr Anaise Irvine is the Editor of Thesislink and leads the Researcher Education and Development team at Auckland University of Technology. Her PhD research analysed how contemporary films and novels represent genetic engineering as a social justice issue. These days she works with researchers at all levels to improve their research skills, and the most obscure of her own research skills is being able to turn novels into phylogenetic trees!

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