Do “linking forward” at the ends of chapters instead

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In your PhD or large, non-fiction book every chapter needs to do a distinctive job. The ultimate low-energy way of beginning a new chapter is to say ‘As I discussed in the previous chapter, dum de dum de dum’. First, it’s a repetition and so could not be duller. Second, it mis-signals what you are actually going to be doing, here and now. To a reader it subliminally says, ‘Yet more of the same’, and so clashes immediately with the new chapter title just above. It also makes an extra hurdle for readers to jump over when you actually stop talking about the last chapter and start to try and discuss the one you’re now in.

So my advice is do the exact opposite of this. Always start a new chapter cleanly and in a high energy/ high impact way. The right kind of material here should both signal accurately the launching of a new topic, and motivate readers to keep on reading. Typical components that can help do this in creative non-fiction include:

  • an epigraph or in-text quotation, of a vivid or intriguing kind
  • some key statistic(s)
  • a dramatic exemplification of a process, e.g. a short, narrative mini-case
  • some kind of synoptic problem statement
  • a paradox.

This sort of start can engage readers’ attention at the same time as going straight into the subject matter of the new chapter, in an unmistakeable shift of focus.

After a high energy/high impact start, the second component to help launch the chapter is some ‘framing text’, which bridges to the main body of the argument to come. Framing text locates and normalizes the start component above in an accurately drawn set of boundaries for the chapter. You are still not linking back to anything, but instead looking forward, making clear what this chapter will focus on, going beyond the initial example or statistic or problem with which you launched. Framing text needs to be at least one paragraph, but (depending on need) it might run to two or even three pages. If you find it’s going longer then something is awry and you are actually getting into the main body of the chapter itself. In this case, you need to go back and decide where that main body text begins, and mark a sharp break here with your first sub-heading.

The third component of a chapter start should be a set of signposts that point the way to the sections of the main body text — usually 2, 3 or 4 sections in a chapter of (say) 8,000 to 12,000 words. Signposts are informative but brief. They are quick and easy to assimilate. They are not previews or mini-guidebooks to an argument to come. In real life, on a highway say, a signpost says ‘Birmingham’. It does not say: ‘Birmingham, a midlands UK city of 1 million people famous for its industrial heritage, whose key features include…’.

Now three things will be troubling some of you and raising questions: Question 1. If you are not linking back to previous chapters at the start of the chapter, where are such links being made? Answer: The place for links is at the end of chapters. Every Chapter needs a decent, substantive conclusion that does three things. First, it looks back over the main text of the current chapter to summarize and re-express in an accessible way its key findings and conclusions. Second, it makes links backward to earlier materials, showing how the current chapter builds on what has gone before, especially key themes from the opening chapter. It shows how the current chapter has advanced the overall argument of the thesis or book. And finally, at the very end of chapter x, in the closing paragraph(s), there should be links forward to the next chapter x+1. The secret of starting a fresh chapter cleanly is to have all the links already in place, at the end of the previous chapter.

Q2 If I am still in the middle of writing a PhD, don’t I always need to remind my supervisors or the members of my thesis committee of how each new chapter links back to previous materials? Surely then the first few paragraphs of my new chapter must inevitably do this job? Answer: at interim stages it is indeed vital to show these readers how your new chapter advances the overall argument and builds on what has come before. But you can far better do this by providing supervisors or committee members with a separate mini-document including an updated synopsis of the PhD, plus a contents page and a paragraph or two on ‘Where this chapter fits in the thesis as whole’. Usually you’ll also want to update the synopsis and contents page more widely than just the current chapter, so this is a useful opportunity .

Q3 How come you say the first-sub-heading in your chapter comes only after the high energy start, the framing text and the signposts? Surely, the first sub-heading must be ‘Introduction’ and comes at the very start of the chapter itself? Answer: No, nothing is more pointless and unnecessary, nothing is so boring, and nothing so quickly signals to readers a writer who is locked in conventionality than beginning a new chapter with a sub-heading ‘Introduction’. What else would text be at the start of a chapter but an introduction? You don’t need to highlight the completely obvious.

If you’d like to know more about these ideas, my book: Patrick Dunleavy, ‘Authoring a PhD’ (Palgrave, 2003) has more on structuring across and within chapters.