how to write my introduction?
April 24, 2012 5:35 PM   Subscribe

Advice for writing introduction (and conclusion) for humanities PhD dissertation?

I am trying to finish my PhD dissertation (humanities, not sciences). It's going well..chapters are all done, but now I'm trying to crank out the introduction and I haven't started the conclusion yet. I'm completely bogged down trying to summarize the arguments because the repetition of what I've already written in the chapters is making me insane. I can't seem to find new ways to say the same things and the exact same phrases and sentence constructions keep popping out. Does anyone who has written a PhD have tips for how to do the introduction? Conclusion advice would also be much appreciated.
posted by aunt_winnifred to Writing & Language (7 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
So first of all you need to step away from it all for a bit. A month would be ideal. Maybe while your supervisor reads the other chapters? Or if that isn't possible, even a week.

Then try to decide what the whole main point is of your dissertation. What would you say if you had to describe it in one sentence? Three sentences? What do you think is the biggest thing that readers will take away from it? That is the hook to build your intro and conclusion around. Start by outlining it, then build the rest of the intro up as providing the necessary background a reader would need to understand your diss in terms of that main point/argument. Then build a case that argues that this is what your dissertation has said, and that goes in the conclusion.

Don't be afraid to write crappy intros and conclusions. They can be fixed. The intro is the most important part, because your examiners will read that first and probably already start deciding whether to pass you. And don't worry about repeating yourself to what seems like a stupid degree. It seems repetitive to you because you are so familiar with what you have said elsewhere, and you feel like you wrote it all multiple times (because you did, by revising it). It will be fresh to your readers.
posted by lollusc at 5:59 PM on April 24, 2012 [2 favorites]

As someone who just successfully defended a humanities Ph.D. dissertation, I will echo lollusc's advice. The easy part of the intro and conclusion was giving an outline of what the chapters argued; I just generated that part by looking through my table of contents and giving a couple of sentences for each subheading. The part that required actual thinking was identifying the couple of major claims that the dissertation made, and describing why those things mattered.

For the intro, start with writing bold, unsubstantiated claims. You can temper them as you revise, but to get started pretend that you're bragging at the bar with some of your grad school friends about how awesome your work is. Why is this dissertation awesome? What's the cool thing you are doing that no one else has figured out? If you need to have a couple of glasses of wine to get into the right frame of mind, that's perfectly acceptable.

For the conclusion, the piece of advice from my director that really helped was to ask myself what I thought was important, especially if I didn't realize how important it was while I was writing the dissertation. Those points became the foundation for my discussion of what the significance of the dissertation was and how it set up important topics for future research.

Finally, I want to doubly echo the advice to not be afraid of crappy intros and conclusions. I wrote more drafts of the first two pages of the intro than I wrote of any other part of the dissertation. The first versions were painfully awkward. But, each version got better, and I needed to work through the bad versions—on paper—in order to get to the final product that I felt was actually respectable.
posted by philosophygeek at 6:54 PM on April 24, 2012 [2 favorites]

That was the advice I got, too: the intro is for the boldest version of your claims, stated nakedly, the conclusion is usually more of an "afterward" or "coda," a short, airy meditation on another direction you might have gone in (or that you might go in next). Both are best relatively short.

Seconding too that you don't have to worry about them being bad. All dissertations are bad! The point is to get through it and then start thinking about the book.
posted by gerryblog at 7:32 PM on April 24, 2012

Think about your outside reader's perspective, if you have an outside reader. Or the dean who might have to approve your hiring, if you're applying for academic jobs. Is there any historical or disciplinary context that this person, a smart and well-educated reader from outside your specialization, needs in order to fully appreciate what you accomplish in the dissertation? The introduction is a good place to set that up.

The intro is also a good place to explain which paths you chose not to go down, and why. Other scholars have done work in the general area of your topic: what are the strengths and shortcomings of their approaches? What have you taken from them, and where have you decided to turn in new directions? You've probably already addressed some of these questions in the chapters, but take one step back and give a slightly broader view.

The conclusion is a good place to explain which paths you haven't gone down yet, but might in the future. While I was writing my dissertation, I collected from other people (audiences for my conference talks, e.g.) lots of suggestions for related lines of inquiry that I didn't want to incorporate into my main argument, but that sounded intriguing or just needed to be acknowledged in the manner of, "well, obviously you can't talk about X without thinking about Y." The afterword—I didn't call it a conclusion, and my committee was fine with that—became a catchment for these ideas, where I'd lightly explore each tangent for a paragraph or two.
posted by Orinda at 8:46 PM on April 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

One more thing. You might need to end up pulling some material OUT of the later chapters and putting it into the intro and conclusion instead. Look at the intro and conclusion to each individual chapter for this. It's common when you write a chapter to feel like it needs to be able to stand on its own, so people typically put too much background in, and then feel like they have to repeat that in the intro. But now that you are wrapping the whole thing up, the chapters DON'T have to stand on their own anymore, so make that work for you.

(I had a crappy intro and conclusion to mine, by the way, (but still passed) and made it a bazillion times better later for the published book. But I could only do that by getting the distance from the material that a few years gave me. It's okay if you aren't there yet.)
posted by lollusc at 1:27 AM on April 25, 2012

All of the above advice is great.

One additional thought: I always expected to write a conclusion, even though there's plenty of precedent for humanities dissertations not to have one. At the end, I couldn't bring myself to do one, and nobody on my committee ever asked about it. Maybe yours is demanding one, but I've never regretted simply ending with the last chapter.
posted by Beardman at 6:25 AM on April 25, 2012

Response by poster: These are all 'best answers'. thank you so much! I feel a LOT more cheerful now... and I see a way to move forward that I couldn't see before. Yer awesome.
posted by aunt_winnifred at 7:32 AM on April 25, 2012

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