Top Ten questions to ask about your chapter start

Is it high energy and clear, or low energy and diffuse?

Readers of Masters dissertations, PhDs or serious non-fiction books focus a lot of attention on the beginnings and endings of chapters. They look to them to get a quick impression of what the new chapter is about. So chapter starts need to be designed with some extra care and attention. Is the very first opening paragraph, and then the whole start of your chapter, ‘high energy’ and clearly argued? Or is it alternatively, ‘low energy’ and pretty diffuse? Does it give a clear sense of progression, of your new chapter broaching a fresh subject and developing an argument? Or does it seem to start repetitively, with ‘more of the same’? Here are ten questions to help you assess how you have begun.

1. First few sentences are very carefully written (High energy) versus First few sentences are mundane, could be anywhere in the text (Low energy)

2. Chapter starts with something vital or out of the ordinary, something dramatizing or encapsulating the issues to be tackled. For instance, an example; an epigraph; a quotation in text; a conundrum or paradox; an incident; some key telling statistics (High energy). versus Text starts ‘This chapter will look at…’ or even worse ‘As I argued in the previous chapter..’. Deliberately dull beginnings. (Low energy)

3. The first paragraph signals immediately a change of focus, a fresh start for the Chapter - no backwards references to previous chapter(s). (High energy) versus Starts with backward reference to last chapter or earlier elements — worst case, whole first paragraph is about the previous chapter. Or some new content is signaled, but is buried away in the midst of other ‘confuser’ text. (Low energy)

4. First paragraph meshes closely with the chapter title — starts immediately to elucidate it or fill in content. (Clear and builds argument) versus Beginning has no obvious connection to the title or addresses apparently different issues. (Diffuse and blurs argument)

5. No opening sub-title below Chapter heading — instead text moves straight into high energy start (Clear). versus Immediately after Chapter heading there is numbered sub-title ‘2.1: Introduction’ and no other words in sub-head. Creates a double-heading with no intervening text. (Diffuse) The only function of this way of beginning is to state the blindingly obvious for readers in compulsive need of reassurance. What else would readers expect at the start of a chapter but some form of introduction?

6. Moving beyond the first paragraph, the text begins to clarify the opening materials. (High energy) versus No opening materials to clarify, just woffle or ‘throat clearing’, prolegemena to getting started, or overdone definitions. (Low energy)

7. Other lead-in, look-ahead or set-up materials follow quickly, making clear the scope of the chapter. (Clear) versus No lead-in or look-ahead materials — text plunges straight into detailed substantive analysis. (Diffuse)

8. Framing of key issues or questions for the chapter is accomplished. (Clear) versus Point of chapter is left obscure — no key issues surfaced, maybe literature description or definitions only. (Diffuse)

9. Signposts to readers give very brief details of the sequence of topics addressed by later sections. (Clear) versus No signposts for readers — it’s a ‘magical mystery tour’ from here on. (Very diffuse). Or, long-winded look-ahead materials are given, but mixed in with other text or a mini-precis of arguments to come. (Diffuse).

10. Looking overall at the start: Does the chapter start in an interesting way? Does it motivate you make you want to read more? Does the writing look purposeful? Organized? Well-informed, confident? Speaking with a clear voice? (High energy and clear) versus None of these. (Low energy and diffuse)

To put these ideas in a wider context, readers at PhD or higher level might find it helpful to read parts of my book: Patrick Dunleavy, ‘Authoring a PhD’ (Palgrave, 2003). See also useful material on the LSE’s Impact blog and on Twitter @Write4Research.

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