The Value of a Working Table of Contents for Your Thesis or Dissertation
Although every student working on a thesis or dissertation begins the project with the best of intentions and an ideal outline in mind, it often proves difficult to stick to those initial plans as the text begins to unfold and its complexities grow in number and depth. The first draft of a thesis or dissertation might exceed word limits or turn out a good deal shorter than intended. It might neglect important aspects of the research behind it or include long and unnecessary digressions. By designing a working table of contents before you begin writing, you provide yourself with an excellent tool for keeping your discussion on track and your text within length requirements as you write. For this reason and others, many departments and mentors will insist that you create a working table of contents or similarly detailed outline before you begin drafting the thesis or dissertation itself.
A working table of contents should start with a title. This title may change somewhat as you write, but a working title will help you focus your thoughts as you devise the headings and plan the content for the main parts, chapters, sections and subsections that should be added beneath it. All headings, whether numbered or not, should be formatted in effective and consistent ways that distinguish section levels and clearly represent the overall structure of the thesis or dissertation. These headings can also be altered as your writing advances, but they will provide an effective outline of what you need to discuss and the order in which you think the main topics should be presented. At this initial stage, it is also a good idea to write under each heading a brief summary or list of what you hope to include in that part of the document. You can then continue to add, adjust and move material around within and among the sections as your table of contents and ultimately your text progresses. Reminders of how long (measured in words, paragraphs or pages) the entire text and each of its parts should ideally be may also be worth including.
Once you have your annotated table of contents drafted, it will serve as an informative guide to both content and structure that can be productively consulted as you write. Assuming you create your working table of contents as a computer file in the same program you intend to use for writing your entire thesis or dissertation, you can also use this table of contents as a template for composing the text, replacing your notes under each heading with complete sentences and paragraphs as you work. This practice lends an immediate physical presence to the guidance provided by your table of contents because you are literally working within that outline, which is especially wise if you have a tendency to run on or become distracted by new ideas as you write.
Finally, your working table of contents can become the final table of contents for your thesis or dissertation. If you would like to use your working table of contents in this way and are also using it as a template, be sure to rename the file and save a separate copy before you begin adding the formal text of your thesis or dissertation. Then you can simply delete your summaries and rough notes from the original table of contents to produce your final one, leaving only the headings, to which you can eventually add the relevant page numbers.
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