Developing a final outline

The problem with developing a final outline for a PhD dissertation chapter is that it is difficult to know when the outline is really final. It will be final of course when you are confident enough that it is of the requisite quality. The difficulty is how to identify the boundary between the conceptual development stage and the stage of writing-up for presentational purposes.

For academic writing it is the former that is the main headache, i.e. coming up with the content, rather than putting it into its final shape. It happens all too often that you think you are in the second stage, only to discover that you have more conceptual development and clarification to do, and you are thrown back into stage 1.

For now I can’t seem to find a better answer than to push on with aiming to reach a final outline, even if it turns out to be an interim stage of conceptual development. Then I just start developing a new “final” outline, hoping that it will really be the final one. As part of this process I am constantly switching between software tools, in search for specific features more suitable for the particular tasks in the subsequent stages of development.

This reflexive and recursive process of dealing with multiple outlines in multiple software tools eventually reveals an arrangement of outlines in an arrangement of software tools, and a shape-shifting process flow that adjusts itself continuously. It is like an experimentally assembled moonshine distillery for the purpose of abstraction to be achieved by routeing ideas (textual content) from one vessel to another, until they acquire sufficient clarity to be bottled and labelled and sold to a discerning public.

Here is a slightly revised graphic (following on my previous post) showing the current distillery and the process flow. Its shape has become slightly clearer to me.

writing-up process flow

On  the left we start with the notes database in ConnectedText. It is the base, the alpha and the omega. It contains the fruits of my research work. However, I now need to extract the spirit and the flavours with my distillery apparatus. Initially I extracted and organised the main conclusions in Natara Bonsai outlines. Bonsai is the fastest tool I have for organising lists into meaningful hierarchies and then drawing ‘final’ conclusions from these conclusions.

Parallel to this I have been developing a chapter outline in Outline 4D. I have also used O4D to summarise some ConnectedText meta topics which were already extractions of important findings (as opposed to the summaries of specific articles that have been analysed in Bonsai). As O4D allows for inline notes in its outlines, I have also pasted in selected quotes (from CT, which came from the original readings) to support particular outline items (my observations).

I also have a 7000-word draft in MS Word that I wrote at an earlier stage partly as an effort to break out of the circular outlining process and force myself to finish this stage (the target is a 10,000-word chapter). However, the draft writing process just turned out to be another stage of the distillery, as I have found some gaps in my conceptual structure. It felt like Word was a laboratory where I tried to assemble the parts but the trial failed and I needed to get back to the drawing board.

VUE was the drawing board, and concept mapping was the process of drawing out the issues for my conceptual apparatus and reorganise my argument. VUE was a kind of an experimental space, a sandbox. It is placed at the top of the diagram because it is an overview of everything that is going on. First I created a reverse outline of my Word draft, to get a better understanding of my argument so far. Then I also developed an outline (well, more of a concept map) for the next stage of writing.

I should mention that I also have an overall outline for the entire thesis kept in a Scrivener project, which contains some relevant material for this current literature review chapter as well. I will need to review it as I embark on constructing my “final” outline.

I have settled on a Freeplane mind map as a way of constructing my “final” outline, which would hopefully lead me through the final – presentational stage – of writing up. In the past I didn’t quite see the point of formal mind maps, as I preferred the freedom of concept maps. But now I see that a mind map – combined with Freeplane’s functionalities – is an excellent way to develop a final outline.

First, a mind map forces you to define a final hierarchical order between sections, ideas and paragraphs, which the final draft needs to have. Secondly, a Freeplane mind map is very economical with screen space, allowing you to cram a lot of information in and be able to navigate it and visualise it easily. Thirdly, it allows you to switch between a mind map and an outline view. Fourthly, it allows you to add notes to items, which can be chosen to be displayed inline, effectively operating as a single-pane outliner with inline notes (of which only a handful exist in the world).

Fifthly, it allows you to export into RTF file format in such a way that the inline notes get displayed below their items, and the items are assigned headings according to their hierarchical level. So for example in Word or LibreOffice, items can be viewed as section headings in the Navigator window, a set-up that can be used as a dual-pane outliner. Also, the headings can be used to create a table of contents.

Finally, (building on the fourth and fifth point), you could construct a complete sentence outline in Freeplane by using items as topic sentences and notes as the evidence to support the topic sentences (e.g. quotes or other details). Even a simple “copy and paste” into Word creates a bullet-pointed hierarchy, which then can be transformed into a draft (although with this export method you don’t get the headings formatting preserved – but that may be preferable in some situations).

I am planning to do the final writing in Outline 4D though (which will require importing the RTF file with the headings and notes), in recognition of the possibility that this “final” Freeplane outline may not turn out to be entirely final, and rather than create yet another reverse outline or concept map to keep track of the underlying and implicit conceptual structure, I could just use O4D’s outlining functionalities to keep track of the evolving implicit outline of the draft. This could also be done in Word, simply by modifying the headings that get displayed in the Navigator (as a dual-pane outliner set-up). However, I find O4D’s single-pane view more conducive for this simultaneous writing and real-time (reverse) outlining, as O4D has many helpful alternative visualisations of the text and the outline.

Do I worry that I get carried away with playing around with software tools instead of doing the writing? You bet. Although there is definitely a ludic aspect to this, in the end the distillation process is real and necessary. I would need to carry out the abstraction process somehow in any case. I am hoping that by constructing a sophisticated distillery I will be able to extract and construct a higher quality final product.

Could I be wrong about that? Yes, that is a distinct possibility. However, academic research is by definition an experimental process and experiments (and experimenters) can fail (and they often do), perhaps even more frequently than they succeed (which is why so many PhD students never complete their theses). All I can do is carry on and hope that my experimental process and set-up produce a satisfactory result.

Designing your QDA project for ConnectedText

If you have completed the steps suggested in the previous posts (here and here) for this tutorial on how to use ConnectedText for qualitative data analysis (QDA) (or if you are already a CT pro), then you are ready to move on to the next stage of the CT QDA process, which has to do with designing your QDA project for CT. I am suggesting that before you import and dump all your qualitative data and other notes in CT, it might be a good idea to come up with an overall shape for your project and work flow. It is certainly possible to ignore this advice and dump all your data in CT first and worry about organising them later. However, I found that being methodical and designing the project first and then importing data (strategically and incrementally) has helped me keep my head above the water – the data ocean, so to speak.

Let me first present you with my concept map (created in VUE) for the design of my PhD research project in CT, and I will explain how it works below.
Essentially what you are seeing here is a mixture between a top-down hierarchical model for organising topics in ConnectedText and a flow chart indicating a process flow (roughly from left to right) for the qualitative analysis of data and the production of the eventual report, in this case a PhD dissertation. At the very top sits the “project dashboard,” which is the tip of the data iceberg, if represented in this hierarchical model, or the central node of a flat network, if you try to visualise it as the home page of your personal Intranet system.

At the second (horizontal) level of the hierarchy (which are the topics that are linked to from the project dashboard/home page) you will find the main elements of the project. Let’s tackle these one by one.

“Meta project considerations” is the topic that contains or links to information that pertains to the overall organisation of the CT project, the work flow, the project plan and related tasks. This is the place to collect those thoughts and materials that are looking at the project from the outside or from above and are concerned with the overall design and operation of the system as a whole. (For example me reflecting on the design of my PhD project right now is an instance of such a meta-consideration. I will be including the above concept map under this main topic in my own CT project.)

The second main topic, “empirical data (case studies),” is the heart of the project and will contain the bulk of the material. It contains all the empirical data that I have collected as part of my research. It is organised into individual case studies, which contain such material as interview transcripts, participant observation notes and collected files (such as emails, PDFs, MS Office files or even URLs). The red arrows indicate the flow the qualitative data analysis process that I will be focusing on in future posts, showing how CT can be used as a CAQDAS. The main objective of the analysis is to extract findings from each case study, which will be eventually aggregated and evaluated in the fourth major topic, “findings.”

I have skipped over the third topic, “theory notes.” These include notes of all such reflections or interpretations that I have produced myself but which are not strictly speaking part of the empirical materials. It is debatable whether these observations should be included in the empirical data, if they were triggered by – or during – the data collection process. But I prefer to separate out material that was more part of the interpretation of the data than the data itself. Nevertheless, note the dashed lines which indicate that these “theory notes” are closely related to “empirical data” and feed into the “findings.”

While you are analysing your empirical data and evaluating your findings, simultaneously you will start having some ideas about the significance of these findings and how they should be presented later on. You might even want to select quotes to be included and discussed in the final draft itself. So the next two topic areas, “outlines” and “draft” are very closely related to the analytical process (from empirical data to findings) and start developing simultaneously with it. Hence the dashed lines coming out of “case study 1 findings”, which start to inform the outlining and drafting (writing) processes.

You might be in the middle of analysing an interview and have a sudden insight into how this material might fit into the overall or individual chapter outline, and you might even want to engage in some ad hoc writing and type up some paragraphs in the corresponding draft chapter topic. Nevertheless, outlining and drafting/writing will emerge as important processes in their own right, once the coding and analysis of the empirical material had concluded.

The final topic is an “inbox” for uncategorised and unprocessed material that had been imported into CT but has not been allocated to any of the aforementioned topics. I would generally advise against importing too much of such material, as it will just sit in CT and clutter the workspace. Regarding importing material, I found it helpful to work on one case study at a time and only import materials that relate to that case study. Also, I have treated the importing of material as a filtering process and a quality control process. After all, what’s the point of importing stuff that turns out to be utterly useless? It would just end up sitting in CT as dead weight.

Now, “inbox” needs to be understood metaphorically here, as CT is a wiki and therefore there are no folders or boxes into which you can drop stuff. Nevertheless, you can emulate an inbox in two ways: 1) either by creating a category label called “inbox” or “uncategorised” and append it to all new topics that need to be put into this virtual inbox, or 2) use a topic as an inbox and drop text, links to files and URLs into that topic. The same is true for all the other topic “areas”: they are not so much areas or folders as local networks of interlinked topics, for which the top level topic acts as the central node.

As for the overall project, it is essentially a process of trying to find an answer to a question. You can include the research question in your project dashboard, interrogate your empirical data with your chosen conceptual tools (theories), develop your findings, develop outlines to organise your argument, and write the eventual draft, which should hopefully provide an answer to your original research question. The great thing about CT is that it has tools for conducting this entire process in one place, within one software.

There are a few glaring omissions in my model above: a literature review topic, a conceptual framework (theoretical lens) topic, and a methodology topic. You could certainly include them here. I had worked on those phases of my PhD before discovering CT, so I haven’t had a need to include them in my CT project yet. However, as I will be moving onto writing up my dissertation, it is very likely that I will add in those topics and import the related material into CT as well. For the purposes of this blog and this CT tutorial I have decided to focus the above model on the qualitative data analysis process. However, it is easy for you to include those elements. All you need to do is type [[literature review]], [[conceptual framework]], and [[methodology]] into the body of the dashboard topic, and these topics will be automatically created for you and linked to the dashboard.

I have found writing this blog post a very useful exercise. This reflection allowed me to improve my model, as up until this morning it looked a lot less organised in fact. I didn’t have my meta considerations included in an organised way, neither did I have an inbox for uncategorised data.This type of meta-reflection on the design of your project and your work flow can be an important quality process in the ongoing development and improvement of your overall system.

Finally, let me include a couple of screenshots of the above model as implemented in CT. First, the edit mode (I have used a vertical tree view in the Navigator instead of the horizontal tree view of my concept map, so that it could fit into the left-hand-side pane. However, there is also a horizontal tree option in the Navigator, if you prefer that):

And then in view mode:

Please note that in the “PhD project dashboard” (or Home) topic only the words in blue are active links (e.g. “meta considerations“). The bullet-pointed text in black underneath (“CT project design” etc.) is only there to remind me what is inside that top-level topic (or link). Links to “CT project design” etc. are inside the “meta considerations” topic, which is currently not visible in the view window (as we are editing/viewing the “Home” topic), however the relationship can be seen in the Navigator pane on the left. Had I made those links live in the “Home” (PhD project dashboard) topic as well, it would have resulted in a messier Navigator picture, as they would have also showed up as part of level 2 hierarchy.

The Topic List pane on the right simply displays all topics in alphabetical order.