In this series, we examine how Umberto Eco’s book, ‘How to Write a Thesis,’ can be used to help writers improve their focus, research smarter and get any writing project done faster. In part eight, we explore outlines that focus on the journey.

In this blog post, we explore Umberto Eco’s thoughts on “secret titles,” “fictitious introductions” and the epic road trip called the thesis, extracted from his recently English-translated book “How to Write a Thesis.”

Mundanely speaking, these things are what editors call working titles, abstracts and a table of contents. But doesn’t Eco make it sound so romantic? Sei un mito; non ci piove! (Italian: You’re a legend; no doubt about it!)

How to create an outline for any writing project:

how to create a great outline for any writing project

Roadmap your writing before you write

Before starting an endeavor such as a thesis, Eco advises that you make an itinerary. Yes, like the fabulous road trip he describes in his book, starting in Milan with detours to Florence, Siena, Arezzo and an irrational sudden last-minute idea to go to Assisi and Urbano after passing Rome.

All writers need to make an itinerary of where they plan to go, before they start writing. Call it an outline, but Eco wants you to focus on the journey.

This itinerary comes in three parts. He advises writers first to compose:

  • A title,
  • An introduction
  • The table of contents

What’s crucial here is to use the exercises as tools to help you process the enormous amount of information you’ve explored during your bibliographical research, and begin to lay out your assumptions, and to find your ideas amid the myriad of ideas you’ve read.

Basically, these exercises help the writer do three things:

  • Clarify for yourself what you want to do.
  • Help you develop a proposal for an intelligible project to your advisor (or boss).
  • Allow you a way to test the clarity of your ideas.

Eco writes: “The thesis is like a chess game that requires a player to plan in advance all the moves he will make to checkmate his opponent.”

If secret titles could talk

Eco draws a distinction between what he considers the “public title,” and a “secret title” as a way of framing your thinking process. “Public titles” explain the theme of your thesis.  But “secret titles” (what usually appears as the subtitle) is the specific point within the theme, and the true basis of your line of questioning regarding that topic.

Take these two examples of working titles:

Public Title: An Exploration of Japanese Influences within George Lucas’ Star Wars Series

Secret Title: An Exploration of Japanese Influences within George Lucas’ Star Wars Series: How Jedi Fandom Has Sustained Bushido and the Samurai Code of Ethics Outside of Japan

For Eco, the secret title is where the magic happens. When turned into a question, the secret title becomes the essential part of your thesis. For example, the above secret title can be turned into a question: Have Jedi fans, through their allegiance to Star Wars films, contributed to a renewed understanding of an ancient Japanese tradition that was already lost?

Eco explains that the secret title when formulated as a question, helps the writer develop a logical sequence that corresponds with chapters in the table of contents.

roadmap your writing with an outline

A fake start and a fictitious introduction is still a head start

Eco encourages writers to write a fictitious introduction because it gives your ideas a primary direction, and the writer a chance to articulate what you want to do.

Fictitious introductions are test runs, which allow a thinker to tinker in playful “draft mode,” learning from an iterative process. If after writing a fictitious introduction, your ideas don’t seem organized, then it’s a sign to go back to the table of contents and see if you’ve:

  • Stated the issue
  • Summarized previous research
  • Stated your hypothesis
  • Presented your supporting data
  • Presented your analysis of the data
  • Demonstrated your hypothesis
  • Stated your conclusions and suggestions for further research

A fictitious introduction gives you a chance to test your approach. Do you have clear ideas on how to begin? (Here are some similar paper writing tips as shared at Stanford University.)

It should be clear that the introduction and the table of contents will be constantly rewritten as you proceed in your work, but drafting a fake start gives you a head start.

Don’t table the table of contents until the end

Eco notes that writing the table of contents at the beginning, before writing the thesis, seems to put the end at the beginning, but his emphasis is on reviewing your own logic in short form.

Basically, Eco marries the nuances of what some call outlining with the formal document called a table of contents. What he defines as a table of contents can be a summary of short descriptions of every chapter into a working document for you to organize your thoughts.

Writing a draft table of contents forces you to clearly articulate the main ideas and place subsequent ones into a hierarchy. Likely you will play around with the order and sequence of your ideas, its evidence and its analysis through many drafts. And that’s exactly what outlines (and table of contents) are meant to be, to give you direction when you’ve lost your place.

All three tools are strategies Eco provides as ways to overcome writing blocks that stop us from writing. If procrastination or creative burnout sets in, Eco’s tricks are meant to get the author’s ideas on paper. Because ideas that appear to be fluid, logical and clear in your head, may come out differently on paper. Write drafts, organize and re-organize, and put it on paper.

Read other articles in this writing series: