In a previous post I explained how I think your thesis starts taking shape before you even think about it. It grows out of every little choice you make. This is reassuring. It means you are working on your thesis all the time!
This is all very well and good, but at some point you will have to write something down. There are a number of first steps you could take. The first thing I did was to write an outline.
An outline, very simply, is the thing you look at to remind yourself what you’re doing.
My present thesis outline is below. There is a lot more detail early on and it gets fuzzy later. This is nothing to worry about. The point of an outline is to record your vision for your thesis. Once I had this in place I could visualise how it would work together as a coherent whole. It also made me realise how much work I had left to do! This highlights the close relationship between the project plan and the thesis structure I talked about before.
An outline carries as much detail as you want. You can add to it over time and modify it as your thesis takes shape. Mine began with a working title and the headings for each chapter. I later added details as to the content of each chapter. I can also add notes giving the deadline for writing various sections, and move bits around as my vision for the thesis changes. In some sections I have begun to sketch out what I want to write, at least in the form of the things I need to get across. I wrote these down in no particular order and with no thought to how I would get these points across. That comes next in my thesis-writing system, the concept-map stage.