How to Write a Dissertation
This brief guide covering how to write a dissertation and our entire dissertation help section are an essential read if you're about to write your dissertation!
How to write a dissertation - Introduction
A lot of people think that writing a dissertation is like writing a longer version of an essay. Certainly, you've got an introduction, main body and conclusion. However, if writing an essay is like building a cottage (something cozy, small, and relatively easy to construct), a dissertation is like building the Taj Mahal - they're both buildings, but the Taj Mahal would be a much greater task, requiring much more time, effort, and skill.
You may love the idea of writing a dissertation at first - like the Taj Mahal, it's something that will stand the test of time and be a testament to your academic skills. Once you get started, though, you'll face a lot of challenges, and your life will change over the weeks and months of hard work it takes to sculpt your words. You may even feel like giving up. But a half-built Taj Mahal isn't very pretty. Take a breath, keep calm - there's always a solution.
Writing a Well-Balanced Dissertation
There are three main considerations when you're writing a dissertation.
- Time Management. You're going to be working on a very substantial piece of work to a deadline, so you'll need to be able to organise your time carefully. You should aim to finish in plenty of time, so you can proof-read and redraft where necessary. Make a timetable for your life from now until your deadline. Write down all the things that you need to do in your life (e.g., doctor's appointments, weddings, rows/make-up sessions with your partner, etc.) and use the gaps to write your dissertation. You'll also benefit from giving yourself mini-deadlines - plan when you want each part finished.
- Specific Knowledge. If you want your dissertation to be as good as it can, you need to acquire an in-depth knowledge of your subject area, as well as the dissertation process. Peer-reviewed articles, conference reports, unpublished dissertations (check your university library) and research books will be a huge help.
- Research Skills. Even with detailed knowledge, you may get frustrated by the sheer amount of research. You should build on your existing skills, as well as be persistent, able to self-motivate, have an eye for detail, and be able to think creatively and independently.
Without doubt, the above will give you a good starting point. But you shouldn’t leap straight in – your Taj Mahal won’t stand on incomplete foundations.
The first thing you need is a subject area. Ideally, this should be something you have a strong interest in. It’s always a bonus if the subject hasn’t been studied in-depth before. At the very least, you should ensure that your ideas are different from what has already been written in the subject, so you’ve got room to think creatively and put forward strong, original arguments. You may also want to sketch out your ideas in a rough draft, to make sure your arguments are solid before you proceed with the main writing.
Building Your Work
Now you’ve got a plan and spoken with your supervisor (who hopefully approved your work), you need to start your more detailed research. You should use every type of source at your disposal – books and journal articles from your university library, records from city or town archives, electronic copies of books and journals from the internet, past dissertations, everything you can lay your hands on. Your university library should have access vast databases of information, and by reading articles in journals you’ll be able to follow up-to-date debates between critics. You may also find gathering your own data helpful, depending on your subject - use things such as questionnaires, comprehensive field-notes and case studies.
Once you’ve collected your data, you need to analyse it. This will help you ensure that, rather than only mentioning one line of enquiry, your dissertation will be able to compare and contrast different points of view, determining which argument is the strongest.
Putting in Some Style
A dissertation differs quite extensively from an essay in language. Whilst an essay can get away with simpler turns-of-phrase, a dissertation will need to be very clear, concise, and, obviously, academic. It may seem counter-productive to be concise; after all, a dissertation has a much higher word-count than a standard essay. A dissertation, however, has to deal with a lot more information – you may find yourself writing several chapters, whereas in an essay you would deal with the same things in just a paragraph. Because you’re going into more detail and depth, and because the reader has more material to read, it’s vitally important that you keep your language and style focused, concise and sharp. Be sure to read the dissertation guidelines thoroughly to make sure other aspects of style (e.g., use of charts, tables, etc.) are followed closely.
Checking the Joints
You’ve finished the writing – but don’t hand it in just yet. Even though you’ve built the Taj Mahal (or written your dissertation), you still have some work to do to make sure it’s not just a cardboard cut-out.
Set aside your work for a week or two, and then re-read everything. You need to proofread thoroughly, and at the same time make sure your arguments still hold firm – now you’ve distanced yourself from your own work by a fortnight, you can start to test your assumptions and arguments to make sure they’ve been written as well as possible. Make any amendments you need to, be honest with yourself, and don’t be afraid to ask your supervisor for advice!
Writing a dissertation is hard work; but it needn’t be stressful. Be sure to take your time, checking through everything to ensure it’s as strong as it can be. It may seem difficult, but all the hard work and effort will ensure that you write as strong a piece as possible, and you’ll improve your overall academic skills tremendously. If you cut corners, your writing will reflect this – but do things properly, take your time, and follow the advice above, and your work will stand the test of time.
Just like the Taj Mahal!
How to write a dissertation - Overview
A dissertation (sometimes known as a ‘thesis’) is a long piece of writing, usually prepared at the end of a course of study or as a text for a post-graduate degree such as a Masters or Ph.D.
A dissertation is really just an extended essay and most often occurs as an academic exercise at the end of a course of study or as part of post-graduate research. (Indeed, the term ‘dissertation’ is often misapplied to what is actually a thesis).
How to write a dissertation - Chapters
Choosing a dissertation topic sounds easy. You’ve been given the chance to write about something you like, or at least something you feel is worth studying. It’s not like most of the essays you may have written before, which came with titles already attached.
The first thing you notice about a film, a book, a videogame, or any other published work, is the title. It’s what immediately distinguishes one text from another.
A dissertation proposal is where you outline what your final dissertation is going to be like. It's meant to persuade your peers that the title you've chosen, and the subject you're writing on, is interesting enough to be studied, and that you've got the ability to do it in a way that's not been written about before.
Dissertations are structured rather differently from essays, and more akin to academic books (not textbooks). Dissertations are normally expected to be original research of scholarly quality, but the meanings of “original” and “scholarly” can vary with discipline and level.
Normally around 200-300 words, a methodology is a brief outline of what you’re going to do and how you’re going to do it. A methodology varies from subject to subject, and even within the same discipline you might find dozens of different methodology types. However, they should explain the same basic things.
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