Preparing to Write the First Draft of your Dissertation

The dissertation that is written in a single session will not achieve good marks. Writing it will take considerably longer than a week – every year students do attempt to write their entire piece of work with less than a week to go before they submit – and every year the same students fail to graduate.

Before you start writing, research the topic thoroughly and prepare an essay plan for every chapter. You may find it useful to put your notes into separate wallets for each chapter. Number the pages of your notes as it is easier to sort them out if you drop them. On electronic notes and drafts, write a descriptive name and approximate date for the file as a footer so that you keep track of your documents. Do backups of notes. This may seem like common sense but everyone who has written a dissertation will tell you of the time they dropped all of their notes, or lost files.

If you feel daunted by writing a single paper of between eight and twelve thousand words, try to think of the dissertation as a series of shorter essays, which you then link together. Do not worry too much about the word count in your first draft. It is better to write too much and then edit and focus your work than to write too little. Padding and waffle are easily spotted by markers and penalties are applied for failing to meet the word count. If you have trouble maintaining focus, write the dissertation title on a slip of paper and keep it on your computer – try to ask yourself ‘how does the sentence I am writing add to the dissertation?’.
Try to write in goodly sized chunks (such as about 800 – 1,500 words, depending on the length of the document). Doing so will help the work to flow and you will be more encouraged as you see your word count accumulate. All writers and students have days when they cannot face writing and days (or weeks) in which they put off writing anything. This is quite normal. Do remember, however, that this is a piece of work that carries with it a large percentage of your final marks (especially if it is a double module) and that you will need time to review that which you have written. Set yourself a deadline to finish the first draft at least one month before the dissertation submission date. In that final period, you need time to review your work, have it professionally edited, proofread and marked, and make amendments to it before submission. Remember too that you will need time to have the work bound and to ensure that page margins, font size, the bibliography (and similar constraints) conform to the requirements of your university. You will be surprised as to just how long the ‘finishing off’ of the dissertation will take.

Finally, remember to back up your work. This should be done to the hard drive every few minutes, before leaving your computer (to get coffee, for example), at the end of a writing session, and at the end of the day. At least once a week back up to an external source – an external hard drive, the cloud, a memory stick or a disc. For long dissertations consider sending a back up to a location other than that where you computer is normally kept – if you are coping with a disaster such as a burglary, you will not want the additional burden of having to re-do possibly years of work. Every day countless students as well as professional writers lose work because we have forgotten to do backups – and every time we promise ourselves not to do it again.