Writing Dissertations

Writing Dissertations

Firstly, you must know the conclusion of your piece before you begin to write.

If, when setting out on a dissertation, you are offered the advice; 'Just write it, it'll become clear as you progress', ignore it. Many students have written half of a dissertation like this only to find that they can't finish it coherently.

Each paragraph should move towards the conclusion. This can be achieved only if the conclusion is known in advance. Otherwise, you will be 'writing in order to discover what you are going to write'. Don't do it. It might work for poetry, stream-of-consciousness prose or other creative writing, but it won't work well for an academic piece. Some people can get away with it, but they rarely write their best work this way. Dyslexics never do.

A dyslexic is not so good at holding a view of the big picture while dealing with the detail. (Or, keeping an eye on the overview of an essay while constructing sentences.) You therefor need to have the plan to refer to as you write. That requires research and thinking and mulling over and leaving to ferment. But sooner than most expect, the broad point of the piece should become clear. This should then guide the completion of the research and the shaping of the dissertation.

If your course insists on a draft early in the process – and provided it does not carry part of the course marks – explain the above, show that you are progressing in the manner of this article and stick to your guns. The tutor is only concerned that you finish on time, if they can see that you will, they will not usually be worried.

Next, you'll need a good idea of the following: a title; an introduction; a conclusion. They must reflect each other, they must ‘work together’. Once you have decided on them don't be tempted to change them. You may feel you want to add a little extra section or change the line of attack because it's interesting to do so. Don't.

Resign yourself to the fact that the process of producing your piece will become boring before it's finished. The early stages of your voyage of discovery are often exciting, but the excitement usually wanes before the end. Prepare yourself for that and don't fall into the trap of spicing up the proceedings with an extra element or diversion. It'll still need a final writing-up at some point anyway and you'll run the risk of running out of time.

Also, draw up a shopping list containing: subject matter; question; theorists; examples; 'why I’m asking this question'; 'what my answer is'; 'why this matters'. Just as when preparing a big meal, you must have your ingredients to hand before you start to cook. Particularly, you need to know 'why this matters'. What is the reason you are writing? Why should anyone read your piece? It doesn't have to provide the end to world poverty or a cure for all known diseases, but there should be some significant purpose for your investigation, however modest.

Divide the piece into its different parts and allocate a word-count. A dissertation is not one seven-thousand-word piece. It's six or seven separate much shorter pieces. Once you have got your head around that, it'll be easier to write.

It could look like this;

Intro, 700 words
Chapter 1 (say, historic background to subject) 500  
Chapter 2 (discussion of element #1) 1250
Chapter 3 (discussion of element #2) 1250
Chapter 4 (arguments for) 1300
Chapter 5 (arguments against) 1300
Conclusion, 700

The intro and conclusion should be roughly 10% of the total. The intro should have: an overview of the whole dissertation; an explanation of all the main elements; a preview of the conclusion. The conclusion should have: a recap of all the main points; your concluding comments – your final position; 'why this matters'.

Finally, write using the shortest words, the simplest language you can. Write short sentences (an average of 15 words per sentence). Think in terms of one idea per sentence if it helps in this. Use single syllable words whenever you can. Only use longer words where no other will do. (Technical words belonging to the subject area are a good example.) Be confident in what you have to say – don't try to make it more impressive by how you say it. Doing so nearly always makes writing more difficult to grasp. (This is why some academics – who seem to need to prove how clever they are by how they write – often write in ways that are difficult to understand.) And avoid thesauruses. They don't offer words that mean the same as the word in question, but merely words that are similar in meaning. Their use often results in confusion.

Written by Simon Hopper