If you study an arts degree at university, chances are you’ll have to write a dissertation in your final year. Dissertations range between 5,000 and 15,000 words, and are generally accepted to be the bane of every undergrad’s degree. There are a lot of fancy books in university libraries about how to write a dissertation – but when it’s 2am and you still have 9,000 words to write, those books aren’t too helpful.
So today I thought I’d share with you my tips for how to write a dissertation, since I know a lot of my readers are in the middle of writing theirs right now.
Full disclaimer: this is based on my own personal experience of writing a dissertation for my History degree at the University of York. Each university and each course have different expectations for dissertations, so this should be treated as a rough guide only. But it’s a rough guide on how to write a dissertation by someone who got a 73 on her dissertation, so I like to think it could be helpful.
Planning is key
It sounds obvious, but properly planning your dissertation will save you a lot of time and tears later down the line.
Start by doing as much reading on your topic as you can – and be organised with your note taking. I liked to make my notes for each article/book/chapter I read on a separate document. Each document was headed up with the full bibliographical reference, and from there I just wrote out quotes and ideas I thought were useful or interesting, with (AUTHOR, PAGE NUMBER) after the quote. That made referencing a hell of a lot easier later down the line.
From there, I made a list of all the common themes that came up in my reading, and put the relevant quotes under the relevant heading. These later became my chapter plans.
All this meant that actually writing my dissertation was easy. I had documents for each chapter that contained all the ideas and quotes I wanted to use, so it was just a case of turning quotes and ideas into coherent sentences.
Of course, this method won’t work for everything, but the key idea remains the same: plan out your dissertation in full – in whichever way works best for you – so writing it up becomes a simple case of turning notes into sentences.
Take it one chapter at a time
Dissertations are, generally speaking, the longest thing you write in your undergrad degree – whether it’s 5, 10, or 15 thousand words. That makes them incredibly daunting and overwhelming.
But when you stop to think about it, your dissertation is just a series of smaller essays. Dissertations are broken up into chapters, so I found it helpful to think of each chapter as a standalone essay. That way, I wasn’t overwhelmed by the prospect of writing an enormous 10,000 essay. I just had to write several 2,000 word essays and put them in one document. Which was still terrifying – but slightly less so.
Don’t leave it ‘til the last minute
I don’t care if you heard the urban legend about that one student who wrote their dissertation in 24 hours and got 89. Just don’t do it.
Don’t be scared to disagree
This varies between subjects I’m sure, but don’t be afraid to disagree with the sources you’re quoting. In fact, most mark schemes actively encourage it. Disagreeing with sources (providing you can, y’know, back up your argument) is what tutors like to call ‘being original’. And do you know what originality gets you? A first.
Don’t try to do it all
Although 10,000 (or whatever your word count is) words sounds like a lot, it will quickly become apparent that it is nowhere enough.
You have to accept that you just won’t be able to talk about everything you’ve read in your dissertation. And that’s okay. You’re not expected to. Your markers know that 10,000 words isn’t actually a lot, and they won’t expect you to cover every possible angle.
What they will expect you to do is acknowledge the fact that there are gaps in your dissertation. In your introduction, acknowledge the areas you would like to discuss, but can’t. In your conclusion, talk about what further work needs to be done on your subject. Not only will that stop markers penalising you for not talking about something, but it will also show them that you’re thinking about how your dissertation fits into the wider academic context (Historians call that the ‘historiography’, btw).
Back it up
We’ve all heard horror stories of people who lost their entire dissertation the night before it was due. Don’t be that person.
I backed my dissertation up on Dropbox, Google Drive, my hard drive, and a USB stick. Regularly. Which was super helpful when my laptop broke for three days in the middle of my dissertation.
Use your tutor
Now, I didn’t actually do this – but in hindsight I wish I had. You have a dissertation supervisor for a reason – use them!
Even if your tutor isn’t an expert in the subject you’re writing about (mine specialised in early medieval Europe, while I was writing about late Victorian attitudes towards Islam and the Middle East), they can still help you with how to write a dissertation academically speaking. Ask them about referencing guidelines. Quiz them about literature reviews. They are university lecturers for a reason! They know their shit!
You can also use your dissertation supervisor to work through a problem. Often, just by voicing a problem out-loud you can work out the solution. So use their office hours to run through an idea with them. They may not be able to give you an answer, but they should be able to help you find one yourself.
There you have it. That’s how to write a dissertation according to me. If you’re in the midst of dissertation hell, I hope it helped. If you’re not, well… I’m not really sure why you’re reading this post!