Writing the Dissertation1
By the time you start to write the first draft of your dissertation, you will probably already have accumulated a wealth of notes, scribbles and ideas. Planning is essential, but do not be hesitate to draw up new plans whether it is a brief abstract of your dissertation as a whole, or a detailed breakdown of a particular chapter. This section looks at effective planning, which should be a continuous process that intensifies during the writing of your dissertation and not something that fades into the background.
Do all dissertations look the same?
At one level, yes. They will have to:
- Formulate a clear question that your dissertation seeks to answer.
- Review the literature in the field relating to your question.
- Engage in independent research in addressing this question.
- Justify whatever methods you choose to undertake your research.
- Present and discuss your findings, whilst demonstrating how they relate to your original question.
Do all dissertations look the same? This video clip contains comments from the following academics:
- Kevin Bonnett
- Malcolm Todd
- Shawna McCoy
- Christopher Christopher-Dowey
Case Study 12 Making sure your dissertation doesn't get on top of you
Producing a 'working title'
Insofar as the preparation of the dissertation is a process of investigation and discovery, the precise scope of your study may well only emerge as you become closely involved in a detailed review of the literature. At this early stage, your title may be a provisional one that you will revise later. Your dissertation supervisor may advise on the title in order to help you find and define the focus of the dissertation.
You should examine articles in scholarly journals for examples of appropriate titles for a study of this length.
Starting to write the dissertation
Supervisors have different ways of working and you will, to some degree, need to negotiate your approach to supervision style. For example, your supervisor may advise you to write a short proposal or abstract, say of about 300 words, in which you set out as clearly as possible what you intend to do in the dissertation. The value of this exercise is that it requires you to focus and articulate your thinking. It may be that you will be able to summarise the exact nature and scope of your study, in which case the proposal can serve as guide to refer to as you write the main chapters of the work. Alternatively, it may make you aware of gaps in your knowledge and understanding, and show you the areas that need further thought and research.
It is useful, therefore, to write the proposal and to retain it for reference and revision. It helps to attempt such an abstract even if your supervisor has not suggested that you write one. However, practice varies, and your supervisor will advise you on how to proceed. As you continue to write the main chapters of the work, you may find that your initial plan has changed. This means that when you have completed the chapters that form the main body of your dissertation you can return to the proposal and revise it as much as you need, to form the introduction.
It is highly advisable to draft a plan of the dissertation. There is a lot in common between different dissertations regarding the structure and although you do not need to stick slavishly to a standard plan, such a plan is very helpful as a template to impose some order on what may seem an unmanageable task. Here is an indicative structure that might help you with your initial plan.
The field of study, the research question, the hypothesis (if any) or, more generally, the research question that is to be investigated. It should also include a summary of the contents and main arguments in the dissertation.
The Literature Review
Usually, this comes immediately after the introductory chapter. This may be more than one chapter, but should certainly be written in sections. This should include previous work done on the field of study and anything that you consider to be relevant to the hypothesis or research question and to its investigation. It will include a large number of references to the literature in your chosen area.
This section should include an account of the research questions and/or hypotheses to be investigated, relevant methods of investigation and an argument for why you think these methods are the most appropriate ones for the question and for your circumstances. You should consider the benefits of your chosen method as well as identifying any disadvantages and how you overcame them. Ethical issues and the ways in which you dealt with them should be noted. This section should also discuss any variations from the original fieldwork plan, and should conclude with a reflection on the experience of doing fieldwork.
This section should present the main findings of your research together with an account of the strengths and weaknesses of your data relative to your research question/hypothesis. You may also wish to include an evaluation of any difficulties you encountered in collecting and analysing data, together with an assessment of how this affected your plan of research.
Here you can provide an assessment of whether and how well you were able to answer your research question and/or confirm/reject your hypotheses.
This chapter must relate the findings to the theoretical/policy discussion in your literature review. You should NOT introduce any new literature at this stage.
Conclusions and recommendations
An overall assessment of what you found out, how successful you were and suggestions for future research.
Beginning work on the main body of the dissertation
Once you have produced the proposal and discussed it with your supervisor, you may want to write the first draft of a chapter of the dissertation. When you hand in this draft, you should arrange a tutorial to receive your supervisor's verbal or written comments and suggestions on how it may be improved. You may, for example, produce a draft introduction setting out the issue, together with a literature review which covers what, if any, treatment of the topic has gone beforehand. You may also wish to draft those sections of the methodology chapter that cover the methods that you wish to use, together with a justification for why you think those methods are best.
Revising sections after receiving the supervisor's comments
When you have received your supervisor's comments on the draft of any chapter, you should revise that particular chapter immediately. Prompt revision is easier than letting things drift, and you should do it while the advice of your supervisor is fresh in your mind. This will also avoid building up a backlog of work that needs to be revised, which can be discouraging. Having the material on a computer disk will enable you to do revisions efficiently and with a minimum of fuss. Be sure to back up all your work on a floppy disk, CD, or memory stick.
Organising your time
Depending on the credit rating of the dissertation, the amount of time you devote to it should be equivalent to the time you would devote to a taught course with the same credit rating; that is, seminar and lecture time plus time for private study.
Findings from our Research
In our research we found that students often did not think about the credit rating of their dissertation and actually spent more time working on it than they should have! They saw it as such an important part of their degree that they wanted to put more into it:
It [the dissertation] took up more of my time ... Once you get into it, you have to out in the effort. It’s 8000 words, plus there’s so much to do. When you’re doing it, it seems so much more that the rest of your work (Todd, Bannister and Clegg, 2004, p341).
However, this can have a detrimental effect on your other modules - one student said ‘I did the dissertation and left the other work’ - don’t make his mistake. All the modules in the final year are important.
You will find that once the final year begins, the weeks go by very quickly, and you will need to organise your time well from the start so that the ongoing preparation of your dissertation continues alongside work for the taught units you are studying. Once you have a workable plan it is much easier to plan the work in sequence and to set yourself targets for the completion of the separate parts (see the section on Getting started with the Dissertation). Allow plenty of time for final revisions after your tutor has seen a complete draft.
If you are taking a dissertation over two semesters, you should aim to spend the equivalent of one full half-day per week working on your dissertation during each semester of your final year if it is worth 20 credits - nearer twice that amount of time if it is a 40-credit dissertation.
Deadlines for producing drafts
You will decide with your supervisor precisely when to produce drafts, but if you are taking a dissertation module over one academic year then by the end of the first semester you would normally expect to produce a proposal or abstract and a first draft of one or two chapters. You would then produce the drafts of the remaining chapters and complete the process of revision and writing-up during the second semester.
In the second semester, when drafting the remaining main chapters of the dissertation, you will follow the practice established in the first semester of submitting the drafts to your supervisor for comments and advice. You should take advantage of the period between the first semester and the start of the second semester to write a draft of a chapter, and you should plan to have produced first drafts of all the main chapters by at least four weeks before the submission date (also allowing for any vacation periods when staff may not be available).
If, however, you are taking the dissertation module over one semester, you will need to adjust this time frame accordingly.
Writing the introduction
The introduction to your dissertation should explain to the reader what you are going to investigate. It should describe the dissertation's topic and scope. You should explain your reasons for investigating your chosen topic by referring to the appropriate literature. Having completed the work on the main substance of your dissertation, you should have a much clearer idea of its nature and scope than you did when you wrote your preliminary abstract or proposal. The introduction to your dissertation should explain to the reader what you are going to investigate. It should describe the dissertation's topic and scope. You should explain your reasons for investigating your chosen topic by referring to the appropriate literature.
It is important, however, to write the introduction as though you are setting out on a process of investigation. You need to emphasise the exploratory nature of your work. You should also avoid anticipating the discoveries and conclusions that you have made in the course of your investigations. So, you might simply say that you have identified certain common features in the relevant literature, or a particular issue that it deals with, and that your dissertation will examine the literature closely in order to demonstrate the relationships between treatments of the issue in the sample texts. When you have completed the main body of the work and your tutor has commented on your complete draft, you may well wish to revisit the introduction to take into account your findings and your tutor's comments on their significance.
Writing a literature review
Your dissertation is a substantial piece of written work that ideally should conform to a number of academic conventions. One of the most important of these academic conventions is the literature review. In short, the literature review is a discussion or 'review' of secondary literature that is of general and central relevance to the particular area under investigation.
Often students ask how long a literature review should be. This is a difficult question given that the total length of your dissertation might be anything from five to twelve thousand words. Obviously your supervisor may be able to give some indication of the approximate length of your literature review. However, don't become pre-occupied with word length, the main thing is that your literature review should capture the general and specific aspects of the literature of your subject.
Why is a literature review necessary?
The literature review is an important device in your dissertation as it performs a number of related functions:
- It demonstrates to whoever reads the dissertation that the author of the work has read widely and is aware of the range of debates that have taken place within the given field. It provides the proof that you have more than a good grasp of the breadth and depth of the topic of the dissertation - your dissertation gives you the opportunity to show off how clever you are! The literature review is a great place to start, because it should demonstrate that you know what you are talking about because you have read everything that is relevant to your dissertation.
- It can provide the rationale for the research question in the study. This can be done by highlighting specific gaps in the literature – questions that have not been answered (or even asked), and areas of research that have not been conducted within your chosen field. In this way the literature review can provide a justification of your own research.
- It can allow you to build on work that has already been conducted. For example you might adopt a similar methodological or theoretical approach in your work to one that exists within the literature, yet place your actual emphasis elsewhere. In this way you are building on work that has already been conducted by adopting similar strategies and concepts, yet focusing the question on something that interests you.
- It helps to define the broad context of your study, placing your work within a well defined academic tradition. Poor dissertations often fail to relate to broader debates within the academic community. They may have a well defined research question, yet without placing this question in the appropriate context, it can lose its significance. The literature review therefore can add weight to your question by framing it within broader debates within the academic community.
How do I 'do' a literature review?
Writing a literature review is not as simple as at first it may seem. What follows is a step by step guide on how to go about conducting and presenting your literature review.
1. Generate a list of references
The first stage of your literature review is to collect a list of literature that is relevant to your study. You have already seen in the section Help with Finding Literature and Research how you can get a list of useful references.
2. Make sense of your reading
Once you have a list of references for your dissertation, you now have to access and read this material. This is time consuming because you will be reading a large amount of material. Once you start you might find that some literature is of little relevance to your study. This is something that many researchers and dissertation students go through and is often a necessary part of the process. It is better to read something that is not central to your dissertation than miss something that might be an important and relevant contribution to the field.
Make notes about the central themes and arguments of the book, chapter or article. These notes can then be incorporated into the finished version of your literature review. Try and get a sense of the theoretical perspective of the author, this will be of use when you organise and present your literature review. Also, emphasise the way in which the piece of literature you are reading seeks to set itself apart from other literature. Importantly, start to think critically about the piece you are reading; ask: what is this person trying to say and why? How is it different from the way others have dealt with this issue? This critical component is very important as it demonstrates that you are engaging with relevant literature in an appropriate manner and that you can discriminate between different perspectives and approaches that exist within your chosen field.
3. Organisation and presentation
Once you have generated a large number of notes around your reading you might start to feel overwhelmed by the literature. In terms of the organisation and presentation of your literature review, it is worth dividing your review into two main areas: general reading and literature that is of central importance. You will also need to further divide the literature into specific areas relevant to your study for e.g. theories and concepts; policy analysis; empirical studies and so-on. What follows are some general guidelines on how you might do this.
It will be clear that some of the reading you have done is of more relevance than others. It is important, however, that you do not discard the less relevant work; instead this can form the broad background of your discussion of the more relevant literature within your field. For example you may mention different authors that have dealt with a question related to your field but may not be central to it. Highlight these in broad terms, state how these works have impacted on your particular area. You need not go into great detail about these more general works, but by highlighting these works you are demonstrating your awareness of the scope and limits of your study and how it touches upon other areas of study.
Once you have discussed the range of literature that is only of general interest to your study, you can then go into more detail on the literature that more sharply focuses on the questions that are of interest to you. Devote more detail to these particular works as they are more important to your topic. Indeed they may highlight the gap in the literature that exists that you seek to fill; they may provide the basis on which you seek to build, or they might be works which require some critique from your particular perspective.
When you have divided your literature review into general works and works of central importance, you should also further divide the literature into sub-categories. By further dividing your literature in this way, you are adding more organisation into your literature review by providing specific sub-categories of relevant literature.
For example in the general works section of your literature review, you might want one sub-heading on the main theoretical debates, one on empirical studies and maybe one on policy. With reference to the more central literature, you could organise this more important reading in a similar way. For example, if relevant, you could have a section on competing theoretical perspectives; a section on the main findings of important empirical studies; a section on policy implementation and its impacts. See the table below.
Breakdown of Literature Review
Detailed analysis of theoretical and conceptual debates
If appropriate you might also want to divide your sub-headings further.
One final note on the more central literature is that this more focused analysis can also serve to bring your empirical or theoretical work into sharper focus. In this sense you are prefacing your work and how it relates to other academic studies by your discussion of it in your literature review. One thing to remember however is that just because you talk about an author's work in your literature review, doesn't mean you never mention it again in your dissertation. In the discussion section of your study you will necessarily relate your findings to those central studies that you have highlighted in your literature review.
When you have written your literature review, this is not the end of the process. Throughout your dissertation process, you will come across literature that is of relevance to your area of study, do not ignore this material, you can always add more literature to your review as you come across it.
Finally, make sure that you keep a record of all your references, even the ones that have been of little use. This will help you organise your bibliography and reference list. You may even need to go back and look over something that you looked at earlier in your studies that may have more relevance than you first thought.
Writing the Methods section
This must clearly identify the epistemological (i.e. your stance on what should pass as acceptable knowledge) basis of the study and demonstrate a good working knowledge of the methods to be employed. It should include good coverage of the process of the fieldwork and indicate how the analysis was undertaken. As well as covering the ethical issues it should also contain an element of reflection on the research process.
Writing the Findings section
Many students confuse findings with discussion and it is important to keep them separate. The findings are often presented in charts and tables (even from qualitative data). Verbatim references to participants' comments are particularly helpful. It is important to ensure that findings are truly analysed, rather than described. Finding ways of cross relating the findings is therefore important.
Writing the Discussion
Traditionally, the discussion links findings to the literature presented in the literature review.
There are arguments for extending the coverage of literature in this section but only in exceptional circumstances. The discussion should be precisely that: an opportunity to raise the different voices of interest in the research question and to explore the findings in the light of the literature and different perspectives within it.
Writing the Conclusion
The main chapters of your dissertation will have focused on particular topics or issues. For example, each chapter may have focused discussion on a particular text. Alternatively, you may have structured your work so that each chapter is devoted to discussion of a particular aspect of your overall topic. The conclusion offers the opportunity to review your work as a whole, to identify the points of comparison and contrast the various texts you have examined, and to show that, in the process of your study, you have developed a more precise, critical understanding of the way they deal with your topic. This is also an appropriate place for you to point to the limitations of small-scale research of this kind and to indicate possible avenues for researchers to address the issues in the future.
Before you submit the dissertation, you should check that the final version of the title is an accurate reflection of what the dissertation is about and, if not, change the title.
The process of preparing your dissertation for submission begins with a careful final drafting of all your chapters and sections. Here you have the opportunity:
- To ensure that your argument is clearly developed from sentence to sentence and from paragraph to paragraph.
- To check the accuracy of your spelling and punctuation - do not rely on spellchecker software!
- To make sure that your sentences are well constructed and that you are expressing yourself clearly, precisely and fluently.
- To ensure that you have not contradicted or repeated yourself.
You need to check that your quotations from and references to both primary and secondary texts are clearly and consistently identified according to the conventions of the HARVARD referencing systems (or whatever system your department requires). There is more about this in the section on Plagiarism. You will check that your bibliography is properly presented and contains all sources cited throughout your work.
Guidelines on presentation
You should refer to the guidance provided by your own department, but in general you should think about the following:
- Your dissertation must normally be typed or word-processed on A4 paper.
- Your own text must be double-spaced.
- Indented quotations must be single-spaced.
- The pages of the dissertation must be numbered.
- It must have a title page.
- It must have a table of contents.
Submitting the completed dissertation
The completed dissertation should be submitted in the form set out by your department. If there are no formal styles, submit the dissertation in a format that makes it easy for the examiner to handle - avoid complicated spring-back or ring-backed files.
- Abstracts of sections and of the dissertation as a whole will help to focus your writing and direct your thoughts.
- Set yourself deadlines for drafting chapters. Agree these with your supervisor if you think that will motivate you.
- Depending on the rules and regulations of your own institution, give your supervisor drafts of chapters as you write them, and try to be responsive to criticism. Revise chapters as soon as you get them back.
- Read through each completed chapter. Check that your argument flows logically.
- Even if you write the introduction last, write it as if you have yet to find the answers to your questions. Don't give away the ending!
- Finally, check that the title refers accurately to the finished dissertation. If it does not - change the title!
- Follow some basic rules:
- Type or word-process your dissertation - do not write it out.
- Use double line spacing for your own writing.
- Use single line spacing for indented quotations (and footnote these!)
- Number the pages.
- Include a title page and a table of contents.
- Remember to adhere to any format stipulated by your department.
- IMPORTANT: Check how many copies your department requires.
- How long is your dissertation going to be?
- Have you mapped out the content of each of your chapters?
- In what order will the content flow best?
- Is your evaluation doing its job? Likewise, is your conclusion suitably conclusive?
- Is the order of the chapters logical and coherent, will it make sense to the reader?
- Are the beginning, middle and end clear?
- Do your sentences and paragraphs make sense?
- Do you know someone else who can proof-read the dissertation for you?
- Have you allowed enough time to proof-read properly?
BRYMAN, A. (2004). Social Research Methods. 2nd ed. Oxford, Oxford University Press, chapter 26 - Doing a research project
DENSCOMBE, M. (2003). The Good Research Guide for Small-scale Social Research Projects. Maidenhead, Oxford University Press, part III
HART, C. (2000). Doing a Literature Review: Releasing the Social Science Imagination. London, Sage
Writing up your dissertation:
Conducting a literature review:
1. © Dr Malcolm Todd (Leeds Met), Ian Baker (Sheffield Hallam University), Professor Chris Winch (NCU), Andy Pilkington (NCU), Dr John Steel (University of Sheffield), Dr Anne Hollows (Sheffield Hallam University)
This Study Guide addresses the task of writing a dissertation. It aims to help you to feel confident in the construction of this extended piece of writing, and to support you in its successful completion.
You may also find the following Study Guides helpful:
Sometimes writing is seen as an activity that happens after everything else:
“The research is going well, so the writing should be straightforward - I can leave it until later”.
“I know I’m not good at writing so I keep putting it off”.
“I know I’m good at writing so I can leave it to later”.
“I want to get everything sorted out in my mind before I start writing or I’ll just end up wasting my time re-writing”.
These four very different perspectives lead to the same potential problems:
regarding re-drafting as a failure or a waste of time;
ignoring the further learning and clarification of argument that usually occurs during the writing and re-writing process; and
leaving too little time for effective editing and final proofing.
The process of having to describe your study in detail, in a logical sequence of written words, will inevitably highlight where more thought is needed, and it may lead to new insight into connections, implications, rationale, relevance, and may lead to new ideas for further research.
Barras (1993:136) suggests that you ‘think of your report as part of your investigation, not as a duty to be undertaken when your work is otherwise complete’, and this Study Guide suggests that: writing is an integral part of the research process.
Getting on with the writing
The good news is that you have already started writing if you have written any of the following in relation to this study:
a research proposal;
a literature review;
a report of any pilot studies that you undertook;
an abstract for a conference;
reports for your supervisors;
a learning journal where you keep ideas as they occur to you; or
notes for a presentation you have given.
In each case the object of the writing was to communicate to yourself, your supervisors, or to others, something about your work. In writing your dissertation you will draw on some of this earlier writing to produce a longer and more comprehensive account.
Check out what is required
Before embarking on any substantial writing for your dissertation you will need to check the exact requirements regarding:
the word limit: maximum and minimum; and whether or not this includes words within tables, the abstract, the reference list, and the appendices;
which chapters are expected to be included, in which order, and what kind of material is expected in each;
the kind of content appropriate to place in the appendices rather than in the main text; and
the marking scheme or guidance.
There are some conventions that guide the structuring of dissertations in different disciplines. You should check departmental and course regulations.
Below are two structures that are commonly used.
- Title page
- Contents page(s)
- Materials and methods or Literature review
- Results or Sources and methods
- Discussion or Findings
Each section or chapter has its own particular function
The title itself is an important opportunity to tell the potential reader what your research is about. You will need it to be succinct, specific, descriptive, and representative of the research you have done. There is likely to be a required format for the title page in your discipline, so you need to check what that is.
This may be one of the shortest sections of your thesis or dissertation, but it is worthwhile taking great care to write it well. Essentially, the Abstract is a succinct summary of the research. It should be able to stand alone in representing why and how you did what you did, and what the results and implications are. It is often only one page long, and there may be a word limit to adhere to. The Abstract is an important element of the thesis, and will become a document in its own right if the thesis is registered within any database. The examiners will therefore assess your Abstract both as part of your thesis, and as a potentially independent document.
It can be best to write the Abstract last, once you are sure what exactly you are summarising. Alternatively it can be useful to write the abstract earlier on, as an aid to identifying the crucial main thread of your research, its purpose, and its findings, which could then guide the structure of the dissertation.
Attending to the very restrictive word / space limit, while at the same including all the relevant material is quite a challenge. It might be useful to look at how others have managed. It is certainly an academic exercise, but perhaps not too different from the concise explanations of your research you may have had to give to relatives and neighbours over the last few years, in terms of its brevity, accessibility, and comprehensiveness.
This is your opportunity to mention individuals who have been particularly helpful. Reading the acknowledgements in other dissertations in your field will give you an idea of the ways in which different kinds of help have been appreciated and mentioned.
Contents, and figure and table lists
The contents pages will show up the structure of the dissertation. Any imbalance in space devoted to different sections of content will become apparent. This is a useful check on whether amalgamation of sections, or creation of further sections or sub-sections is needed.
Although this is the first piece of writing the reader comes to, it is often best to leave its preparation to last as, until then, you will not be absolutely sure what you are introducing. The introduction has two main roles:
to expand the material summarised in the abstract, and
to signpost the content of the rest of the dissertation.
The literature review, or context of the study
The purpose of this chapter is to show that you are aware of where your own piece of research fits into the overall context of research in your field. To do this you need to:
describe the current state of research in your defined area;
consider whether there are any closely related areas that you also need to refer to;
identify a gap where you argue that further research is needed; and
explain how you plan to attend to that particular research gap.
This can lead logically into a clear statement of the research question(s) or problem(s) you will be addressing.
In addition to the research context, there may be other relevant contexts to present for example:
practice context; and
It can be difficult to identify the best order for sections in this chapter because the rationale for your choice of specific research question can be complicated, and there may be several inter-linked reasons why the research is needed. It is worth taking time to develop a logical structure as this will help to convince examiners of the relevance of your research, and that you understand its relevance. It will also provide you with a framework to refer back to in your discussion chapter, when you reflect on the extent to which your research has achieved what it set out to do.
Chapter(s) describing methods, sources, material etc
In these chapters a straightforward description is required of how you conducted the research. If you used particular equipment, processes, or materials, you will need to be clear and precise in how you describe them. You must give enough detail for another researcher to replicate your study.
Results / Findings
You will need to check which style of reporting is preferred in your field. For example a scientific dissertation would probably have very clear separation between the results and the discussion of those results; whereas a social science dissertation might have an overall chapter called Findings, bringing the results and their discussion together.
Decisions about style of presentation may need to be made about, for example:
whether you want to begin with an initial overview of the results, followed by the detail, or whether you move immediately into the detail of the results;
in which order you will be presenting the detailed results; and
what balance, in terms of word space, you want to achieve across the spread of results that you have.
This is where you review your own research in relation to the wider context in which it is located. You can refer back to the rationale that you gave for your research in the literature review, and discuss what your own research has added in this context. It is important to show that you appreciate the limitations of your research, and how these may affect the validity or usefulness of your findings. Given the acknowledged limitations, you can report on the implications of your findings for theory, research, and practice.
This chapter tends to be much shorter than the Discussion. It is not a mere ‘summary’ of your research, but needs to be ‘conclusions’ as to the main points that have emerged and what they mean for your field.
This section needs to be highly structured, and needs to include all of your references in the required referencing style. As you edit and rewrite your dissertation you will probably gain and lose references that you had in earlier versions. It is important therefore to check that all the references in your reference list are actually referenced within the text; and that all the references that appear in the text appear also in the reference list.
You need to check whether or not the appendices count within the word limit for your dissertation. Items that can usefully go in the appendices are those that a reader would want to see, but which would take up too much space and disrupt the flow if placed within the main text. Again, make sure you reference the Appendices within the main text where necessary.
Designing your detailed structure
If your dissertation is well-structured, easy to follow, logical, and coherent, your examiners will probably enjoy reading it, and will be able to listen to your argument without the distraction of trying to make all the links themselves.
The only way to achieve a consistent argument throughout a piece of writing is by creating some kind of plan or map of what you want to say. It can be useful to think of the research question or topic going like a strong thread throughout the dissertation: linking all the elements of the study, and giving coherence to its reporting.
Moving from doing the research to writing a comprehensive account of it is not necessarily easy. You may feel that you know everything in your head but can’t see how you can put it into words in the most useful order. It can be helpful to break the task down into smaller, more easily accomplished elements. The process of producing your writing plan could go as follows.
You could start by making a comprehensive and unstructured list of all the elements and ideas that you need to include, ranging from
chapter headings to notes about analysis, and from ideas for graphical representation to ideas for further research. Alternatively you could choose to start at stage 2.
List the main chapter headings in the order in which they will appear.
Under each chapter heading, list a series of important sub-headings. It may be that, for example, a literature review chapter needs to be split into a review of several different segments of literature. In this case each segment can have its own sub-heading, with a synthesis that brings the findings together at the end of the chapter.
Under each sub-heading, list the main content that needs to be included, creating sub-sub-headings if needed. If you began by making a long and unstructured list of content, you can now feed that into the developing structure by inserting it as bullet points under the relevant headings. You need to ensure that all the content you want to include has been allocated a place.
As you go, you can slot in ideas, references, quotes, clarifications, and conclusions as they occur to you, to make sure they are not forgotten.
Check that there is an appropriate balance between and within sections, and that the structure facilitates the logical and coherent description of the research study you have undertaken.
- Take feedback from others at this stage, before you begin to fill in the detail.
Filling in the detail
It can be a good idea to put the word limit to the back of your mind at this point, and concentrate on getting everything recorded in a document. You can always edit upwards or downwards later as necessary.
Writing as you go along
It is likely, and advisable, that you will not wait until the end of your research before starting to write it up. You may be required to produce one or more chapters for assessment part way through your research. The process described above can be used for any individual chapter you are working on. It is important to be prepared to critique and revise your own work several times. Even the early chapters submitted for assessment, and passing that assessment, may need to be revised later on. This is not a failure, but a positive sign of increased experience and skill.
Developing an argument
An important aspect running through your dissertation will be your argument for:
why this specific topic is worth researching;
why this is a good way to research it;
why this method of analysis is appropriate; and
why your interpretations and conclusions are reasonable.
You will refer to the work of others as you make your argument. This may involve critiquing the work of established leaders in the field. While it is important to be respectful in the way that you discuss others’ ideas and research, you are expected to engage directly, and even openly disagree with existing writing.
In Taylor’s (1989) book on writing in the arts and social sciences, he suggests that the following different approaches offer a range of academically legitimate ways to engage with published work.
Agree with, accede to, defend, or confirm a particular point of view.
Propose a new point of view.
Concede that an existing point of view has certain merits but that it needs to be qualified in certain important respects.
Reformulate an existing point of view or statement of it, such that the new version makes a better explanation.
Dismiss a point of view or another person’s work on account of its inadequacy, irrelevance, incoherence or by recourse to other appropriate criteria.
Reject, rebut or refute another’s argument on various reasoned grounds.
Reconcile two positions that may seem at variance by appeal to some ‘higher’ or ‘deeper’ principal.
Develop an existing point of view, perhaps by utilising it on larger or more complex datasets, or apply a theory to a new context
(Adapted from Taylor 1989:67)
It is important that you are assertive about what you are arguing, but it is unlikely that, in a dissertation project, you will be able to be definitive in closing an established academic debate. You should be open about where the gaps are in your research, and cautious about over-stating what you have found. Aim to be modest but realistic in relating your own research to the broader context.
Improving the structure and content
Once you have the dissertation in draft form it becomes easier to see where you can improve it. To make it easier to read you can use clear signposting at the beginning of chapters, and write links between sections to show how they relate to each other. Another technique to improve academic writing style is to ensure that each individual paragraph justifies its inclusion. More ideas will be presented in the Study Guide The art of editing.
You may choose to review your draft from the standpoint of a dissertation examiner, which might involve preparing a list of questions that you want to see answered, then reading through your dissertation scribbling comments, suggestions, criticisms, and ideas in the margin. If you have a marking guide then apply it to your dissertation and see if there are aspects that you can improve.
While you do this, be aware of whether you need to increase the number of words, or decrease it to reach your target. As you read you can then cross through material that appears unnecessary, and mark points that could be expanded. This will then form the basis for your next, improved, draft.
When to stop
Just as it can be difficult to begin writing, it can also be difficult to know when to stop. You may begin to feel that your dissertation will never be good enough, and that you need to revise it again and again. It may be helpful to divert your attention for a while to the finishing off activities you need to attend to:
writing the abstract and the introduction;
checking the reference list;
finalising the appendices; and
checking your contents page.
Coming back afresh to look critically at the main text may then enable you to complete it to your satisfaction. Remember the dissertation needs to demonstrate your ability to undertake and report research rather than to answer every question on a topic.
It is important to allow yourself enough time for the final checking and proof reading of the finished document.
Devote time to planning the structure of the dissertation.
Plan a structure that will enable you to present your argument effectively.
Fill in the detail, concentrating on getting everything recorded rather than sticking to the word limit at this stage.
Regard writing as part of the research process, not an after-thought.
Expect to edit and re-edit your material several times as it moves towards its final form.
Leave time to check and proofread thoroughly.
Barrass R. (1979) Scientists must write. A guide to better writing for scientists, engineers and students. London:Chapman and Hall.
Taylor G. (1989) The Student’s Writing Guide for the Arts and Social Sciences. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.