About to start a Dissertation? Anxious? Why is embarking on a dissertation or large essay such a daunting and anxiety-making task? It needn’t be if you follow some simple advice. But be warned, nothing can make the completion of a large writing task easy without hard work!
You may be worried about panicking or having too much to do to finish on time; you don’t know anything about your topic or even what it might be yet; you’ve no idea how to go about structuring the text; it all feels alien because you prefer the practical, hands-on side of your topic; you are worried that you will fail…..
So here is my advice, gleaned from many years of both writing long texts myself and also of mentoring dissertation tutees and other essay-writers. This is just for those about to start. Later I’ll suggest ways of making the actual doing a lot easier.
Take things in small steps. However, being aware of the bigger picture helps you to know where the small steps fit in overall. Carefully check the dissertation or essay assignment or brief. Your institution will also have information about dissertation-writing and the preferred referencing system (usually but not always, the Harvard System). If in doubt about what you are supposed to do check, with your tutor.
Choosing a topic
This is perhaps the hardest part of the dissertation because you might like the sound of a topic but when you try to research it you can’t find enough to make a dissertation from. Or vice versa – there’s too much to narrow down. The topic should be one that helps inform you about the things you are learning and that you might want to use for career opportunities, so choose wisely. Do a joint activity of looking-up topics to find out if there is material available while thinking of potential dissertation titles that you can answer effectively. Negotiate between your ideas for a topic title and what research you can find. You may have to give up your preferred topic in favour of one more accessible with more information available.
By the way, there nearly always is material available; if you can’t find it, it is because you can’t find it not because it doesn’t exist.
Be aware of when you have to submit your initial question or proposal for your dissertation. Until this point keep your title flexible and negotiable. By the time you need to submit this you should have some embryonic idea in mind, so let the idea or your initial notes help form the question.
Above all, make sure the question is practical and appropriate to answer. Don’t use words, such as “effective”, that you can’t prove with quotes or analysis. (What makes, say a logo “effective”? Will you define that by financial success or memorability? How will you prove this?) Define your words and if they are too subjective change or re-frame them. The title can be simple; it doesn’t have to be complicated in order for you to write a good piece. Less is more!
You can’t avoid this. If you shrug off research you’ll certainly get a low grade or a fail. No two ways about it.
Once you know all about your topic it becomes so much easier to write about it. Before you embark on your investigations you cannot, of course, write much because you don’t yet know much.
You need to fact-find enough at the start to be able to discuss all of the over-arching, main or salient points of the topic. If you had a chat with someone who does know this topic, are you sure that you will be aware of all the important points they might throw into the conversation? Nothing makes you look more daft than asserting you know a topic and then finding out that you have left out a big and important chunk that makes quite a difference to your understanding.
Also, if you a pick a topic that you are already familiar with don’t assume you know enough – you’ll still need to find out what other experts have said and treat it as new.
So start by reading overviews. Here online sources like encyclopaedias and Wikipedia are good. But remember that many universities and institutions won’t allow Wikipedia and equivalent non-academic sources as references. You do need to move on to the more academic books, journals and websites, museums, galleries and first-hand interviews afterwards to fill out the gaps.
The more you research the more you can write about intelligently. You should research to the point that you can explain things about your topic in several ways. If you can only describe or discuss a point in one way you probably don’t know it yet. Einstein suggested that you only know something well when you can explain it simply to a child – I get my students to try this out because it works.
And remember that in most dissertations and essays at undergraduate level you are not trying to show new information. It’s about how you understand and handle debates in the information that you find.
Keep a record of and reference everything you look at because you may want to come back to it. You’ll never remember which book or website such and such a quote was in amongst all the books and sites you’ve looked at (you think you will but your memory makes them very interchangeable).
Also, if you do decide to use a quote or a reference put it immediately in your bibliography. Begin this habit at the start and keep adding to the bibliography as you go along. It may seem like a chore now, but believe me if you don’t do this now, going back and trying to find all your references can take days – literally. If your bibliography is missing or too thin, or just online references, you might be dropped a grade or even failed. It is a vital part of the whole.
It is a good idea to write down or photocopy useful quotes or references and keep them in a digital or paper file. Then you can actually spread these out on the kitchen table and place them in some sort of structured order as the framework for your long text. Don’t make your references too list-like. Make sure the prose flows well and is always connected back to the main claims. Many students who find writing a bit of a challenge have found this activity works well to help order and arrange the overall piece.
Audience and structure
OK, so who will read your dissertation? Or rather, what kind of people are they? Intelligent people who know about the topic? So frame your writing towards them. Talk seriously but not pompously. Avoid jargon, unless it is very necessary and then define it. Don’t try to be an “academic” but write as you speak (but no txt talk, of course! Lol!).
Always imagine that there is going to be a reader who can handle these ideas but who doesn’t know the precise topic. So you need to explain things in order for them to understand your ideas. If you don’t explain, the readers, and indeed assessors, will assume that you don’t know.
You’ll be making claims in your text that always need to be backed-up with some kind of proof. Dissertations are academic texts with “protocols” that you’ll probably get graded for. They aren’t chats in the bar. So you should always start each paragraph with a lead in – “walk the reader into it”. In other words, say what your claim for this paragraph is. Then prove it with the information that you have selected. This can be in the form of direct quotes, statistics, paraphrasing or your own analysis, or a mixture of these. But some kind of proof must be there.
Any words you write that are just your own assumptions will be scored out (hypothetically if not literally). You must always give your references so that anyone can follow up what you’ve said or check on it. This is the main academic protocol and prevents you being accused of plagiarism. It also makes you seem wise and knowledgeable, whereas assumptions make you seem like a jerk! Walk your audience out of the paragraph (or group of paragraphs) with a link to the main claims or conclusions. Remind the audience of the claims you are making with this informational proof.
For the designers and other creatives amongst you reading this, remember that the same process will be used for your dissertation as your design work. Though you are using written texts rather than visual communication elements, you should form the dissertation in the same way – research, sift and conclude; generate ideas and develop these (write and re-write, cut and paste); evaluate, especially in terms of does the text make sense, are some parts too thin or bulky, are some parts less proved; “design” the format or structure so that it communicates best; realise the end product.
Some of you might be lucky enough to be able to submit a draft to your mentor for suggestions, so use this opportunity well to make your amendments. If you don’t get this chance try to find a reliable person who can check it for you. Spellings and grammar, if poorly done, can make the flow of the text difficult and this will always impact badly however generous your assessor. Proof reading too is an academic protocol.
If you can start your process with these straightforward things you are well on the way to creating a good dissertation. It will seem simpler if you do small bits at a time, remembering that the research or getting to know the topic fluently is the paramount thing to start with. You need to become an expert on this particular aspect of the subject.
Anyone who has written a dissertation will know the relief when it is finished and, moreover, the pride and accomplishment you feel when you know it is done well. Investigating a topic that is of use to you is also rewarding in the fact that it informs you in a professional manner, helping you to perform your practice more effectively.
You can find dissertation mentors and proof readers for design and art topics at http://www.thegraphicdesignproject.com/consultancy/. (Please note that we are not an essay-writing service. We have our professional integrity and we like to see people achieve their own goals.)