How to write a dissertation

From forming a proposal to printing it professionally, Ciara Olden traces the highs and lows that come with writing a final year dissertation

The dissertation is probably one of the most daunting aspects of any undergraduate’s degree. Knowing how to tackle it, or even just start the blasted thing can feel overwhelming. However, as a seasoned veteran, I am here to lend a hand and share the wisdom I have learned while writing my own dissertation.

Many of you will already have submitted a proposal or title for your own dissertation at this point. For those of you who have yet to do so, it is never a bad thing to have a few ideas in mind. What you put down on these proposal forms is not a legal and binding contract, ideas can and do change. If you happen to have a light-bulb moment over the summer you will usually be able to alter your topic accordingly. That said, these proposals are often for the purpose of assigning a supervisor, so try not to propose a dissertation on Revolutionary France and then turn around and say you want to look at Medieval Ireland.

Even the most basic innocuous questions can inspire an idea.”

Once you have your topic you need to decide on your research question. Some people are terrifyingly on top of things and seem to have this all done well in advance. However, if like me, you did not have a research question right away, don’t be daunted by the prospect. You may get some reading suggestions from your supervisor or have some overview books in mind. This is a good place to start. Start reading and ask yourself questions. Even the most basic innocuous questions can inspire an idea. For me it was the simple question: “Why are all the river gods dudes?” So truly, there are no stupid questions.

Once you have some ideas for research questions, let your supervisor know. More importantly, listen to your supervisor. They know what they are doing, they have done it many times before. Furthermore, there are no “spoilers” in your dissertation. Speaking from experience, keeping a sense of suspense with your supervisor will do you no favours. Be sure to check in with your supervisor regularly. Make sure to write down your questions and ideas somewhere where you are not going to lose them, like a notebook, and remember to take notes during the meetings. Trust me, you will forget what was said.

The next step is to start reading. And when you have done that, keep reading.”

The next step is to start reading. And when you have done that, keep reading. Obviously, you do not have a handy reading list in the module handbook, so you need to make your own. The best way to do this is to read the footnotes. I know, I know, those extra bits at the end of the page that you normally get to skip to lessen the reading. Yeah, you need to read them now, sorry. Make sure you keep a record of what you have read and what you want to read and make sure you have the author’s name, the title, the year, city of publication or whatever information you will need for citing the work and writing your bibliography. Not only will this help you later, but it will also help motivate you and remind you of how much work you have already done.

Even though your handbook unfortunately does not have a reading list, it is now your sacred text. Read it. Odds are if you have a question your supervisor will tell you to read your handbook. Look at your deadlines early and write them down along with all your module deadlines and plan around them. There is nothing worse than having to rush an assignment because you forgot about it. Your dissertation is only part of your degree, remember that.

Write as you go, I cannot emphasise this enough. Set yourself personal deadlines if you need to and stick to them. This is definitely not an assignment you will be able to pull a few all-nighters the week before to complete – or maybe it is, but I would not recommend it. No one needs that stress. The other reason to write as you go is because editing will definitely take you longer than you think it will. Whether it is revising the content, proofreading, or trying to adhere to the infernal word count, it is going to take time.

For proofreading, many word processing programmes have options which will read your text aloud for you. Even though Microsoft Sean cannot pronounce the name “Styx” to save his York-accented life, he is a fantastic tool for picking up those odd articles and prepositions that get lost or added in the wider editing process. Another good idea for proofreading is to temporarily change the font of your document with each revision. This tricks the brain into thinking that it is looking at a completely new document and will make it easier to spot mistakes or places where sentences can be trimmed.

Perhaps the bane of any student’s life is cutting words to comply with a word count.”

Perhaps the bane of any student’s life is cutting words to comply with a word count. Fortunately for you, my last week has consisted of trawling forums looking for ways to cut down my document. The first place to look is your footnotes. Is there a different system you can use that will use fewer (or more) words? If you still have problems, look for words that can be hyphenated. See if you can cut out conjunctions (“and”, “but”, “so”, “or”), unnecessary adjectives and adverbs (search for “ly” to find them) and also unnecessary filler words we all know and love such as “however”, “indeed” and “also”. While these words help your writing flow, they often can be removed without changing a sentence’s meaning. Also look out for “orphan words”, those one or two words in the last line of a paragraph. These paragraphs can often be edited to tuck these orphan words into the body. Finally, and a bit unorthodox perhaps, is to look for “of” in the genitive which can often be rewritten to use less words. So, for example “the poems of Chaucer” can be rewritten as “Chaucer’s poems” and save you two words.

Once you have finished writing your dissertation and have submitted it, you still have one or two more things to do. Firstly, it’s not compulsory, but I would recommend getting your dissertation printed professionally, even if it is for the simple pleasure of showing it off and getting a picture in front of the Campanile as per college tradition. Secondly, treat yourself, celebrate! You have just finished writing your dissertation, your masterpiece, your magnum opus. If anything should be celebrated, it is this. Your dissertation is something to be proud of and a huge achievement for any student. It can be tough, and it can be hard, but count your victories and mark your milestones. There will be days where you fly and there will be days you get stuck in the mud, and that is okay. Whatever happens, rest assured you will get it done and you will finish, and it will be amazing. Trust me on that too.

Ciara Olden

Ciara Olden is a copyeditor for Trinity News, and a Junior Sophister History and Classical Civilisations student.