This is the first article in the fourteen-part series ‘Dissertation Writing from Start to Finish’. For the full list of articles click here.
In this article we’re going to discuss three different ways you might think about your dissertation project. Knowing these will inform your approach throughout your dissertation journey, and also hopefully allow you to understand and improve your writing process. I also include some useful project planning resources.
While I was at Durham, my head of department gave a fascinating talk about the different ways people came at their dissertation projects. Essentially, how you think about your project depends on whether:
- you have an idea when you start your project and know how to reach the finish line (the Hurdler); or
- you just have a target, a clear end point, in mind (the Archer); or
- you are searching around for clues (the Treasure Hunter).
I’ve tried all three, and it really comes down to the kind of project you’re writing and what you prefer, as to which you’ll gravitate towards. These models are just guides to help you frame what you’re doing. You might find that you mix and match them at different stages in your dissertation journey.
An Iterative Process
Whichever model you choose, an iterative approach is best. Not only is it easier to improve on something ‘ok’ than to write something brilliant from scratch, but it is also more satisfying because you have a constant sense of progress. Your writing and planning process should look something like this:
The Mental Models in detail
The Hurdler knows where they are going, and the steps they need to take to get there. The process is all about executing their plan. In terms of writing a dissertation, thinking like a Hurdler means thinking of writing each part like getting over one hurdle at a time. You complete each step in a logical manner, from the start all the way to the finish.
If you can state your idea clearly in 30 seconds, the Hurdler suits your project.
Thinking like a Hurdler is the simplest of these mental models, and works really well when you already have a clear idea (a ‘thesis’) from the start of your project. You might even be able to plan out, early in the process, exactly what each chapter is going to say. This is great, because you have the certainty of your convictions, and a structure to work through. This approach suits projects with an empirical element, or for example projects which are following a chronological progression through their source material.
Suggested planning resources
If thinking like a Hurdler suits your project, you might like to look at Gantt charts (see for example this template and this YouTube video), Burn-down charts or Kanban boards (for example in Trello or Notion) for planning and ordering your writing process.
A word to the wise
Thinking like a Hurdler risks being too rigid. Be wary of creating too strict a structure for yourself. Things can and will change.
To avoid this danger, you should constantly be testing yourself, asking yourself the difficult questions about whether this is the best structure, or if this argument is better placed before that one.
Something you thought at the start was going to be really important might get sidelined in favour of something else, and you need to have the flexibility to move things around through the whole writing process, so that your project is shaped in the best and most persuasive way possible; watch out for blindly following the plan you decided months ago.
II. The Archer
Imagine you’re at an archery range. You have your arrows. You know where the target is. All you have to do it hit the target with the arrows. To start with your shots are way off the mark, but you keep stringing your bow, and eventually the target is peppered with arrows.
The Archer model suits projects with a clear conclusion to work towards. You are trying to hit a target with a linear set of parallel arguments.
When you have the target to aim at, the writing process is essentially about gathering evidence to:
- Support the favourable arguments;
- Dismiss weaknesses with them; and
- Back them up with secondary literature.
Thinking like an Archer is about trial and error; shooting a variety of arrows until you hit the right part of the target. Sometimes you’ll get lucky and middle the bullseye. The skill then is knowing 1. When you’ve done that, and 2. How to do it again!
There will necessarily be some collateral in this approach, some material you can’t use because it’s unhelpful or irrelevant. You can use this to your advantage by giving a sense of the ‘misses’ you made in the process, the ways this thesis might work, but does not. You can then turn to your proposed solution, and explain why it solves all the problems with the other ideas (or if it doesn’t solve all the problems, it at least solves the important ones!)
III. The Treasure Hunter
The third and final mental model, the Treasure Hunter, is less structured. It suits projects which don’t yet have a single coherent idea (the Hurdler), or a clear end point to aim at (the Archer).
The idea is that, in the process of writing and research, you create a cloud of relevant ideas, themes and other useful material, and then work your way through, and around, this rich sprawl to discern patterns and draw connections.
Many projects will look like this at the start, beginning broad, with a rough idea of areas of interest, and narrowing down. A good way to go about this (and one which plays into the writing tips in Article 6 and Article 7) is to identify, as you go, what the important materials for that area are, and then just start writing on those specific aspects.
This model suits projects where there isn’t a clear or obvious structure; the structure of the piece will come from the structure of the ideas within it. You will still have to focus on structure at some point. Don’t think too hard about it though, you might be amazed at how much one can move things around at a later point.
A benefit of thinking like a treasure hunter is that it focuses your attention on key themes, encouraging you to think about your topic in a more holistic way. You’re looking for anything and everything which might be useful. It also means that you aren’t locked into a structure that you may have thought would work for you two months ago, but now doesn’t really fit because the balance of what is important in your essay and argument is no longer what you thought it was.
On the other hand, thinking like a treasure hunter requires being comfortable with a certain degree of chaos. You won’t know where things are ‘meant’ to be until a later stage. There is also a danger of being overwhelmed by the variety and complexity of the topic area; you can’t (and in fact shouldn’t) cover everything.
There is a danger that at least some of this extensive web of research will lead nowhere. You never might never find the treasure. Ignore that feeling though; trust the process and something will come up. Linked to this, make sure to keep your focus precise, even if ranging broadly. What is it you want to find out today? Don’t waste your time reading the whole of an article if only some of it is relevant.
How do you think about your dissertation project? Do you now think about it differently? (If so, do let me know in the comments.)I hope you’ve found this helpful. In the next article we’re moving on to how to start your dissertation. It’s a good one and you can find it here.