13. Two Secrets for a First Class Dissertation

This is the thirteenth  article in the fourteen-part series ‘Dissertation Writing from Start to Finish’. For the full list of articles click here

At this point in your dissertation writing journey, you should be nearly there. The words are on the page, the arguments mostly supported by evidence. It’s coming together and your hard work is paying off. Well done! 

You aren’t quite there yet though, and this is an important moment. This is your chance to push your diss through the roof in terms of quality. The best dissertations do these two things:

1. Answer the question

This might seem a strange one because you set the question! What I mean is that you need to make sure there is a crystal clear sense of direction through the piece, that you stick to your idea throughout and work it through all the way through to its logical conclusion. 

This requires you to be very aware of bits that do not answer the question. Sections, or sentences, which slide off into (interesting but less relevant) tangents can be relegated to the footnotes.  Cut the excess and your thesis will come through much more clearly.

The ability to take a little step back from your work and see it for what it is, as a whole, comes with practice. A good basic tip is to read the intro and conclusion and think to yourself “What’s the argument here? Does that fit into the project as a whole?” Then do the same exercise with each paragraph’s opening and closing sentence. If you can, put your diss away for a day or two and come at it with fresh eyes.

2. ‘Fizzy’ writing

Academics read, and mark, a lot of dissertations. Some dissertations are interesting and some are boring. The interesting ones stand out, sure, but here’s the secret: being interesting has a lot to do with the style of writing and the formatting. 

By answering the question (see point 1) you’re already leading the marker through your project by the hand, pointing out to them all the interesting and clever things you’re saying. Now it’s time to put a bit of flair into the prose!

Think “How would P G Wodehouse phrase this?” Of course it needs to remain formal, but if you can use a metaphor, or an analogy, this will really carry the writing along and make your arguments all the more persuasive. Use the active voice, not the passive. Never say ‘utilised’ where you could have said ‘used’. 

You might also want to have words or phrases that resonate throughout your project; go through each section and check that you have dropped them in sufficiently.  

For an example of this, you might like to look at the Conclusion to my diss on Ishiguro: page 49 first para. Now I know all the stuff about ‘avalanches’ and ‘multifarious blooming of many flowers’ is a bit poncy. That’s alright. It just can’t be boring. The way that I’ve written this conclusion hopefully draws the reader  along a bit with the flow of the argument, leaving the impression of someone well in control of their writing.

Nearly there….

That’s all there is to it! You’re so close. The final article in the series is a useful checklist for proofreading and polishing; find it here.

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