2. Writing a Dissertation? Start HERE

This is the second 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 how to get started with your diss. Don’t worry, it’s not rocket science. Essentially there are two main parts to getting started:

  1. Thinking about it early; and 
  2. Writing stuff down early.

Start thinking about it early

I know this is a classic bit of advice, but it is true. The earlier you start the easier you will make it all for yourself. In fact there is no real reason that you couldn’t have finished it by Christmas, or even in the August before you start your final year, if you really wanted to. (Not advised, for the sake of your summer holiday, but I’m just making the point that because the diss is largely self-directed when you write it is up to you.) 

Starting early doesn’t mean you have to have you nose buried deep in Foucault all summer holidays but it does mean that you should, every now and again, have a quick Google (/Google Scholar, more on that later) about what you’re thinking of doing, read an article perhaps, jot down a thought or two. Basically you’re just getting possible topics and areas of interest turning over in your mind.

This search doesn’t have to be boring. It’s up to you! Search widely: use YouTube videos, podcasts, radio transcripts, tv episodes, anything about your subject, or possible subject. When I was writing mine, I read all sorts of short pieces from the popular press about my topics, and all the interviews and videos I could find as well. When you’re starting out, you want to expose yourself to the broadest possible collection of thought around your topic, particularly early on, and then you can choose where to narrow your focus. This will also help you choose something you’re actually interested in; what you find yourself gravitating towards is a pretty good steer for your final topic. 

What’s it all about?

The most difficult question you’ll ever be asked about your dissertation is “So, what’s it about?” You want to be crystal clear about what you’re doing, because that will make your life so much easier when you’re writing it. To start with you probably won’t have a clue, and that’s the whole point of this ‘starting early’ process. You throw the net out, and see what comes back. 

Now, most humanities dissertations offer a free choice of topic. This can seem daunting. To help, I’ve prepared a document which breaks down the different possible angles which might be relevant to writing a dissertation. You can make your own copy by following this link. The examples are designed for an English literature dissertation, but are really there just as spurs to thought. 

Fill out this document as best you can. It will give you a rough idea of the different parts of a dissertation, and the different aspects of an extended piece like this. It’s good to have a rough idea before you start because hopefully it means you avoid that existential moment of ‘Oh-my-gosh-what-on-earth-is-this-all-about-I-have-no-idea-what’s-going-on’ about three weeks before it’s due in.

If you have a couple of ideas, fill out two forms, and see which one you found easier to do. 

Benefits of starting thinking early

There are two main benefits to starting thinking about your diss early.

First, starting early will mean that you feel you have your project more under control. The idea of writing something this long can seem daunting, certainly initially. Getting the ball rolling helps you realise that it will be made up of lots of little chunks, each of which isn’t such a big deal. For example, in a 12000 word diss, the introduction and conclusion might each be 1000 words, with three meaty chapters each of 3000 words each.

Second, starting thinking early means that when term starts again, you have the luxury of being able to decide to do other things with your time. You will be more on top of your other subjects, and will have more time for fun things too. Hopefully you also avoid (at least some of) the late scramble at the end!

Start writing early!

Getting some words down of paper, in whatever form, is an absolutely essential part of the process, for two reasons.

First it helps you to develop your ideas and gives you something to work with. Even if it’s rubbish the first time round, at least you won’t be starting from a blank slate when term actually starts; improving the wheel is always easier than inventing it!

Second it gives your supervisor a better idea of the strengths and weaknesses of your ideas, and means that you’re better able to ask them for help

I go into detail about how, practically, to get in the habit of writing things down in the sixth article; read it here.

If you’re looking for some kind of external motivation to get you writing early, competitions can be a really good spur to action. For my Law dissertation I actually wrote a 3000 word essay in early September for a competition. As it turned out, I wasn’t eligible to enter my essay, but that didn’t really matter because the real benefit was that super early in the year I’d already done a good chunk of thinking and writing about my topic. This was enormously helpful later, even though I didn’t end up using lots of what I’d written.

What next?

I hope this has been helpful and inspired you to get out there and ‘get at it’ good and early! The next two articles in the series go in-depth into the research process; read the next article here.

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