This is the Introduction to this fourteen-part series ‘Dissertation Writing from Start to Finish’. For the full list of articles scroll to the bottom of this page.

Picture the scene: It’s the end of university term, mid-March. You’re tired and weary. All the freshers and second years have gone home, and you want to too. But you can’t. Not yet. Why not? What’s going on? Why is the library still full?

One word: Dissertations.

More specifically, final year students frantically writing (‘polishing’) their 12,000 words before rushing to get them printed, bound and handed in on time. That’s what’s going on. 

Writing a dissertation doesn’t have to be stressful though. In fact, in some ways it can be a real joy and there are lots of ways you can make the process of writing your dissertation easier on yourself. In this fourteen-part series I’m going to walk you through the tools and strategies I’ve found most helpful in writing my two undergraduate dissertations, one in Law and one in English Literature, over the last 5 years. You can read my English one, about the novelist Kazuo Ishiguro, here

What is a dissertation?

In case you didn’t already know, a dissertation is an extended piece of academic writing, normally around 12,000 words. It’s essentially a long essay, and you, the student, can normally choose the topic. At many UK universities it is compulsory to write a dissertation, and it often forms a large part of the final degree mark.

The timeline is normally something like this:

Summer – At the end of the summer term of their penultimate year, students have to submit a draft topic, and supervisors will be allocated. You might have a meeting with your supervisor before the end of term, in which they might give you some basic avenues to go down, and some suggested reading.  

September to December – The winter term is for working out the basics of the diss. Often titles have to be finalised by Christmas.

January – At the start of the Lent term, you often have to submit a chunk, usually two or three thousand words, to your supervisor. This can be either a ‘finished’ single chapter, or a rag tag bundle of ideas (my preferred option!) Your supervisor will then comment on what you have done, guiding you in the right direction if you’re a bit off track.

End of Lent term/start of Easter term – submission deadline. 

Disclaimer and preamble

For what it’s worth, I got firsts in both my dissertations, which were in English Literature at Durham University and in Law at Cambridge University. I say that partially to point out that I have some, limited, credentials, but more to say that, given my degrees, my advice is more focused towards humanity-type dissertations. I’ve collated lots of advice that I’ve received, both from the Durham and Cambridge university departments, and from friends in my year and years above, so hopefully it’s a bit of a treasure trove of useful information. 

Because the articles in the series are jam-packed with tips and thinking, you might want to read them through a couple of times. The later ones might also make better sense if you come to them when you’re further through your project. Whatever works for you!

Full list of articles

  1. Hurdler, Archer or Treasure Hunter? Three Mental Models
  2. Writing a Dissertation? Start HERE
  3. Easier Dissertation Research – the System
  4. Easier Dissertation Research – Key Resources
  5. Dissertation Writing – the Magic of Quick Capture
  6. Dissertation Writing – the Scribble Habit
  7. Dissertation Writing – Towards a First Draft
  8. Getting the Most from your Supervisor
  9. How to Keep Going
  10. Mini Project – Look Yourself in the Mirror
  11. The Second Draft – Refining Structure and Arguments
  12. Signposting and Cross-referencing
  13. Two Secrets for a First Class Dissertation
  14. Finalising your Dissertation – a Checklist 
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