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PSA Third Years: Here is how to write a Dissertation 

The opinions expressed in this article are the writer’s own and do not reflect the views of Her Campus.
This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at Exeter chapter.

Before I start, no I can’t write your dissertation for you, sorry. Dissertations are simultaneously rewarding and incredibly stressful. I would be lying if I said mine didn’t cause a few crying sessions in the middle of DH2. I think I can honestly say that I wrote mine properly from March till May, after reading, probably from October till March. Now don’t think I was working on it every day, because I promise that I wasn’t. I probably worked on it every day from the middle of April until it’s due date in early May, even if it was just to edit bits and bobs. Just because I’ve written one, and about ten people have asked me to, I am giving my top tips on how to write a dissertation. I would also recommend googling for Dissertation tips, I wish I had done this sooner and found some really helpful academic help via the University of York website. Hopefully this will remind me that they’re not that bad as I start to research my MA one… So without further ado, here are some of my top tips I wish I had known last year!

  1. Don’t compare your diss to anyone else’s. It’s hard but trust me on this. Even If you’re doing the same course, chances are that you are doing it with a different supervisor and on different topics. Your experience will be similar to your friends but it will not be the same. Different topics mean different amounts, types and focus during research and writing. Even more reason not to compare if you are doing different courses. You will stress yourself out, or lull yourself into a false sense of security, for no reason. Chat and complain about them, yes, but don’t compare. 
  2. At this stage one would really hope you have a topic nailed and have started doing a few readings, if you haven’t got a full bibliography already. (MA students don’t panic, they’re not due to August, just start reading now!). If you haven’t, don’t worry you still have plenty of time, and the University of Essex has some great advice to hope you find one. The lead of my dissertation module in Art History suggested we create a spreadsheet type document to make good notes when we were doing out reading. So, taking his advice, I set up a document that put the full footnote and biography reference, and also a short summary so that when it came to writing it was easy to summarise main arguments. This was particularly helpful when it came to physical books from the library that I had to return and couldn’t keep like a pdf from JSTOR. 
  3. When you don’t think you can read anymore, start writing. This was one of the best pieces of advice my supervisor gave me, and I now use it for all my essays; it really helps. Once you think you know enough about the topic, or at least enough to start a paragraph you will find the words just start to flow out of you and life becomes simple. Writing, though not always fun, is easy once you know what you want to say, and how you want to say it. I wish I had known this sooner, but once my supervisor suggested this, it changed the way I approach all written tasks.
  4. Set yourself reasonable targets. Once I have all my readings I am quite fast and can write about 2000 in a day that will need to be heavily edited, but if you can write a decent 1000 words in a day then set a target of that for each day for a week, and by the end of that week you’ll have 5000. That’s half a dissertation. Or maybe even more depending on your word limit. When you break it down into what you’re capable of writing each day, and you work out how much you can do, it all seems much more manageable, I promise. 
  5. Go see your supervisor. If this is all you take from this article – Go. See. Your. Supervisor. They have been assigned to you for a reason. Even if they are your least favourite person on the planet, or you think they’re useless, they might say one thing that’s helpful. And remember, they are the ones marking it anyway… I was very lucky and loved my undergraduate supervisor and he was able to give some great advice. Some of which is now forming the advice I am giving you!
  6. Don’t start with your introduction. This one is a bit controversial, but I like to start by writing the body of my essay, then I go into my conclusion, then finally I write the introduction. I did my dissertation in the same way. It seemed to work okay for me! If you’re looking for some detailed advice, check out this Oxbridge advice.
  7. Have different documents for each part. By this I mean have a separate word doc. for your introduction, chapter one, chapter two, conclusion, bibliography, appendix and abstract, or whatever else you need. This makes it much less overwhelming as you are writing because it looks like you are looking at a smaller essay rather than a chapter of a dissertation. It’s also helpful for working out word counts. Then, once you have written it all, combine the documents and you will see a beautiful dissertation that will make you feel very proud. Especially when you view all the pages in a single view. 
  8. Send it to anyone who will read it. And I mean ANYONE. Do it one by one so that you’re not getting confused with edits, but when I say you want lots of people to read and have an input, make sure they are vaguely aware of the topic before you send it to them. I always send mine to my Dad and at least one friend (although my diss was read by at least six). 

Good luck, you’ve got this, it’s only words on a piece of paper. It can’t go that wrong, trust me. Make a cup of tea, light a candle and start writing. And if you want to procrastinate a bit longer, I recommended reading this Cosmopolitan article about handing in your dissertation… it’s an emotional rollercoaster.

Sophie is in her final year at the University of Exeter. She is the President, Editor in Chief, Social Secretary and Campus Correspondent for the Exeter Chapter of Her Campus (2021 - 2023). Sophie would love to work in the media, specifically marketing, when she graduates because of her love for reading and editing... in fact as you read this she is probably wishing that she was lying by a pool with a good book and an iced coffee!