Writing a dissertation

Study guide

Study guide table of contents:

getting on with writing | checking requirements | sections of a dissertation explained | designing a detailed structure | filling in the detail | writing as you go along | developing an argument | improving the structure and content | summary

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This study guide addresses the task of writing a dissertation. Sometimes writing is seen as an activity that happens after everything else:

  • The research is going well, so the writing should be straightforward - I can leave it until later.
  • I know I’m not good at writing so I keep putting it off.
  • I know I’m good at writing so I can leave it to later.
  • I want to get everything sorted out in my mind before I start writing or I’ll just end up wasting my time re-writing.

These four very different perspectives lead to the same potential problems:

  • regarding re-drafting as a waste of time
  • underestimating the value of the writing and re-writing process. Writing and re-wring provides opportunities to learn more and to clarify the argument
  • leaving too little time for effective editing and final proofing

The process of describing your study in detail is incredibly useful. Consistently writing up you work will highlight where more thought is needed. It may help to identify connections or implication you had not previously noticed.

The process may also lead to new ideas for further research. Barras (1993, p.136) suggests that you ‘think of your report as part of your investigation'. It should not be seen as a duty to be undertaken when your work is otherwise complete’ (Barras, 1993, p.136). As such, this study guide suggests that: writing is an integral part of the research process.

Getting on with the writing

The good news is that, if you have written any of the following, you have started writing your dissertation:

  • a research proposal
  • a literature review
  • a report of any pilot studies that you undertook
  • an abstract for a conference
  • reports for your supervisors
  • a learning journal where you keep ideas as they occur to you
  • notes for a presentation you have given

In each case the object of the writing was to communicate something about your work. In writing your dissertation you be able to draw on some of this earlier writing.

Check out what is required

Before beginning to write your dissertation, make sure to check the exact requirements.

  • What is the word limit? Is there a minimum word count? Does the word limit include words within tables, the abstract, the reference list, and the appendices?
  • Which chapters should be included, in which order, and what kind of material is expected in each?
  • What content is appropriate to place in the appendices rather than in the main text?
  • Do you understand the marking scheme and guidelines?

The Structure

There are some conventions that guide the structuring of dissertations in different disciplines. You should check departmental and course regulations.

Below is one commonly used structure:

  • Title page
  • Abstract
  • Acknowledgements
  • Contents page(s)
  • Introduction
  • Literature review
  • Methods and materials
  • Results
  • Discussion or Findings
  • Conclusions
  • References
  • Appendices

Each section or chapter has its own particular function.

Title page

The title can tell a potential reader what your research is about. It will need to be succinct, specific and representative of the research you have done. There is likely to be a required format for the title page in your discipline, so you need to check what that is.

Abstract

This may be one of the shortest sections of your dissertation, but you should still take care to write it well. The Abstract is a succinct summary of the research. It should represent why and how you did what you did, and what the results and implications are. It is often only one page long, and there may be a word limit to adhere to.

Acknowledgements

This is your opportunity to mention individuals who have been particularly helpful. Read the acknowledgements in other dissertations in your field. This will give you an idea of the ways in which previous students have acknowledged the different kinds of help they have received.

Contents, figure and table lists

The contents pages will show the structure of the dissertation. Any imbalance in space devoted to different sections of content will become clear. This is a useful check on whether you need to join sections, or create new or sub-sections.

Introduction

Although this is the first piece of writing the reader comes to, it is often best to leave its preparation to last. Once you have completed the other sections of the dissertation, you will have a clearer idea of what you are introducing. The introduction has two main roles:

  • to expand the material summarised in the abstract, and
  • to signpost the content of the rest of the dissertation.

The literature review, or context of the study

The purpose of this chapter is to show that you are aware of how your dissertation fits into the body of existing research in your field. To do this you need to:

  • describe the current state of research in your defined area
  • consider whether there are any closely related areas that you also need to refer to
  • identify a gap where you argue that further research is needed
  • explain how you plan to address or fill that particular research gap

This can lead into a clear statement of the research question(s) or problem(s) you will be addressing.

It is worth taking time to develop a logical structure for sections in this chapter. This will help to convince examiners of the relevance of your research. It will also provide you with a framework for your discussion chapter.

Methods and materials

This chapter should provide a straightforward description of how you conducted the research. If you used particular equipment, processes, or materials, you will need to describe them clearly. You must give enough detail for another researcher to replicate your study.

Results / Findings

You will need to check the preferred style of reporting in your field. Decisions about style of presentation may need to be made about the following:

  • Will you begin with an initial overview of the results, followed by the detail? Alternatively, you may decide to move immediately into the detail of the results
  • In which order you will present the detailed results?
  • What balance, in terms of word space, do you want to achieve across the spread of results that you have?

Discussion

This is where you review your own research in relation to the wider context in which it is located. You can refer back to the rationale that you gave for your research in the literature review. You should then discuss what your own research has added in this context. It is important to show that you appreciate the limitations of your research, and how these may affect your findings. You can report on the implications of your findings for theory, research, and practice.

Conclusion

This chapter tends to be much shorter than the Discussion. It is not a mere ‘summary’ of your research. Here you will draw ‘conclusions’ from the main points that have emerged and what they mean for your field.

References

This section needs to include all your references in the required referencing style. As you edit and rewrite your dissertation you will probably gain and lose references. It is important to check that each source cited in the text appears in your reference list. You must also check that all the references in your reference list appear within the text.

Appendices

Include in the appendices those items that a reader would want to see, but which would disrupt the flow if placed within the main text. Make sure to check if the appendices are included within the word limit. Also ensure you reference the Appendices within the main text where necessary.

Designing your detailed structure

A well-structured dissertation is one examiners will enjoy reading. A well-structured dissertation will be logical and coherent. The examiner should be able to follow your argument without having to make the links themselves.

To achieve a consistent argument throughout the dissertation, you should create a plan of what you want to say. It can be useful to think of the research question as a thread that runs through the dissertation. This thread links all the elements of the study, and gives coherence to its reporting.

Moving from doing the research to writing the dissertation is not easy. You may feel that you know everything in your head but can’t see how you can put it into words in the most useful order. It can be helpful to break the task down into smaller, more easily accomplished elements. The process of producing your writing plan could go as follows.

  1. You could start by making a list of all the elements and ideas that you need to include. For example:
  2. a. chapter headings
    b. notes about analysis
    c. ideas for graphical representation
    d. ideas for further research.
    e. Alternatively you could choose to start at stage 2.

  3. List the main chapter headings in the order in which they will appear.
  4. Under each chapter heading, list a series of important sub-headings. For example, a literature review chapter will include several different segments. In this case each segment can have its own sub-heading. A final segment would then bring the findings together at the end of the chapter.
  5. Under each sub-heading, list the main content, creating sub-sub-headings if needed. You need to ensure that all the content you want to include has been allocated a place.
  6. As you go, you can slot in ideas, references, quotes, clarifications, and conclusions as they occur to you, to make sure they are not forgotten.
  7. Check that there is an appropriate balance between and within sections. Also, make sure that the structure represents a logical and coherent overview of the research study you have undertaken
  8. Take feedback from others at this stage, before you begin to fill in the detail.

Filling in the detail

It can be a good idea to put the word limit to the back of your mind at this point. Instead concentrate on getting everything recorded in a document. You can always edit upwards or downwards later as necessary.

Writing as you go along

It is advisable, that you do not wait until the end of your research before starting to write it up. You may need to produce one or more chapters for assessment part way through your research. You can use the process described above for any individual chapter you are working on. It is important that you critique and revise your own work several times. The early chapters submitted for assessment or feedback may need to be revised later on. This is not a failure, but a positive sign of increased experience and skill.

Developing an argument

An important aspect running through your dissertation will be your argument for:

  • why this specific topic is worth researching
  • why this is a good way to research it
  • why this method of analysis is appropriate
  • why your interpretations and conclusions are reasonable

You will refer to the work of others as you make your argument. This may involve critiquing the work of established leaders in the field. It is important to be respectful in the way that you discuss others’ ideas and research. Nonetheless, you need to engage directly, and even openly disagree with existing writing.

There are a range of academically legitimate ways to engage with published work. Taylor (1989, p.67) suggests the following different approaches:

  • Agree with, accede to, defend, or confirm a particular point of view.
  • Propose a new point of view.
  • Concede that an existing point of view has certain merits but that it needs to be qualified in certain important respects.
  • Reformulate an existing point of view or statement of it, such that the new version makes a better explanation.
  • Dismiss a point of view or another person’s work due to its inadequacy, irrelevance, incoherence or by recourse to other appropriate criteria.
  • Reject, rebut or refute another’s argument on various reasoned grounds.
  • Reconcile two positions that may seem at variance by appeal to some ‘higher’ or ‘deeper’ principal.
  • Develop an existing point of view, perhaps by utilising it on larger or more complex datasets, or apply a theory to a new context.

It is important that you are assertive about what you are arguing. However, it is unlikely that, in a dissertation project, you will be able to be definitive in closing an established academic debate. You should be open about the gaps are in your research. You should also be cautious about over-stating what you have found. Aim to be modest but realistic in relating your own research to the broader context.

Improving the structure and content

Once you have the dissertation in draft form it becomes easier to see where you can improve it. To make it easier to read you can use clear signposting at the beginning of chapters. You can also build transitions (links) between sections to show how they relate to each other. You can find other techniques to improve academic writing style in The art of editing.

Review your draft by preparing a list of questions that you want to see answered. Now read through your dissertation to check that you have addressed each question. Make a note of any comments, suggestions, criticisms, and ideas in the margin. If you have a marking guide then apply it to your dissertation and see if there are aspects that you can improve.

While you do this, be aware of whether you need to increase the number of words, or decrease it to reach your target. As you read, cross through unnecessary material, and mark points you need to expand. This will then form the basis for your next, improved, draft.

When to stop

Just as it can be difficult to begin writing, it can also be difficult to know when to stop. You may begin to feel that your dissertation will never be good enough, and that you need to revise it again and again. It may be helpful to divert your attention for a while to the finishing off activities you need to complete:

  • writing the abstract and the introduction
  • checking the reference list
  • finalising the appendices
  • checking your contents page

Coming back to the dissertation after a break can help you to look critically at the main text. Remember the dissertation needs to demonstrate your ability to undertake and report research rather than to answer every question on a topic. It is important to allow yourself enough time for the final checking and proof reading of the finished document.

Summary

  • Devote time to planning the structure of the dissertation.
  • Plan a structure that will enable you to present your argument effectively.
  • Fill in the detail, concentrating on getting everything recorded rather than sticking to the word limit at this stage.
  • Regard writing as part of the research process, not an after-thought.
  • Expect to edit and re-edit your material several times as it moves towards its final form.
  • Leave time to check and proofread thoroughly.

References

Barrass, R. (1979) Scientists must write. A guide to better writing for scientists, engineers and students. London: Chapman and Hall.

Taylor, G. (1989) The student’s writing guide for the arts and social sciences. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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