How to Write a Good Dissertation

We're coming up to Christmas, so there must be thousands of students out there starting to panic about their dissertations - first of all, don't panic.

If your course is anything like my university degree was, you'll already have done a literature review, before finalising your choice of dissertation topic.

If so, there's a decent chance that you've got a copy of a past study that is similar, at least in some ways, to the one you're working on now.

Read on for the best, most logical approach to writing a dissertation that I've been able to come up with - and which helped me to produce a report my lecturers encouraged me to have published.

Learning From the Professionals

Firstly, figure out which study in your literature review best matches what you're trying to research. This will become your template for your own research report.

Estimate how many words it contains - count the number on a single line, and multiply through the length of the whole study.

Now go back and work out the length of each main section - the methodology, the analysis, the discussion and the conclusions.

Whatever the word count of your dissertation, work to the same proportions as the study your research is based on. So, if your template study is 5,000 words long, with 1,500 words of methodology, and your dissertation is 6,000 words long, you'll need 1,800 words of methodology.

It's a percentages game, but it helps to give your report a clear and realistic structure - and maximises your chances of scoring the most marks in each section, as you won't be underselling any one portion of your report in terms of the word count.

Plan for the Word Count

OK, so your template study is 4,000 words long and your dissertation's supposed to be 12,000 - that's fine. You can easily triple the number of words you write in each section, you're just going to have to go into detail.

If you've got 12,000 words to use, don't just pad, but explain the choices you make.

Don't just talk about the variables you're investigating - try also to list some variables out of your direct control. Discuss how you're attempting to account for them - by keeping the conditions consistent, or by measuring those independent variables and factoring them into your conclusions, or simply by increasing the uncertainty of any mathematical analysis you carry out.

Likewise, if you've got 8,000 words of analysis to produce, consider making two or three hypotheses. In most studies, each hypothesis is handled totally separately - so you don't have to worry too much about adding complexity to your analysis, just go through each of your predictions in turn and see if it is supported by your data.

Give some attention to any significant achievements in your planning stage - for instance, I was given permission by Starbucks to conduct my research in their Manchester Piccadilly branch. Gaining access to a big brand's customer base gives commercial relevance to your conclusions, so don't be afraid to point it out if you have a similar achievement during your planning phase.

Break It Down

Now you've got target word counts for each of your report's main sections, and perhaps a couple of main subheadings for individual hypotheses and major achievements during the course of your research, break it down further.

Divide your target word count by 200 and aim for that many subheadings. So for a 6,000-word dissertation, you'll want 30 different sections. It sounds like a lot, but for each prediction you can have a separate, short rationale, discussion, mathematical analysis and conclusions, along with main rationale and discussion sections for the whole study.

Separate out each of your major conclusions and give it some attention in its own right. Discuss the things that caused you problems, and whether your conclusions are less valid because of them. In your planning, discuss each variable in its own right, including those beyond your control.

For epic dissertations, over 10,000 words, maybe divide by 250 or 300 words - a 12,000-word dissertation with 300-word pages would need 40 subheaders, which is not so many more than the 6,000-word example given above.

The point is, you're trying to make the task more manageable. With a clear structure dictated by your template study, and a bit of consideration of which subheadings to introduce, you gain the following benefits:
  • page-long sections you can write, in full, one at a time
  • natural coherence throughout your report, without extra effort
  • each topic is given its rightful share of the word count
  • writing your contents page will be easy
  • the examiner will be guided through your report without getting swamped by overly long sections
If I could give one piece of advice to every student about to tackle their dissertation, that would be it. Equal-length sections, only around a page each, clearly titled, clearly referenced in the contents page. If nothing else, it makes your dissertation look professional, especially once it's bound.

Check and Check Again

Leave yourself time to edit what you've written.

Yes, there's a natural tendency to finish your dissertation the day it's due in and hope the binding machine's still working at the Students' Union, but there are a million things that can go wrong.

Just to panic you more, those things include:
  • running out of paper
  • running out of toner/ink
  • printer jams/malfunctions at home or at the library
  • oversleeping on hand-in day
  • bus breaks down on hand-in day
  • binding machine is broken on hand-in day
  • a gust of wind blows your printed pages everywhere (it does happen!)
...and so on, and so on.

So, finish writing a week in advance of the deadline, and edit. Leave yourself even longer if you know your work usually needs a lot of attention to get it spot-on.

Go through page by page - hey, that structure you decided on earlier really helps now, doesn't it?? - and whip each section into the best possible shape.

Keep an eye on the word count - again, with equal-length page-long sections, this should be easier to keep under control, but you don't want to go over the limit and get penalised.

Finally, when everything's perfect, back it up! Email it to yourself at all of your addresses, copy it to a USB stick or external hard drive (or floppy disk, if it'll fit!). Print two hardcopies - one to get bound, one to keep safe in case of catastrophe. Or three, if you need two hand-in copies. At the very worst, you can photocopy your spare hardcopy to make two hand-in copies, even if you lose the original computer file and can't print it out again.

Basically, you don't want to hit 'delete' instead of 'enter' on hand-in day, when you're about to print from your only electronic copy of a dissertation that's taken you eight months.

The Process

tl;dr? OK, here's the summary:
  • Learn from the pros - they're better than you
  • Break it down - make it manageable
  • Explain yourself - major achievements, uncontrollable obstacles
  • Now is the winter that you list content - signpost the examiner through your study
  • EDIT - nobody gets it spot-on first time
  • Back it up - 'one copy' is an oxymoron. And if you've only got one copy of your dissertation, you're a moron too.
Get it printed, get it bound, and get to the pub. You're about to start jobhunting, and then you're about to start working 9-5, five days a week. So get a pint down your neck while it's still socially acceptable to drink at 11am.

I Need Help!

OK, I'm not gonna write your dissertation for you, so don't ask - I have some ethics!

But I'd be happy to proofread it for you and make constructive suggestions. My own degree was in Language, Literacy and Communication, so I know plain-speaking to university level.

If you really need help, contact me via any of the methods listed on this blog, and I'll get back to you as soon as I can - I won't help for free, but I'm happy to drop my rates for students, I know it's tough on the bank balance going through university, particularly by the end of your final year. Just give me a bit of time to work - don't send me a dissertation to edit when deadline day's tomorrow, OK?

Other than that, you're really on your own, so do your best and be proud of whatever you produce, it's probably the most significant piece of research you'll ever work on, especially single-handedly.

Good luck!