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Dissertations and major projects

Expert guidance from Study Advice at the University of Reading

Writing up your dissertation makes it sound like this is the last big step that you do, but it is a good idea to start writing as you go along, as the writing process will help clarify your thinking. It is also reassuring to have some words down on the page. You may have other coursework due so it is important to protect your dissertation writing time.

The guidance on this page takes you through the whole writing process from managing your time to those crucial mark-gaining final checks.

Managing your time

Don't panic! Your dissertation might seem like an endless project, but you can break it down into a list of tasks. Having a plan for using your time to complete those tasks will get it done.

Plan an overall work schedule

Break down your dissertation into stages and plan backwards from your deadline to fit them all in.

  • Start with your literature review
  • Think about your methodology
  • Identify primary sources
  • Identify secondary sources, if appropriate
  • Write as you go along
  • Organise and analyse your material
  • Write up
  • Redraft / check / proofread

Do a little bit on a regular basis

  • Decide in advance when you're going to work on your dissertation – set aside time each week or have a particular day to work on it
  • Give yourself a specific task to do in that time
  • Do difficult tasks at the times of day you work best
  • Do easy tasks when you're tired / less motivated

Top tip... have a contingency plan!

No one ever sticks to their plan perfectly, and you can't predict all the things that might intervene, so build in some extra time for "catching-up".

Also be aware that mechanical tasks like sorting the bibliography and proofreading will take longer than you think. Computers and printers know when you're in a hurry and will scheme to break down at the most inconvenient moment!

Structuring your dissertation

Dissertations based on qualitative or quantitative research are usually organised as follows: Other dissertations may be based around discussions of themes or texts:

Abstract
Chapter 1. Introduction
Chapter 2. Literature Review
Chapter 3. Methodology
Chapter 4. Results 
Chapter 5. Discussion
Chapter 6. Conclusion
Bibliography & Appendices

Chapter 1. Introduction
Chapter 2. (theme / text 1)
Chapter 3. (theme / text 2)
Chapter 4. (theme / text 3)
Chapter 5. Conclusion
Bibliography &
Appendices

This kind of structure often can't be finalised until you've done some research and found out what themes or texts you want to focus on as your chapter titles will depend on this.

It's a good idea to write an overall plan outlining what you need to cover in each chapter.

Think of a dissertation like a series of linked essays; each chapter is self-contained and has its own purpose, but they all connect together to contribute to the argument of your dissertation.

The chapters don't have to all be the same length – some can be longer because they are more detailed (like the literature review) and others can be shorter because they are summarising and finalising information (like the conclusion).

Writing up

Your dissertation may be the longest piece of writing you have ever done, but there are ways to approach it that will help to make it less overwhelming.

Write up as you go along. It is much easier to keep track of how your ideas develop and writing helps clarify your thinking. It also saves having to churn out 1000s of words at the end.

You don't have to start with the introduction – start at the chapter that seems the easiest to write – this could be the literature review or methodology, for example. Alternatively you may prefer to write the introduction first, so you can get your ideas straight. Decide what will suit your ways of working best - then do it.

Think of each chapter as an essay in itself – it should have a clear introduction and conclusion. Use the conclusion to link back to the overall research question.

Think of the main argument of your dissertation as a river, and each chapter is a tributary feeding into this. The individual chapters will contain their own arguments, and go their own way, but they all contribute to the main flow.

Write a chapter, read it and do a redraft - then move on. This stops you from getting bogged down in one chapter.

Write your references properly and in full from the beginning.

Keep your word count in mind – be ruthless and don't write anything that isn't relevant. It's often easier to add information, than have to cut down a long chapter that you've slaved over for hours.

Save your work! Remember to save your work frequently to somewhere you can access it easily. It's a good idea to at least save a copy to a cloud-based service like Google Docs or Dropbox so that you can access it from any computer - if you only save to your own PC, laptop or tablet, you could lose everything if you lose or break your device.

Keeping going

After the initial enthusiasm wears off, it can be hard to keep motivated – it's also natural to feel confused and overwhelmed at points throughout your dissertation; this is all part of sustaining a longer project. Here are some suggestions to keep you going:

Break down large, unappealing tasks into smaller bearable ones. Molehills are always easier to climb than mountains!

Give yourself rewards when you've completed tasks - these might range from a cup of coffee, to an exercise session, or a night out.

If you're not in a good thinking mood, do more straightforward tasks like compiling the bibliography or doing the title page.

If you're feeling confused about what you're doing, try writing a short paragraph summarising what your research is about. This can help you find a focus again.

If you're feeling overwhelmed, try identifying the one thing that you need to do next; often this will logically lead to further steps, and you'll be able to get started again.

Talk to friends or your supervisor about what you're doing; explaining where you are in your project and how it's going can help clarify your thinking.

Finishing off and checking through

This stage can be time consuming, so leave yourself enough time to have a final read through of your dissertation to pick up any lingering mistakes or typos. Good presentation matters – it gives a professional appearance and puts the reader in a good mood. So it is worth making sure you have enough time to proof-read and get your layout right.

General principles are:

  • Double-space your writing, do not have narrow margins, and print on one side of the page only.
  • Use a font that is legible and looks professional (Comic Sans is not appropriate!).
  • Check what should be included in cover pages and headers and footers (e.g. page numbers).
  • Have a clear Table of Contents to help your reader, and a separate List of Illustrations or tables if appropriate.
  • Consider what information should be put in Appendices and check that you have referred to the appropriate appendix in your text.

If you're trying to track down that missing reference for your bibliography, you can always ask your liaison librarian for help finding it.

Binding

Undergraduate dissertations are usually 'soft bound'. This means having a soft card cover, with the pages joined together with comb, spiral, or thermal binding. You can get this done at many print shops, often while you wait.

If you choose to get your work hard bound, it can take a few days (more at busy times), so check with the printers / stationers beforehand.

What does your department do…?

Check your course or dissertation handbook for your department's preferences on:

  • Style
  • Referencing
  • Layout
  • Binding

If possible, look at dissertations from previous years to see how they have been presented.