How to write (or save) a dissertation

For most undergraduates, dissertation hand-in date is fast approaching. This time last year I had no dissertation and no idea of how I was going to get it together in time. Somehow I managed to write my dissertation in a few weeks and get a first, so if you’re staring into the void right now wondering how to fix a dissertation mess then here are a few tips that might help.

Woman writing in a notebook with laptop.
J. Kelly Brito

Do Not Panic

From a tough-love perspective you simply don’t have the time and it is not productive in the slightest. Nobody is going to die over a dissertation and nothing terrible is going to happen so you might as well work out a plan to write a dissertation and get to it. If you feel like panicking over work then take a step back, reevaluate the situation and try to refocus.

Assess the situation

The first piece of work to do is to work out exactly how much work you have to do…and whilst you’re doing this remember the first tip. How much work you have to do does not matter because it can get done. Make a list of every chapter, section, piece of research and whatever else you have to do. Don’t leave anything out, just make a note of it all somewhere whether that’s on paper, on your phone, or on a laptop.

Be realistic on timings

On average it takes most people 3x longer to complete tasks than planned. In order to be 100% realistic think about how long each task will take you, and then multiply that by 3. Now you know how much time you need to try and set aside to get everything done.

Create a schedule

I’m a big advocate for Excel or Google Sheets for this because it’s so easy to keep track of where you’re at day by day and week by week, but whatever method works for you is obviously the way to go. Firstly, write in all of the things that you already had planned. Wanted to go out for a friend’s birthday? Go for it. Dying to watch a tv show? Add it in. Part of a society? Enjoy it. Once you’ve thrown in all of these things, start looking at the time you have left and mapping out how you’re going to fit all dissertation related tasks into your calendar. If you realise you don’t have enough time left to fit in all the tasks, then cut a fraction off of the time you allocated to each one. 

Think about the end goal

This is probably the time to think about the end goal. You’ve spent thousands of pounds getting to this point and now is not the time to waste all of that. Believe or not you’re going to have to pay it back anyway so you might as well secure that degree. Whatever you hand in, anything that you come up with now is far better than nothing.

Organisation and preparation are key

Before you start, try and collect every piece of research or related information you have together and organise it. Before I started anything I split all of my research up into the relevant sections or subsections so that everything would be quick and easy to find. I kept all of my research on my laptop with a dissertation folder and within that, every section of my dissertation had its own folder. After a while I started accumulating more and more documents so I then decided to split further into a research folder and a resources folder where I kept what I had written for that section and my plan for it.

If you are given a mark scheme or guidelines to follow, I would also recommend reading this thoroughly and keeping it in mind from the planning stage. I copied and pasted the relevant parts of the mark scheme into my document sections before I started writing so that I would always have them to look back at. To start with, all of the mark scheme guidelines would be marked red in my document. Then, depending on how well I thought I had fulfilled the specifications, I would change the colour to orange or green during or after writing each section. This gave me a quick indication of which parts I needed to go back and amend when I had the time.

Obviously the method I used might not work for everybody. The main sentiment here is to organise whatever material you have in whatever way works best for you before starting. Trust me when I say this will make the process of writing so much easier.

Get motivated

Now comes the actual hard part – finding the motivation. The worst part about writing a dissertation is starting to write. A lot of people would say things like find motivation in wanting to do well or achieving your goals, only if you’re like me then this might not work. One way I managed to motivate myself was by telling myself to work for just 10 minutes. I would set a timer for 10 minutes just to see what I could get done in that time, and for 10 minutes I was completely focused. When the timer went off I could then choose whether I wanted to carry on or not; some of the time I stopped working but most of the time I carried on.

Check out some more tips on how to get productive here.

Start writing now

Once you’ve managed to find the motivation, just start writing straight away. What your writing doesn’t have to be perfect or even that good, you just need to write something down and keep going. Keep track of how many words you’ve written as you go along to try and avoid writing too much or too little for each section. The easiest way to rack up the word count is to work out when in the day you are most productive and to write as much as you can during this time. If you’re a morning person then wake up early to get it out the way and if you’re a night owl then have a lie in and work later on in the day. Don’t let others dictate when or how you should be working because ultimately you know what’s best for you.

Reach out to your tutor

I was lucky enough to have a great tutor when I was writing my dissertation as she was extremely easy to talk to and very good in a crisis. If you get on well with your tutor then I definitely suggest reaching out to them if you are struggling and just being honest. They aren’t your parents and they’re not going to shout at you – you’re an adult. If you’ve left it to the last minute then everyone makes mistakes, it’s how you try to fix those mistakes that matter. Most tutors will have seen students in exactly the same position before and they will know how to help you.

Obviously not everyone has the same luck and not everyone gets on with their tutor. At the same time, universities have a duty of care so out of every member of staff there someone should be able to help you. Struggling in silence could be one of the worst things to do, so whoever you choose to talk to just make sure someone in the university is aware of the situation. You never know, you could get an extension or mitigation.

It’s more important to finish than make everything perfect

I’m a bit of a perfectionist so when I started writing I was trying to make everything as good as it could be in the first draft. Doing this slowed me down massively and I wouldn’t recommend it. It’s a lot more important to get something written for each section and to reach the word count than it is to have half of your dissertation written well. As long as the work you are producing makes sense and follows the guidelines for what is required, you will do better to have a whole dissertation rather than a few good paragraphs. 

Another upside to writing and then going back to edit afterwards is that you can ask someone to proofread what you’ve done whilst you are writing the next section and you will still have time to go back and edit. If you are writing the first draft up until the last minute, you won’t have time to make changes later and this could be a problem. 

A lot of dissertations are split into sections that each hold a certain percentage of marks. If you don’t have time to finish every section, work out which ones hold the most weight and try to make sure these are your best. When you’re running out of time, planning and writing strategically will be your best chance of obtaining the grade you want.

So in short, don’t let writing a dissertation stress you out too much. How to write a dissertation is quite simple and it gets much easier once you get started.

Once you’ve finished your dissertation, you are one step closer to post graduate life. Check out my post graduate life review to see what the first 6 months were like for me.

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