Dissertation survival tips

All over Twitter at the moment I’m seeing people moan and fret over writing their dissertations. Some are proud of themselves for powering on through and some are in that period of despair where you think you’ll never possibly be able to write enough words, or make them make sense.
I feel your pain.

I handed in my dissertation almost three years ago now, in May 2013, and thought I would share five of the lessons that writing process taught me.

I was studying English Literature, and my topic was a prize for short stories by African writers. I was proud of the final piece, but my goodness it took hours upon hours of work, and I know if I tackled it now I would approach some elements differently.

ONE. Planning is everything. I know this may not help for those of you approaching your deadline, but for people with it coming up over the next year or so, please prepare. You have a long time to write it because you need a long time to write it. The process of coming up with a topic, developing it, researching it and then writing about it is hard work, and requires huge focus. There are so many elements to the task and to the final piece that you need to give yourself time to do it properly.

TWO. Research, research, research. For me personally, my essay-writing style was always to do tonnes of preparation before actually sitting to write. When it then came to the writing, I preferred to then do that in one sitting, before coming back to edit. Of course a dissertation is much larger so the writing process is longer, but I would stick to the same theory of research first. Without having collected and filtered through all that research, it’s so hard to plot out a structure that makes sense.

THREE. Split it down. Break your dissertation down into smaller chunks. Different parts of the research. Writing the introduction. Writing up one particular element of the topic. Whatever those chunks are, write them into a list so you can tick them off. This allows you to plan your time, but also to feel like you’re getting somewhere as you move through the list, rather than just looking at the daunting task: ‘write dissertation’.

FOUR. Be proud. For every task and section you complete, be proud of yourself. When you finish a draft of a section, give yourself a pat on the back. When you’ve had the final thing bound and you’ve handed it over, celebrate. Dissertations are a huge piece of work, and they’re supposed to be a real test and as such are a real achievement. Be proud of what you’ve produced.

FIVE. Don’t panic. It’s easier said than done, I know. The thing is that panicking wastes time. Try to stick to lists and routines that let you know where you’re up to, and remind yourself that you’re at university for a reason: you earned your place. You’ve worked hard through your course, and this is one of the final things you have to do to receive that degree. You can do it and you do know your stuff, so show everyone that.

So good luck! I don’t envy any of you who are writing or about to write, but you’ll be proud when you’ve done it. I look back in slight disbelief at the blurred months in which I wrote mine: the days ran into each other and I couldn’t think of anything but the stories I was writing about, but the final result did happen. I wrote it, I handed it in, and my degree was complete.

It’s your go. You’ll be great.


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