Planning Your Dissertation

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Dissertation/ Proofreading By: Please log in to see tutor details
Subject: Dissertation/ Proofreading
Last updated: 11/09/2017
Tags: degree, dissertation, planning, research, writing

The culmination of most university undergraduate degrees is the self-led research project – or, dissertation – a four-syllable term that will at some point strike fear in the heart of each and every student. The key to a successful dissertation is a thorough understanding of the topic for which research will be undertaken. This may seem an obvious point, but it is astonishing how many of us will embark on an assignment thinking we are in possession of all the necessary information, when in fact our understanding is anything but comprehensive. The fleeting nature of undergraduate degree modules further perpetuates a false impression of thorough understanding, a trick that may allow us to write an excellent essay of say, three-thousand words. But how prepared are we really for writing an extended piece of ten-thousand words or more?

Key research can be undertaken at the university library, online in journals, through interaction with faculty members, or in person – as I did for my own dissertation (I travelled to Norway to view in person the artefacts I was looking to write on). It is key at this stage that one's research is thorough, and not limited to one method. A good dissertation displays not only a comprehensive understanding of the topic, but a broad and often eclectic mix of source materials.

Having undertaken all the necessary research – a task that may extend over several months – the job of distilling all that data down into a comprehensible research paper is of paramount importance and must not be approached with anything but thorough care and commitment. A lot of the data may now be redundant, or, worse, forgotten beneath mountains of secondary source material. It is important at this stage in the process to dedicate a lengthy period to re-reading (however briefly, and indeed, briefly will prove to be the most effective method) all the information one has collected.

To spend a day or two going through one's notes and drawing up a skeleton plan will prove invaluable as one comes to write the paper. It is no use spending a stray half hour flicking through notes that may have been jotted down months previously, and rushing into the work when not in full possession of all the necessary data. Although the temptation at this point may be to begin writing, dedicating time to mapping out one's argument will facilitate a greater coherence and nuance to the chosen argument. Indeed, as one begins to write it becomes increasingly more difficult to re-shape the initial argument: a task that may require the wholesale rejection of thousands of words!

The task of working out a skeleton argument, therefore, is one of the most arduous, and important elements of the dissertation process. Indeed, if a solid plan is established early on, the difficulty of writing can be tempered, and in doing so a greater flair and style can emerge.

Central to mapping out a skeleton plan is the bravery, on the part of the writer, to reject wholesale: arguments, notes, and research that may at the time have felt invaluable. A test of a good dissertation is its focus; a bad one, dead ends marked by hopeless tributaries of information. Whether or not the chosen argument has enough legs to sustain a thorough examination over the course of a dissertation-length essay is one common fear when commencing the writing process. Moreover, it is common to fret over whether one’s approach is nuanced enough, or brings enough to the academic table. These fears are not to be ignored – indeed, there is much to be said in the re-evaluation of a topic through such strict self-analysis – but it is also important to bear in mind that a well focused, measured, and coherent argument will always trump one that has little or no direction, no matter how nuanced it may be.

In order to achieve balance and focus, therefore, one must return time and again to the central question: what is it that my work is looking to achieve? Also, how does my work read? To write with little consideration for the reader is a common error on behalf of young scholars, and an essay that reads well is not to be derided. Often, the temptation on behalf of the young scholar is to attempt to write in some form of Lacanian imitation. A limpid prose style, however, will always reveal the nuances in one's writing more so than a reliance on theoretical language that may be unknown to the layman reader.

The dissertation is, fundamentally, an exercise in teasing out a new reading of source material. It is an exercise in relaying to the reader a nuanced way of looking at something either hitherto unknown or overlooked. To do this the writer must rely on thorough research, a clear and comprehensive skeleton plan, and the bravery to write in a style that is both limpid, and exciting.


James Bowen University English Tutor (West London)

About The Author

Hi, my name is James and I specialise in tutoring English literature, fine art, and art history to students of all ages and capabilities. I pride myself in my patience, thoroughness, and motivational skills!




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