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For many students, writing their final-year or master’s dissertation can be very daunting. It’s often the longest piece of work that they have ever written. It’s normal to feel overwhelmed both before you start, and during the process. But remember – thousands of dissertations are written every year, and if you have got this far in your studies, you are more than ready to create yours.


Initial advice and guidance

This section covers, finding a Dissertation topic, getting some inspiration and structuring your Dissertation.

Dissertation podcast

Listen (complete transcript given below) to the audio recording of giving advice to final-year students on their dissertations (45 minutes duration).

  • Transcript of podcast

    1. Introduction
    By way of apology, a lot of what I say now is going to sound absolutely thunderingly obvious to most of you. I should think at some point each one of you is going to think why is he bothering to tell us this. I hope you don't all sit through the entire thing thinking it is absolutely bloody obvious. But all I can say is that everything I am going to say in the next 40-45 minutes or so I have had to say repeatedly to third year students in the course of the last four years. It is a digest of the most frequently made points. To clarify my status I am employed by the RLF (Royal Literary Fund), not the University. I am not a member of any faculty and nor is Monique. So if anything I say in the next 40 minutes contradicts what you've been told by your tutor, the tutor is right, the tutor is always right.

    2. The defining qualities of academic writing
    Ok, just to start off at this stage in the game you're being asked to produce something that feels like academic writing. The qualities of academic writing are: it's got a serious tone; the language you use, the way you approach your subject, is thoughtful and restrained, the tone is consistent. I will keep coming back to this, consistency of tone is paramount, you don't want to suddenly come over all colloquial on page 3, you don't suddenly lurch into jargon on page 7. You don't make any unsupported assertions. Your writing is, for want of a better word, is objective and it uses evidence. You start with an element of doubt, you do not assume anything, your writing is tentative and exploratory. You are NOT claiming to produce something that is comprehensive or definitive. You are locating your writing within an existing body of knowledge. Any piece of writing you do is a development of what has already been written or thought about on a particular subject. You are following a process of reasoning, you are advancing an argument.

    3. The defining qualities of first class work
    I assume you are all here because you want to get the best possible mark. It is nice to know what distinguishes the merely good 2:1 from the very, very good first class work. Perversely, to quote Oxford University Press, for Oxford University firsts they talk about a first class essay being distinguished by: "analytical power, a good command of the facts, evidence or arguments relevant to the question, an ability to organise the answer with clarity, insight and sensitivity". All of those points are important, that you've got evidence or arguments that are relevant to the question, the organisation of the answer, its clarity. Sussex talks about first class work being distinguished by elements of originality, by which don't think you're not going to get a first if you don't rush off and think of something no one has thought of before. At this stage in the game it is very unlikely that you will come up with something that none of your examiners have thought of before, they are very clever people, that is why they are here. But elements of originality can simply be juxtaposing two things in an interesting manner, bringing one critic to bear on something he or she hasn't actually explicitly written about before. Just conjunction of material can be an element of originality. Your research can be an element of originality. I want to come back to the point that writing a long dissertation should really be an easier proposition than writing a shorter one. You have space to say what you want to say, you have space to enjoy the process of writing (I want to come back to how we make writing enjoyable as we go on.)

    4. What is meant by "scholarly method"?
    At this stage you are being expected to demonstrate what Sussex calls evidence of your ‘scholarly method'. Scholarly method in a nutshell means you're ranging way off the reading list; you're researching in journals, electronic library so when you turn to the bibliography you don't just see books by the OUP and Cambridge University Press or Harvard. Your research now has to be absolutely ruthless. When you pick up a book, if you go to the top floor of the library as dissertation deadline time approaches, you can tell third years because they are all sitting there surrounded by castles of books they're diligently ploughing through. You just can't do that. You pick up a book, you go to the table of contents, you go to the index, you go to the bibliography, you harvest the thing, you are looking for things that are strictly relevant to your purposes.

    5. Taking notes efficiently:
    The Cornell System In the process of whittling things down you need an efficient note taking technique. I'm sure it's rather late in the day to be mentioning this but are you familiar with the Cornell Method of note taking? No? Right, in a nutshell this sounds a bit Blue Peterish but the Cornell Method was developed by a guy called Professor Walter Pauk at Cornell University, obviously enough, and it was originally devised as a method of taking notes in lectures but was found to be such an efficient method of note taking when it came to revision that it was basically rolled out as the note taking method of choice. Anyway as I say, it is a bit Blue Peterish but the essence of the Cornell method is you take your A4 sheet, or your smaller sheet, and you divide it vertically so you have two equal columns. When you start making notes you make your notes in the right hand column and that is where you put down your initial transcript from the sources, where you put down quotations, where you put down lengthy summaries of the original work. Just to say, if you do put down quotations make absolutely sure where the quotation ends and where it begins and it sounds absolutely superfluous but I did come across one case of a student who unwittingly committed plagiarism and got into deep water because she'd made notes the year before, went back to her notes, came across a sentence or two and thought ‘that is absolutely fantastic' and parachuted it into her dissertation. But what she was parachuting in was verbatim from the source material and she just forgot to put the inverted commas on it and thus unwittingly she had committed plagiarism. So don't put yourself in that position. When you do put a quotation in: a) make sure it is clear where the quote begins and ends and b) put in the page reference. Make sure notes locate precisely where the material comes from. You don't want to waste time later on when you are constructing a bibliography ferreting back through notes, back to the short notes, to find the source. Make your notes absolutely fastidious. Ok, so right hand margin that is ‘R' for recording. It has 6 stages, the Cornell method each begins with R: Record. So that is you writing down the facts and ideas in the right hand column. Reduce and this where the left hand column comes in where you read through your notes and make notes on the key points that are in the right hand column. This seems totally fatuous: you're making notes on your notes, but it is the essence of the Cornell system. What it does, it is removing you from the source material, which is always a good thing, it is obliging you to think about the ideas for yourself, it is obliging you to translate them into your own words. Recite. This is a way of checking you have absorbed the material and this is where it comes in useful when it comes to revision. You cover up the right hand column and looking only at your notes on the left hand column you see to what extent you can reconstitute the original material. This brings out how much you've absorbed, how much is still missing, where the gaps are, where you need to go back to the original material. Reflect. You've got the relevant information, you now reflect on it. You ask yourself why these ideas are important, how do they connect with what I already know about the subject. Review, which effectively is recite all over again but however many weeks later. You just cover up the right hand column and this just brings home whether or not you have absorbed the material, whether you need to go back to the source. Recapitulate which is just at the end of the notes you put down, in 2 or 3 sentences, what this article is about, what this book is about, why it is important to you, where it might fit in your dissertation. So 6 stages: Record, Reduce, Recite, Reflect, Review, Recapitulate. As I say, make sure your notes are pedantically accurate about where the material comes from, pay reference to it and I would always advise people to make sure you've got a note book with you. The best ideas often come to you on the top deck of the bus on the way home from the pub on a Friday night, so make sure you don't loose anything!

    6. Planning the essay or dissertation
    A dissertation is not just a long essay. The etymology dissertation comes from the Latin verb ‘to debate'. It is a discussion involving different points of view or sets of ideas. It is examining a subject revealing different points of view about that subject. Your discussion gives evidence of critical analysis; you're standing back from the subject, you are weighing up the pros and cons, you've shown that you understand the particular aspects of various viewpoints open to question. It is a debate. To keep that debate tight you have to plan. I think the writing becomes easier, the writing becomes better, the more you can dissociate the thinking process from the writing process. Now, obviously you can't make a clear cut distinction between the two but I've read lots of dissertations where the student has got in a mess because she is thinking about what she is going to say while she is saying it. You want to separate the two. Before you put pen to paper or type the first word on your keyboard you've got to have an absolutely rigid plan, not just a menu with the points you are going to make but a table of contents which shows how much space you are going to assign to each point because the proportion of the thing is important. Again and again I see dissertations where the student might, in the course of 20 pages, have 20 good points to make. She makes the first 15 points in the first 19 pages then realises that the finishing line is in sight, she is in the stage where there is not much time left and the rest get all shoe horned in the last couple of pages. This is horrible, everything has to be assigned its due space. The assignment isn't ‘Give us ten thousand words on this subject', it's ‘Give us a shapely, coherent, well reasoned discussion of that argument in that space'. Fitting it into that space is part of the test. So, say you have to write a dissertation of 8,000 words you know that as a rough guess you're going to have 5-700 words for the introduction, you're going to have slightly less for the conclusion. That tells you how much you are going to have for the body of the dissertation, you know how many points you have to make, you do a simple division and that tells you roughly how much you have for each point. When you look at the plan it becomes apparent that some deserve more space and some deserve less. But it is important to know that by the time you get to page four you know where you should be. You get students who are in a mess because they get to page 4 and they realise they have only covered 2 out of 20 points and suddenly the pace accelerates and then it slows down a bit. The thing has got to have an even pace to it. The only way to ensure that, is to plan diligently. Some people can just sit down and write 8,000 words off the top of their heads in perfectly coherent, well balanced prose. I've never met anyone who can do it but if you can, then congratulations to you! The other thing doing the plan shows you is there are two common problems with dissertations. One is, you've got an 8,000 word essay that really is like a 3,000 word essay on steroids, there is just not enough real bulk in there to justify the length and the student has resorted to vast paraphrases and quotations or terrible repetition to get to that mark. Conversely, you get essays where someone has taken on the scope of 8,000 words and it deserves a book. If they had sat down and looked at what they are trying to cover it would have become apparent that they are trying to cover too much or too little. So that is another virtue of the plan. Obviously the plan will change as you write. While you're writing you really want to concentrate on making the writing as lucid as possible and the way to ensure lucidity is to know exactly what you are going to say before you embark on it.

    7. Constructing a paper by a process of accretion
    Now, with a dissertation, it is unlikely that a piece of that length will be constructed in the same way as a short essay, a 2-3,000 word piece. With a dissertation you are going to get in a mess if you try and write it continuously from page one to the conclusion. I would always advise you to go for a process of accretion and go for multiple drafts. I know it is tempting when the deadline is looming to think I haven't got time to go back to something I have already written and make it better but believe me it is actually quicker to do multiple drafts than to try and get a perfect draft in one sweep. It doesn't matter how the thing is constructed, the examiner doesn't care if you started writing what turns into page 23 first. It's like constructing a sculpture, you've got a metal armature, you slam the clay on, it doesn't matter what is at the heart of it as long as the finished item is well formed. It is completely irrelevant how the thing was constructed. The first draft is taking the plan, with the page lengths, with the quotations you have helicoptered in from your beautifully kept Cornell notes and then you start boosting up. You drop the quotations in verbatim, you start sticking down how you want to expand a point, it is all backslashes and gibberish basically, the first draft but you will be amazed once you have done that, how many words you get. You might find that you have 2,000 of the 8,000 words, you've already finished the first lap. Second draft, you write it out more fully, you make sure the overall shape makes sense, the order of the argument is clear and natural. A third draft is where you really make sure each individual sentence reads nicely, sentence follows on sentence (we'll come back to this in a bit). Then the final draft is checking references are correct and constructing a bibliography. But there is one stage after that, which I would advise everyone to do, which is the editing stage that we will come on to in a bit. There is a whole bunch of you and not many examiners and the corollary of this is you're going to spend weeks working on these things and someone is going to read it in a far, far shorter time and they are not going to read every single phrase with the effort that is equal to the effort you put into it. But there are certain parts of the dissertation that you know are going to be read absolutely with a very tight focus.

    8. What an introduction should do
    The first page, the opening introduction is, I would say, the most important bit of the dissertation. From my own experiences, and other tutors would back me up on this, I find it very, very rarely the case that, having read the introduction I later change my mind about what grade I was going to give the paper. The opening tells you everything. It tells you why the student has picked that particular subject, whether they have anything interesting to say about it, whether they can write coherently. Think of a legalistic analogy: you're appearing for the prosecution or for the defence, the opening page is where you outline your case, what you're going to prove. You're positing your slant on the question, make it clear why you've chosen that particular title. If there is a piece of specific terminology in the title define those terms. Locate your answer to the question within the context of having a debate on that subject. If there is a methodology involved, your work is based on questionnaires, if it based on research on newspaper articles, make sure that the methodology is stated in the introduction. Do not underestimate the value of a provocative quotation in the opening as well. It is quite good to have a quote that you pick an argument with. As a debate you need tension in the thing. It is fine to pick a quotation that is going to reinforce the point you're going to make but it can actually be more effective to use a quotation from some eminent writer on the subject and say ‘I think this is nonsense and I am going to demonstrate that this is nonsense'. It grabs the attention straight off, it impresses the cast of your mind on the person who is reading it from the outset. Nothing is harder than writing the first page and again and again I come across students who have run into time trouble because they are not sure how to start and can't think how to get going. You don't want to get caught up in the horror of the blank page. I would advise you to always write the introduction last. As long as it reads fine it doesn't matter that you wrote it last. It is far easier to say where you are going once you've been there. I've often seen dissertations where you can tell the student has written it starting at page 1 and finishing at the end because the introduction has said the thing is going to do something that the dissertation doesn't really do. It may have been her intention to do that when she embarked on the project but by the time she's finished, weeks and weeks later, the thing has just veered slightly off, or she hasn't had time to put in a crucial piece of evidence that would have sealed the argument. In someway there is a mismatch between the introduction and the bulk of the dissertation. To ensure that doesn't happen write the introduction at the end.

    9. The essay must have momentum
    The thing has got to have momentum. A really good dissertation has got to have momentum, a sense of destination. There is a common problem that dissertations feel too brief, there is a common problem where they feel too waffly. Another common problem is the dissertation, it is like you're coming across a dead camel in the desert. The camel is the basic proposition of the dissertation and the paragraph and text are the vultures hovering overhead and they are deeply engaged in the dead animal, they keep alighting on it and taking chunks out of it, taking off again but they are not going anywhere. You need a sense of momentum throughout the piece. Obviously if you have 20 points to make about a particular text, a particular idea, you're going to get better marks than someone who only has 10 points to say about it. But you're going to get even better marks if those 20 points are arranged in a way that gives a sense that an argument is being furthered, that there is a progression, that each page is a stepping stone towards the conclusion. As a rule of thumb each paragraph is making one point, one substantial point, don't over clog the text. Again, typically when someone reads a paper they might read the introduction very thoroughly, they might look at the conclusion and then they might skip through and alight on the opening sentence of each paragraph and that should give them a clear idea of how the argument is going to be structured, how you've arranged the evidence, whether or not you are repeating yourself. So don't over clog the text. As a rule make sure each paragraph is entirely different from the paragraph that precedes it and from the paragraph that follows it. It is not necessary that you see a new twist in the argument but it might be, for example, if you've introduced an argument in one paragraph the next paragraph starts to bring in the evidence that supports it. The next 5 paragraphs might all introduce one point of evidence to support that point but not 5 points crammed into one paragraph. Each one is moving you on. Don't be tempted to bolster the thing up by indulging in creative writing and using all those metaphors you've been saving for years and years. It is not a creative writing exercise it has to be as tight as a short essay.

    10. Your argument must drive the piece
    Don't resort to writing summaries of other writers. It is very tempting to do this but again this is a frequent problem we come across where students resort to excessive paraphrase to bulk the thing up, don't do that if you can. Only site people who are germane to the argument. We said at the beginning what Oxford constitutes as defining first class work it is all about things that are relevant to the argument.

    11. Some material will have to be discarded
    This again is a common problem. You can sense that there is a piece of work lodged in the middle of the essay that has been there since the student started work on the dissertation but in the course of writing the thing it has become less central, less important than it once was but they can't bear to get rid of it. You can't bear to acknowledge that - days, hours spent in the library getting you head around a particular text has turned out to be less important than you once thought was. You keep it in there in order to demonstrate to the examiner how much reading you have been doing. If the thing is good they know how much reading you have been doing. If it is not relevant, get rid of it. The old advice from Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch when asked what advice would he give to any writer trying to improve his writing was: ‘Murder your darlings'. Do that, be absolutely ruthless with yourself, I'll come back to this later when we are talking about editing.

    12. Importance of referencing & the cardinal sin of plagiarism
    The way you bring in secondary material is important. Again, you see a slight nervousness creeps in when the citation appears in the first sentence of every paragraph. You see this again that the student lacks the confidence to absorb those sources into his or her argument. I was reading an essay this morning and nearly every paragraph begins ‘X said this... In her book, Y wrote this...' I write this and it makes the dissertation look really nothing but a commentary on other sources. To some extent it is a commentary on other sources. You could argue to the extent of which any of us ever has an original idea, we are just recombining things we have absorbed from elsewhere. But the dissertation really has to be your slant on the argument, your proposition and the way you bring references in is not so much saying something like, ‘Frank Kermode wrote this about The Winter's Tale and I agree'. It is, ‘This is what I have to say about The Winter's Tale and here is Frank Kermode to back me up'. Again, think of a legalistic analogy: you bring in the secondary sources, they are your expert witnesses, they bolster your case but it is not ‘Blah blah did this, so I'm going to do that', you have to give the impression that you have a clear idea of what you're saying about this material and you are marshalling the other sources to bolster your argument. Your referencing is important. It is there to show that you have done the research that is expected of you and it is also there to show that you are acknowledging where ideas, that aren't your own, have come from. This is tricky, there is a tendency to over reference, but there comes a point where ideas become common property. For example, if you're writing an essay about ‘The poetry of W.B. Yeats and its relation to the poetry of John Keats', the fact there is such a relationship means you don't have to say where you got that idea from. It is not a dazzlingly original insight, there is unequivocally such a relationship, Yeats tells you there is, you don't need the reference. You don't need a reference if you are going to point out that Yeats' poetry is almost a commentary on the poetry of John Keats. But if you then go and use the phrase ‘anxiety of influence' in order to characterise that relationship that phrase has got Harold Bloom's grubby fingerprints all over it and that needs a reference, you can't pass off that specific idea as your own. Obviously a reference is important if you want to avoid the charge of plagiarism. I'm sure the horrors of plagiarism have been drummed into you but you can commit plagiarism without directly quoting a single word from the source. You're clear that simply replicating the ideas and the sequence in which they appear in the original material that can constitute plagiarism itself. I won't bang on about that.

    13. Follow the departmental style sheet Small point, make sure you are absolutely clear about the departmental style sheet.
    This seems a trivial point but if you don't follow to the letter the way you are meant to do referencing the odds are you will get docked a percentage point. You have to do things by the book, that is part of scholarly method, showing you can present your material in the approved way. If you are not at all sure about it then make sure you find out how it should be done.

    14. What a conclusion should do
    Right, the conclusion. Again a common problem is, I see dissertations where you could swap over the first and last pages and no one would be any the wiser. You see this where the conclusion and introduction are mirror images of each other. They should be doing different things. The introduction is stating what your proposition is going to be. It is not to delineate point by point how you are going to do it. The conclusion is, to come back to a legalistic analogy, it is like your final address to the jury. The jury has been on the case for weeks, they are bored witless with it, they've no recollection of what the first 3 points of your proof were. The conclusion is where you remind them, it is the ‘tour de raison' of your argument, but there is no absolutely right way of concluding. I've read very good conclusions that are just crystalline bits of prose where the student has summarised the main points and it is bish bish bosh, QED, thank you and goodnight, case proven! But I have read other ones that have concluded by turning the question round showing that the student, in the course of thoroughly exploring the issue raised by his or her title, has uncovered another larger question. So the open ended conclusion can be equally powerful. But that is not the same as reaching the final page and doing what sometime happens, a student writing, ‘I don't know' or even worse ‘I would have said more if I had the time'. There is never any good excuse. Doing it in a set time, in a set space is part of the exercise. Don't bring in, on the final page, something that should have been called to your argument but you just got through your notes and realised there are 3 quotes left and you haven't got room for them so lets bung them in now otherwise they are not going to get used. Don't do that it has to be a nice coherent sense of arrival.

    15. Plan your time to allow for a final editing
    So planning your time is absolutely crucial. I think you get an idea of how long it physically takes you to write the piece. You work back, you work out when the research ends. I would always advise you to divide the two: research and thinking, planning then writing. Give yourself a false deadline. If the piece has got to be in on May 17 tell yourself it has to be in on May 10. Work on the basis that you should use at least 3 or 4 days for editing the thing. That is the one way you are guaranteed to improve your work. You can always tell the dissertation that has not been edited. The student has pretty much finished the last page and handed it over. A dissertation won't necessarily be, unless you write at the speed Balzac wrote at, it will be the work of several long shifts. It is very difficult to make the thing stylistically coherent when it has been a stop start process over many, many days. You can make it stylistically coherent of you then go back and effectively edit it in one session. So if you open it on page 99 the quality if the thing will be revealed to you and it is true, this is what the tutor will do, they might start reading on page 4 just to get an idea if you can write. You can't afford to have sloppy interludes. So editing ensures a unity of style. Always edit on hard copy. It is not editing to switch the spell check on and the grammar check on and scroll through the thing and if you don't see anything highlighted assume it is all right . Some people do that and that is why you find ‘their' instead of ‘they're' still in the text. Word will tell you if it is a genuine word, it won't tell you if it is the right word to be using there. I had a case of a student who wrote an essay on the history of the UN and it had this gorgeous paragraph on the penultimate page tightly argued, beautifully written, utterly lucid only problem was exactly the same paragraph had occurred on page 3, absolutely verbatim the same paragraph. Obviously what the student had done, she had done a form of editing, she had gone through and cut and pasted but forgotten, and instead of doing delete and paste she had done copy and paste and left it in. She edited it by just scrolling through so when she came to the repeat of it after 15 pages, I think all that happened was she read and thought this is dimly familiar but it is dimly familiar because I wrote it. If she had had it in hard copy she would have seen it as more than dimly familiar because it was still there in the text earlier on. So edit in hard copy. Simple editing involves spell checking, checking the grammar and punctuation. Standardise your spelling, this shouldn't need saying, but repeatedly I've seen cases were somebody has been cited in the text spelt one way and in the bibliography they are spelt differently or in the footnotes they are spelt differently. Make sure you standardise your spelling, even s/z uses. You get essays where people spell capitalisation with a ‘z', then there is an ‘s' on the next page and it goes backwards and forwards randomly. Editing the thing, you've got to be absolutely ruthless so I would always advise people, read the thing. By the time you've reached the final draft, you've done the bibliography, you've done the page references, you're sick of the sight of the thing and you just want rid of it but you've got to overcome that nausea with your own work because it will improve your work if you can edit it ruthlessly. Edit it as though it is by the one person in your year that you can't stand the sight of. You read with a view of not checking how nice you thought it was but you read it with a view to see where the mistakes are, where the arguments don't hang together, where certain question are begged, where something is stated as proven that hasn't been proven. It is very tempting if you've got 24, 48 or 72 hours left till the deadline to think, ‘Here is an opportunity to get more references in' and rush off to the library to try and cram some more in. I would advise that your time is much better spent making sure your writing is clear. I did the former, when I was here centuries ago, doing a dissertation on Shakespeare. It was ‘Measure for Measure' and ‘Julius Caesar' and ‘Troilus and Cressida', as I remember and it was fine and I finished 2 days early, to my amazement. So I went off to the library and I was reading a journal and I came across this essay on ‘Measure for Measure' from the university of Munich and it just completely destroyed my argument. I just hadn't thought of the line this guy had found and I sort of went back, I thought I'd just try and redraft the thing and squeeze this thing in as though it somehow supports my argument and it didn't. It was like introducing a rhino into the room and hoping no one notice. It was just disastrous and my time would have been far better spent editing. So go through it as though you hate the writer! Have you done what you said you were going to do in the introduction? Do the points follow on logically? Is there a good balance between the information you report and summarise and your own analysis and your view of it? Has every assertion been substantiated? Does the conclusion give a sense of arrival? Even, have you written what you really mean to say? I would always advise you in editing, in hard copy, to read the thing aloud. You'll feel like a complete prat sitting in your room reading aloud a dissertation on ‘OPEC and the Oil Crisis' or something, but get over it. So when you read aloud you simulate, as near as you can, the experience of a third person encountering your prose. If you just sit there and read it silently your eye will skid over things. All of us have stylistic glitches and vices, some of them are absolutely obvious. In first year essays students are very nervous and are trying to acquire a style you get a situation where too many sentences begin with ‘the', too many sentences are just finite statements of fact etc. but there are more subtle stylistic glitches that you might not get if you are just reading it silently. A prime case, not that long ago, was a student who handed in an essay, it was fine, it was well researched, she read carefully, she thought carefully and it was quite nicely written but she said it just bored her witless, her writing bored her and she didn't know why. If she had read it aloud it would have been absolutely clear why it was boring. Every sentence had between 8 - 12 words in it, that was her stylistic glitch and when she read, every paragraph had the same rhythm and went on for page after page. If she'd read it aloud and really hammed it up and given it a real sort of Kenneth Branagh number, so a full stop is a full pause, a comma is half a beat, semi colon is three quarter pause, really ham it up and that will bring out to you whether or not you are alternating long sentences, short sentences, whether you have a tendency to begin every sentence with a citation or whether you have a penchant for a particular word. I had one student who wasn't aware that she couldn't through 3 sentences without using the word ‘however' and that sometimes the word ‘however' was used absolutely interchangeably with the word ‘and'. This would have been apparent if she had read it aloud. Make sure you have said exactly what you mean to say. You can be so familiar with a subject that you get sloppy with it. You know exactly what you mean but it is not the same as your meaning being absolutely apparent to the person that is reading it, to the person that is examining it. I had an essay a few weeks ago that was fine but the opening sentence was, ‘The documentary film has been popular ever since the creation of mass media'. Now the student knew what she meant by ‘mass media' but the statement in itself is nonsense. What do you mean by ‘mass media'? Aren't newspapers ‘mass media'? Newspapers vastly predate documentary film. Again, she knows what she wants to say but is not quite saying it. You can't have dissertations where the sentences are like the tips of icebergs and the real substance of the essay is lurking below the surface and it is up to the reader to intuit how everything connects. Make sure you are saying what you mean.

    16. Punctuation as a clarifier of meaning
    When you read aloud, ham up the punctuation because (I might spend a minute on this in a minute, if you are not too bored by it), frequently I read essays where punctuation seems like fairy lights that you drape over the prose to make it look nice. Punctuation is there to clarify meaning. When you read aloud, ham up the punctuation, it will tell you whether or not you are clarifying the meaning. The writing should give pleasure and you're going to make a good impression if it is pleasurable to read. As I say you might well come up with something your tutor hasn't thought of but it is not hugely likely that you are going to come up with an idea that makes you feel like you have been struck by lightning. What you want to do is make the experience of engaging with your mind a pleasurable one. So the more fluently the prose reads, the better it is for you. Shall I quickly run through the commonest vices of punctuation? This will take a couple of minutes. Commas, parenthetical commas, these are frequently misused. Where you get a sentence like: ‘Three plays all written in the 1590's will be discussed'. The sentence as written was ‘Three plays all written in the 1590's, will be discussed'. And there the comma is, as it frequently is, you get the impression that the comma is there because the student has drawn a breath in there and the comma corresponds to the breath. But it is a Parenthetical Clause it's: ‘Three plays, all written in the 1590's, will be discussed'. The comma goes before ‘all written in the 1590's' and after it. If you can put a bracket around the clause, lift it out and what is left is still a coherent statement, it is a parenthetical clause. So the statement: ‘Three plays will be discussed' is a meaningful semantic unit, ‘all in the 1590's' is a qualification, it is a refinement of that statement, it needs a comma before and after. It is important to vary long sentences and short sentences. You need to mix them up to make the prose read nicely. You do not get a long sentence simply by replacing full stops with commas. They are not interchangeable. A full stop does something quite different from what a comma does. Neither is a semi-colon interchangeable with a comma. Again and again I see essays where we suddenly get a rash of semi-colons and the only justification for it is the student looked at the prose and thought I've got a lot of commas in the preceding sentence, it's time to vary it a bit, let's bang in a semi-colon. They are not the same thing. You don't use semi-colons before a quotation. You don't write, ‘As Frank Kermode said; ‘quote''. If you are doing that, it is colon or a comma not a semi-colon for a quotation. A semi-colon has two main uses: it either divides two equal clauses in which case it performs a similar function to ‘and'. So if you write a sentence such as: ‘The Museo Civico in San Sapore has two alter pieces by Piero della Francesca; each has been heavily restored'. You put a semi-colon before ‘each'. If you replace the semi-colon with ‘and' the sentence is still fine. The second use of semi-colon is to separate items in a list preceded by a colon. So it is a list of complex clauses, something like: ‘The novel has several distinctive features: an androgynous narrator; a non-chronological narrative structure; several pages that are repeated numerous times in the text.' So each clause is a nice finite statement separated by semi-colons. A colon similarly has two main uses. The first is to separate a clause which amplifies or explains the first part of the sentence. There it performs a similar function to ‘because' or ‘rather'. So statements such as, ‘Dudley Town have absolutely no chance of beating Barcelona: their youngest player is 53, their goalkeeper is only 5ft tall. The second part of the sentence is an amplification or explanation of the first part of the sentence: they have no chance of winning, here's why they have no chance. The second use is in the sense we just had with the novel which is it precedes a complex list. So, ‘There are several possible explanation for the crash: the failure of the warning systems; contamination of the fuel; crew error; a southern cross wind during the approach.' Colon precedes the list. Apostrophes. This is extraordinary. Don't misuse apostrophes. At best it puts the reader in a bad mood and at worst they are going to dock you points for it. The single most common error in punctuation and it's just amazing, you say to students, ‘Do you know how to use them?' and they say, ‘Yes' ... ‘But then why have you done this?' I've just read an essay which was great and it's clearly a first class essay: nicely written, clearly thought out etc. but in the first sentence this lad has written: ‘Central to his argument is going to be Freud's book ‘Civilisation and it's Discontents'': ‘i' ‘t' apostrophe ‘s'. It's wrong. ‘i' ‘t' apostrophe ‘s' is an abbreviation. The apostrophe is there to signify that something is missing, it has, it is = it's. If it is possessive it is ‘its', no apostrophe. Don't use it to designate plurals either, again that crops up. Suspended participles are another problem. Again this a question of another virtue of editing, you get tired, you start getting sloppy, you mismatch the verb and the noun. This happens again and again. You get plural, noun, singular verb or vice versa or you get suspended participles. Do you know what a suspended participle is? Ok I'll tell you. A suspended participle will be something like: ‘Walking north across the campus the Chichester Building is on your right'. What that sentence means is Chichester Building is walking across the campus and it is on your right. The Chichester Building is the noun in that sentence, walking is the participle. It's not doing the walking, you're doing the walking. In writing that sentence you have mismatched the verb and the subject. What you mean to say is: ‘Were one to be walking north across the campus the Chichester Building would be on your right', ‘When one walks north, the Chichester Building is on your...' Something like that. Or something like, as was in the Observer a few weeks ago, a piece about John Lennon, ‘Born in Liverpool in 1940 his mother gave him a guitar". You know what the writer means but his mother was not born in 1940. His mother did give him a guitar but what that sentence says is that she was both born in 1940 and gave him a guitar. Again noun and verb are mismatched. Make sure the piece is liberally seeded with signpost words. Some obvious examples are: furthermore, however, nevertheless, nonetheless. Just little words that indicate (put them near the start of the paragraph) an inflection. It just helps to augment that sense that the piece has some sort of propulsion to it.

    17. Remember the etymology of the word essay - it's an attempt, not a definitive statement
    Always bear in mind George Orwell's' words: "Good prose is like a window pane". That is what you are aiming for at this stage. Later on you can learn to write like Julia Christopher, if you already write like Julia Christopher that's fine, but don't over elaborate at this stage: clarity above all. You don't want to put the tutor in the situation where he/she is reading a page and is thinking, what is this person trying to say. Say it and make sure it is absolutely lucid. You'll improve your style the more widely you read, I know at this stage you haven't got time to read widely, the more you read on things that having nothing to do with your subject the better your style becomes. Read things like The London Review of Books which are, in effect, very long essays, some of them are dissertation length. Each writer has their own distinctive style, all of them write lucidly. It shows you there is no right or wrong way to write but there are various ways of being utterly lucid. Bear in mind always the etymology of the word essay. It is from the French ‘essai', to try/to attempt from the Latin word ‘experior', to test. It is an attempt, it is not a definitive statement. It is not the last word on the subject. Do not get hung up on thinking that you have to come up with something. The argument has got to be tight, got to be coherent, persuasive but it is not the last word. It is not your last word on the subject. You're here to learn how to write, how to think clearly, you're not wasting your time necessarily if, a few weeks down the line, you no longer agree with everything you have written. You will find certain sentences clumsy. That is fine. You are constantly changing. On any subject our ignorance is endless. Very, very last point which shouldn't need reiterating, but it does, is always back up. Even if you only change a sentence make sure you have got an external copy of the thing. Horrible accidents do happen. I've encountered tragic cases where the writer is in deep trouble because they haven't backed up. I've had student whose house was struck by lighting while she was working on something and it melted her laptop and she hadn't kept a copy. I've had a student who has left a laptop on a bus. Or the absolutely tragic case, which was when I was at Rough Guides, a guy who at the end of 3 years of hard labour on a guide book, and the thing was 500 pages, and this was in the early days of Apple Macs before their back up systems were not quite as fail safe as they are now, copied from one Mac to another. He was knackered, it was 4am in the morning and it said do you want to copy this to this blah blah and he said, yes. Then he realised that in that split second by yes he meant no and it was too late. 500 words of peerless prose on Hong Kong had been replaced by 20 pages of notes he'd made several years earlier and he'd got no copy. So always, always back up! Thank you all for coming.

In this YouTube webinar, two Academic Skills Consultants will offer top tips for clarifying your argument, improving your academic style, and reducing or increasing word count to help you produce a well-structured and coherent piece of work.

Access our Writing Your Dissertation Canvas resources where you can:

  • hear from students also writing their dissertations
  • get advice from professional writers with the Royal Literary Fund
  • listen to a podcast guide talking you through the process of writing your dissertation
  • watch videos answering frequently asked questions about dissertations.


 Finding a Dissertation Topic

One of the most important things to consider is the topic of your dissertation. Getting stuck for inspiration can be a reason to procrastinate for many students. Don’t think that you need to find the ‘perfect’ topic – there isn’t one. A topic that has some potential for an interesting study is enough. It is also normal to change the topic or focus of your dissertation as you do more research and refine your ideas, so don’t get hung up on choosing your final topic yet.


Getting some inspiration

To get some ideas of where to begin, spin the wheel and reflect on what you could write about:

  • an area of your subject that you already know well
  • an area of your subject that really interests you
  • an area of your subject that you have strong opinions about
  • a problem in your area of study that you would like to investigate
  • suggestions that you have read about for further research in the topic
  • some new data about a topic
  • an existing theory that you could apply in a new way
  • existing research that you could apply to a new group of people
  • an existing method that you could apply to a new set of materials.

Checking your topic

Your topic needs to be unique, specific and viable. Can you answer yes to the following questions?


  • have you found student dissertations on the same topic, but that differ in one or more obvious ways?
  • have you identified scholars who have written about your topic and identified journals with relevant articles?
  • have you seen what other methodologies researchers have used to find more ideas?


  • is your topic or question able to be explored satisfactorily within the word limits?
  • will you be able to complete all your research and writing in the time available?


Have you discussed your topic with your supervisor?

  • have you made sure that there are enough relevant and up-to-date materials available on your topic?
  • if you are involving participants in your research, have you checked the ethical and data protection guidelines?
Talk to your lecturers, your supervisor, your course mates. They offer the chance not just for a fresh perspective, but also for you to develop your reasoning.” Josie, Third-year Global Studies student

Structuring your Dissertation

Types of Dissertations

There are two main types of dissertations: practical and theoretical.

Practical Dissertations

These focus on primary research, with you gathering the data yourself.

  • data can be constructed, e.g., computer models, lab experiments
  • data can be explored, e.g., case studies, interviews, field observation.
Theoretical Dissertations

These focus on secondary research, with you using data that has been collected and presented by other researchers to develop an argument.

  • arguments can be conceptual, e.g., on feminism, racism, sustainability
  • arguments can be applied, e.g., applying economic, social or environmental theory to a real-life situation.

Source: Trevor Day (2018), Success in Academic Writing, 2nd ed. Palgrave, p.108

Structuring your dissertation

Practical and theoretical dissertations share a lot of the same structure but differ in a few key areas. This downloadable table in Word gives the name and some additional information for each section.


This is a general guideline only. Check with your tutor, who may give you a specific structure to follow.

Critical versus Descriptive writing

A theoretical dissertation contains only critical writing, whereas some sections of a practical dissertation use descriptive writing. Make sure you are clear on the differences between them, or go to Critical Thinking for more details:

Critical writingDescriptive writing
Identifying if an idea is defensible Listing details
Explaining the relationship between structures or concepts Giving information
Weighing up the significance of things/ideas Describing examples
Drawing conclusions Explaining how a process works



An abstract is a short summary of your dissertation, which includes five or six main ideas:

  • what you examined. State your research question clearly and concisely
  • the reason for undertaking this study
  • for practical dissertations: What you did and how you did it
  • for practical dissertations: The results that you achieved
  • for theoretical dissertations: The themes that you identified and synthesised in the literature. Make sure to list them in the same order you write about them in your main body
  • for theoretical dissertations: How you analysed these themes to reach your conclusion
  • the conclusions that you draw
  • depending on the dissertation: Any recommendations that your research leads you to make.

An abstract doesn’t have references. To refer to your own study, e.g., This dissertation examines…, use the present tense.

Source: This section is adapted from material originally from the University of Plymouth


Your abstract should be clear to a reader who does not know what you have written about – think of it as the TL;DR version of your dissertation.


An introduction is similar to an abstract but concentrates more on the context of your study and only refers to your initial hypothesis or argument. It ends with an explanation of structure of the dissertation plan but doesn’t go into depth about the results or conclusions.

  • grab your reader's attention - why is this study of interest?
  • context - show how your study fits within your discipline in general
  • focus in on the narrower context, within the sub-discipline
  • aims of the study - could be questions to answer or hypotheses to test
  • introduce your argument
  • overview of structure of dissertation.


The best introductions start generally and then become more specific.
Often it is easier to write the abstract and introduction of your dissertation after you have written everything else, so they contain any changes of direction that your writing and research take you in.

Literature reviews

A literature review is a critical examination of the secondary sources that you have selected. Your aim in the literature review is to demonstrate your awareness of the current theories, contrasting schools of thought, and relevant writers; what has influenced your ideas, and your own research skills.

Misunderstandings about literature reviews

I must include everything that has been written on my topic answer I must thoughtfully select the most relevant literature for my argument.

It should be a descriptive summary of the existing literature answer It should be a critical analysis of the existing literature.

I need to list each writer’s opinion answer I need to synthesise the main opinions in the area.

It includes my personal opinions on the subject answer It includes my interpretations of the ideas, based on evidence.

Remember that you have made it to the last term of third year [or beyond]; you have got this far because you are a capable and talented individual; use the confidence you have earnt from this to bring flair and originality to your workGhaleb, Third-year Geography student

Writing your Dissertation

The most difficult part! It can seem like a huge mountain to climb, but you can do it. Since it is a huge project, the key is to break it down into manageable steps that you can tackle each day.

Time Management

You have to be organised with your time to complete your dissertation. Check out Time Management pages for useful general advice. You’ll need to pay special attention to the following:

Allocating Time

It’s a long project so make sure you include all the tasks and try to estimate how long each will take. Be generous! Dissertations may include:

  • booking access to rooms, people or equipment
  • finding and contacting participants
  • surveying and interviewing participants and Allow time for interviews and transcribing them afterwards
  • transcribing interviews
  • accessing particular literature which isn’t readily available in the library or online
  • learning new skills such as creating questionnaires, coding, designing charts, analysing data.
Scheduling Time

Draw up a timetable as early as possible, including not only the writing, but also the researching and the planning. Remember to include time for editing and proofreading at the end. As always, start with the deadline and work backwards.

Ordering your writing

Think about the order for writing your dissertation. This is one way of doing it:

  • work out chapter headings
  • write a couple of sentences about the content of each chapter
  • write the section headings for each chapter
  • divide each section into subsections, in logical order
  • draft a topic sentence for the point for each paragraph within each subsection
  • estimate the number of words for each section, then each chapter, then for the dissertation in total.

Source: Trevor Day (2018), Success in Academic Writing, 2nd ed. Palgrave, p.111

Remember to adjust the lengths of the chapters to make sure you are focusing on the most important sections. The literature review and discussion are the most substantial sections. Alternatively, you could start with the total word count and divide it up into chapters. Then sub-divide each chapter into sections and sub-sections.


There is no set order you must write your dissertation sections in. Your tutor will never know (and won’t mind) if you wrote your title page last. Use this to your advantage to get started – begin with the parts of your dissertation that interest you the most.


Other topics in this section relating to Writing and assessments:

Critical essay writing | Reflective writing | Reports | Dissertations | Academic writing style, editing and proof-reading | Feedback