Writing an Undergraduate Dissertation

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The title of this post is a little misleading because this is not really going to be a ‘how to’ so much as a few observations I made whilst writing mine. I have already (purposefully) lost much of the experience to the mists of memory and time, but I hope that some of you writing undergraduate dissertations this year might find a little comfort in it. I’m not going to write too much about the content of it because for some strange reason I still feel strangely protective over it and I don’t know if I’m ready to open it up to the world (how ridiculous am I), plus I think it’s so specific it wouldn’t be wholly useful to dwell on it too long.

Before we start, I think it’s important to say that not all dissertations are created the same. Each university will have a different approach to guiding its undergraduates through their dissertation, and they will be of varying lengths and styles, so it’s really best to follow their lead before anything else. Also, the progression to the final product can be a long and windy road, and everyone has a completely different experience – the joys of academic writing! – so allow yourself some room to breathe along the way. The other thing that is important to do is to recognise your own favoured style of study and writing. Whatever you do every time you write an essay, it will likely be the same but on a grander scale (provided you, like me, had never written anything of that length yet).

For me, that means I voraciously read absolutely everything I can get my hands on that even remotely relates to my topic (I’m extremely bad at being selective which is actually a very important skill that prevents you from getting overly confused by too much information), and then I usually write at the last minute, though not always. What comes out tends to be very close to the final draft; I prefer it to come out relatively fully formed. Some of these things are bad habits (namely, writing last minute), and I am working on changing a few aspects this year, but even with this knowledge you still want to recognise how you work and what your process is (bad habits are still habits). In my case, this meant acknowledging the fact that I was going to be writing quite late (and trying to ignore everyone who already had 10,000 words two weeks before the deadline), but making sure that that wasn’t too late, and that there would be time for editing. The longer the piece of work is, the more editing it will need to make sure it all comes together. If you are a highly organised person who needs early writing deadlines and lots of editing time, PLEASE LOOK AWAY NOW, this is going to hurt you.

The dissertation in the English department in Edinburgh is handed in at the end of the second semester (the end of the year), but there are small deadlines starting right at the beginning of the year. Even though these often seemed arbitrary and I would rush something together for them, I do think that they helped me hit certain points in my thinking process which took me closer to the final piece, even if this process may have been somewhat subconscious. When we went in for our first group meeting with our supervisor in the first few weeks of the academic year, some people had a very clear idea of what they wanted to do and had been thinking about it over the summer, and some people didn’t. I was – of course – in the latter camp. Although I had a vague idea of where I wanted to head, and had been impressed by a couple of books I had read over summer (read loads throughout summer if you’re not sure what you want to focus on), I didn’t really have a clue. This meeting was probably the most important interaction with my supervisor that I had; he seemed particularly interested in one of the books I had read and I decided then and there to focus the dissertation around that text. Whatever came out of that text, I would use as a base to work out where I wanted to go.

I imagine that one of the pieces of advice that lots of people will say when you come to write your dissertation is rely on your supervisor, make the most of the help. I wholeheartedly agree with this, but only if you feel like you want to. In all my years at Edinburgh, I had never approached any tutor for help with an essay, and I don’t personally find it to be a part of my process or very helpful a lot of the time. That’s not to say that tutors don’t provide a wealth of knowledge, but only that I generally prefer to work things out for myself. Edinburgh also assigned you randomly to supervisors (don’t even get me started…) which meant that they didn’t necessarily have a specialisation in your field; luckily mine was well-versed in what I wanted to write about, but plenty of the people I knew weren’t so lucky. I would say, attend the compulsory meetings always and see how you feel; don’t feel bad or like you’re doing something wrong if you find that you end up doing most of the work independently, but equally use the resources if you want and need to.

Over the next few months, we submitted various things: 500 word outlines, bibliographies, plans and outlines. I did a little bit of research and found a couple of texts that would work well with the original piece, and so everything grew from the fiction itself. None of these things I wrote remotely resembled my final dissertation but all took me a step further towards where I ended up. For a draft introduction I wrote, as I started writing I uncovered a link between two of the books, and a minor paragraph in it became the driving force behind the whole 10,000 words. Follow where your interests take you above all else, and always remember to keep it doable. You don’t want a topic that is way too broad, or one that is too narrow. There’s no way of really knowing what this means until you have your idea and you feel you need to trim or expand it. All the way through this can feel a little bit of a fluid and uncertain process.

Mid-way through the second semester, it was beginning to get pretty serious and scary. I was still reading two books a week for class, and we were writing our mid-term essays whilst starting to form something more concrete for the dissertation. As soon as the final pre-dissertation essays were handed in, I spent every day in the library reading material for it, with about 3 weeks to go before deadline day. I had done a few days of reading for it here and there earlier in the semester, so I was not starting from scratch by any means, and these few days can be really important, so squeeze them in when you can. Many people had organised their time and courses much better, and had started dedicating a portion of their week every week to reading and planning, but logistically this would have been difficult for me. Although I had a much clearer idea of what critical material I needed to read, I still didn’t have an overarching theory (this is ok!).

Obviously at this point, the process becomes much more specific to UoE itself, but I would recommend inspecting your calendar and noting down what other work you will have to do around the deadline period very early on. Try planning when you’ll do what a month or two in advance, but don’t beat yourself up if you don’t get it all done exactly when you wanted to. Keeping an eye on the calendar was the only thing that kept me remotely sane at this time in the semester.

About a week before it was due, I read through all the notes I had compiled, worked out what would go where, what parts of the novels I would use, and wrote up a relatively complex and detailed plan of about 3000 words. Over the next four days, I wrote 2500 words a day until it was completed with two full days for editing (and I had been editing as I went). On the first of those editing days, I rewrote a large part of my middle section (I split it up into three 2500 word essays, with 1500 words for my introduction and 1000 for my conclusion), but apart from that by the end of the second day I was generally happy with it.

I hope this comes across as both a warning and a comfort. You should never plan to write something as last minute as that, and that was certainly not my intention, even though I suspected that it might happen. However, a dissertation is not a book, and it can be written in a relatively short space of time, as long as you’ve done the prior reading, you have a plan, and you know what you want to say. I had found from my experience throughout my degree that writing last minute did not affect my grades negatively (sometimes the opposite!) and that the pressure helped me to get it out, but if you find that isn’t applicable to you then make arrangements for that early on. If you are going to do it last minute, you also need to acknowledge how many words you can easily write in a day. Ultimately though, in terms of my mental state, it was absolutely not a healthy way to write and it was extremely stressful. It’s not a good thing to only ever write under pressure or to think you need to write under pressure, and this is something I’m really trying to change about my working style. But, if you find yourself writing last minute, try not to panic; it can be done.

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What would I have done differently? I would have focussed less on my courses (where the credit weighting was much lighter), and read more of those texts over Christmas to give myself more time during the semester to do the reading for my dissertation. I would have tried to hit my original deadlines that I gave myself for writing. Ideally, I would have spent about a week on each 2500 words. However, I came out of the process with a grade I was pleased with, and it was certainly a learning curve and a catalyst for change in the way I will approach my next dissertation. Luckily for me, my Master’s dissertation is due in September of next year, which means that after my taught courses end, I have the entire summer to focus purely on that one piece of work. I’m keeping a very open mind about what I might want to write about, and trying to absorb all the material from the taught courses to see where I might want to specialise, as recommended by one of my tutors. I will be planning personal deadlines meticulously, and this time I am really going to try and hit them to prevent the dissertation scramble.

A few tips:

  1. Listen to yourself and your working style as you’ve experienced it in your degree so far. How do you work best; what gets you the best grades? Do you work best trying to write something and then editing heavily; does this help you work out your whole argument? If so, give yourself plenty of time for that. Would you rather have words on the page and then work it out, or work it out fully before you start typing? If you make a plan, do you ever use it, is it helpful to you? Do you find it easier to plan by actually writing something out, or is a typed and thorough plan more helpful, or do you like to do both at different stages? Do you always start with your introduction or do you leave that until last?
  2. Plan, plan, plan. Do this months in advance. Work out how much you will have to read for classes and when your essay deadlines are and pull up a calendar and work out when you are going to do things. Try and set aside time every week to read for your dissertation, but if you end up snatching days here and there, don’t panic. Leave at least a few weeks at the end to fully throw yourself into it. If you are a pressure worker like me, plan to be otherwise, but acknowledge that your plans might change and be somewhat flexible. Know your limits always.
  3. Don’t psych yourself out about it. Like I said, a dissertation is not a book, it’s really just a lengthy essay. I was used to writing 3000 word essays, so really it required three times the amount of time and critical reading. Considering I generally write essays of that length in a week, the three-week period at the end was actually kind of average for me.
  4. Don’t compare yourself to everyone around you. If you need to tell someone to shut up about their word count, then absolutely do it. Don’t let anyone else throw you off or stress you out. A dissertation is a wholly personal process and piece of work – as it should be – and everyone else will have a wildly different experience from you. Equally, be gracious and sensitive to your friends who are stressed about their own.
  5. Don’t get stuck thinking about what it should look like. Everyone else is doing three sections, do I need three sections? The answer is definitely not! Let the argument guide you into doing what is best for your work. I like writing extremely lengthy introductions, but some people like having something short and sweet and getting stuck into the meaty bit. All of these types of dissertations have got good marks, so just do whatever you think is best.
  6. Give it to someone else to read. There is nothing I hate more than giving my work to someone else to read, but I feel like especially for a lengthier piece of work, find a friend you trust to read it through with a pair of fresh eyes. What you’ve written is going to get really old to you, really fast.

I hope this has answered some of you guys’ questions and is even remotely helpful. Please leave any other tips or tricks down below, or just tell me about your experiences. Onto the next one!