Master's, The Dissertation


It's finally time for me to do my concluding Master's post, this one all about my experience writing my dissertation. I did actually cover the whole process relatively closely in these videos, so if you're interested that might be a good place to start. Like I said in my last dissertation blog post, everyone's journey is different when it comes to something as personal as a thesis, so please don't be alarmed if your experience doesn't end up looking like mine. There are so many ways to do these things, proven by the fact that writing this dissertation was a completely different experience to my undergraduate one (more on that later).

The Process

So once again my idea for this dissertation came from my love of the literature itself, and it also came about halfway through the MA. I read N. K. Jemisin's The Fifth Season as part of one of my first semester courses, and immediately stopped reading everything else so that I could race through the second two books in the Broken Earth trilogy. Even after having written 15,000 words on the three books, I still struggle to describe them. They're immensely complex but extremely readable, gripping, and subtly written. The trilogy is a Sci Fi/Fantasy hybrid that tells of 'orogenes', a discriminated people who have an intimate connection with the earth, so much so that they can manipulate it, able to create volcanos but also quell earthquakes. But this is really just the tip of the iceberg, and I (obviously) highly recommend you read them.

I knew I wanted to write on Broken Earth, then, but what to actually say about the books? I started by looking to a new-ish critical movement called new materialism, which has a lot to say about physical matter (in contrast to more language-based criticism like poststructuralism/postmodernism); if the characters were going to be able to manipulate the actual earth, this seemed like an important place to start. As I mentioned countless times in my vlogs, we were required to write a Critical Survey at the end of our second semester. For most people, this meant surveying the critical material that had been written about their chosen literature or topic. However, because Jemisin's novels were published so recently, I had to look elsewhere (you can't squeeze 4000 words out of a few book reviews). Ultimately, I decided to write an overview of new materialism in order to give myself a good foundation of knowledge. Before I wrote this, I pretty much had no idea where my dissertation was going to go, despite all the other things that our tutors encouraged us to do earlier on in the year. Even afterwards I was more or less clueless because new materialism covers such a broad range of topics in itself; some critics focus on the body and feminism or ableism or race; some on quantum physics or mathematics; yet others on objects and nonlife, which feeds into the more eco-based stuff as well. Not only that, but all of these things seemed kind of relevant to Broken Earth (maybe not the maths).

Critical Survey done, the next thing I did was reread the books. Compared to my undergraduate dissertation, I obviously had the whole summer to dedicate to this piece of work, so I planned to make the most of it by really immersing myself in my texts. I wrote my classic computer notes on this rereading, so I had a searchable bank of quotations. I always use this during my writing process, so even if I don't have the whole quotation I need, I can at least go quickly to the right page of the right book.

With some new ideas beginning to come together after this rereading, I went back and found more critical material. There were a few things that I knew I wanted to read that I hadn't had time for during my Critical Survey, and then the books themselves pointed me down other avenues of investigation. After all this, I still kind of had no idea where I'd end up. As you can imagine, this is where it started to get a bit scary. Usually at this point in my previous experience I was pretty much ready to start writing, but I was seriously reluctant to do so until I had something more concrete. I had lots of individual floaty ideas, but no through line. So, once again, I went back to the books. I reread them a third time, and this time I handwrote theme based notes on some of the topics I knew I wanted to cover. You can see all my columns in this vlog. This is where my real ideas began to come together and I finally came up with my three part structure. I knew that I basically wanted to do three chapters at approximately 4000 words each, leaving room for a 2000 word introduction and 1000 word conclusion. Of course this ended up working out very differently depending on the chapter, and I believe my intro and conclusion were shorter than I thought they'd be, but I went for these guidelines to start with.

So we had a structure, and it was really time to start planning and writing. Rereading all my notes, I condensed them a couple times, first of all getting a forty page plan/list of quotations, then a more manageable ten page plan. Even then I felt overwhelmed by the huge swathes of information, so I ended up making a plan for each chapter specifically before writing it. Doing this as I went along meant that I could update chapter two/three's plan depending on what I'd already written. Then, writing. For the first time in my life, I started with the first chapter and skipped the intro - even though I had a loose structure, I still wasn't ready to write down what I actually wanted to say overall just yet (mostly because I was still a little unsure). I feel like there's not many people out there who'd say that they felt super confident when they wrote that first sentence, but keep it casual and don't pressure yourself too much. That's what editing is for! I set myself deadlines for the completion of each chapter, and also tried to edit as I went, because it really is a pain to edit a big document like that. I think I had approximately four days for each chapter: one planning, two writing, one editing.

I found the second chapter by far the hardest to write and edit; it was definitely where I did my most complex analysis, but it was after I had written this one - about nine thousand words in - that I discovered what it was I was trying to say. So then I went back and rejigged the whole thing, and adapted the plan for the third chapter accordingly. The epiphany really can come that late. Sometimes you have to write it first to battle through your thoughts about something, especially when that something is knotty and difficult.

From then on things got slightly easier, and then I had a few days at the end to edit and make sure I was making a strong case throughout. In the end I discovered I wanted to talk about everything. Just in the way that the novels cover so much about our world, I wanted to echo this in my dissertation. But to talk about everything I had to keep it really specific to the texts themselves and also show how all the themes and ideas were intimately intertwined, otherwise the task would have been far too broad. As you can see from the picture, I ended up titling it 'Materialising New Worlds' (one of the last things I did and always do), because that's exactly what Jemisin does in these books. Ultimately, it was a really simple idea at its heart, but I think quite effective in the end (if I hadn't done justice to the books I'd have been really upset!) I wouldn't recommend this but because of the way my diss went I didn't have a research question throughout the whole process. I just never could come up with one. I mean, I guess it would be 'How does Jemisin materialise new worlds?', which is kind of what I was thinking throughout but didn't really focus on. In the end I did okay, so don't feel pressure to come up with one if you really can't think of something useful, but it is a good tool if you can (note that it's a tool and not a requirement!) Let your research guide you more than anything.

Compared to Undergrad

The process of writing this dissertation was therefore pretty different to the one I wrote in Edinburgh, mostly because I had a lot more time to write it. This allowed me to take much more time analysing the texts themselves. I really felt with this piece of work like I wanted to get right into the literature; I'd read a lot of theory over the course of my Master's, and it was time to get back to what I really loved with a new wealth of knowledge. However, this piece was definitely much more complex than my first dissertation, as I'd learnt a lot over the year! I think this is something that comes naturally. I would say though that despite this, the process itself was less stressful, because of the time aspect, and also a bit more experience on my part.

The Routine

I had a lot of time off throughout summer, so don't be afraid to give yourself that time. You don't need to be at it ten or eleven hours a day every day for three months (for 15,000 words this just isn't necessary). In fact, I think if you do have a week or two off here and there, it allows you to keep up the motivation for when you are switched on. I think in total I spent about six or seven weeks reading, three or four days of initial planning, and two and a half weeks writing and editing (this at least according to my calendar, which I was always chopping and changing!) This wasn't really what I had planned at the start of summer, mostly because that last reread of the novels took me much longer than I thought, but I let the reading and my gut guide me as to how long I needed for things. I know that I’m a relatively quick writer once I’ve got those ideas solid in my head, but if you need to get something out before you can plan, then make sure you’ve given yourself enough time for that. Even though I didn’t stick to it, I'd recommend making that initial plan (are you going away on holiday? How and when will you fit this or that in?), and then adapting as you go along. I don't know whether this is considered last minute or not, but it certainly was not as rushed as my undergrad piece, and I generally felt more organised and on top of things, despite the general mind-bending stress of it all. By getting myself into a good routine of hitting the library early, I had most evenings off, too, which was a real relief.

Those weeks that I was 'on', I was usually in the library from opening at 9:30 till earliest 5, latest 8. I was working for the majority of that time apart from a lunchbreak. I went to the British Library, and I would lock my phone in my locker downstairs most days so that I wouldn't be distracted by it. Plus because it’s a bit intimidating in there I didn't feel like I could scroll through Buzzfeed! On the weekends or days when it shut early, I would work from home, usually in the quietest spot I could find, and I'd often leave my phone in a different room unless I felt I was focussed enough not to care. My philosophy was that the quicker I worked, the quicker I got to rest my brain again, and generally that worked for me.

Your Questions

I asked on Instagram if you guys had any questions about this process, so I'm going to answer a few here, though I hope that I've covered a fair bit above.

How did you keep track of all the relevant info from every book you read?

For me this is all about those laptop notes. I tend not to write down my ideas so much (I tend to handwrite these when something comes to me), but just lots and lots of quotations from everything I read. It's a really time consuming process, but it's well worth it when it comes to planning and writing, because you have a huge resource that you can easily search. Then I went from about 300 pages of notes from my Critical Survey, the books, and everything I'd done since the survey, to a workable plan. I read through it all again, put whatever was most relevant into a new document with some sort of structure, and then kept condensing it again and again until I had the very best of my notes. But at the beginning of this vlog I described all that in more detail (I think! I can't quite bring myself to revisit those vlogs just yet).

How do you stay motivated?

Like I said above, this is partially about letting yourself rest, otherwise you will just completely burn out. It can be a slow and arduous process getting something like this out your head, so make sure you're giving yourself time to recover! In order to give yourself this rest time, you must be planning, so that you know when you're doing what. My calendar is chock full of events like 'Reread books', 'Final planning' or 'Plan Chapter 2'. Setting yourself these daily goals (or two/three day tasks) can help get you through - once you hit them, you can sign off for the day! This can really alleviate some of the worry, too. Just make sure to keep them manageable, and don't be afraid to move stuff around if you have a dud day.

However, the easiest way to stay motivated is to pick a topic you love, and to try and find the enjoyment in the process. I don't know that I could've pushed through if I'd not chosen books I absolutely love, and a general theme that I thought was really interesting. Although it can be painful, there's a much greater sense of satisfaction when you finally hit on that idea if you love what you're doing. Also I remember saying in my vlogs that doing a project like this is such a privilege, and being allowed the freedom to research and write on something you find fascinating is a bit of a rarity. I also tried to concentrate on the fact that I was doing it for me, and because of this, the mark or the outcome wasn't as important as the learning process itself. When I was feeling stressed I really tried to remember that, and it helped me to enjoy the process a bit more.

Everyone gets bored with their topic at one point or another, however, and the best thing to do is to take a break and come back to it. Read a different book for a bit or listen to a podcast. If you’re in the latter stages of your reading, why not try planning or writing a paragraph? Reading can be a long process where you read the same things over and over again, or trudge through articles that turn out to be irrelevant. Take a step back and reevaluate what the most productive thing for you to do is if you find yourself getting really bored.

How to recover from an unproductive day or when it all seems a bit overwhelming?

There's nothing worse than having a day when you get absolutely nothing that you wanted to done and you can't focus and you're exhausted and you don't even know what you're writing about anyway. However, rest assured this literally happens to everyone, and most people get the dissertation in and are fine in the end. Best thing to do is when you feel that brain fog rising is to rejig your plan for the next few days and go straight home or step away from your desk. Obviously don't do that literally every day (sometimes you just have to push through that final couple hundred words), but even if that happens two or three days in a row, don't beat yourself up about it. Make sure you plan to start everything a fair bit earlier than you need to in order to allow for these moments, and that way even if you aren't sticking to the plan it's not the end of the world. And it really isn't the end of the world, because like I said, this is your own project that's really for and about you. Don't pressure yourself too much! Also there will be really productive days when you're feeling especially good, and these are the days when you do the most important work; you kind of have to let them come when they can, and they'll help balance out the shitty ones.

How often did you back up your work?

Work on the cloud!!!! Any cloud!!!! I used iCloud, but you could use Google docs. But do not work locally on your laptop (including for your notes)!!!!!!!!!!

If you started it all over again, would the result be different?

I finished that final draft and I thought, if I had another month here I could make this really good! I'd have rewritten it from the start and combed it and maybe made the ideas move through the chapters slightly differently. I ended up with a mark I was pleased with, but I think this always happens. The joys of writing! Other than that, I wouldn't really have changed anything. I think I had the most enjoyable summer I could have had with 15,000 words looming over me, and I handled the stress okay.

Did you ever feel insecure about your work?

Yes, always. I'm never fully happy with my work, and I've often felt I wasn't good enough for the level I was at. But I did it! Try to accept insecurity as part of the writing process, and just do your absolute best within the time frame that you're given. It's really all that you can do!

How do you keep your references organised?

When I'm writing notes the first thing I do is write out all the details I'll need if I end up referencing it, and then I reference as I go along when I'm writing, as well as doing my bibliography. It's a complete chore but sometimes it is nice to take 5 minutes to do something a bit mindless in the middle of writing to get a short break from thinking. I can't imagine having to do it all at the end, especially with a longer piece of work.

How do you deal with writer's block?

The best way to deal with writer's block is to be prepared. If you have five points you want to make in a chapter, and you have five pieces of textual evidence to back it up, then writer's block is a lot easier to conquer. Of course it's not always easy to word things, and it's easy to get stuck on a sentence from time to time, but just write any old nonsense and refine it if you have to. I've done this many times over the past year, especially when I'm grappling with something tricky. It doesn't even have to make grammatical sense! If you're really struggling with writer's block my advice is to go back to your notes and write a more detailed plan. Or open a new document and write a list of the most basic possible sentences that get across what you want to say and try and work out which order they should go in. This is usually a really helpful tool at figuring out how the idea should come out and in what order.

Did you worry that you were writing something that's been covered before?

This is one of the joys of working with contemporary literature - you have the freedom to write about brand new stuff! Of course I wasn't saying anything particularly profound in terms of critical theory or life philosophy, but I was applying it to the novels and providing an in depth analysis of them, so at least in that aspect I was doing something a little bit new. You have multiple things going on in a literature/culture dissertation, so by combining different bodies of theory with different literature, you can create something new and exciting.

Was it worth it?

Yes! But you have to love it to make it worth it.

I'm going to wrap this up here my loves because this post is actually just way too long, but I hope you enjoyed and that it was useful. I don't feel like it was that useful but hopefully it is? Let me know anyway how you got through your dissertations. A teeny tiny very small part of me misses it all (maybe it's time to reread those books again).