How to write a Dissertation

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How to write a Dissertation

Post  studyaids on Sat Sep 15, 2012 12:30 pm

It’s that time of year again when you know thousands of third year students are sitting in their rooms busily avoiding writing their dissertation. They give you a year to do it, but most of us know it gets done in the last week before the deadline. Mine was a study into the art of procrastination before I finally buckled down and thrashed it out. The most difficult part is knowing where to begin. What’s the first part you should write and how do you go about it? Structure is important in a dissertation, it’s not just a really long essay, it’s a thesis, a research report. It needs a bit of thinking about. A lot of people I speak to usually know what needs to go into their dissertation, they’re just not sure where to put all the bits. It’s like a jigsaw with no edge pieces to start from.

I’m usually pretty good at giving advice on essays and dissertations, probably because I’ve always enjoyed writing them, so here’s a list of all the bits you need – the edge pieces (bear in mind this advice applies to dissertations in areas like humanities, sciences will have their own structure);

• Title page
• Contents page
• Abstract
• Introduction and Literature Review
• Chapters
• Conclusion
• Bibliography
• Appendix

Most of that is pretty self explanatory I think, the only one people usually pull a face at is Abstract. I’ll break them down a bit more.

Title page
The title of your dissertation is something that you probably won’t work out until you’re halfway through the research. It’s usually a statement followed by a question, for example mine was:
“Examining the historical similarities and differences in style, specifically the use of allegory and its intentions, from Dante Alighieri’s Inferno section of the Commedia to contemporary cinema over the last 20 years. How do modern film-makers achieve the same strength of allegory that afforded the Commedia with such longevity?”
Statement – what you are looking at. Question – what are you trying to find out? Try to keep is succinct, mine was guilty of being a bit too long-winded. You need to give the reader a clear understanding of what they’re about to read. On the flip side, don’t make it too short, it’s not a book, so don’t call it “The ghost of film” or something just as naff.
Some Universities will require you to put copyright -the date- -your name- and possibly something to explain its production, for example, I had to write “Dissertation towards the degree of BA(Hons) Screenwriting” and the University name. Check whether you need these.

Contents page
Do this just before you print everything off, so you make sure you get all the page numbers right. It should include everything from Abstract to Appendix.

Abstract
This is the bit that creates panic, but it’s vital. It is essentially a two page summary of your dissertation. It should be the last thing you write, when you know what you’ve written inside out. It’s a mini-dissertation, with an intro, summary of chapters and a conclusion. You’re not saying anything new in it, you’re basically giving a book report on your own work. The abstract is intended to allow anyone to read it and know what your subject is, what you’re exploring within that subject, what analysis you’ve made and what conclusions you’ve drawn.

Introduction and Literature Review
More book reports. This section should be about 4-5 pages long. It is probably easier to write it after you’ve written the body of your dissertation as it’s also a kind of summary. The introduction element means explaining what you’re going to be looking at in your dissertation – break down what is in each chapter and, more importantly, why it’s necessary for it to be there.
At the same time, you should be combining the literature review into the introduction. This essentially means explaining which sources you used at each point of the research, and whether the source was any good. You might want to go into the source’s opinion on the subject, the validity of its argument and whether there are any areas you feel it failed to address (note, this is good because you can start to explore the gaps in the research, earning you those crucial marks for originality).

Chapters
I found the easiest place to start writing my dissertation was at Chapter 1, as it’s technically the beginning. How you split your chapters up is entirely up to you, depending on what you’re looking at in your dissertation, but a good rule of thumb is to have three. For example;
• Chapter 1 is all about context – What are you looking at? Define it, not with a dictionary quote, actually explore the definition using sources. What’s the history behind it? Why is it relevant (this is key, you really need to explain what your study is going to add to the ongoing debate around your subject)?
• Chapter 2 is where you look at the arguments already surrounding the debate, analyse the key texts and opinions, see what the trends in methodology are, explore the approaches to your chosen subject. You need to demonstrate an understanding of the area and being able to critically and analytically explain the arguments surrounding it does just that.
• Chapter 3 is where you can bring your own, original contribution to the debate. You’ve looked at the context of your thesis, you’ve studied the sources, analysed where the gap in the research is, now it’s time to fill that gap. Here you present your argument, supported by a clear methodology, to explain what you’ve found and the conclusions you’ve drawn.

Conclusion
After the main body of your dissertation is written, now is a good time to write your conclusion, which is essentially just another summary. The key difference with the conclusion however, is that it’s a retrospective look at the research and findings so you’re writing in the past tense. It’s also a very good place to suggest how the research you’ve done might be expanded upon, you’re basically offering the reader a new idea and ways the research could be directed from this point on.

Bibliography
Check with your University to see whether you are referencing in the Oxford or Harvard style. Either way, your bibliography should contain a full list if books, journals, articles, films, computer games, comic books and websites that you referenced in the abstract, introduction, chapters and conclusion of your dissertation. Examples of referencing format;
• Books: Name, date. Title. Place of publication: Publisher. If it’s been edited or translated, put Ed. Name. or Trans. Name. before the place of publication.
eg. Bemrose, S., 2000. A New Life of Dante. Exetor: University of Exetor Press.
• Films: Title (Director, Date)
eg. Clerks (Kevin Smith, 1994).
• Websites: Author, date. Title. Available at [Only admins are allowed to see this link] (date accessed).
eg. Parker, D., 1996. The World of Dante. Available at [Only admins are allowed to see this link] (11/03/09).

Appendix
Your appendix should contain all the extra bumpf that you’ve referenced in the main body of your dissertation and the reader may find interesting. It can contain transcripts of interviews, statistical research, a copy of a questionnaire you sent out, images, diagrams, graphs, and so on. If you have lots of extra stuff, it might be worth having more than one appendix, so Appendix A might contain images, Appendix B interview transcripts. Keep it ordered and make sure you caption everything to explain what it is.
And that’s it, everything you need to include. As with everything, it’s a good idea to check with your dissertation supervisor before handing in as they’re the authority on how your University wants your dissertation. Remember – it’s the starting that’s the hard part, once you’ve sat down and committed the time, it should come quite easily.

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