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Find out how to write a dissertation

Being a student can seem like being on a roller coaster; it is extremely exciting but there are times when you would desperately like to get off. One of those times is often when you realise that you have to write a dissertation. The horrifying realisation that you have to provide in between 10,000 and 15,000 words depending upon your course and university can make your stomach feel like its had a bowl of concrete poured onto it. Subsequently, when you learn that on top of that you also have to provide original research, it can just seem like too much and can drive you in one of two directions. This usually falls into the two P modes, panic or procrastination.


This article will show you how to avoid both those situations whilst demonstrating how to write a dissertation.

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When you choose your topic, you must ensure that your choice fits the following:

  • Interesting enough to keep you inspired. Fundamentally, this is probably the most important step that you will take when writing your dissertation. It cannot be stressed enough that you need to choose something that gives you a buzz. It is amazing how people often choose their topics because they think it will be easy. This really is not the best way to pick what you are going to research and write about. For instance, if you are studying Literature and you have been studying Orwell’s work since GCSE, you may think that you could work on his texts because you have already done so much on it. However, if you do not find him enthralling, you should forget him as a subject and choose something else. You should find three or four topics which motivate you and make a list of them.
  • The subject has to be broad enough for you to find enough background theory about it. Once you have your list, you cannot close your eyes and point your finger at one of them even though that would be fun. The next step is to find whether you can uncover enough background theory on your chosen topic. For instance, you may love the poetry of a contemporary local writer that has published six volumes of poetry in the last twenty years. However, the likelihood of there being enough background theory to use on a little known poet outside of his home town of Cleckheaton might prove negative. In other words, that subject would be a nonstarter. Go through your list and cross any off any that do not have enough research done about them.
  • The subject has also to be narrow enough to research within your time and word constraints. This means that you could not use the plays of William Shakespeare as your dissertation subject because there would be far too much to cover. However, you could research how “Shakespeare uses twins in his comedies whereas other playwrights used them in tragedies.”

At this point, you will have worked your way down your list and may be left with one or two choices which fit the criteria of the above list. Let’s imagine, that you are left with novels that depict the 19th century asylum. The next stage is finding a suitable research question to base your dissertation on. To do this you will need to discover:

  • novels that you can use
  • sources that have been written about these novels
  • sources that have been written about 19th century asylums

When you read as much of the above material as you can in a critical and analytical manner, you will notice that you start noticing patterns and connections in what you read. This should lead to you asking questions. It is imperative at this stage that you make notes about the patterns, connections and questions. It is also useful during this period to keep a reflective journal as you read. The reason for this is that writing down ideas about what you have read makes you organise your thoughts and make sense of them.

Let’s imagine that after all this background reading that you want to discover “do novels depicting the 19th century asylum reflect the reality of them?”

What could be used for research?

  • The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins
  • Dracula by Bram Stoker
  • The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
  • Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood
  • Fingersmith by Sarah Waters
  • The Asylum by John Harwood.

Notice, how the novels to be used are a mixture of texts that were actually written during the 19th century and also contemporary novels. This is done for a reason. It means that you can critically analyse whether texts written during the period that the question refers to are nearer to reality than texts written over a hundred years later. In fact, it is an interesting situation because you would have to point out that although the texts are analysed as primary sources, they are actually a mixture of primary and secondary sources because of when they were written.

Other primary sources that could be used for your research are:

  • books written on the asylum during the 19th century
  • academic papers that researched the subject during the 19th century
  • newspaper articles written at the time in question
  • Information from actual asylums dating to the time of the patient’s incarceration. Family history enthusiasts have a head starter on other people here. The reason being that due to the law it is difficult to get hold of actual records because of privacy reasons. However, if you have a dead ancestor that was incarcerated, you may get to see the records. You have to pay for this service and in some cases if a vicious murder was involved, you may have to sign the Official Secrets Act. If you did this, the way around using it in your research is to change the name of the patient to protect their identity.

Secondary sources that could be used for the asylum question would be:

  • Contemporary critical theory that investigates any of the texts in question. For instance, The Madwoman in the Attic by Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar explores The Yellow Wall Paper.
  • Contemporary historical text books that discuss the 19th century asylum. For instance, Inconvenient People – Lunacy, Liberty and Mad-Doctors in Victorian England by Sarah Wise.
  • Contemporary journals, essays and newspaper articles.

The Literature Review may, at first, seem like something that you feel you can write without any problems, especially when you are doing all your background reading and you have reams and reams of information. However, that is what the problem can be when you come to write the Literature Review – the reams and reams of information. It is tempting when you’ve done all that work to want to showcase everything you know about the subject. This is a mistake.

There are two reasons for this. The most obvious is that if you have done the amount of background reading that you truly need for a dissertation, you will exceed your word count by two or three times if you write it all down. Many examiners will penalise you for this or even refuse to read it all. The main reason that you should not throw everything in is that it will appear to the reader that you cannot establish what is relevant to your research question. This is why, you have to be ruthless when you are deciding what to put in and what to leave out. If it isn’t relevant, discard it.

However, if you are really clear about what is relevant to your literature review and you still have more material than is possible to put in it, you may wish to look at your research question again. The reason for this is that there is a strong possibility that the subject is too wide. There is also the danger that it is a subject that has been popular in the past and this means that most of the research on it will have been covered. In essence, the likelihood of you finding anything original to write is exceedingly slim. In that case, you may have to rethink your topic. This is why it is important to start your dissertation as early as possible and also to take time carefully choosing a subject.

Remember that the aim is to produce a dissertation that is coherent, logical and structured. However, with this in mind, don’t be afraid to write drafts. Remember that during the course of your research, you may change your mind about how you answer your question. In essence, this is why you are doing your research to find something out. Therefore, it really helps to be open minded enough to be ready and willing to change anything and everything as you travel along your dissertation journey.

For some reason, writing the methodology section often turns stomachs. It really does not need to. Basically, you need to:

  • Discuss what type of research you will be doing in your dissertation. In other words, is it quantitative or qualitative? Basically, quantitative research means measuring outcomes by numbers, for instance, using national statistics. Qualitative research is measuring out comes by beliefs, ideas and opinions. For instance, focus groups, market research etc. However, in the case of certain studies like Literature you would use texts to analyse opinions etc. These might include newspaper archives and diary entries.
  • Explain why you will be using the type of research that you are using. This will demonstrate to the examiner that you understand the research methods. For instance, let’s return to the sample research question that has been used in this article “do novels depicting the 19th century asylum reflect the reality of them?” If it was suggested that for this research you would use quantitative research because you wanted to know how many people were put in asylums, it would indicate that you didn’t understand the research question. The reason being that is not relevant to what you wish to discover. However, if you stated that you were going to use qualitative research to measure people’s opinions on how asylum’s were depicted both in fiction and reality, this would prove that you understood which research method to use.
  • Describe how you will conduct your research. Remember, at this stage you are not describing the outcome of your research but simply how you are going to do it. This means that you will need to explain what you will do, how you will collect your data and how you will organise it. If this seems like a chore that is a waste of time, it may help you to discover that planning your methodology makes it much easier when you actually come to conduct your research because you are already organised.

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