Now, soon-to-be-third-years, I know what you’re thinking – ‘it’s the summer break, I’ve got ages to think about/plan/write my dissertation!’ – and yes, you’re right. You should be enjoying your summer – reading things you want to read, binge watching TV shows, catching up with your friends at home, or getting ahead with your third year reading list. By all means do those things. But don’t rest on your laurels – dissertation will come around sooner than you think!
Of course it’s a big project, but you’d be surprised how quickly you’ll run out of words when you start writing about something you care about enough to spend months researching, planning, writing, rewriting, proofreading, rewriting again, cutting, and redrafting. I know I’m probably making this sound terrifying, but dissertations are actually kind of fun in a strange way, and seeing them all bound and looking official is extremely rewarding.
So, what can you do to make the process of writing a dissertation easier? Here are a few things I learnt while writing my dissertation.
1. Don’t leave it until the last minute. April will come around extraordinarily quickly – you might think first and second year went quickly, but third year is on a completely different level, it will go in a flash. It’s best to at least start thinking about what kind of area you’re interested in now, or if you know what you want to write about, start jotting down ideas, find yourself some secondary sources, verbalise your ideas to others.
2. Verbalise your ideas to others. Sometimes you’ll have a brilliant idea for your project, but you won’t realise how half-formed it is until you say out loud what the idea is. This is where others come in, they can ask questions, highlight potential flaws and offer some advice. You’ll end up with a stronger project if you include at least one other person. This is of course where your academic advisor comes in handy, but discuss the idea with your peers as well, it’s so easy to get wrapped up in what you’re doing and not notice the pitfalls. In my project, there were glaring continuity errors that I hadn’t noticed until someone pointed it out.
3. With that in mind, don’t take criticism personally. It’s easy to take criticism personally. Especially with creative projects because you made them, you created them, and when someone comes along and tells you it’s not actually perfect it’s easy to feel upset. It’s okay to feel upset, but realise that they’re your friend and they care about you, they want you to do your best and they’re not being nit-picky for the sake of it. Utilise their feedback, and offer them feedback too. As much as it’s a solo project, you’ve come this far together, and this is the time that you’re all going to need support the most.
4. With regards to suggestions, you might not agree with some of the advice you get from some people. This isn’t a time to get defensive, but rather say ‘I don’t really know if that will work, I know it might seem out of place/weird/not quite cohesive now, but I plan for such and such to happen later on.’ This is another way of developing and discussing your ideas with people, and it’s this kind of thing that you can write in the accompanying essay. ‘It was suggested that I alter this bit, however I felt that…’
5. The plan you submit in October is important. I know – 5% seems like nothing, and October might seem a bit soon to be telling people your intentions for something that isn’t due for six months. Let me break it down for you though. If you submit the plan, you get A* for that section. If you don’t submit a plan, you get a big fat 0. When my grade came through, it was at the high end of the boundary. When all the components were added together, the A* that I got just for handing in my plan pushed my whole grade into the next level. Also, what you hand in in April doesn’t even have to resemble what you wrote in your plan. If you say you want to write a story about squirrels and use Winnie the Pooh and Toy Story as your inspirations, no-one will bat an eyelid if you submit a short story of half a film about murderers, using Fatal Attraction and Clockwork Orange as your sources. (But don’t they sound like fun projects?) Basically, JUST SUBMIT THE PLAN. It could be the difference between a low 2:1 and a high 2:1, or a high 2:1 and a 1st.
6. As I said above, you’re free to change direction. We’re creative writers, and we can’t be tamed or held to down to one idea. I was lucky enough to change my idea in September but even then, the central idea of the film I wrote changed beyond recognition. Two of my friends got to January and had a sudden epiphany that their new idea was better for them. That being said, if you get a new idea in March, you might want to weigh up the pros and cons of starting this new project. Do you think this is better than your existing project because it’s new or because it’s actually stronger? Is it worth turning your back on everything you’ve already done? Have you lost interest in your project because you’ve been working on it for so long, or has the story actually run its course? One of my other friends changed his idea in March and got a very good result. You have to know yourself. I can only liken dissertations to relationships – if you’re not happy, get the hell out!
7. Ask for help if you need to. Help can come in many forms, if there’s a bit you’re not sure of, ask someone to read over it. The worst they can say is ‘I don’t think it works’ which is what you thought anyway. Also, that’s what your academic advisor is there for, you’re not bothering them by asking them for pointers and advice and your project will be stronger for the advice of others.
8. Make sure you give yourself enough time to proofread and redraft/edit. That’s pretty self explanatory. As Earnest Hemingway said – ‘The first draft of anything is shit’. I agree, and when you proofread your dissertation, it’s not a twenty minute thing. Really proofread it. Read it out loud, you might feel stupid but it’s one of the best ways to spot typing errors or general mistakes. I’m the worst for writing stuff like ‘of’ instead of ‘if’, ‘the’ instead of ‘there’ and I once wrote Beyoncé instead of Beyond (it had been a long day). Check it, check it, check it. Edit it, then check it again. This is important.
9. Your supporting essay is just as important as your project, give it time and attention. It’s the only place where you can explain some of your choices and justify leaving that line in, or giving that character that trait/task/death etc.. Make sure you justify all your choices, include research you’ve done, discuss things you learned, talk about things you’ve changed, consider what professionals in the field have said about your genre/craft etc.. Make sure your referencing is on point. Also to add to the points you make in the essay, include things in the appendix to show your development, research and maybe visual clues about characters or locations. My appendix was slightly bigger than my whole project. (Sorry Max Kinnings.)
10. Don’t leave it until the last minute. I know I said this already, but I’m serious. Sometimes, as students, we get distracted and end up staying up late into the night, sometimes all night to finish/write an essay for a module which is 2,000 words. Let’s be honest with ourselves here – that’s not the best method for those essays, and it’s hard and tiring and frustrating. Do you want to be doing that with something five times the length? What if you get writer’s block?
11. One of the best ways to make sure you get things done in more manageable chunks is to set aside one morning/ afternoon/ evening/ day/ night/ whatever time frame you work best on a week, go to the library with your friends and do some of your project. Be it looking online for information about the best murder techniques, finding books about infectious diseases or watching episodes of Dora the Explorer on YouTube to help form your ideas. Even if you’re only there for an hour and a half with a twenty minute sandwich break in between, It’ll be far more constructive than spending three whole days stressing out over it every couple of weeks. The best way to motivate yourself to do work is to show yourself that you’ve done some work.
12. Finally, enjoy it. It’s something you can really get your teeth into, show what you’re passionate about, and really show where your strengths lie. Then when it’s done, have a big drink/ dance/ pizza. Just celebrate.
Best of luck, and enjoy your final year at university!