Dissertation…

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.

Disso

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.

Plan A

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.

success

Best of luck, and enjoy your final year at university!

A Guide to Surviving the Summer

No, this isn’t about safety abroad or using sun protection; (although we do advise those things) this is about how to get through the long summer months which fall between exam period and fresher’s week without losing your mind.

Summer

The last week of term after exams always feels free, and celebratory, but what then? What do you do from late May to September? Of course, a lot of students have jobs or internships, but in the last few years it has seemed more difficult to find these opportunities, which means you may lose motivation.

So what can you do? Well…

Write something – you have all the time in the world now to just write something you want to write, not because you’ve been told to, not because you have an impending deadline. You could write something fantastic that would get published, you could write something utterly terrible that you never show to anyone, that won’t get you a bad grade. You could explore and develop some of the things you wrote over the academic year (because don’t we all improve so much between week 1 and now?) The point is that if you do something which feels productive, it is likely to motivate you to do other productive things.

Take up a hobby – It doesn’t have to be a new craft, it can be something that slowly became less prominent as the academic year got more and more crazy. What do you love to do? Think about it, do you miss it? Do it. Again, sometimes it’s difficult to get motivated to even do things that you know you love doing when you feel like you have nothing to do, but seriously, go and make a pie, bake an upside down cake, build a computer, make your own dress, plant some vegetables. Seeing and holding the product of your own work is extremely fulfilling.

Read a book – Read two books, read ten, read a hundred. This is your opportunity to pick up any book in the world and read it just because you want to. Apart from being one of the best feelings in the world, it will still hone your reading skills and your writing skills. One of the first things I was taught at Brunel was ‘the more you read, good great or terrible, the better your writing will be’.

Do voluntary work – If you’re looking for actual paid work, then voluntary work won’t get in the way. It is flexible, it’s far easier to get into than a paid position, because in general, if you have the time, you are qualified. It will also look great on your CV and will get you out of the house for a few hours each week.

Start a blog – This kind of goes hand in hand with ‘Write something’, but then again, you blog doesn’t have to be for stories or your other creative work. You can take anything you enjoy and blog about it. Film reviews, books, games, crafts, cooking, health and fitness, nail art. The world, as the say, is your oyster when it comes to blogs, and it’s hard to explain how surreal and satisfying it is seeing views accumulate from all over the world.

Those are a few tips, hopefully they’re useful to you in some way. What are your tips for staying productive over the summer?

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Motivation, Motivation, Motivation.

It’s cold. It’s raining. It’s miserable. You’re tucked up under a blanket watching Gavin and Stacey. It can be really hard to get up and sit at your laptop for hours writing something, whether it be for your own satisfaction or for university purposes. There’s no one there apart from yourself to push you and lack of motivation can be a real killer, especially when you’ve got a deadline looming and are feeling so snowed under by work, you can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel. Or you might be bursting with ideas, but can’t find a place to begin. Here are some top tips for jumping that first hurdle and settling down to some hard graft.

1. Get up!

It might be tempting to stay under your duvet (especially is a cold house – how expensive is heating??) and say to yourself, “I can do work here”, whilst balancing your laptop on your knees. Whilst that works for some people, it might actually be more beneficial for you to sit at a desk where it feels like you are actually about to do some work, rather than lounging around in bed where it feels like you should be watching a film. Once you’re sat upright, creative juices can flow and you’ll find that you get into a rhythm of typing.

2. Be patient!

It may seem like you will never reach the bottom of that metaphorical pile of work that seems to be towering above you. However, take it one step at a time! If you try to do everything at once, you’ll be going nowhere fast. Sit down and make a list before you even do anything, making sure you know which deadline comes where.

3. Take the pressure off.

It is so difficult to get started on an assignment, or any piece of work, if you’re more focused on pressuring yourself to finish rather than the piece of work itself. Yes, the piece might be due tomorrow and you’ve only just started (we’ve all done it) but panicking about it will only take up more time. Be focused, be chilled out. It WILL get done and it will take as long as it takes. You may just have to sacrifice a little bit of sleep. Somethings gotta give!

4. Try somewhere new.

Okay, so you’ve been sat at your desk for half an hour, staring at a blank word document. Move yourself to somewhere else! It might be just moving to a different part of your room, it might be putting your feet up on the desk. Or it might be leaving your house and taking a trip to the library. Brave the horrible weather and relocate yourself. Different surroundings might spring your brain into action.

5. Wake up earlier.

Lying in until 2pm is bliss, there’s no doubting that. But if you set your alarm for 10am, you’ve got the whole day ahead of you! It gives you more daylight hours (and let’s face it, we’re running low on daylight hours) to get the work done before it gets dark outside and you just want to have dinner and relax.

These tips may seem a little clichéd, but are SO easily forgotten when it comes to the crunch. Sometimes you just have to remind yourself that you DO know what you’re doing and that you need to calm down and get on with it. A little tough love on yourself may be the key.

Hilary Nouwens.