Writing an Undergraduate Dissertation
I feel like there is no ‘one way’ to write a dissertation and I want to highlight that not all dissertations are created the same. Everyone has a different process of writing and the progression to the final submission can be a long, winding road that everyone will experience differently. Never forget to allow yourself some time to reflect on your personal progress as opposed to comparing yourself to someone else.
Recognise your style of studying and writing and follow that to the end. The likelihood is how you’ve written assignments in the past will be the best way for you to successfully complete your dissertation – only it will be on a much bigger scale if you, like myself, have never written anything of that length yet.
I wanted to write a reflective article today, not to tell you how to write your dissertation, but to share some observations I made whilst writing my dissertation and hopefully give you some tips.
My dissertation consisted of an 8,500-word Creative Writing Portfolio and 1,500-word competition analysis. This article will mainly apply to those also studying Creative Writing. However, some tips I share will hopefully help everyone.
Over the summer between the second and third year, we are told to start thinking about our dissertations and to begin writing our proposals for them. It’s very strange as it’s one of the only assignments we have free reign with. I chose to write a screenplay as in a second year screenwriting module I achieved my best grade so thought it seemed fit.
Once I knew what form I was writing in, I then had to decide what to write about. I thought this was going to take a long time and then the actual progression would be easy, but it was the other way around. I knew the genre I wanted to write in (drama/thriller). And I was inspired by a film to write about sleep paralysis and out-of-body experiences as this is something I have experienced. This is all you really need for your proposal – a solid idea for the creative piece and a few sentences for your competition analysis.
Tip: Don’t worry about the proposal too much, it isn’t grade. It’s just to give you a clearer idea on what you’ll be doing and to assign you a supervisor. It isn’t set in stone and your dissertation can change and develop as you write it.
One thing I want to stress is: make the most of your dissertation supervisor. You will see them once a week for half an hour. This doesn’t seem like much but compared to other universities this is a blessing. Make the most of this time, take in their feedback and talk about your work, progress, worries and pretty much everything with them as they are the ones marking your work.
I had Craig Barr-Green, who is familiar with screenwriting and loves films, and so was extremely helpful during the writing stages. They are your supervisor for a reason and only want you to succeed. I wouldn’t recommend emailing them in the middle of the night, but make the most of their knowledge and expertise as much as you need to, it’s why they’re there.
Tip: Plan in advance what you want to cover in each tutorial and communicate this in an email to your supervisor. This way you will be much more productive with your time.
Managing time is extremely important in your third year, especially in semester two as you will spend the majority of your time writing your dissertation alone. This means you need to be prepared and motivated without the nudge of a tutor.
The best way I found to manage my time was to plan my week ahead each Sunday evening. Learn to prioritise tasks, otherwise you will overload your mind and won’t be as productive as you can be.
As you only complete one other module alongside your dissertation, it’s quite easy to split your time – I tended to spend three full days on my dissertation. One of those days would have the 30-minute dissertation tutorial, which would really help me kick start my work. Time management is so important in general and even more so when it comes to writing your dissertation.
Tip: Figure out a schedule that works for you and stick to it. Don’t let yourself become too overwhelmed and if you plan your time accordingly, you will stay on track.
Breakdowns and Burnout
I would be lying if I said you weren’t going to breakdown or burnout during the most important time of your uni life. It’s inevitable and I wish it wasn’t.
Writer’s burnout, if you haven’t heard of it before, is similar to writer’s block but worse! Burnout happens when you’re stressed and over worked for too long and, as much as we all try not to, we will overwork ourselves. After a burnout happens, you’re probably going to have a breakdown too and it will seem like the world is crumbling around you. This has happened to me. It began over Christmas when I was receiving rejection after rejection for jobs and internships and I didn’t know how I was going to concentrate on my dissertation.
How did I get out of it? I didn’t stop writing. I write on a lot of different platforms so I just re-prioritised what needed to be written and what I wanted to write.
I took a couple of days off and reminded myself why I write and why I’m doing this degree. Sometimes it takes one day away to you focus on yourself, other times it takes a couple of days.
When you get to breaking point then stop, take a break and reassess what is important right now and what’s not. If you breathe, get your head in order and remind yourself what you need to do, the burnout will pass. Never, ever try and push through it.
Tip: When burnout happens, STOP! Never try and push through. Take a day or two out and focus on yourself. You’ll find it does amazing things for your mental state and ability to be productive again.
As a writer, I hate editing. I love writing but then as soon as I have to go over and change my work, I get annoyed. If you love editing, then this part will be easy for you. If you’re like me, you’ll struggle.
The phrase ‘kill your darlings’ doesn’t seem that bad until you actually have to do it. A lot of my edits came from my supervisor’s suggestions. You see your work as the best thing ever, but they see it as what it really is – a messy draft of an idea that you still haven’t fully figured out. I know you love your work but sometimes, as great as it may seem, it doesn’t fit within the overall picture, and that’s okay. It doesn’t mean you can’t use it for something else.
Be very tough on yourself when you edit as, if you’re like me, you will overwrite and you are going to need to be brutal to figure out what stays and what goes. When editing, think to yourself: ‘is this scene/chapter needed?’ Look at the overall picture not just one detail as that will help you see if something is worth keeping or not.
Tip: Killing your darlings is inevitable. Look at the bigger picture and edit out the tiny details that don’t fit even if you want to hold on to them. It’s for the best.
Proofreading is another enemy of mine. I may be great at managing my time but, much like editing, I cannot proofread my own work. I’m great when it’s another person’s work, but my own? I just don’t notice the mistakes. I think a lot of people are like that.
Proofreading is essential to any assignment, especially your dissertation. My mum proofread my entire script three times! That’s how important it is. Just one proofread could be the difference between a 1st and a 2:1. One typo could alter your whole grade. Why risk that when you’re surrounded by your friends and course mates who are also writing their dissertations? Meet up with people and swap work. Proofread each others and give feedback. Never think it’s okay to submit without that one last proofread. And only when you’re certain, should you hit that submit button.
Tip: Always get someone else to proof read your work. You stare at it constantly. A fresh pair of eyes will notice mistakes you may have missed.
One last piece of advice
I have one last thing to say and it might be hard to believe, but make the most of the time you have writing your dissertation. Be appreciative and proud of how far you have come and how close you are to completing your degree. I know it sounds weird to say or think, but this is the last assignment you will write as an undergraduate. Make it worth it because you will miss it when you are finished.
by Jessica Gajadharsingh