/ Dissertation Writing Tips?

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Alan M - on 15 Feb 2014
So what are your tips for dissertation (MSc) writing? Wonít bore you with the topic as itís a little intensive and specialist but overall I am evaluating the regulatory approach using England as a case study in comparison to a number of other jurisdictions.

I am swamped with the amount of information and struggling to make sense of it! I have a plan which is split in to 4 parts but just really struggling to make sense of the information in order to start writing in a critical, organised and coherent sort of way. Additionally, after talking through the dissertation with a specialist in the subject (works at national board level) they quizzed me on some of my findings so far and the types of things I was identifying. I mentioned a few things and we had a pretty decent and indepth conversation, which resulted in them asking if I would be happy to provide them with a copy of the dissertation (inadvertently cranking up the pressure). However, my overall aim is to get a job working at that level so if I can do a good job it canít hurt.

Any tips?
Edradour - on 16 Feb 2014
In reply to Alan M:

I'm writing one at the moment, also Masters level, but in a completely different field.

I was similarly overwhelmed by it at one stage but I found that once I started actually writing it has become a lot easier. The plan has 'evolved' considerably since and will, I'm sure, continue to do so but getting those first few paragraphs down really helped.

Mine is due in in about 6 weeks so I'm planning to get a draft finished in the next week or so and then spend the last month refining.

I have a few people who very graciously read my work and give me feedback on it, mainly because they have an interest in the subject. Some feedback is useful, some not but all valid to some degree. Perhaps try and find some similar volunteers?
John Stainforth - on 16 Feb 2014
In reply to Alan M:

Be as organised as possible. Plan structure and content of whole and each chapter before writing. Draw up a wall chart with strict time lines, when you have to finish first draft, second draft etc of each chapter - that is right in front of you every minute of the day. Stick to it, and (above all) *finish on time*.
abseil on 16 Feb 2014
In reply to Alan M:

*write a little every day. No breaks longer than a day or two: and do not schedule any trips whatsoever during this valuable time - many students do this, never catch up, and end up getting a lower grade. The final deadline is coming soon, and students often underestimate how long the last few stages take and end up seriously rushed = poor quality work

*be aware that this is a vastly different job to the normal essay, far bigger, longer, more important [e.g. this dissertation stays with you thoughout your career and further studies]. There's no comparison, and many students are slow to understand this

*all students start by worrying they can't write enough, and finish by worrying how they're going to cut it down to size. Cutting it down to size is a very tough and time-consuming task. So keep a careful watch on word lengths of every section and chapter throughout the process

*carefully make a schedule for finishing chapters, and other tasks, and stick to it rigorously. If you fall behind you may never catch up. Show the schedule to your supervisor: ask for his/her advice about it. And follow precisely what they say - they know exactly what they are talking about, after [in many cases] decades of experience and meeting all types

*build up and save your list of references now. Don't leave it to the end, as many do. It takes longer to do than you think; it can take a day or two. And it'll be a useful thing to show to your supervisor - he/she should certainly be interested in it

*collect all your data in good time. Set a deadline for this [or rather, ask your supervisor what the date should be]

*do not fiddle endlessly with the literature review, endlessly finding more literature and adding it - this is a common student mistake, and unnecessary, and shows an unsurprising misunderstanding of what a dissertation is. After all, the literature review is only background, not the meat of your paper. And endlessly adding more literature will frustrate your supervisor; he/she will not want to be constantly reading updated versions of it

*present your data in the clearest possible way, and don't hesitate to ask your supervisor's advice about this. This is perhaps the number 1 factor in getting a good grade. Take a LOT of time with this

*use your supervisor as much as possible. It's their job to help you, and you are paying them to do that. You're the customer. Ask him/her "How can I get an 'A'?" It's a great question, which with a good supervisor will produce some very valuable advice

*ALWAYS turn up exactly on time for seesions with your supervisor. Be aware that this is their no. 1 complaint about students. If you're late, they'll be sitting there fuming about you. You don't want a frustrated supervisor, do you? They may reduce their care for, and help for, you: sorry to tell you that it does happen

*keep a reasonable proportion [%-wise] between chapters. You don't want your introduction to be 50%, discussion/conclusions 15%. That looks very bad, and lazy, and leaves a bad taste in the second marker's mouth = potentially a lower grade

*take great care with your discussion/conclusions section. It's very hard to write - most students don't have a clue how to start - and again, poor or too short or slapdash or uninspired work here will leave a bad taste in the second marker's mouth - again, = potentially a lower grade. You might spend as much time on these sections as the rest of the dissertation put together

*read plenty of journal articles on your topic. They're examples of excellent work - after all, they're published. And they will probably give you lots of good ideas, which you can carefully reference

*read other dissertations - e.g. from the library - but only ones which got an 'A'. You can learn a lot by reading them. Try to copy / emulate certain features of them

*be extremely careful to avoid plagiarism. One example can result in an 'F' grade. It is often caused by students misunderstanding the nature of research, which is basically just building on what others have done and adding a tiny new finding. Students often think they have to re-invent the wheel or something: but what supervisors, and second markers, really want to see is some student understanding of the nature of research. Also on this topic, think long and hard on the question 'What is my contribution to research?' I.e. what is my new [tiny] new finding? A dissertation with no trace of one is not likely to be graded 'A'

*be very careful to save backup soft copies of all your work every day

*work, and write, according to your own particular style. Some make an extensive framework + notes first, others just start writing. Some have a neat desk, others a mass of papers everywhere. Your own style is the best for you

*proofread very carefully at the end, for referencing above all. A single error will give the second marker a poor impression - which can lead to a lower grade

*write headings and subheadings with great care. A dissertation is so long, the reader [i.e. second marker] needs guidance. For the same reason, don't just say 'see above' or 'see below', anywhere. This is very annoying for readers. Go through when you have the final version, inserting page numbers, then say e.g. 'See page 67' or 'see section 3.3, page 34'. In the same way, you need to guide readers with 'signposting' - at the end of every chapter, add a sentence saying what you will do in the next chapter. Students often think second markers read their dissertation utterly fascinated and with bated breath. That's not the case: I'm sorry to tell you they'll be bored out of their minds, falling asleep, and forgetting what they read 5 minutes ago. They've done it all - too often - before: they may have read 50+ exactly like yours before. And sorry to remind you that you are unfortunately not the second coming of Shakespeare

*if you might want to do further studies, make every effort to get a good grade. When Ph.D. assessors, or employers, look at a transcript, I can bet 99 to 1 it's the dissertation grade they'll look at first. And a 'C' will send very bad and harmful messages

Phew. That's all - I should write a book! Hope this helps. Good luck to all students! No charge for this precious advice!
Monk - on 16 Feb 2014
In reply to Alan M:

Before writing it, sit back and simplify what you have in front of you. Think about what your what question you have asked, what data you have, what that data actually tells you (not what you want it to tell you), then work out what the main point you want to make is. I always scribble this flow down on a piece of paper, then end up scribbling notes all over it, revising it, and starting afresh. After a few iterations, you should have a good idea where you are going.

Regarding actually writing it, one trick I always use it to start with the easy well defined stuff - usually the methods. Once you start getting something down, you have broken a massive barrier and it doesn't feel so bad to pick it up again.

Finally, don't expect to get the writing right first time. Get it all down, then go through it editing, moving sections, changing sentences, adding things you missed, and (really importantly) deleting anything peripheral or distracting.
Alan M - on 16 Feb 2014
In reply to Edradour:

Thankfully I still have another 5 months to go though I plan to have the final draft completed about 6-8 weeks before the deadline. If I conduct any more research I'll explode I have read, highlighted, crossed out and scribbled my way through 1000's of pages over the last few months so it's now time to start writing it up.


I'm finding like you the plan is constantly evolving my original title, aims and objectives have been amended a few times. The stages I went through of draft proposal identified the title, aims and objectives could possibly be met, the research for the final proposal found it to still be plausible with a slight tweak but further research afterwards identified that another rejig and reword was needed hence that's why the using England as a case study appeared. Trying to evaluate the full UK approach to other jurisdictions would have meant compromising on the depth of the discussion.

Are you using people who know the field of study or just having people pass comments or structure, grammar etc? My issue is when I mention the topic to people they look at me with an expression of WTF?
balmybaldwin - on 16 Feb 2014
In reply to Alan M:

Get used to using references contents and citations in MS word, it will save huge amounts of time later
Alan M - on 16 Feb 2014
In reply to abseil:

> *write a little every day. No breaks longer than a day or two: and do not schedule any trips whatsoever during this valuable time

That is my plan though my biggest issue is that I work full time also so by the time I get home it's about 6/6:30 and by the time I am set up ready to start it's 7PM or later.

> *be aware that this is a vastly different job to the normal essay, far bigger, longer, more important [e.g. this dissertation stays with you thoughout your career and further studies]. There's no comparison, and many students are slow to understand this

One of my concerns is in relation to an appropriate writing style the MSc coursework I have completed has been split about 70% essay (predominantly following the style in scientific journals etc.), 20% report and 10% personal reflection etc.

> *all students start by worrying they can't write enough, and finish by worrying how they're going to cut it down to size. Cutting it down to size is a very tough and time-consuming task. So keep a careful watch on word lengths of every section and chapter throughout the process

Thankfully for me I really don't think I will struggle for the 10,000-15,000 words I could write that just evaluating/critically reviewing the UK (England) approach throw in the other jurisdictions and I really need to set limits for each section otherwise I'll be exceeding the word limit in no time.

> *carefully make a schedule for finishing chapters, and other tasks, and stick to it rigorously. If you fall behind you may never catch up. Show the schedule to your supervisor: ask for his/her advice about it. And follow precisely what they say - they know exactly what they are talking about, after [in many cases] decades of experience and meeting all types

I have written a formal proposal which included a structured approach that was split in to a number of phases for the write up (It was marked formally by my supervisor at 78%). To be honest though I am still trying to comprehend the size of the project the last time I wrote a research project was 9 years ago so the stress is up slightly! Plus, I also think why didn't I pick an easier topic of study!!

> *build up and save your list of references now. Don't leave it to the end, as many do. It takes longer to do than you think; it can take a day or two. And it'll be a useful thing to show to your supervisor - he/she should certainly be interested in it.

Good advice and a problem I know all to well during the coursework I had a horrible habit of leaving referencing to the end. It would take a day on an essay of 2000 words it would be soul destroying to do that for 10,000 words +. I have a data base set up where I can enter all the details as and when I use that document.

> *collect all your data in good time. Set a deadline for this [or rather, ask your supervisor what the date should be]

I really can't face any more research at the moment I have read and scribbled my way through 1000's of pages of documents from all parts of the world over the last few months. I really am ready to start writing, if any gaps in research appear I will deal with it as the need arises.

Thanks for informative reply, it is probably the best reply I could have hoped for. You really should write that book!
abseil on 16 Feb 2014
In reply to Alan M:

> Thanks for informative reply, it is probably the best reply I could have hoped for. You really should write that book!

Thanks for your thanks [many posters don't bother to do that] and encouragement. After my mega-long post [I hope it's useful to others too!] I saw in a later post of yours that you are further ahead than I had thought, lowering the value of some of the stuff I had spouted. It was also in my mind that you are doing an MSc, different to what I know [Humanities].

LOTS of luck with your research. I've enjoyed your posts. And I'm so impressed that you're working full time at the same time - that really takes some discipline and focus.

(PS my advice about doing the references early really was good!)
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Alan M - on 16 Feb 2014
In reply to Monk:

> Before writing it, sit back and simplify what you have in front of you.

Very good tip and really needs to be my starting point. I have conducted so much researching spanning the globe looking at government guidance, legal opinions, codes of practice both voluntary and statutory, scientific journals to name a few with the aim of trying to get my head around the regulatory approaches of several jurisdictions including the weaknesses and strengths of the different approaches now I need to work out how I put it on paper to meet the aims and objectives of my own project.

> Regarding actually writing it, one trick I always use it to start with the easy well defined stuff - usually the methods. Once you start getting something down, you have broken a massive barrier and it doesn't feel so bad to pick it up again.

Good point, think I just need to start typing and refine as I go.



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