A dissertation is really just an extended essay and most often occurs as an academic exercise at the end of a course of study or as part of post-graduate research. (Indeed, the term ‘dissertation’ is often misapplied to what is actually a thesis.) Therefore, by the time you are engaged in dissertation writing you will be familiar with the structure of an academic essay and all you need to do is to adapt it to the more extended writing required in the dissertation format.
Preparing for dissertation writing is a little different from writing a shorter academic piece because the research plays such an important part in the formulation of the proposal, which is where most dissertations start.
Basically, there are two different types of dissertation:
- Those that are taught,
- Those that are researched.
The first type of dissertation is a response to a question that you have been given and follows the usual structure of an academic essay that is:
- An introduction,
- The main body,
- The conclusion.
The second type is a dissertation which you have to research from scratch. This means that you focus on an aspect of a topic which you have studied and which you have found particularly interesting and deepen and widen your research in this area. Then you put together a proposal based on your research, emphasising any original aspects you have uncovered, and once your idea is accepted you proceed as with the taught dissertation.
Remember, that whichever type of dissertation writing you are undertaking, you will be required to reference your sources carefully and accurately in your bibliography in the required referencing style of your academic institution. You will, by the stage of dissertation writing, be familiar with this (no-one writes a dissertation at the beginning of academic life) but be more careful than ever to adhere to this during the research for your dissertation writing because you will be handling more sources and, in all probability, be marked at a more stringent level – so revisit that style guide!
Once you have completed your research, you are ready to begin writing – almost. It is essential to plan you dissertation before you begin to write because, as you know from your other academic work, this helps you to organise your ideas and sort out the placing of the evidentiary support. In any case, you would have to do this with a researched dissertation in order to produce your proposal.
When you have planned thoroughly, begin your dissertation writing following the structure with which you are familiar from your essay writing. However, as mentioned earlier, you do need to adapt and change it a little to accommodate the requirements of a dissertation so it might be useful to go through each of the different stages of structuring in turn to show you exactly how a dissertation differs from an essay.
Structuring Your Dissertation Writing
In a dissertation, the introduction is very important indeed because not only will you need to establish your thesis statement, as always, but this will need to be very sharply focused and connected to your intended methodology. It is crucial that you connect these logically and that you then adhere to them throughout, as veering too far from your main idea or your method of work will weaken the central argument and thus your dissertation. As with an academic essay, you should conclude your introduction with a sentence which links into the main body and can be picked up in the opening paragraph to develop cohesion.
The Main Body
In dissertation writing, the main body will usually be a series of chapters rather than paragraphs and these will each cover a different aspect of your topic. The average number of chapters for a dissertation is three but this is not definitive as much depends on variables such as the length of your dissertation and the scope of the topic you are attempting to address.
The chapters will, of course, be subdivided into paragraphs. You should ensure that each paragraph and chapter can be clearly seen to link to the central argument whilst also addressing the subdivision which the chapter heading indicates.
The use of evidence to support your argument is exceptionally important in dissertation writing because essentially you should have drawn your argument from the research and the evidentiary support should reflect this. Remember to analyse your quotations, especially if they are from a primary text, as this may suggest other areas that you can develop within the central argument and increase the textually grounded originality of your work, which is where you will gain most marks in a dissertation.
Never think of your conclusion as a last minute job that you can just add on quickly when you have almost finished your dissertation. In a sense, you should be thinking about your conclusion from the very inception of your work because that is what your argument is building towards. Thus, the conclusion should encompass all of the following:
- A summation of your thoughts and findings in the dissertation.
- A synthesis of your thinking reflecting the inferences drawn.
- An indication of the limits of the dissertation and possible areas of future study.
If any further proof of the importance of the conclusion is needed, then just think that this is the final thought your assessor will read – leave them with a good impression!
Proof-read thoroughly to avoid throwing away marks by making errors in your spelling, punctuation and/or grammar.
It is a good idea either to read your work aloud or ask a friend to help you with this because when you are familiar with a piece of work, your eyes see what you expect rather than what is there.
Do not leave your bibliography to the last minute because it should form an integral part of your dissertation, evolve coherently as your research does.