How I Researched and Wrote My (8989 word*) Dissertation

*actual, real words that I wrote that were original and mine, that is to say, that figure does not include any quotes I have used or any picture labels, or any words that were said by someone else…

I was prompted to write this post as I have had an influx of people asking me about how to conduct research and write a dissertation, probably because it is that time of year again for many students who are studying degree’s.  Firstly, do not panic, DO NOT PANIC, and don’t drink too much coffee or energy drink, while it may give you a pleasant buzz, it is distracting as you can’t concentrate on one thing for longer that a minute. I learned that the hard way and spent the first 2 weeks (if not more) in a caffeine haze darting from one thing to the other, not able to sit still, staring at a blank screen and starting to wonder if dropping out from my degree would be the best option…

Anyway, enough of that, that’s not what you are here to read about.  Onto the actual research and writing…

First things first, decide on a topic, it doesn’t matter what it is so long as it is relevant to you, your course and is interesting enough to spend many hours contemplating, reading about, talking about and hold your attention for long enough for you to be able to write those gazillion words about.  You will be a living, breathing object, feeding off the subject you choose for the next few months and you need to not get sick of the subject before you have even finished your introduction chapter.

Next thing on the list, and this is before you start doing anything else, go out to your local stationers and buy one of those A4 Project Books, preferably one with removable plastic tab dividers, I bought one by Pucca Pads, it has little pockets on the divider which are good for stashing extra notes that may have been scribbled at odd times and need to be inserted into your notes at a further point in time.  Also, while you are at it, buy some smaller notebooks (A5 or smaller, whatever takes your fancy) and keep one beside you at all times, you never know when inspiration will hit, my top spots for genius thoughts were the shower, in bed (waking up at odd times to crazy ideas) and in traffic, you never know when these ideas will hit so it is best to be prepared.

Now to begin…I will break this down into sections to make it easier to see my own steps.

Information Gathering (AKA Stage 1)

I approached my dissertation subject (The Selfie) by reading as much as I could about the phenomena, photocopying and printing any articles I could find on the subject and then reading them through, highlighting any interesting facts, figures, quotes and dates.  Then I read some more, I scoured the internet for blog posts on the subject and printed those out, marking the documents for future reference.  It sounds really cheesy, and it is, but one of my lecturers said to “become a dry sponge, soaking up the moisture that is the information about your subject”.  I’m sure I can not emphasise enough the importance of reading, reading, reading.  I even bought textbooks because there were paragraphs relevant to my subject matter that I needed and read the whole book to see if there were further arguments to help back up my findings.  At this stage in my research I didn’t make many notes* as this was the “Pre Forming” stage of my dissertation, the stage where you are creating ideas and thinking about the subject and what you would like to cover.   *the notes I did make were one liners, scribbled in margins and onto post it notes attached to print outs, over the relevant paragraph, as a reminder to re-read or highlight a point of interest to research further.

The Structure Stage (AKA Stage 2)

The structure stage is really about how you structure your dissertation.  It may differ from university to university but ours was structured with a synopsis which came before everything else and acted as an outline for the path our research and writing would take (I shall upload mine here soon for you to read!), it is a bit like the overview, the bit on the back of a book that gives you just enough information to get the idea of the body of text.  It is separate to the actual dissertation though it is connected to it.  My dissertation, the full and final thing was set out into the basic categories of Contents, Introduction, Chapter 1, Chapter 2, Chapter 3, Conclusion, References and Bibliography, but there are further sections that might need to be added.  Our minimum, “original words” (not including quotes) was 8000 so I split this down for each section, the intro needs to be brief so I put aside 1000 words for that, and also 1000 for the conclusion, that gave 6000 words to be split over 3 chapters, so 2000 words each sounded a lot more manageable to me to be able to write.

Writing Your Synopsis (AKA Stage 3)

Now you have read some research material and have a vague idea of the subject matter you want to cover and also the kind of structure your dissertation will take, it is time to write your synopsis.  This piece of writing needs to be brief and to the point, covering the kinds of topic your dissertation will cover, from the introduction to the final chapter, all main topics of discussion should be outlined.  This synopsis should give a snapshot of information, act as a guide for you when writing your dissertation and also help others to understand what subject matter you will be covering.

The Note Organising Stage (AKA Stage 4)

This is the point where your project book will come in super handy and you will be thankful for buying such a useful piece of stationery!  Firstly I suggest labelling the tabs with the main parts of your dissertation, Intro, Chapter 1, Chapter 2, Chapter 3, Conclusion, Bibliography and References.    Once I had done this, I outlined on the first piece of paper behind each tab the kind of topics that I wanted to write about in these chapters.  For example my sections were divided out and covered the following

  • Introduction
  • Chapter 1 – The History of the Selfie – this focussed on the history of the self-portrait and photography.
  • Chapter 2 – Self Portraits and the Modern Day – in this chapter I looked at the selfie and who it came to be what it is today.
  • Chapter 3 – The Future of the Selfie – and this chapter looked at types of selfie, new technologies and where it could all go from here.
  • Conclusion

Once you have an idea of the topics that you will cover in your chapters you can then go back to your research material and add information into the relevant sections of your project book.  You can then add in any notes that you may want to include in the finished piece.  Use the Bibliography and reference section to record where all your information has come from as a useful reference tool and also record the source in notes that you make and on to any photocopies and print outs.  I found it really frustrating to have a really good quote that could be used to back up any theories and thoughts but not have a source where it came from.  Keeping a record of all information sources will help you when finishing your dissertation and having to reference each quote that you have used, and it will also help with building your bibliography and references as much of the information used will then only have to be typed out and correctly referenced as per your university guidelines.

The Typing Stage (AKA Stage 5)

Once I had all my work mapped out, and ideas on what I wanted to write in which section I was then able to start writing the Introduction and the chapters.  I wrote mine using Microsoft Word and had each section of my dissertation saved separately as different documents in the same folder on my pc.  This meant I could work on whichever section I wanted to without having to work from start to finish, introduction to conclusion, my mind flits about and processes information in such a way that I could be writing about the history of photography but come up with a really good paragraph on the definition of the modern-day selfie that could be fitted in somewhere in my second chapter.  This approach also made me more productive, when I had a mind blank on one section, rather than sitting in front of the screen and getting worked up about the disappearing hours I could go off and work on another part of my dissertation.  It made it easier to maintain the References and Bibliography sections of my dissertation too as I kept those documents open on my computer when writing and just transferred the data sources over into these sections as I used them in the main body of my writing.   The other thing that I found really good about this approach to different word docs for each section is that I didn’t worry so much about loosing work as each section was saved separately and just for piece of mind I also, each night copied the file onto a disc so I always had a back up copy if ever anything were to happen.

Proof Reading, Spelling and Grammar Check (AKA Stage 6)

If you have gotten to this stage then congratulations!!!  You are nearly finished!!!  Once you are at this stage you can now copy all the sections of your dissertation into one document before you move on to proof reading the final thing, though I must say, proof reading should occur whenever you return to a chapter or section to add more to it just so you know where you are and that your words flow well from one paragraph to the next.  It will also help you keep your style of writing in check too.  But the final proof read is probably the most important and should probably be done by someone other than yourself as you may miss something, whether it is a sentence that doesn’t make sense to a word missing from a paragraph, as you will be so used to looking at it that you won’t notice it yourself.  It’s also really important to get the proof reader to mark any spelling and grammar mistakes that may not have been picked up by the checkers that come with the word processing programme.  Words can be spelled correctly but may not necessarily be the correct ones to use in the context you want.  Once this is all done and completed and you are happy with everything, check all the quotes you have used are correctly referenced and images are labelled.  Check, check and then check again!  once you are 100% happy with the finished piece, you are good to send it to print!

Other Notes on Writing and Research

I have a few other comments that I would like to share about dissertation research and writing that don’t really fit in anywhere but may be useful..

I hated having to remember how to correctly reference my sources, my university required all quotes to be referenced in the “Harvard” style.  I used google to find a reference generator tool and copied and pasted the references from there.  You could probably find one too, depending on what style of referencing your university requires.  The Harvard one that I used can be found here in case you are interested!

I have never read my dissertation in full, I have read bits of it here and there, before adding information into the chapters and continuing with paragraphs after a short break.  My friend has, and she says it’s good so I’m just going to take her word for it.

There were times I was bored out of my skull, and times where I spent most of the day staring out of the window wishing I was somewhere else, and that was ok, its part and parcel of writing and the creative process.

It’s ok to not understand or remember what you have written, before writing this post I had all but forgotten my chapter headings, let alone how I began my introduction!  How I managed to write as many words as I did and create something so wordy but that flows and makes sense amazes me even now!

Just remember, this is how I worked writing my dissertation, you can follow it if you like, or not at all, I just hope this will be helpful and provide a guide to any of you struggling to make a start!  🙂



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