Whispers begin to conjure sporadically in your head, “there is so much reading to do, I am not going to make it, my ideas are not good enough”. As the sun begins to set, you palpitate as if you have just consumed five double shot espressos in one go. The voices magnify when you turn off the lights and lie on your pillow… they reach deafening proportions when you finally shut your eyes…
What is this horror that I am describing? You’ve guessed it – the mental struggle that is dissertation writing. Unless you made an attempt at creating your version of Middle Earth (from the Lord of the Rings trilogy) during your carefree childhood days, chances are your dissertation at the end of your undergraduate or masters degree will be the longest piece of original work you have ever attempted. This is no laughing matter, but serious academic deliberation which carries significant weight in the classification of your degree.
You have reason to fear, but this is your time to assume responsibility, and respond by being courageous, that is acting despite fear.
While completing a 10,000 words piece in a single night has been done before, some would argue that they can do the same. Yes, a percentage of the population will argue that through similar past experiences, they have produced when time is of the essence. However, that argument fails because it assumes that this time, the circumstances and results will be the same. The assumption that the nonexistence of hiccups in your academic journey thus far will continue in the present fails to consider the possibility, however remote, that this dissertation could be your first stumble. Plus, why would you subject your body to such massive amounts of unnecessary stress? Surely there is a better way?
As with almost all things in the universe, there is certainly a better way. The following plan was cobbled together from numerous articles that sought to address this topic, along with personal experience during my time as a law undergrad.
Step One: Organise your research
You have gone through copious amounts of research papers, made notes and highlighted sections which are relevant to your work – now what? Well, have a system in place to organise your thoughts, if you have not already done so. An electronic system which I was taught by my personal tutor during the first year of law school, which I still employ today, is as follows:
(i) Have the following subfolders and sort accordingly: articles/research papers, precedents (if you study law), compulsory reading, drafts (by chapter), final copy.
(ii) Organise research by chapter, with each chapter being on a different Word document.
(iii) Copy and paste relevant excerpts (with reference to source) onto relevant draft to facilitate thought process. Please paraphrase excerpts to avoid plagiarism.
(iv) Rinse and repeat. In due time, you will have your dissertation.
Step Two: Set aside uninterrupted hours of writing every day
People often think that you should only write when you are inspired, when the words “flow”. This implies that those moments occur sporadically without discernible pattern; to be disciplined would be to reduce this creative process into a lifeless mechanical activity. However, wouldn’t being disciplined in producing each day increase the frequency of those moments of genius? Pulitzer Prize winning author David McCullough said this, “Writing is thinking.” What I interpret from this is that good ideas are produced during the writing process. Although it can be tempting to separate the boring task of writing and the creative joy that should be writing, this separation makes no sense – how can you write without thinking?
In fact, I would argue that being disciplined to write every day will make you more creative. It does not matter whether you are an early bird or night owl, what matters is that you commit to a prolonged period of uninterrupted writing daily. Writing a paper supported by strong research and original thought is difficult, it is supposed to be. However, if you persist during those moments when you simply stare at the computer screen, resisting the temptation to call it a day, breakthrough moments happen. Chunks of two to three hours work best.
Step Three: Write as fast as you can, not as well as you can
Do not be held back by perfectionism, that will come later. Instead, be in a hurry and scribble your thoughts as they come. Write in short bursts of 15 to 20 minutes. Do not worry too much about whether your writing is any good, grant your thoughts the permission to flow. When you are ready to take a short break, return to your unadulterated draft and marvel at your masterpiece in the making. Now snap back to reality! Go through your work and make the necessary tweaks.
Step Four: Footnote as you go
Being disciplined in quoting the source in the footnotes will save you time and energy. You don’t want to find yourself scrawling through a 40-page research paper desperately seeking the relevant passage; worst still, you do not want to find yourself in the position of not knowing where the passage came from. There is only so much “Ctrl-Fs” you can do. I’ve been there… trust me you will not enjoy the frustration.
Step Five: Proofread
Do not begin to edit your paper for flaws before you complete the first draft of your dissertation. Take a few days away from the work, so that when you return to it, you will be able to notice the flaws.
(i) Print out your draft – editing a physical copy of the paper makes for much comfortable reading.
(ii) Editing – reviewing the essence. Start with the essence before reaching for perfection. Seek out gaps in information. Bridge the gaps with more details or examples. Remove unnecessary sentences which serve no purpose.
(iii) Proofreading – reviewing form. Perfection is achieved by correcting errors in sentence construction, grammar and spelling.
If you hardly noticed any flaws in your paper, you are not alone. You have invested a large amount of time to this paper and thus have become too attached to see the flaws. Therefore, it is recommended to consult a proofreading service that will not only save you energy, but potentially save you from embarrassment. Such online services are not expensive and the feedback you receive will be invaluable in pushing you a step closer to the distinction that you so desire.
Printing, binding and submitting your dissertation is a high unlike other. The entire process from start to finish represents your graduation from student to wannabee academic. Although it is a challenge unlike no other during your academic life, it is precisely those difficult times where you will reminisce fondly of several years from now. Months of hard work will bear fruit if you are disciplined and organised.
- The Thesis Whisperer, ‘How to Write 1000 words a day (and not go bat shit crazy)’ https://thesiswhisperer.com/2011/03/24/how-to-write-1000-words-a-day-and-not-go-bat-shit-crazy/
- EduGeeksClub, ‘How to Write Your Best Dissertation: Step-by-Step Guide’ https://chroniclevitae.com/news/370-the-no-fail-secret-to-writing-a-dissertation
- Theresa MacPhail, ‘The No-Fail Secret to Writing a Dissertation’
Aaron Lim is a practicing lawyer, and co-founder of WordPeckers.org