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This guide contains ten top tips for writing your masters dissertation.

It was originally written by Phil Emmerson for the RGS-IBG's Postgraduate Forum. 


The month of May has finally crawled around. Masters students all over the world arriving back from the Easter holidays, and dreaming of the long summer about to come. Teaching is over, a couple of exams may be on the horizon, and Morris Dancing season is officially underway. Dreams of what comes next pale in comparison to the relief of another academic year drawing to a close. Yet something is clawing at your mind, something yet to do. Much of the year has been spent moving towards one final push, one more piece of work. The (dreaded) dissertation. Perhaps you have collected your data already, have ideas in place, and know roughly what you are going to say. But there is still the task of carving out 12, 15, or 20,000 words which present your research at its best. In other words: you still have to write the thing.


1. Write!

OK this may sound silly but the only sure fire way to write a dissertation, is to write! Its really common to think – oh let me just read that paper, or I’m just going to write my structure out again. These are good things to do, but they don’t actually add any words to the page. Sometimes it’s better just to write something down, even if you change or get rid of it later.


2. Start early

It may sound obvious, but one of the best things you can do to make writing your dissertation easier is to start early. Writing can be really hard sometimes, it’s tiring and frustrating. The earlier you start, the longer you can spend on it and the more time off you can take when things get tough. This also means you never have to be the person who says “I would come out with you guys tonight, but I have to write my dissertation…”


3. Take breaks

On a similar note, make sure you take regular breaks. Breaks allow you to rest a little and also think. Having a good break can make the times you do work more productive, and help you to avoid all the stress that sitting at a computer staring at a screen can cause. (Thanks to Mufty (@mufty_h) on Twitter for that one!)


4. Think about structure

A good structure can make or break a piece of writing, period! You have an argument, so use your structure to make it effective. Put the argument up front rather than hiding it away until the end. Use each section of your dissertation to build up that argument. A good introduction and conclusion will help massively here too, in explaining what your dissertation is about and how each section contributes to it, so spend more time on those than you are perhaps used to… (Thanks to @MaddyCThompson for that one!)


5. Style

What style are you going to write your dissertation in? Formal, less formal, third person, first person etc. … Ultimately it doesn’t really matter as long as it’s consistent. A good tip here is to read papers and see what styles they use. How do they use the data and then talk about it? Would that work for you? Give a few styles a go and see what you like, then stick with it! (Again thanks to @MaddyCThompson).


6.  Formatting

Perhaps the easiest way to gain or lose marks in your dissertation is through formatting. It may seem wrong, but a good looking piece of work is easier (and more pleasant) to read. This will translate into a more or less favourable marker whether you like it or not. Check the assessment criteria to see what your university wants.


7. Use your word processor properly!

Microsoft Word has loads of useful functions to help with formatting. Use them! Use the heading functions in the ribbon at the top (they automate your contents page), make the gaps between paragraphs bigger rather than putting in loads of extra lines, and learn how to put images in properly so they don’t move all over the place as soon as you change something. If you want to know how to do something on Word – Google it! You will be surprised what it can do!


8.  Use a reference manager

How long does it take to sort out your references? It takes me about 8 seconds to put in 300 references. If you have never used a reference manager then now might be a good time to start. Most universities have a subscription to Endnote, but if not (or you fancy something different) then both Mendeley and Zotero are great (and free) options available online. Trust me, this will save you hours, days or weeks at the end of the dissertation – not to mention the stress of trying to find that quote in that book that has now been taken out of the library by someone else.


9.  Proofread, proofread, proofread

Another @MaddyCThompson tip!

Perhaps not much explanation needed here but make sure you leave yourself enough time to do this. A 20,000 word dissertation might well need a week of proofreading and making changes. There is nothing worse than handing in a dissertation with loads of mistakes in it, simply because you ran out of time.


 10.  Enjoy it!

This is perhaps the most important point. Everyone has something interesting to say in their dissertation. Many people also find it a fun process putting it together! The more you enjoy writing your dissertation the easier it will be. Remember, it doesn’t have to be an absolutely perfect piece of work, just one that reflects your abilities and your research!

Good luck!

***There are also a number of books on writing dissertations, such as Dr Kim Peters’ “Your Human Geography Dissertation” they are always worth checking out for more detailed guidance.***