Can You Write A Good Dissertation In A Month

“Can I write my 10,000 word dissertation in four weeks?” asked TSR member emilyyou. Family upheaval meant Emily had struggled to crack on with her dissertation. But she was determined to nail it and get her 2:1, despite missing her final deadline for tutors to review any drafts or ideas. 
One year on, Emily came back online to let members of TSR know how she’d got on. Despite giving herself just weeks to write her dissertation, she completed it and was awarded a mark of 75%. “Uni taught me I definitely work best under pressure,” she says. 

If you’re writing your dissertation at the moment, you’ll know how overwhelming that 10,000 words can be. Whether you feel like you’re in a good place with it or in a similar situation to Emily, the following advice from TSR’s uni community will help you organise your schedule, keep calm and hit your deadline. 

1. Break your dissertation down into chunks

“It helped me loads to think of my dissertation as actually being four 2,500 word essays” says Puddles the Monkey. 
Rather than freezing with fear at the big 10,000, make it feel more manageable by setting yourself word limits and deadlines. Work on one chapter a week; that could mean as little as 500 words a day over five days. That sounds like a dream, especially when 500 words can take as little as an hour (and probably only 30 minutes when you’re feeling prepared with a structure and a list of key points beside you). 
Member Original Name gave Emily some great advice on structuring her next four weeks to ensure enough time to get everything done. 

First week: Complete the literature review (2,500 words) and methodology (1000 words) 
Second week:
Work on and complete the two chapters (2,500 words each) 
Third week: 
Work on and complete the main discussion (2,000 words) 
Final week: 
Amend and edit all of your content, double-checking all references and ensuring the bibliography is fully up-to-date.


2. Plan what you want to write

Planning your content before sitting down to write makes life so much easier. When the community asked Emily for advice on how she completed her dissertation so quickly, this is what she said: 

“Write a list of points you want to talk about for each section. I found it easier to simplify the entire dissertation into bullet points first, rather than completing a section and not knowing what I was going to write next.”


Once you have a list of comments and points you want to make, it becomes easier to start weaving these into a compelling statement. Because you have all the information you need, you will feel more confident and your writing will flow. 

3.Leave your introduction and conclusion to last

Heard this one before? It’s common advice, but that’s because it’s the truth. These sections of your dissertation will be written far more convincingly once you have crafted everything else. You’ll genuinely understand your argument and will be able to present it with authority. 

4. Make sure you’ve referenced correctly

References are so important; getting them wrong is an easy way to drop marks. Confirm the style of referencing you should be using (eg Harvard or Oxford style). You’ll be able to find this in the project specification, but if you’re not sure, ask your dissertation tutor. Referencing feels simple but can become a bit of a time vampire so make sure you reference fully as you write each section. 


5. Create your bibliography as you go

Writing up your bibliography can be a bit of a beast, depending on how many secondary resources you’ve had to use. Rather than leaving it all to the last minute, write up every article, book or piece of research you have referenced at the end of every study session (in alphabetical order). Doing it this way will save you hours of time.

6. Proofreading

Before your final submission, give your dissertation and full and thorough proofread. This can be really tricky when it feels like you’ve already read the thing a zillion times, so take a good break before attempting to proofread it. 
Read it out loud rather than in your head – this way you won’t skim-read and miss errors. Share it with someone you trust, a member of your family or a friend, and ask them to read it. They don’t have to be an expert, they’ll still be able to spot any obvious clangers. 

7. Stick to your routine

No matter how much time you have left, define a routine and stick to it. Accept that you’ll be eating, sleeping and breathing your project for the next few weeks. It’s all going to be worth it. ThisIZwar suggests going to sleep by 10.30pm and waking up at 7am and scheduling in a treat at the end of every day so that you don’t try to procrastinate and waste time when you should be writing. 
You can reward yourself in different ways: maybe watching a bit of Netflix, going to the gym, cooking a meal with your friends or heading out to the cinema. Have at least one day off each week, where you relax and switch off from your dissertation. On that day, do something totally different; this will help you feel fresh for your next week of study. 

8. Keep positive

OK, so you’ve read all that advice, but you still feel like you’ve left it too late. Time for some parting advice from Emily: 

“People work at completely different speeds, just because someone has been working on their dissertation for months, it doesn’t automatically mean that it will be better than one which was completed in a matter of weeks”.


Article by TSR User on Thursday 15 February 2018

“Writing a book is an adventure: to begin with it is a toy and amusement; then it becomes a master, and than it becomes a tyrant; and the last phase is just as you are about to be reconciled to your servitude – you kill the monster and fling him to the public.”
Winston Churchill

Last year I took a vacation for a month to write my dissertation thesis. And it took me that one month to come up with the first draft, which made it into the final version with only minor alterations (but a lot of error checking). While the lack of major alterations might be in part due to my academic advisers (and my) wish to finish the work as soon as possible, I think the major part of this is due to the way it was written, or rather structured.

Doing a dissertation thesis is a major project, the writing itself is a different but not less complicated animal. I think it is a mistake to start writing in sentences unless you know the structure and the content. Once you write sentences, they stick together and are hard to change. And I think it is nearly impossible to write a 200+ pages work if you do not structure it beforehand, and there is a great way to do so: Outlines.

Most people know outlines from school. Many teachers try to give this valuable hint for exams. Plan what you write before you start writing. An outline for a dissertation is similar, but not quite the same. For one thing, it is much more detailed.

How detailed? Well, everything you want to write later should be included in it, without the actual sentences. Metaphorically it should contain the bones of the text, the whole skeleton, and hints for everything else. This means

  • the order you want to write the different pieces of information that make your theory
  • the notes you made about your studies, the design, the participants, the instruments, the procedure
  • the results of any statistical analysis you made
  • the ideas for and the issues you want to raise in the discussion

It also includes any notes you do not want to forget and any ideas, e.g., for further studies even if you cannot realize them (a valuable hint from my informal academic adviser: you will have ideas of things you want to realize but you cannot realize everything, so make notes and raise these points in “future work”).

Given that the outline only contains the information, but not the sentences, it is easily changeable. And once you get in the flow of adding flesh to the bones, you can write really fast. An additional benefit of using outlines: I used the same outline as a basis for the articles I wrote about my dissertation. The outline also allows you to focus only on the relevant part by using the hierarchical structure: You can arrange the information similar to the structure you use for your PhD thesis and simply fold in the parts you do not need at the moment. This way, thousands of lines of text become easily manageable. For example, you can fold the parts between the introduction and the discussion to write parts of the discussion while simulateneously seeing parts of the introduction. Sure, you could do something similar with Word’s “split view”, but not as easy and with this focus on the parts you want to see.

Personally, my outline for my dissertation was a 66.5 MB Circus Ponies Notebook file, containing 333,215 words (> 2.2 million characters, equivalent of about 1305 pages). I made sure to write down everything I did, the results of any analysis, etc. It was more or less structured in the way I wanted to write my dissertation. With this outline next to my writing program (Scrivener), it was possible to come up with a good first draft within a month. Why? Because I first read the whole outline, taking care to move the information that did not fit where it was to the correct place, then sorted each sub-point (e.g,, theory, results of Study 1) in the correct order, and then used this sorted outline that contained all the information I needed to write it as a guideline to write that chapter. Given that the sources were marked in the outline (see Academic Workflow) I did not have to check other sources for the actual writing. I didn’t even have to re-check statistical printouts — it was all in that one huge outline (and then in a smaller one that dealt only with the chapter).

I created the outline before I started to write, during the last year of my PhD. But thinking back, it would have been much easier to create the outline during the whole PhD thesis time, as soon as the topic and the first experiments were decided. Noting the decisions (and the reasons for doing so), the results, etc. while planning and doing the studies would have made it much easier in the end, but it also worked this way.

So, I can only highly recommend creating a detailed outline prior to writing and using it for the writing process. It makes an insanely complex work manageable. 🙂

Categories: Circus Ponies Notebook, Doing Science, Learning to do Science, Science, Scrivener, Tools, Writing

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