The writing process

Theses and dissertations differ from essays and other types of coursework assignment in a number of ways:

  • Theses and dissertations analyse primary data or textual sources using appropriate research methods and drawing on theory to underpin the investigation.

  • They are considerably longer than essays and coursework assignments.

  • They normally have a more complex structure: theses and dissertations typically consist of several connected chapters, with clear transitions from one chapter to the next, and a conclusion summarising the key findings and their implications.

Being aware of these differences will enable you to manage the process of writing your thesis or dissertation more effectively. Here are some key points to remember:

  • The research proposal is a key element of the thesis or dissertation writing process. A good proposal explains the rationale of the project, outlines its structure, gives it a sense of direction and sets time limits for completion. Once your proposal has been approved, avoid departing from the agreed course of action unless strictly necessary, and never make changes before discussing them with your supervisor.

  • Before starting to write, familiarise yourself with quality theses or dissertations in your discipline. This will improve your understanding of standards and expectations, and may help you to decide how to organise and present your material.

  • Do not attempt to write the sections of your thesis or dissertation in the order in which they will appear. For example, the abstract, which precedes all the other sections, is normally the last to be written. Most students write the literature review first, followed by the methods section. The discussion is normally one of the last sections to be written because it draws heavily on the content of other sections, particularly the literature review and results.

  • Remember that good writers seldom write single drafts. Your thesis or dissertation deals with complex subject matter, so you will probably have to redraft some of the chapters several times to achieve a good standard. This is good writing practice, but you need to allow sufficient time for this process.

  • If you develop signs of writer’s block (staring blankly at your computer screen for long periods, for example), try breaking up large tasks into components to regain a sense of achievement. For example, set yourself the target of describing your sample or explaining your sampling technique rather than writing the methods section in full. You can also try freewriting. This technique consists of writing continuously, paying little attention to accuracy or style. You will have to revise this portion of text later, but using this technique usually puts a stop to writer’s block.

  • Writing a thesis or dissertation is a solitary activity. Working in the library and arranging to meet one or two friends for a break at regular intervals is more pleasant and probably more effective that being on your own all day. Setting up a writing group to discuss problems as they arise and seek feedback on drafts can also be beneficial.
  • Editing and proofreading your thesis or dissertation before submission is essential.