12 essential pieces of advice for writing a kick-ass dissertation

Put down the Pro-Plus.

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Whether you’re on a three, four or undisclosed number of years course, you will at some point have to face The Big One. The essay to end all essays. Your dissertation.

Everyone’s got a disso horror story. There’s your brother’s mate who took way too many Pro-Plus and tried to write the whole thing in 36 hours straight, only to end up with a First and an IV drip. Or your flatmate’s girlfriend’s best friend who lost her USB stick with six months of work on it as she was walking to the library to print it off an hour before the deadline.

Robert Burns wrote “The best laid schemes o' mice an' men, gang aft a-gley”, which roughly translates to no matter how much you try to prepare for something, it will inevitably go tits up. But fear not! Hexjam is here to make sure that however your final year may be spiralling out of control, you can still totally nail your dissertation.

  1. 1 Pick a topic you’re actually interested in
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    Yes, we know that this sounds like a total no-brainer but when you’re sat in the library at 10pm on a Wednesday night and your mates have just got a round in at the union, it’s much easier to stick at the books if your subject is in some way personally interesting to you.

    Trust us, the only thing more boring than reading Moby Dick is reading what some academic thinks about the significance of Queequeg’s harpooning skills.

    Instead, think back over your course at the books, eras, people, wars, etc. that piqued your interest enough for you to actually do the required reading that week. It’s a good place to start.

  2. 2 Be specific
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    Once you’ve decided on your topic, it’s time to hone in on one fine detail about it that you’re going to explore. Your American History professor does not want to read an overview of the Vietnam War as chances are they know way more about it than you do and it’s all been done before.

    Dig a little deeper and think about a specific aspect of your umbrella topic – the more specific, the better. This’ll make your research easier as you’ll be able to eliminate the material that’s of no use to you. You can also show off your ability to think originally about a generic topic.

  3. 3 Take advantage of your lecturers
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    No, not like that. When it comes to picking your topic, take some time to appreciate the resources around you, before they're GONE FOREVER.

    Have a look at what your department’s professors specialise in and see if any of them correspond with your own areas of interest. They’ll be a mine of useful information and able to point you in the right direction when it comes to research.

  4. 4 Keep your work centralised

    You're probably going to have pages and pages of notes, ideas, research and very important doodles from the library, but it's no good if you've left the notepad with all your references at your mum's house. Having everything together means that you have all the resources you need to knuckle down and crack on (relatively) distraction free.

    If you're using Microsoft Word, the latest version of Office 365 lets you access your notes and essays from anywhere in the world, whilst keeping your precious dissertation safe and secure - no corrupt memory sticks or dodgy hard drives.

  5. 5 Make the most of your contact hours

    If your professor or dissertation tutor offers contact hours then for the love of all that is good and holy, go to them. And go prepared. Turning up 20 mins late and hungover is not just a waste of their time but a missed opportunity to help get you on the right track.

    Talk over your ideas with them, make a note of their comments and take on board any suggestions they might have about structure and sources.

    Chances are they’ll be the ones marking the thing so it’s probably a good idea to get their input and have them look over your work BEFORE deadline day.

  6. 6 To-do lists and plans are your new BFF
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    Even the most Type-B personality can appreciate the power of a good to-do list when it comes to writing a dissertation. While 10,000 words seems like a lot, that will most likely come after double that amount of reading and note-taking.

    Listing your sources as you go will help when it comes to referencing at the end. Being able to tick off each source you need to read/watch on a to-do list will give you some serious satisfaction.

    Try and distil each chapter down into an A4 page plan, with points, quotes and sources to use. It’ll make writing the thing a doddle. And if you need new highlighters and coloured pens and teeny tiny fluorescent Post-Its to do it then who are we to stop you.

  7. 7 Routine

    Much as we’d all like to never leave the comfort of our beds, no-one ever wrote a half decent dissertation under a duvet. Find out where and when you study best and use that to your advantage.

    If you know you’re a morning person then get your arse down to the library first thing and don’t even think about pulling an all-nighter. If you’re more alert at 3am than 3pm, don’t force yourself to wake up at 6 every morning.

    Try and get into the habit of working at the same time every day. Soon it will become intrinsic ‘study time’ and it won’t feel like such a chore.

  8. 8 Concentration-boosting foods

    Studies have found that certain foods can boost your focus, which will come in handy when you’re staring down the barrel of a 100-page summary of War and Peace.

    Stock up on blueberries, avocados and dark chocolate to snack on while you work to help your mind stay sharp. Oh, and drink lots of water too.

  9. 9 Make realistic goals (and plan accordingly)
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    By the time you get round to writing your dissertation, chances are you’ll know roughly at what speed you can write. On a good day (and under the cosh), by my final year I could knock out 500 words an hour, but that was after some serious reading, note taking and quote-finding.

    Work out your optimum words per hour and set yourself mini goals. When you’re staring at a blank Word doc, attempting to write 500 words in an hour is much less daunting than 10,000.

  10. 10 Site blockers
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    Turning off the internet or changing the Wi-Fi password might keep you off Facebook, but it’s not very realistic as you’ll probably/definitely need to get online at some point. Instead use site blockers like Cold Turkey to keep you off social media, Reddit, Imgur, etc. and watch your productivity soar.

  11. 11 Regular breaks

    Once you’re in the thick of it, it’s really important to remember to take regular breaks. Some studies suggest that 30 minutes is the optimum amount of time we can concentrate for, so every half hour try and look away from your screen.

    Get a glass of water, go to the loo or just spend a couple of minutes hiding under your desk, rocking back and forth while you mumble “Krusty is coming. Krusty is coming”.

  12. 12 Leave enough time for the bloody bibliography
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    Once the damn thing is written (and yes you will finish it, we promise) you feel pure joy and elation for about 47 seconds until you remember referencing. And no, you can’t do it in 20 minutes while you watch the sun come up.

    Proper referencing takes a few hours – you can stretch it out to a day if you’ve got the time but try and give yourself at least three hours to get it all done. Free tools like RefME can make sure the formatting is correct and export your references to Word, but you’ll still need a list of your sources with all the relevant info to hand.

    Feature image: Fox

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