This month Daisy is on the home stretch of her project while Oriana and Roxanne still have a couple of months left. They have all however, started the all important final write up. Sometimes getting going with the writing is the hardest part, especially when you don’t feel your argument or insight into your findings is fully formed. Daisy focuses on how to best prepare yourself for the final write up, Roxanne shares her tips for getting those first words down on paper and Ori shares her experiences of overcoming writers block.
As I am writing this blog, I have three weeks until my final report is due! Its exciting to be reaching the end of the project but the workload is increasing the closer the deadline gets!
I have been starting to write up the final report and have some tips that I’ve learnt along the way:
Look at examples such as past students’ reports
The Library website has past reports and dissertations for various subjects. In reading these reports, I’ve found a better understanding of the layout expected in my report. I am planning to aim for introduction, abstract, theory, experimental results, analysis, conclusion, acknowledgements and then references as my structure. As I am undertaking a computational project, my report will need to be 5,000 words. It is a good idea to have a rough estimate for how long each section needs to be so that I can reach the word limit. Similarly, it’s been useful to go back over the scientific papers that I have read for the project and make a note of their format and level of information/detail of each section.
Reflect on submitted drafts and supervisor feedback
Looking back on my short report that was submitted in November has helped to give a basis of ideas and notes that I can then expand on in my report. Sometimes the hardest part is just putting pen to paper. The short report has definitely made this easier by providing a rough outline of theory and analysis that I can refine and expand on to create my final report. The feedback that was also provided on this has been useful to steer me in the right direction. To further this, I have started to put my project title above every paragraph that I have been writing to maintain focus on the key aspects of the project instead of getting side-tracked with the content of the report.
Plan each section before writing
As a physics student, writing this report has been a relatively foreign experience. I definitely wouldn’t list essay writing as a strength of mine and have been worried about this side of the final year project. However, I have found that completing a research project to be a cross between an essay and a lab report. Drawing on experience from first- and second-year labs has made it a more manageable task.
To reduce the pressure of writing the report, I have split the report into smaller sections and planned the content of each so that when I come to writing it becomes a task of collating these notes.
Don’t leave the writing to the end
It’s a good idea to start writing/planning whilst you are taking a break from your analysis. For example, I have used the time when I have been waiting for responses from my supervisor or when I need a break from Python to start writing, It’s good to keep working on the project and having a break from the struggle of data analysis has been a nice change.
I have decided to write the bulk of my work in Word and then convert this into LaTeX. I have been told by both my supervisor and my assessor that LaTeX is the recommended format for reports, so it’s a good idea to keep this in mind when you plan your time, so that you can fit in converting to LaTeX before the deadline- as this always takes longer than you think it will!
It’s come to that stage in your dissertation. You’ve spent the last few months reading articles, studies, and reports, and you’ve made thousands of words worth of notes. You’ve ‘read around’ and are now familiar with the bodies of work and academic fields relevant to your project. You’re confident in your understanding of the topic and if anyone were to ask you about your dissertation, you might even be able to reference some studies off the top of your head. So, getting started should be easy – right?
Starting to write your dissertation – no matter how many notes you’ve made or how knowledgeable you are – can feel like the most daunting and challenging part of the whole process. I know this because I myself am going thorough this now. So many questions can run through your head: how am I going to make sure it all makes sense? What themes should I include, and which ones can I afford to leave out? How should I structure my paper and which section should I start writing first? Mostly likely though, the first question that comes to mind is: where do I even begin?
Hopefully, from my own experience going through this process, I can help you answer some of these questions so you can begin to untangle all the information you’ve spent the first half of third year cramming into your brain.
1. Is there a particular structure I need to follow?
I found that the best place to start is to see if your course provides you with any templates, frameworks, or examples for structuring your dissertation. Of course, this will depend on what degree you’re taking and what kind of project your dissertation entails (whether it’s a written paper, conducting research, a group project, a presentation etc.), but in general, most courses will offer some kind of support that will help guide you when making initial decisions about the layout of your final project.
Remember though- unless you have been told you must follow an exact template and structure – that any templates or essay plans that your course provides are a guide, and not the be-all and end-all of how your paper should be structured. They are there to offer suggestions and ideas but ultimately a dissertation is your own piece of work, so if you feel like the templates provided don’t fit well with what you want to say and how you want to say it (which was my experience), then that’s also okay too.
2. Should I write my dissertation in section order?
In general, I have found it’s a good idea to leave certain sections of your paper till the very end, especially the introduction, conclusion and abstract (if required), as the content of these sections depend on what you end up writing in the main chapters of your paper. For my own dissertation I have left these sections on the backburner to return to later in the writing process.
So, you now have a rough idea about the general structure of your dissertation (although this can change later too, so being flexible about making changes is also very important!), and you know which parts can be saved till later. But how do you actually start writing?
3. Are there any strategies that will help me to get started with the writing?
Here are some strategies that I found helpful for getting those first words on paper:
- Using a skeleton plan – before writing a section I find it helpful to produce a bullet point list of all the points, explanations, and facts I intend to include in a logical order that makes sense to me. Ordering all your main points first creates a chain of reasoning which makes it much easier to subsequently write an argument that has clear direction. Once you’ve made the bullet point list, all you have to do is join the points together using connecting words and phrases.
- Write whatever comes to your head – anything that pops into your mind, no matter how basic, you should jot down on the page. It doesn’t need to be perfect or even sound good – having something written down is always better than having nothing. Sometimes the urge to make things sound perfect before writing them down can prevent you from making progress.
- Avoid fixation – related to the previous tip, avoid getting overly fixated on the wording, punctuation or use of correct terminology/ references when writing up an initial draft. The most important thing at this stage is to get something down on paper. You can always return to a section later and add in better academic language or more detail.
- Moving on – I can often feel stuck when trying to write a particular section e.g., I feel my chain of logic isn’t quite right or I know I can explain something better in a different way, but I just can’t find the words to do so. If I feel I’ve hit a wall, I leave this section, and start on something else. Going away and coming back with fresh eyes is often much more productive than slaving away trying to rewrite the same sections for hours and hours. Your brain subconsciously finds solutions to problems whilst you’re focusing on other things, so even if you feel you’re not putting in the work, your brain probably is without you even realizing.
- Don’t stress – the task will get done but all good things take time! You got this 😊
I honestly feel like I’ve barely taken a breath from the end of the first semester, and already the second semester is starting. That being said, I am excited to start a new term (this might be because I saw the Dominos truck setting up a whole day before the ‘Refreshers’ Week’ whilst coming out of Old Bar this evening. Before you ask, I was ‘de-stressing’ by playing pool).
As always, I’ll start with my general update: the past week or so I suffered an intense case of writer’s block whilst trying to write my first chapter. I sat at my laptop for an hour, and in that time wrote two sentences, before deleting one of them. I then went to Morrisons at 11am in the morning, which felt like a very adult thing to do, because I couldn’t stand to look at my screen anymore. This type of cycle continued over the next few days (without the trip to Morrisons), and I started to feel so stuck and quite helpless. I felt really annoyed at myself to be honest – I felt like I’d done so much reading/planning for nothing. After a good few days of feeling sorry for myself, sulking and hoping that the feeling of being stuck would pass, I decided to just give in and embrace it. I realised that I felt stuck because of a lack of structure and planning, so I’m going to share the things that have helped me come out of this stage in the hope that it will help you. I’m also going to write some general tips about how to structure your dissertation. The key thing to remember about this feeling of being stuck is that this feeling is normal. This stage in the ‘process’ is unfortunately, and irritatingly, inevitable. But, it will pass.
I started planning my structure in the middle of last semester, because I wanted to be organised and get it out of the way. I didn’t really realise that I would be constantly rearranging/re-writing/re-planning, most likely up until the date I have to submit it. I realised that I felt stuck because I felt like I had written about or made the same points too many times in my planning. This was also complicated by the fact that for an assignment I had to write an essay/research proposal generally outlining my key arguments, so what I had to say no longer felt exciting and new (even when paraphrasing myself to avoid the dreaded self-plagiarism). I’ve made a list below of the things I found really helpful in overcoming feeling stuck during the inbetween part between the writing and structuring stage, I hope it’s helpful:
Tips for when you feel stuck and everything feels rubbish:
Identify the root problem
For me, it was my structure. I needed to restructure or even just re-plan my chapter in order to feel excited about my dissertation again. I think I’d also lost some of my confidence. When you feel like your ideas are no longer exciting or interesting, it knocks your confidence – which in turn makes you feel like there’s no point in writing anything. It’s also a rubbish feeling to sit with, so you’ll most likely try and avoid it by doing everything else except your dissertation (on that note, my room is the cleanest it’s ever been). However, whatever the root of the problem is, identifying it head on will help you move forwards.
Go over your notes and re-read key parts of the main articles you want to use:
Once I’d decided to switch things up a bit, I forced myself to re-read my notes and some key articles. I felt almost pointless, I felt like I’d already done this part of the dissertation, and that re-reading things would quite honestly be boring. However, I realised that I’d forgotten a lot of my original arguments, and I also managed to come up with fresh ideas too. My ultimate point is to force yourself to go back over things, even if it feels fruitless at the time. This might feel strange, because it means that your writing and structuring stages will never be fully separate, but it’s worth it.
Do another search for key readings
Whilst I was reluctantly re-reading my notes and planning the chapter I needed to write again, I did another search for more sources to back up my arguments. I was not prepared for the sheer BOOST of serotonin I got when I found the most perfect article that I’d missed during my other literature searches. It honestly kept me going the entire day, I was ecstatic. I think it’s worth using different search engines/journals/keywords, and doing another quick search, even when you think you’ve exhausted everything.
Have a break
If you’re really struggling that day with the dissertation, leave it and come back to it with a fresh mind. I actually tried this, and came back the next day feeling quite smug and that I’d cracked the code to get rid of this writers’ block. I sat down at my desk and instantly realised that for me, this wasn’t the right solution, so I got up again and took another day off. Eventually I realised that it was because I couldn’t dive back into writing straight away (I had to do more planning first), but maybe for you this could be just what you need.
Force yourself to write it
Ultimately, you might reach the stage where you’ve done everything you can, and you’re still sitting at your desk with that nasty feeling that you just can’t write anything. It’s a very strong feeling – I don’t know about the neurology behind it, but maybe it’s your brain perceiving the dissertation as a form of danger, who knows – but this is where you have to be strict with yourself and just write. I think I’ve said this a lot before, but even if what you’re writing seems absolutely awful, that’s probably not the case. Force yourself to write something, and when you go back yes, you might have to rearrange some things, but you will have some excellent ideas in there. It might be useful to remember that you will reach a point where there’s only so much planning or structuring you can do, and where you have to just jump into the deep end.
General structure tips:
Make a bibliography as you go along – in a separate document, after each section
My supervisor actually suggested this one, I can’t take full credit (if you’re reading this, thank you!). I find that I make a flexible overall plan, and then plan and write each chapter as I go along. I usually write everything whilst hyperlinking my sources, and then I go back and do my referencing properly at the end. I do make lists of all my sources in the beginning, but not in the proper format (I have to use the Harvard referencing system, but it might be different for you). However, I’ve found it especially useful to do this after each chapter instead. I recommend creating a separate document with all the bibliographies for each chapter. By the end, all you’ll have to do is merge all the chapter bibliographies together. Maybe this is really obvious common knowledge, so apologies if so, but it had never crossed my mind to do this before.
Change the subheadings as you go
Sometimes what you write will change your subheadings, so if you change your arguments or content then make sure that your subheadings reflect that too. I changed mine about four times last week to fit in with what I’d written. I’m also expecting to change my chapter headings, and to be honest I don’t think any of my headings or subheadings will be finalised until the very end. I also had another meeting with my supervisor recently where she reiterated the importance of the subheadings. She told me to make sure my subheadings represented my content, and if I state something within them to be sure I fully explain it. To be honest, I can’t believe that I didn’t realise it myself before my meeting, but we live and we learn.
Make sure your structure reflects ‘fluidity’
I’ve realised that ‘fluidity’ seems to be a buzz word in the dissertation world. I read somewhere that the little summaries at the end of each chapter can link together everything you’ve written (these summaries shouldn’t really bring in new arguments, it should paraphrase what you’ve already said), helping to create that fluidity. In my little summaries I’m hoping to also link chapters and arguments that I’ve already made together. Another way to create fluidity is also by popping various sentences in the main body of your chapter, relating to a source or argument you’ve already made. Lastly, your subheadings (I seem to be starting a subheadings’ fan club at this stage, I know) can also link together everything that you may have alluded to in your title, or can be presented in such a way to build upon elements of an overarching argument.
I hope all of these tips have been in some way useful, and I really hope that your semester is going well! Until next time, Ori 🙂