│By Emily Priest, Gale Ambassador at the University of Portsmouth│
Being a student and working from home in the middle of a pandemic can be hard, and it can be even harder when you have your final dissertation looming. But, despite how challenging things seem, there are a few key things you can do to ease your anxiety and make your work dazzle! Here are ten of my top tips for writing your dissertation whilst studying from home during the pandemic. Tweet us @GaleAmbassadors if they work for you – and share if you have any special dissertation or essay-writing tricks of your own!
1. Do the worst first – get your citation process sorted!
My first and favourite tip for dissertation and essay writing is to get your citations and sources sorted first. I know what you’re thinking – “But I hate doing the citations!” – and that is exactly why you should do them first! There is nothing worse than working hard on an essay, finishing it, and then realising you have to spend hours re-finding each source to get hold of the citation, before formatting them in the required way. If you make a separate document, or list, before you start, and update it with your citations as you go along, you will feel a lot better as you go along, and be in a better position when you’ve finished writing. And, when you get around to doing your bibliography, it’ll be no sweat! It’s all there, ready to be tweaked, copy and pasted into your final document. Don’t forget too that some research platforms such as Gale Primary Sources generate citations for you, and provide many different formats!
2. Research and plan thoroughly – don’t start writing straight away.
It may be tempting to start writing straight away – but resist the urge! Start with research, followed by thorough planning. If you begin writing before finishing (or even starting!) your research, you may find that you used valuable time writing something that isn’t relevant, or that your research is taking you in a completely different direction. Reading, reading a bit more, followed by some more reading may seem tedious, but it will give you more ideas, greater focus and encourage high-quality, consistent writing when you do get to that stage. And if your initial reading is starting to get tedious, mix it up with early-stage planning. Write down key topics or structural points and make visual maps and tables. Creating tools and recording your thoughts in this way, will, in the end, help you write with greater clarity, shaping your dissertation into a high-grade piece.
3. Break it down – structuring yourself like a pro.
If you’re like me, you may find essays overwhelming and, in your head, build them up into mammoth tasks. What you can do to help is to divide the dissertation up into smaller tasks. For example, finding sources is a task for one day, writing up citations is for another day and writing the introduction is for the day after that. You can divide up your dissertation into as big or as little chunks as you want, right down to each paragraph or section, and then write up a list of tasks that you need to do at each stage. If you need help doing this, consider online planners and guides which help provide this structure such as MyStudyLife or GetRevising. If you incorporate this step into your planning stage, and organise your time straight away, you will be in a better position, both mentally and timewise, to shoot for those higher grades.
4. Mini deadlines – better for you than you may think.
Another way you can create organisation and structure for yourself is by setting mini deadlines: rather than focusing on one final deadline, break your dissertation down into tasks and set mini deadlines for each task. I also like to set myself a deadline for a final draft a week before the actual deadline. This way I have at least a week for any last-minute problems or editing. Leaving it until the last minute is never ideal, so creating mini deadlines for planning, writing and editing is a great way to motivate and organise yourself and stay ahead of the game.
5. Appearances aren’t everything…but they do help!
A dissertation is a special piece of a work and you should take pride in that. Whilst appearances are not as important as your research and arguments, they do help add a flare of professionalism which can score you a few extra points! Now, I’m not talking about emojis or sparkles but paying close attention to the formatting required in the type of piece you’re writing. (If you’re writing a report with data findings it will look very different to a creative writing dissertation, so keep in mind what different features you may need such as tables, headings or content pages.) Ensure your formatting is consistent, relevant and well-crafted and at the very least, give it a flashy front cover! This is your big dissertation, after all! It deserves to be treated with pride! Adding those little touches demonstrates this pride in your work, and undoubtedly your skill and academic growth will shine through to your lecturers.
6. Don’t go word blind – why taking breaks is important.
Have you ever written a piece of university work, submitted it, and then found out there was a typo that you swore wasn’t there before? That’s word blindness and it happens to the best of us. To ensure you’re reading what you’ve actually written, don’t edit straight after writing. Your brain remembers what you intended to write and projects that onto what you’re reading so it’s really easy to skim over a spelling mistake or other error. Half an hour or more outside, doing a hobby, thinking about something else, will reset your brain and make it ready to skim your work for mistakes. I personally recommend only returning to edit after a good night’s rest!
7. Locked in? Get your study space right.
With many of us working from home, trying to focus and find the motivation has become particularly challenging. There are so many indoor distractions and sitting in your bedroom isn’t quite as motivating as a seminar classroom or university library. To help, be as strict as possible with yourself; make a study space with no distractions – that includes no phones – and consider restricting your access to social media on your laptop or desktop. My “Surviving Lockdown” blog post, which you can read here, has many other tips on how to remove distractions. And if you’re a phone-a-holic consider a timed phone safe – yes, really, they exist!
8. Get arty with editing – use colour coding.
If you’re not editing your work with colour-coded highlighters, you’re missing out! Seriously, this is a process that I found particularly useful. Editing can be one of the hardest stages of writing a dissertation and can easily feel overwhelming if you aren’t being smart with your tools. I recommend taking at least four coloured pens or highlighters and marking citations with one colour, every paraphrase or direct quote with another, then spelling mistakes and other word that need changing such as clunky verbs or first-person pronouns. Break apart each sentence slowly and carefully, highlighting each component at a time, being sure not to rush over any sentences. When you’re finished your dissertation will look a bit messy but you will be able to easily see which components need changing, and where some areas are lacking citations – or are too quote-heavy.
9. You don’t have to do this alone – building a support network.
If you are a distanced learner like me, you may feel the isolation settling in, breeding nasty thoughts and anxieties like, “this isn’t any good”, “I don’t know what I’m doing” or “I’m going to fail”. If you’re not regularly talking to lecturers or university friends, you’re not getting the support and feedback you need. This isn’t good for your wellbeing. Consider building a support network around yourself, made up of lecturers, university support services, friends, family or online groups. Reach out to people and ask for help – they’ll always be someone willing to offer support. Whilst it may seem that no one cares and lecturers are too busy, if you drop any one of these people a message and let them know how you’re feeling, you’ll find you’re not as alone as you thought. Reach out, accept help when it presents itself and if you are struggling, there’s no pride lost in admitting that and getting help. We all need it.
10. Keepin’ it fresh – make your research varied.
My final tip is to keep your research fresh and diverse. A good dissertation writer incorporates many document types into their research, from primary sources to journal articles and practitioner reports. If relevant, try to use different types of information from credible sites and mix up your searching. Perhaps you normally search for reading on Google Scholar, why not have another look at what’s available through your university library’s discovery service? Gale Primary Sources, one of the great research databases available through your university library, has a wealth of information for dissertations on all manner of topics. If your current sources are a bit journal-heavy, what newspaper articles can you incorporate, to add a new dimension to your work? Explore all the archives, sites and databases at your fingertips and don’t forget to ask your tutor, other lecturers, peers or university librarians for the sources they recommend.
Want more help with your dissertation and need more tricks and tips? Why not read How Gale Primary Sources Helped Me with My Dissertation – and Can Help You Too! and How to Handle Primary Source Archives – University Lecturer’s Top Tips.
Blog post cover image citation: Image from Ketut Subiyanto on Pexels.com – https://www.pexels.com/photo/student-with-documents-and-laptop-happy-about-getting-into-university-4560083/