Academic Writing AdviceAcademic, Writing, Advice
ServiceScape Incorporated
ServiceScape Incorporated
2009

Delivering a Killer Dissertation the First Time Around

Writing your master's thesis or doctoral dissertation is quite an undertaking with a long checklist of important characteristics to include to make yours a truly well done paper. In fact, there are five key areas to watch to assure your paper turns out a succinct and scholarly work:

  1. Style
  2. Formatting and layout
  3. Quotations, citations and references
  4. Headings
  5. Grammar, spelling, punctuation and other writing issues

Now you're stylin'

First and foremost, use what your school gives you. Most departments have some sort of general style guide, or at the very least, a checklist of points to model your dissertation after. The very thorough departments have whole dissertation handbooks, as well as sample paper templates and more. Don't just throw these at the bottom of a pile or never download them. They are quite valuable to you. Yes, it may make for a bit of laborious reading at first, but getting the margins, fonts, spacing and general style right the first is definitely worth the effort, as it will save you valuable time down the road.

What's more, get your own copy of the style guide your college recommends you follow for writing. A great deal of dissertations follow the APA Publication Manual (but not all do, so check in your dissertation guide/handbook to be sure). Yes, it's another $20.00 you don't have to spend, but this guide is absolutely essential if you're writing a dissertation. It's a small price to pay for the peace of mind of being able to look up some questionable fact at 2 a.m. when you're revising your paper for the third time on deadline.

Proper formatting and layout

Now that you have the two most empowering things to get you on your way to writing a great dissertation, it's a matter of using them. Some people get caught up in the details and can't do a bit of writing until they know every little ounce of knowledge there is to know about how to write their dissertation properly. Others just jump right in and start typing, completely ignoring meaningful characteristics like margins, fonts, formatting and proper citations. To be a success the first time around, you need to land somewhere in the middle of these two extremes.

That is, by all means you should open a document and make sure you have the margins, font type and font size set properly. You should know to have only one space between sentences. And you should also be sure your header or footer is properly formatted and has the required combination of words and numbers in it that your institution requires. But don't get so hung up on the details that you can't make strides in substantial writing of the document as well.

Quotations, citations and references

Incorporating the vital components for quotations and citations in your dissertation's style is another key to a successful paper from the start. You must know how to properly cite an author within the text of your paper, with or without a direct quote. Also know how to format a longer quotation within the text. Don't just copy reference listings from other sources and assume they are correct in the style your paper uses. The three key references writers typically use most are a book, a journal article and a Web source. Do know how all three of these should look in your paper's chosen style. The other odd exceptions you can look up when needed, but you will save yourself a world of time by committing these three types of references to memory.

Heads up on correct headings

Likewise, knowing the correct way to format the levels of headings throughout the text are imperative. Most writing styles have anywhere from two to five heading levels that are typically used. Based on the style used (MLA, Chicago, APA), the heading placement differs from the center of page, left justified or at the start of an indented paragraph, and appearing in plain text, italicized, all capitalized first letters or just a capital on the first letter of the first word.

Grammar, spelling, punctuation and other writing issues

Naturally, your professors expect a dissertation that is free of grammar mistakes, loads of misspellings, misplaced or altogether missing punctuation and other marks of poor writing. In fact, some of the most commonly forgotten—but inevitably frowned upon by dissertation committees and advisors—are anthropomorphisms and personification issues.

Anthropomorphisms and personification occur in writing when human qualities are given to something that is not human. For example, the sentence, "The study examined five different dog breeds," is personifying an object, the study, which cannot truly "examine" anything. However, the researcher performing the study can. Therefore, a better and correct way to write the sentence would be, "In the study, the researcher examined five different dog breeds." Another common habit of some writers is giving this same sort of human quality to an organization. For example, these sentences both present anthropomorphisms:

"The company mandated a 10% raise for all employees."
"The Department of Defense ordered an increase in troops."

Correcting such personification is simple—a human element of the organization needs to be added. For instance,

"The leaders of the company mandated a 10% raise for all employees,"
"Officials at the Department of Defense ordered an increase in troops."

As you can see, it's not rocket science to correct this often-made writing mistake, but it definitely makes for easier editing (and less criticism from one's dissertation advisor) when it's handled as one does the writing, rather than having to correct multiple occurrences throughout the paper later.

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