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Writing a Dissertation

By: Jennie Kermode - Updated: 6 Dec 2012 | comments*Discuss
Dissertation Writing Format Academia

It's a well kept secret, but many people in academia don't know how to write a dissertation. Universities tend to be good at teaching about subjects but not so good at teaching students the skills they need to produce high quality work. As in other areas of life, good, well presented writing can go a long way toward making a positive impression. So what do you need to know?

Formatting a Dissertation

Every academic institution has a slightly different preferred format for dissertations, so it's important to check this before you submit anything. Awareness of the basic format, however, can help you to plan and organise the early stages of your work.

Every dissertation should begin with a title page, which should also include your name. This should be followed by an abstract explaining what your work is about - not usually more than 250 words in length. Next is your contents page, which you'll need to keep amending as you go along.

After this come your acknowledgements - a list of the people who have helped you, with your thanks - and then a page headlined 'Permission to Consult' on which you should either state that your work can be available to anyone (the default) or list restrictions as required, for instance if your work includes material covered by the Official Secrets Act.

These pages should be followed by the bulk of your dissertation, usually 10,000 to 15,000 words in length, arranged in chapters which should be listed on the contents page. Chapters should ideally be 1,500 to 2,500 words in length. Next come appendices, which are not always covered in your word count, so check to make sure. These may cover material like raw research data or methods used, where relevant to an understanding of the whole.

Finally, you will need a bibliography. This should cover every quote you have used, and should also provide references for theories you have made use of. If in doubt, it's always better to include something in the bibliography than risk accusations of plagiarism for leaving it out.

The Writing Process

When developing a piece of academic work you should constantly be revising your ideas. This means that it's impractical to try and write your dissertation straight through from beginning to end. Instead you should develop it chapter by chapter (sometimes starting with material that will end up in the appendices). Try to break down your material into a logical sequence, but don't be afraid to move it around as you work.

You should expect dissertation writing to take longer, on average, than most research-based work of equivalent length, so be cautious about deadlines. Remember that tasks like fact checking and referencing can sometimes be subject to delays beyond your control.


Every academic discipline has its own set of terminology, and demonstrating that you are fluent in the use of this will help you to make a good impression. At the same time, this may make your work harder for a layperson to understand. This deliberate use of language to place your work in a particular academic context does not mean that the overall aim is to be obscure. Try to keep the rest of your language clear.

Clear language will not only make your work more accessible, it will demonstrate that you properly understand the concepts you are working with. If you're uncertain whether or not you understand something, it's better to avoid referencing it unless you can do some research. Don't use challenging words just to try and look sophisticated.

Finally, don't be shy of using humour in your writing. The people marking your dissertation are likely to have a lot of them to read, and will appreciate engaging, entertaining writing. Likewise, other academics referencing your dissertation in future will appreciate wit, as long as you don't let it detract from the seriousness of your approach to your subject matter.

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