Tuesday, 20 September 2016

Writing a Dissertation (Or Other Long Piece of Academic Work)

Projects like dissertations are all-consuming; slowly sucking up hundreds of hours of your life as the very first sparks of ideas eventually engulf you with all the reading, planning and doing that research entails. Amidst all this workload, it’s often easy to lose sight of the fact that, at the end of it all, a dissertation is words on paper. No matter how much effort that has gone before, it is a cruel truth that the totality of your work will be judged on the words you write in the relatively short period after the fieldwork and analysis. There are no prizes just for taking part.

Time management
So it makes sense to give yourself the best chance you can to do the writing part well. Being organised is crucial. There needs to be time not only to write each section well, but also to improve on your drafts; get any feedback from supervisors or friends; finish contents pages, bibliographies etc.; and cut down any extra words at the end.
When I started writing my dissertation on the environments of video games, I had just over a month to go before submission. This wasn’t ideal. I originally planned for longer, but a couple of the game developers I interviewed had to re-arrange their interviews. This meant that it was even more important for me to plan my time appropriately to get the project completed in time.
When scheduling each stage of the writing, I found it very helpful to work backwards from the final deadline. The deadline date and time for submitting your work is the one condition you cannot breach, so it makes sense to base your planning around this point. This can be quite daunting, because you are forced to think about the inevitably huge quantity of work you need to do, in a time period that is inevitably shorter than you want it to be. But without this kind of forward thinking it can be very easy to write each section according to how much time you think you have, or think you need, rather than how much time you actually have. The danger then is that later sections suffer when you suddenly realise that time is slipping away, yet you still have a long list of tasks to finish.
The best solution is to make a timeline of every task that needs to be completed before the deadline, giving the order in which they will be done and how much time you can afford to spend on each one.
Working out the order is partly a case of prioritising. It’s logical to do the tasks that are more important earlier to ensure that they are not hindered if time becomes tight.  For my dissertation, I knew that 50% of my overall mark is based on the substantive chapters of my dissertation – those that discuss what I found through playing the video games and interviewing game developers, analysing this data, and relating what I found to other academic work in cultural geography. These were therefore the first sections I wrote once I finished my analysis, as they would have the greatest bearing on my final grade.
However, also be aware that the content of some sections will depend on what you’ve written beforehand. For example, there’s no point in making a contents page until you know what the page numbers of each section are going to be, which will change constantly as you are writing and editing them.
Basically, be sensible – don’t waste time working on something that you can’t finish until later on anyway.
Knowing how much time to allocate each task is trickier to judge, because you can never be entirely certain how long a section will take to write. Writing is a fickle exercise. In some glorious moments the words just spill onto the screen, the moving of your fingers and brainwaves somehow perfectly attuned. Other times you’ll stare at a blank screen willing the words to appear, to no avail.
One clue you can deduce is the number of words that a section needs to be. From your past experience of academic writing, you’ll probably have a rough idea of how long it takes you to write a piece of a given length. For me, I’m normally happy if I write 1,000 words in a day for academic work, though I can write double that if I’m really pressured/inspired. As this piece had to live up to the high standards and intricacies of a dissertation, and I knew I’d be writing for days on end, I cut myself some slack and aimed for roughly 800 words a day.
With the order and timescale of each writing stage identified, the hardest part of time management is trying to stick to your plan. Like the strict deadline of the final submission, I find that the best way to get your sections written is to set a binding arrangement for a time when they need to be done by. For my dissertation, I decided to take initiative and set deadlines with my supervisor. As our supervisors were allowed to read and give feedback on one draft of each section of our dissertations, I arranged with mine that I would submit drafts of each section to him by certain dates, knowing that he would be giving up his own time in the days after these deadlines to look through my work.
There’s no greater motivator than not wanting to let other people down, so when you make deadlines make sure you tell other people about them, and that they are somehow invested in the outcome. The best people are supervisors, close friends, and anyone who can push you to do the best work you can.
Once you have a clear, workable timeline in place, it’s time to plot the words you’ll be writing.

As any teacher or tutor will tell you, behind every well-written piece of academic work is a thorough plan. If the people reading your work are going to follow your line of thinking, each point needs flow logically into the next, and assemble to form a coherent argument.
This isn’t to say that you can’t be creative in your approach. But however you decide to present your argument, it needs to be clear to the person reading it what the voice of the piece is; what story you’re trying to tell. And like any good story, the way it is told needs to suit the material and topic you’re presenting. The drama and intrigue of detective mysteries, for example, would be lost if all the facts were revealed at the beginning.
Of course, nearly all academic work shares some commonalities about how it is arranged. There will always be some kind of introduction at the beginning, usually followed by a review of the literature and/or theoretical concepts you’re drawing on in the piece. There will always be some form of conclusion at the end.
But it is in the substantive chapters – the material based on your own research – where you have the most influence over how you arrange your work.
The four chapters of my dissertation were each based on key themes from my analysis into the environments of video games: agency and interactivity; immersion and believability; navigation and narrative; emotion and subjectivity. Planning the chapters using the fluid boundaries of themes suited my material, because the factors that determine how video game environments are created and experienced are so interconnected that it wouldn’t be useful to pretend they could be easily categorised. For example, interactivity and immersion are difficult to disentangle because immersion could be said to be one form of interactivity. With themes, you can allow these closely related factors from each chapter to feed off each other productively as you progress through each stage of the argument.
That said, my argument still had a direction through the ordering of my chapters. In the order I’ve listed the themes above, my chapters move gradually from the more systemic aspects of video games (how the player can/can’t interact with the game world) to the more interpretative aspects (players’ individual emotional reactions to game worlds), which provided me with a logical route towards deconstructing what was going on in the design and play of these video games.
As I described in my previous blog post, once I’d devised this route through my material I wrote abstracts – short summaries – of what I would be arguing in each of my four substantive chapters, as well as the overall dissertation. Using abstracts is a great way of ensuring that you are clear about what point you’re making at each stage of the writing, and where each point sits within your overall argument, making it easier to follow in the final write-up. They also make it easier to sort your fieldwork data and past reading into the sections where they are relevant. It’s much more efficient to work with nicely condensed blocks of material when writing, rather than having to wade through a torrent of notes every time you want to make a point.
Nonetheless, writing up qualitative research is a fine-tuned and delicate process, in which you carefully synthesise what you’ve found with other work in your subject area to make arguments that hopefully expand the field in some way. It’s a balancing act. Too much of your own material and its appears to the reader as if you are unaware of the relevance of what you’re arguing to wider discussions in the field, and what other people have said about your specific topic. But too little material from your fieldwork and it ceases to become a project based on primary research that you’ve done, and instead reads more like an essay where you re-package work that other people have written to make your own arguments.
Because this form of writing is so intricate, I like to make a short plan for what I’m going to say in every single paragraph before I write it. I look through the material at my disposal for the section I’m writing, select the bits that are appropriate for the particular point I want to make, and then write a short sentence about how they’re going to fit together. These mini-plans can be very rough, and you can write them as you go along. The most important thing is not attempting to write a paragraph without some kind of guiding brief. Otherwise you risk veering off course with your argument.
Looking back through a draft version of one of my chapters, this mini-plan is a good demonstration of what I’m talking about. Here I’m writing about some game design techniques I identified through my fieldwork, using them to make a point by relating them to something that geographer Tim Cresswell has written. I also explain how this point fits into the flow of the argument, leading onto the next paragraph I’m going to write:
“Start off with gating, signposting, then pacing. End with point that these techniques are not necessarily visible to the player – leads on to discussion of exposing the design process. Use Cresswell quote at end”.
With just a couple of sentences of planning like this, you’re already in a much better position to write a good paragraph than if you started with a blank page.
With your synapses firing as you write your paragraphs, ideas for other paragraphs or even other sections of the dissertation are also likely to spring to mind. That’s why I also recommend writing notes to yourself as you go along, in the same document.
Some of the best ideas develop this way. You might suddenly remember an article you’ve read that is perfect for a point you’re going to make later on. Or you may decide that one of your research findings would actually be better off including in a different chapter. You may even think that the paragraph you’ve just written could be improved, so you leave a note to remind yourself to review that part later on.
My point is that planning doesn’t have to only precede writing. It is an iterative process – it evolves in the act of doing. It is healthy and efficient to continually evaluate your work as you write it, and use these observations to craft the sentences, paragraphs and chapters that follow.

Putting words on paper
Ironically, the practice of writing itself is probably the hardest part of creating academic work for me to give advice for! Perhaps rightly so, because I can’t tell you which words are best to use, and what order to put them in, because I’m not you. Writing is deeply personal and contextual; a product of the particular moment in which you sit at a desk and consult the pool of thoughts swirling round in your head.
But I can suggest a few factors to consider when you sit down to write.
First of all, writing under pressure is difficult. Most of us will be familiar with the condition called writer’s block, which usually comes in two varieties. The first is not knowing what to say, however if you’ve planned your work thoroughly this shouldn’t really be a problem. If it is, then definitely revisit your planning, as you should always know what point you’re making at any given stage of the writing.               
I find that the second type of writer’s block is much more common – knowing what you’re trying to say, but not being able to find the right words to express it in the way you want. It’s like perfectionism, but 100% justified, because in academic work the use of specific theories and concepts demands that you are precise with your wording, otherwise your writing could be misinterpreted.
As far as I see it, there are two ways you can go from here. You can either sit and stew over the sentences until you eventually thrash them out, or summarise what you’re trying to say and come back to them later. There are merits and drawbacks to both, and I use them interchangeably. The latter allows you to continue making progress, not wasting time staring at blank paper rather than putting words on it. It’ll likely be easier to write the section another time when you’re in a different frame of mind. However, sometimes I find that you need to force out the previous section so that you can maintain the flow of the argument, and know exactly where you’re going next. This is why I wrote all of my substantive chapters in order, so that I could assess how my work would sound when it is read.  
If you’re finding that issues such as writer’s block are hindering your writing more than you would expect, it’s worth considering whether the environment you’re working in is suitable. Do you work best with some background noise, or complete silence? Do you work well in your home/living environment, or do you need a separation between your living space and work environments? Does listening to music distract you, or help you concentrate? What temperature/lighting are you comfortable working in?
Personally, I tend to work best away from home, in places where there is a little background noise to prevent me from filling silence with distracting thoughts, but not enough noise to upset my thought patterns as I’m writing. This is why I worked mostly in a public library when I wrote my dissertation. As for music, I definitely prefer to listen to it when I’m doing a fairly mindless task, such as writing a bibliography or doing a contents page, as it keeps me ‘zoned in’ on an exercise that is otherwise quite mundane. But if I’m writing part of the main body of a text, which requires creative thought, I get too invested in the music when I’m thinking and it disrupts my rhythm.
On the subject of rhythm, also think about how much time you spend working and when you take breaks. Whatever happens, always try to make sure that you drink plenty, eat and sleep well, as these help with concentration as well as general wellbeing. But also be aware of how your productivity changes as you write. If you’ve been writing for quite a long time and the words aren’t flowing as freely, then take a break. But if you’ve got a good rhythm going and are feeling fine to continue, then don’t stop just for the sake of it. The rhythm of writing is inconsistent, like a mischievous spirit that possesses you for a while before moving on without warning. So you need to take advantage of the moments when you are inspired to counterbalance the times when this isn’t the case.                                  
I’d say that the take-home message here is to be self-aware when you’re writing. Pay attention to how well you write in different situations and learn from these experiences to improve your efficiency.

Feedback, editing and finishing touches
Once you’ve completed drafts of your work, getting feedback from other people on what you’ve written is invaluable. Writing, a bit like walking, can lull you into a trance as you immerse yourself in the world of your topic. You often become so engrossed in what you’re writing that it becomes difficult to take a step back and deduce how it will be read by another person. Even the simplest spelling mistakes can be rendered invisible when scanned by the familiar eye.
I find that there are two main types of feedback that are useful for academic work.
The first relates to the quality of your writing according to academic standards, which includes both how well you have applied particular theories and concepts to your study, and also how well you have structured and explained your arguments throughout the text. As your work is going to be marked by academics using these standards, this kind of feedback is gold dust that you must use to your advantage if you can. But to get it you’ll need access to supervisors, tutors, and anyone else with know-how about your subject area.             
As I mentioned earlier, I was fortunate that my supervisor was allowed to read one draft of each section of my dissertation before submission, and is also one of the final markers. Because I knew his comments could potentially make a significant difference to my final grade, I worked extremely hard to send complete drafts to him with enough time before the final deadline to act upon his comments.
The second type of feedback, in contrast, could be given by nearly anyone. Proofreading is about finding the typing errors, spelling mistakes and grammar problems that are lurking in your work, and also whether your writing is understandable and makes sense. In fact, it’s probably best to enlist the help of friends and family for this task, precisely because they normally aren’t knowledgeable about your subject area. This means that they will likely be more alert to mistakes rather than the academic content. However, judging how well they grasp what you’re writing about, without knowing anything about the topic beforehand, can also be a good indicator of how clearly explained your arguments are. Whoever proofreads your work, make sure they are people you can trust to be ruthless and look critically at what you’ve written.
Try to get as much feedback as possible, and give yourself plenty of time for editing. The best thing about feedback is that more is always better. Even if you can’t act upon all of it, there’s always the chance that someone new will pick up on something different that other readers haven’t noticed.
All this said, you definitely don’t have to agree with all of the comments you receive, even when they are from supervisors and tutors. Like writing, reading is also a personal act. People have different preferences and interpretations, and it is ultimately your job to assess whether the sentences you’ve written could be made clearer or improved by adding or removing words. Don’t feel you have to change your words if there’s a precise and valid reason why you’ve chosen them, or if you think the reader may have misread what you’re saying. You can always get a second opinion from another proof-reader if necessary.                                                             
There is also a tendency for feedback to constantly talk about details you could add to your work. Yet if you’re like me, my drafts are nearly always at the word limit or past it already. Editing is ultimately about being selective with the material you have available to create the best work you can within the constraints of the task you’re presented with. Use feedback as guidance, not gospel, because writing academic work in limited time and words is complicated enough already.

The fact that I’ve managed to dedicate so many words just to the practice of writing a dissertation is testament to how deep and complex the process is, requiring no small amount of effort, knowledge and creativity. Writing is one element of academia that, for me, draws it into the world of art. Like a painter or poet, a researcher delves into an idea, experience or thing that interests them, and uses the materials they have available to express something unique about their subject. Sadly academic writing is often less accessible to the wider public, and is also bound by the limits of academic conventions and mark schemes.
But constraints are what make you creative. If academic writing were easy, then you wouldn’t spend years honing your skills and knowledge to learn how to discuss complex ideas fluently. By seeing your writing as an opportunity to communicate something new, relevant and exciting about your topic, you can concentrate your efforts on making sure that your work has the greatest impact possible.