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How to write a dissertation (and why it’s different from an essay)

How to write a disseratation

How can you write a dissertation? If you’ve written plenty of essays, and done well, it’s tempting to approach your dissertation in much the same way. This is a common mistake among students, both undergrad and postgrad.

An essay is much shorter than a dissertation (around 2,000-5,000 words rather than 20,000). But dissertations are much more than simply long essays. Dissertations require a deeper level of understanding and original thought backed up by thorough evidence.


Planning is vital to learning how to write a successful dissertation. Some people find this comes naturally, others are more of the ‘sit down and write and see what comes of it’ school of thought. If you’re of the latter type, you’ll need to adjust your approach. Winging it might work for an essay of 2,000 words, but for a dissertation, you’ll quickly struggle if you don’t have a plan.

With an essay, you might be able to have a very simple plan – introduction, discussion, conclusion. With a dissertation, you’ll need to set out chapters and sub-sections too. You might choose to adjust these as you write but having them set out before you start to write gives your work vital purpose.

It’s important that the structure of your dissertation shows that you’ve carried out thorough research, you’ve thought through all aspects of the subject fully, and you’ve come up with an insightful conclusion that makes a contribution to the body of research in your subject. You should also be able to show that you recognise the limitations of your own work.

This means that you should consider a structure something like this:

Introduction – this should be a clear definition of your project; a demonstration that you have knowledge of other research in the area.

The research – you’ll need to set out the research you’ve done and describe any problems you had as well as the solutions you found.

The argument – this is where you begin to draw conclusions from the research. Break it down into subsections that each have their own focus. This is the part of the dissertation that it’s tempting to pack out with filler, but don’t. Every paragraph, and every sentence, should have a purpose.

The conclusion – you’ll need to summarise your findings and discuss what needs to be done next. If you plan to go on to a PhD, this can be an opportunity to set out an idea for your thesis.

Your writing style

Writing style is important. Writing habits that might just grate a little in a 2,000 word essay can become decidedly irritating to your tutor over the course of 10-20,000 words. It’s important to remember that good writing is not necessarily complex writing. Good writing achieves its purpose. A dissertation’s purpose is to put across a clear, focussed, persuasive argument, backed up by evidence.

Some general style principles to think about:

  • Short sentences are very often better sentences. While it’s good to vary the length to some degree, you should generally be looking to keep your sentences at 25 words or fewer. Stick to ‘one thought per sentence’ and you’ll find that this tends to happen automatically.
  • Each new point needs a new paragraph. If you’re changing subject, you need a new sub-section with its own headline.
  • Use plain English, while demonstrating your knowledge of relevant terms. Don’t use obscure words simply because you believe they’ll sound impressive. Simpler is nearly always better. At the same time, it’s important that you can show you understand the language of your subject and use whatever technical terms others writing in your field do.

Your argument

You need to take a strong, unambiguous position, backed up by your own research. It may help to imagine that you are not writing a dissertation, but an academic book. You’d only write a book that you believed in. Make sure you believe in your own argument when you write your dissertation.

Also anticipate counter-arguments. What do you think others would say? How can you counter their objections? Anticipating counter arguments demonstrates that you’ve looked at your subject from multiple standpoints and developed a really thorough understanding of it.

Need some more help with writing your dissertation? If you’ve got the basics right, our editors can help with the finishing touches.