How to Write a Dissertation

Author: , Modified: 16 August 2023


You may love the idea of writing a dissertation at first - it is something that will stand the test of time and be a testament to your academic skills. Once you get started though, you will face a lot of challenges, and your life will change over the weeks and months of hard work it takes to sculpt your words.

A dissertation is almost certainly going to be the largest and most challenging academic project you have ever undertaken and written. Getting a good grade takes planning, preparation, and commitment to revising your work over and over so you can make every word count.

The process takes a long time, so your ideas will naturally develop and change over time, and your final product should reflect that and show how knowledgeable you have become on your chosen subject. This how-to guide will help you write your dissertation to the best of your ability.

What is a Dissertation?

Definition: A dissertation (sometimes known as a 'thesis') is a long piece of writing, usually prepared at the end of a course of study or as a text for a post-graduate degree, such as a Masters or PhD.

A dissertation is either partly taught and partly researched or completely researched. In the case of the second of these, you will need to find a topic that is both interesting and original and that is capable of sustaining an extended argument. Taught dissertations tend to follow the subsequent structure:

  1. An introduction
  2. The main body
  3. A conclusion

The second type is a dissertation that you have to research from scratch. This means you must focus on an aspect of a topic that you have studied, and which you have found particularly interesting and wish to deepen and widen your research in this area. Then you put together a proposal based on your research, emphasising any original aspects you have uncovered, and once your idea is accepted you proceed as with the taught dissertation.

Choosing a Topic and Title

Choosing a Dissertation Topic

The starting point to ANY dissertation is choosing a topic. You want to choose something you have an interest in, since you must write thousands of words and read a lot of information about it!

To start getting some ideas together, you could brainstorm a few topics you have an interest in. Think about a module you particularly enjoyed, or an article you read that appealed to you.

The next stage is to see if your idea is actually worth writing about. The best way to do this is to see what has already been done. You should be checking journals, articles, textbooks, anything that might contain previous work on the subject.

Choose something you will enjoy studying, even if it's not quite what you first had in mind - some of the best dissertations were not the student's first choice!

Writing a Dissertation Title

You should first find a working title that will allow you to be flexible in your research, whilst keeping your mind focused on your more specific subject.

The working title should then evolve and shift focus as you continue your research.

The final title should tell the reader (or marker) what they can expect from the dissertation and what you are looking at more specifically.

Writing a Dissertation Proposal

A dissertation proposal is where you outline what your final dissertation is going to be like.

Every proposal must contain a few essential things:

  • An outline of the topic you are researching;
  • An explanation of how you are going to find the information you need;
  • A hypothesis or question which will be explored and answered in the dissertation;
  • A reference list or bibliography which pinpoints a handful of sources likely to be useful for your research.

You should describe and evaluate what your research is for and how it will achieve its goals.

Main Dissertation Chapters

The Dissertation Structure

Dissertations are structured rather differently from essays and more akin to academic books (though, not textbooks).

Dissertations are normally expected to be original research of scholarly quality, but the meanings of “original” and “scholarly” can vary with discipline and level.

Some dissertations contain primary research such as laboratory studies, surveys or a case-study conducted by the author. Others present a sequential argument from which a conclusion is deduced, such as a point-by-point critique of an author's work. Especially at lower levels such as BA, many dissertations consist of secondary research (drawing new conclusions from already published primary research), or even tertiary research (assessing existing secondary research, such as surveying the impact of an author's research in the literature).

Every dissertation includes one or more substantive chapters, an introduction and conclusion. What else it contains can vary by discipline and level. The most common structure of the main dissertation body includes:

  1. Title Page
  2. Abstract
  3. Contents
  4. Introduction
  5. Background
  6. Literature Review
  7. Methodology
  8. Results
  9. Discussion
  10. Conclusion
  11. Bibliography
  12. Appendices
  13. Binding

Breaking it Down

Here you will find in-depth explanations of each aspect noted above that constitutes a final academic dissertation.

  1. Title page

    Your department should provide instructions for the format of the title page. It normally includes your name and student ID, department, degree level, dissertation title and date of submission.

  2. Abstract

    An abstract should concisely describe the content and scope of the piece of writing and review the contents in abbreviated form.

    Your abstract should contain a brief summary of each chapter of your work in the order of presentation.

    How to Write a Dissertation Abstract

  3. Contents page

    Although placed at the front of the dissertation after the title page or abstract, the contents page is usually written last in the dissertation; it lists the starting pages for the different sections.

  4. Introduction

    The introduction should explain the basic outline of what you are doing in the dissertation, why you have chosen this topic and how the dissertation is structured. It is common for introductions to situate the dissertation briefly in the wider field or in relation to contemporary issues, and for it to lay out what will be done in each chapter or section. The introduction should close with a paragraph leading smoothly into the main body of the dissertation. Some, but not all authors, write the introduction after the substantive chapters are written.

  5. Background

    The background section may be incorporated within the introduction or it may be a separate chapter. The purpose of a dissertation background/history section is to give the reader the relevant facts about your chosen dissertation topic so that they better understand what you will write about later and how it links to your theoretical question.

    How to Write a Dissertation Background

  6. Literature review

    Usually mandatory for primary research and some other topics, a literature review surveys the current state of the literature on the dissertation area or areas, and explains why the dissertation is original and fills a hole in the literature. It should be an in-depth study of the field/s of literature related to the dissertation and how it has informed or is corrected by the dissertation. It is often the first chapter written. In the case of theory dissertations and secondary/tertiary research, the substantive chapters may engage in ongoing dialogue with the literature, in which case a separate literature review chapter may not be necessary.

  7. Methodology

    You should begin your methodology with a brief introduction to the chapter, this should also include relaying the aims of the study. Following on from this, it is best to start by defining and choosing the research paradigm for the dissertation.

    Once you have defined your research philosophy, the next step would be to identify your research approach and instrument. You would then be expected to discuss your chosen data collection method along with stating if the research is either quantitative or qualitative.

    Whichever approach you use it is important that you justify your decision and that you do so via reference to existing academic works - and writing only in the third person.

  8. Results

    The results section of your dissertation should present the findings from your research and answer the research questions that you posed. To interpret the findings, you will need to use either a qualitative or quantitative analytical technique.

    How to Write a Dissertation Results Section
  9. Discussion

    The discussion, or analysis, section should compare your study's findings with existing literature in your field of study. Look at each piece of research and scrutinise it for flaws as well as achievements, thereby not simply taking it at face value. Identify and consider clear strengths and limitations of each piece of research. Outline any limitations and strengths in your own words, thereby providing a balanced summary of the research in question.

    From this objective assessment, you can draw conclusions and develop your own independent thought on the research and how this relates to your argument.

    How to Write a Dissertation Discussion
  10. Conclusion

    Your conclusion should summarise the points made in the argument and provide a synthesis of thought on the main dissertation. You should identify possible limitations or gaps in the dissertation, attempt to pre-empt objections and counter-arguments, and situate your findings in the broader literature. The best conclusions also give some indication as to where future research on the topic discussed might lead. In some disciplines, it is also appropriate to point out possible “real world” applications and implications of your research. A conclusion can also open out onto areas which have been bracketed in the main body for reasons of length. For instance, in a dissertation devoted to criticising a body of work, the conclusion could suggest what other bodies of work might be more appropriate, or how you might want to reformulate the field in line with your findings.

    How to Write a Dissertation Conclusion
  11. Bibliography

    The bibliography should begin to be compiled the day you begin to research your dissertation and should never be left until the last minute. Remember to check your institution's style guide for referencing. Ideally your bibliography should evolve as your dissertation does and even when you are making notes you should record sources consulted. It is advisable to check your dissertation when it is finished, to make sure that no cited items are missing from the bibliography.

    Academic Referencing and Citation Guides
  12. Appendices

    Some dissertations require appendices containing additional information referred to within the dissertation such as letters, photographs, maps, charts and diagrams. If there is more than one item being included in this section, the section plural is appendices.

    Include as an appendix, items that are relevant to the context of the study but may not be useful to have in the main body of the work. Each appendix should discuss a separate topic and should be listed separately.

    As each appendix will be evidence of, or will be on, a different topic, as with figures within the work, you will be required to title each individual appendix separately within the appendices section. When listing appendices, it is common practice to list them as Appendix A, Appendix B, Appendix C, etc. Make sure you refer to them in-text by the appropriate name.

    How to Write Dissertation Appendices
  13. Binding

    Be sure to give yourself time for the dissertation to be bound, which may require a day or more. This is the last stage of dissertation production, and once bound, your dissertation will look an impressive, professional piece of work.

Get Professional Help with Your Dissertation also provide academic writing services for students of all levels.

Our professional writers can produce anything from undergraduate dissertation proposals right through to PhD level work. To find out how UKDiss can help you with your studies, visit our academic writing services section:

Dissertation Help

Writing Tips

Dissertation Writing Tips

We have broken down all of our best tips, hints and tricks for you to ensure you have everything covered throughout every step of the way as you write your dissertation!


The very first step is going to be choosing the topic on which you are going to write your dissertation. This is a huge project which you will spend a lot of time working on, so you really want it to be something you are interested in.

Sometimes choosing a subject that you want to research in this much depth can be a little overwhelming. Try making a list of your interests and looking for any topical news stories, or big gaps in research, that draw you to a particular theme.

If you would like additional assistance with choosing a dissertation topic, see our Topics with Titles Service.

Research, research, research! Before you even begin writing your dissertation, you will need to read widely on your chosen topic. The more literature you read, the easier it will be to notice the gaps in the research. That is how you will find a great dissertation title.

It's never too early to start compiling an indicative bibliography (a list of sources which you think will be helpful when writing your dissertation). You may or may not end up carrying these sources with you into the writing process; it doesn't matter.

The main thing is for you to be reading and analysing the literature, as this is the only way to decide what will be useful and what will not!

Mapping out a timeline for yourself will really help you streamline the writing process. Remember to plan your blocks of work in the order of writing rather than the order in which the sections will be presented when the dissertation is complete.

It's also a good idea to write a short plan for each chapter before you begin writing, so you have a solid starting point.

Some universities will ask you to complete a Gantt Chart which will help you create a suitable timeline.


Make sure you are finding your own unique critical voice as you write. You will be well-informed on your subject by now because of all the literature you have read in preparation for writing, but make sure your own ideas shine through instead of just repeating other people's.

If you do not clearly show your own thoughts, there is a risk of plagiarism. For this reason, it's very important to make sure you cite properly in your university's preferred referencing style, such as Harvard or Oxford Referencing, to avoid direct plagiarism, and to make sure your own point of view and ideas are clear all the way through so you don't fall into the trap of indirect plagiarism.

Direct Plagiarism

This is when a big chunk of text is directly copied into your work without proper citation. If you are using someone else's exact words, it is vital that you make sure this is as a quote and is properly formatted as such in whichever referencing style your university uses. This can be easily fixed by making sure you are very careful to format quotes appropriately!

Indirect Plagiarism

This is more difficult to spot. Indirect plagiarism means passing someone else's ideas off as your own. You may not have quoted them directly, but you're writing their arguments out as though they belong to you. Even if you are paraphrasing, you need to give authors proper credit for their ideas.

It is really important to make sure that you are able to point out and analyse the strengths and weaknesses of any studies and ideas you are using to inform your work.

No opinion or study is perfect, and you will pick up additional marks if you show that you understand this and have considered how any limitations might have impacted the results or conclusion drawn.

We gave lots of advice about this in the discussion section, so please do go back and revisit this as many times as you need!

When you wrote your plan before you started work, you mapped out the structure your final project will have. Now you are writing, try to make sure you keep each bit of content in the appropriate section. If you don't, it can be easy to mix up results with analysis, for instance. Check guides which relate to every separate section of your dissertation if you are not sure where a piece of information should go.

Don't worry too much about keeping to the word count while you are writing. It is much better to get all your thoughts and ideas down in writing. You can go back and edit later if you have gone over the word limit.

As you write, make sure you are checking your own university's handbook. While we offer lots of guidance on every type of common dissertation, every institution will have its own rules and customs that they will want you to adhere to. Failure to do so will end up costing you marks.

Do not forget to back up your work regularly. There is nothing worse than working hard on a piece of writing only to lose it all if your computer breaks!

It is a good idea to save your work onto a USB stick or memory card that you can carry with you. It is also a good idea to upload the newest version of your work every time you have completed something new onto a platform like OneDrive or Google Docs so that it is available even if you lose your memory stick.


Now you have completed every section of your dissertation, it is time to polish it. You should now read through the whole piece of work and proofread it, correcting any mistakes you find. Microsoft Word alone cannot be relied on to spot and fix all errors with written English!

Your review of the dissertation should not simply focus on correcting spelling and grammar mistakes. You should be making notes wherever you find something that is not clear or could be discussed a bit more.

It is often at this stage when you complete your very best analysis, as you have worked through every stage and are more knowledgeable on the subject.

You're now best-placed to be developing your arguments that bit further and to be noticing additional opportunities for independent critique.


At university level, you should be beginning to question every idea you come across. Critique is the most important part of academic writing because it is the only way to show you have understood and have engaged with the writing.

Otherwise, you are simply describing other people's work. You need to be able to notice and explain flaws in a study or alternative perspectives rather than unquestioningly accepting what a writer says.

We talk lots about critique and critical analysis in our literature review and discussion help guides.

Often, it is best to get someone else to read through your work for you. A fresh pair of eyes can help you see things in a new way and make you aware of problems you haven't spotted. Consider swapping dissertations with a friend and doing this for each other. Alternatively, you can use a professional proofreading service.

This is the right time to begin formatting your dissertation. A table of contents, page numbers, headers/footers containing your student ID number and appendices are all common features in dissertations. Your university will have its own requirements for formatting, so make sure you locate and follow these to ensure you don't lose marks!


Writing a dissertation is hard work; but it needn't be stressful. Be sure to take your time, checking through everything to ensure it's as strong as it can be. It may seem difficult, but all the hard work and effort will ensure that you write as strong a piece as possible, and you will improve your overall academic skills tremendously. If you cut corners, your writing will reflect this - but do things properly, take your time, and follow the advice above, and your work will stand the test of time.

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