I completed my first year of Masters at the Manchester School of Architecture this year, one of the modules of which was a dissertation. To say I was apprehensive would be an understatement. These are the techniques I used which ultimately resulted in a 1st and the G.E. Greenaway Prize for Outstanding March Dissertation. I hope these practical tips will help you to get started.
Pick A Topic You’re Interested In
Dependant on how your course is structured you will most likely be writing your dissertation alongside other modules for about 5 months. Maintaining your motivation is paramount, so pick a topic you like. If you’re interested that will translate to you working harder on it, reading additional literature and being more engaged in discussions with your tutor.
Start As Early As Possible
As soon as you have a particular location, broad topic or point of interest start reading around your key terms, watch videos, look at archives and find relevant images. Journal articles are often the best place to start (depending on your topic). Search terms (see highlighted) from your proposed dissertation title; for example my title was:
The Geographies of Plastic Production: How do EJ Protests Call Attention to Toxic Infrastructures and Health Risks Affecting Residents of Cancer Alley?
With a lot of databases such as JSTOR you can used an advanced search and search for a term such as ‘Anthropocene’ AND ‘Architecture’, this is a handy way to bring up more architecturally related articles if an initial search yields too many options. Typically speaking, the more specific your proposed title and proposed search terms, the easier your dissertation will be to write. However, its worth noting that your dissertation will absolutely evolve as you start writing notes on your research, and the title may change but the background knowledge you accumulated early on will still be useful. Don’t be afraid to shift your focus.
Use A Reference Management Software
No one likes paying for software. Most universities will offer a free reference management software however, if they don’t this is one of those times that the software is worth the money.
I used Endnote X9 which luckily for me was provided by Manchester University, however there are a lot of good reference management softwares out there. If you manage to start your dissertation early, towards the end you may have upwards of 200 sources. So how does it help you? Endnote allows you to attach PDFs you find from either the internet or your tutors, fill out all the relevant information such as year of publication, title, author etc… write notes, highlight sections on the PDF and leave comments. You can also sync your libraries between devices if you’re using a computer at home but like the flexibility of a laptop every now and again. If whenever you find a new article or source, you analyse it, write some notes and take your time filling out the information, it will give you a brilliant base to begin writing.
Another plus with reference management software is no matter what reference style your university requires your dissertation in you can select that style within endnote and it will format all of your references for you, saving you literally hours of time. If your university has a specific reference style, for instance I needed to use ‘MMU Harvard’, you can request a .ens file from your library’s admin team.
Endnote in particular has a function where you can link citations from your library into your word document and if you update the reference in your library, say you got the year wrong and then amended it, it’ll also update your word document again potentially saving you a lot of time. It automatically keeps track of the references you have used and can create an automatic bibliography for you. You won’t need to continuously scroll through your document wondering if you kept that source or not.
Engage With Your Tutor
Writing a dissertation is daunting so don’t do it alone. Personally, I can find it hard to have a meeting about progress if I feel like I haven’t got that far. Avoiding the meeting can be tempting but my advice would be to force yourself to go. You will have probably made more progress than you realise and your tutor will be able to advise you what to do next if you feel like you’re floundering.
Email them questions. Request a meeting. Ask their opinion. Ultimately your tutor is there to help you so try not to waste that opportunity. I guarantee you will come out of that meeting feeling better than you did going into it.
Critique Is A Chance To Improve
As architecture students there can be a lot of critique, during crits we may have to defend our design decisions. It can be easy to get defensive about your work when you’ve put a lot of time and effort into it, but being defensive could stifle a chance to improve. When you send in your first 1000 words or say your first draft it may return to you with red writing, strikethroughs, questions marks as to why you included something. Rather than seeing it as “my draft must be bad”, see it as “my draft will improve by being questioned, when I have actioned these points”. Your tutor is trying to help you improve. Many iterations of your draft later and you will have written a quality piece of work.
10,000 Isn’t That Much
When you start writing your eyes will keep flicking to the word count. You might think “how will I ever reach 10,000 words when my introduction is 200”. Trust me, the word count sneaks up on you. My advice from my own experience is to complete the below steps:
- Pick your topic
- Write out a specific title (include a time period, location – as specific as possible)
- Do your research and write your notes (this will continue throughout but best to get a head start)
- Pick your method and methodology i.e. a case study with a questionnaire
- Structure your dissertation with titles, subtitles etc…
- Start writing using notes from research as prompts filling in the sub categories
If you complete all of these steps you’ll probably end up at 10,000 + words before your final draft where you can start trimming down less relevant parts and refining your work with the help of your tutor.
I hoped this article has helped you to know where to start. If you have any other tips I haven’t mentioned that you found helpful in your studies, please leave a comment below.