Are you nearly there yet? At this time of year many history undergrads are working on, or are close to completion of, their Final Year History Dissertation, and University libraries positively buzz with activity and intense concentration. Alternatively, many history dissertation students simply adopt the life of a hermit, shutting themselves off from ‘normal’ life and family and burying their heads in their laptops at home. It is one of the most challenging, but also potentially one of the most satisfying, parts of a history degree.
In many ways, an undergrad history dissertation is often seen as the cornerstone of a history degree or, to put it more colourfully, it is an opportunity for a history student to really bring into play all the varied and essential skills that have resulted from the previous two-three years of training and study. So… what makes for a good dissertation writing-up experience? What do you need to bear in mind as you near completion? Here are three brief last-minute tips.
One: Style: The ‘writing-up’ stage of your history dissertation should be viewed as the final ‘icing on the cake’ (i.e. it should be enjoyable, sweet and deeply satisfying). Although your supervisor has helped with the intellectual contents and advised on research approaches, such as making suggestions on your reading, research sources and dissertation structure, in other important ways this piece of work is very much owned and cultivated by the student i.e. you.
In fact, whether you believe it or not, you have become an expert (hopefully!) on your chosen topic area, and probably know more about aspects of it than many other people. Don’t be afraid to blow your trumpet about this. Don’t be too meek. A bold, confident and firm language/style of writing can add considerable gravitas to your final draft.
Two: Structure: Remember, the precise structure of a history dissertation will vary markedly depending on your chosen topic and style of writing. But there are a few tired and tested essentials that should be on display in all dissertations, including in the Introduction, in the main part (the Chapters), and in the Conclusion.
- This should (ideally) set out the question or questions that your dissertation has endeavoured to address, and can place the dissertation into context by referring to the published historical literature. What is your dissertation about? Why do you believe this is important? You can also use the Intro to mention some of the key sources you have utilised during the course of your research.
The Main Body of your Dissertation:
- This is usually organised into chapters. If appropriate, you can also provide subsections to each chapter, but do not over-do this. You are not writing a business report! Sometimes, continuous prose is better. But it is entirely up to you. Your main chapters are the essential building-blocks to your dissertation, and each one should address a key aspect of your dissertation topic. Don’t forget, though, to have some linkage and continuity, linking your chapters together. The main chapters will also (hopefully!) contain your main argument/arguments, through a combination of primary sources and some secondary sources. A good history dissertation should have plenty of primary source engagement and analysis in particular, and this primary evidence should help you to illustrate and back up your main argument/arguments.
- What makes a good conclusion? There is no easy answer. However, you should bear in mind that the conclusion is an essential part of your dissertation and should not just be treated as an after-thought. It should remind the reader in summary what your main findings and arguments have been in the main body of the dissertation. It should also draw everything together and re-state your main argument and why, in your estimation, this is important. Has your research added to, or challenged, the available published knowledge on your chosen topic area? Do you have any final further thoughts?
Three: The Joy of Checks: Double-check and proof-read your written-up dissertation material very carefully. Yes, it is tedious, draining and time-consuming to do so. But, always remember that it is not just the contents that you are being assessed on, but also the communication, style and presentation of your material. You have probably been staring at a screen for hours on end, but it is amazing how one can still miss basic grammar errors or overlook key bits that have been left out. So, break out the coffee-pot for the zillionth time and proof-read, and then proof-read, and then proof-read it again! You will not regret it.
And Finally… Plan for afterwards: after all, you have worked very hard writing it all up, possibly the hardest you have ever worked on a single piece of writing. I bet your partner, or best friends, or close family members certainly think so! Reward yourself. Treat yourself. Take a bow. Make sure you have a plan to celebrate a job well done!
Steve Woodbridge is Lecturer in History at Kingston University