Writing your student dissertation: Some tips on how to do it well

It’s the time of year when academics – including myself – are marking MSc and MPH dissertations. Once again, I see many errors in how students write their dissertations. What are these errors and how can students avoid them to make their dissertations more readable?

  1. Most importantly, spend time planning the outline of your dissertation with chapter headings and subsection headings for each chapter. Decide what key tables, figures and graphs you need to include to reinforce what is in the main text of your dissertation.
  2. Many students assume that longer words are “more scientific” and therefore preferable than shorter words. For example, using terms like perspiration rather than sweat or haemorrhage rather than bleed. Imagine if Churchill had written his speeches in this “more scientific” way.
  3. Use shorter sentences when possible. Longer sentences are more difficult to read and can lead to the examiner missing the key points you are trying to make. The same applies to paragraphs – don’t make them too long and look for natural breaks when you can start a new paragraph.
  4. Use active voice rather than passive voice in your text. For example, “I reviewed the literature” rather than the “literature was reviewed by me”. Active voice is easier to read and makes it clear to your examiner that you were the one who carried out all this work.
  5. Remove superfluous words. For example, “based on” is better than “on the basis of” and “even though” is better than “despite the fact that”. Getting rid of superfluous words gives more space get across the work you have done and makes it easier to stay within the allotted word count.
  6. Avoid using cliches and colloquial expressions. These are not often used in scientific writing and may be difficult for some examiners and readers to understand, particularly if they are not native English speakers. They can always be replaced by other terms that are clearer.
  7. Spelling, punctuation and grammar. When you are writing your dissertation is not the time to be learning how to get these correct. If you need help, most universities will offer some tuition. Do these courses early in your course and also get yourself a guide on good grammar.
  8. Spend some time trying to improve your scientific writing. Many journals offer the opportunity to reply online to their articles. You can use this facility to improve your critical thinking and ability to collate your arguments. Working in a writing group can also help.
  9. Read examples of good scientific writing. Seeing how others have achieved this task can help you in your own writing. For example, read “From Creation to Chaos: Classic Writings in Science” by Bernard Dixon for some excellent examples.
  10. Check your spelling, punctuation and grammar before you finally submit your dissertation to your examiners. It’s surprising how many errors remain the text of a dissertation that could have been pick up by running the spell and grammar check options in word processing software.