When to start writing the dissertation (note to students)

When to Start Writing the Dissertation

For those of you who don’t have the time, or can’t be bothered, to read the following (it is more than 280 characters long, after all) I offer the following summary: start writing now, develop a good writing habit, be flexible, document everything, don’t aim for perfection with the first draft, find a system that works for you #tldr.


“Tim, when should I start writing my dissertation?” It’s a question that I’m often asked by my project students. This can be frustrating for two reasons. Firstly, students tend to ask me this in about January or February when they have already been working on their project for at least three months and maybe up to five. Secondly, I’ll usually have discussed this with them at a previous supervision meeting, at least three months earlier and maybe up to five.

Start Early

It’s generally a good idea to start writing the dissertation as soon as the final year project marathon begins. Granted, there will be areas that you can’t write about at this stage. Like data and results, unless you started really, really early or have fabricated them. But there will be things that you can write about. Problem definitions, literature reviews, that kind of thing. If nothing else, add the major headings to a document so that you can start thinking about the structure or your report and the issues that you will have to cover.

Develop the Writing Habit

Try to write something every day, or at least every weekday. There’s a healthy balance to be found here (I once tried to work on my PhD thesis seven days a week and it drove me nuts after about four weeks). There are clear benefits to be gained here. Firstly, you slowly but steadily feed the monster that is the word count and this feels good. Secondly, it frees up some head space. Your mentally demanding final year project is part of a bigger, mentally demanding final year. When you commit thoughts and ideas to the screen you can stop trying to hold onto them in your head. Thirdly, it forces you to focus on your final year project at least a little bit every day. It’s easy to neglect the final year project. Your other modules have more immediate assignment submissions and exams to occupy your time. Your dissertation isn’t due for months and months and months. That might be the case in September, but April will sneak up on you like some kind of deadline ninja.

Be Flexible

Having just written about the word count, don’t fixate on it because there will be some days where you spend hours working on your project without much to show for it. This can particularly be the case when you are struggling with a technical problem. It might not always be beneficial for you to focus on the word count, so at these times you might want to set yourself an achievable target for the amount of time to work on your project in a given time. Avoid setting unrealistic goals for yourself. There was one time when I set myself a daily word target. I even created a spreadsheet to monitor my progress. I was spending time on the project but that time didn’t always translate into words. I also had a lot of other things going on, but I didn’t account for these very well. This meant that my morale took a hit every time I updated my spreadsheet and found myself falling behind the target. Hundreds of words behind schedule soon became thousands and then tens of thousands of words behind schedule. That wasn’t a good feeling. But even if you move to a time-based system (it worked for me, but see below about my views on ‘one size fits all’), be kind to yourself. If, in a particular week, you have two other assignments to complete, classes to attend, children to look after, a house to run and whatever else going on in your life, it’s probably not realistic to say that you’ll spend 30 hours working on your final year project. Don’t set yourself up for failure.

Ditch Perfection

Most of us have an inner perfectionist. For some people (I put myself in this category) it’s constantly nagging at them with negative thoughts like ‘This isn’t good enough’ or ‘You can’t possibly show *that* to anyone.’ Jon Acuff, in his book titled Finish (2017), writes both insightfully and humorously on the subject. Anne Lamott shares a similar sentiment in Bird by Bird (1995) (I can’t recommend this book highly enough), where she talks about the need for writers to complete the ‘shitty first draft’. There’s an element of ‘poop and polish’ about the dissertation. You have to get the words out of your head and on to the screen before you can refine them or ask for feedback. You can’t spot the gaps until you have some content. It might not be perfect and you probably won’t use every word that you write, but it’s likely to be much better than you think. As James Thurber put it, ‘don’t get it right, get it written.’

Document Everything

Seeing as I’m supervising you, you’re likely to be working on a technical project. Document every package installed, every command typed, every configuration file created or edited, every problem encountered, every useful URL visited (especially if it allowed you to fix a problem). You’re unlikely to remember this stuff in a few days’ time, let alone in a few months. Keep a journal of some kind. Be organised and systematic. Give your brain a break. I like to create a document for every technical project I work on for just this purpose. I recently had to resurrect an old virtual machine that hadn’t run for several years. It wasn’t straightforward, because of some compatibility issues, but without my technical notes I wouldn’t even have remembered the login credentials. This kind of material might not make it into the body of your dissertation, but it will help you to write about what you did, how and why. Thinking of the academic side of your dissertation, you should of course also keep a record of any papers and other resources that you read and might want to cite in your dissertation. Reference managers such as Zotero and Mendeley can be really useful here.

Find a System That Works for You

One size rarely fits all, so you need to find a system that works for you and then stick to it. This might be a particular time of the day when you find it easier to write. You might have a routine or space that works for you. Some people need the silence of an empty house, others thrive in the hustle and bustle of a coffee shop. I generally need to stay away from the Internet while I’m writing, but I know that isn’t the case for everyone. There are endless writing tools available, from something as simple as paper and a pencil through to speech recognition on a smartphone. Use whatever helps you to suck the precious words out of your head.

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