Tips on Writing a Dissertation

A dissertation for a PhD degree or just as a last year project is a significant undertaking. The following are a few tips to help with this writing task.  

Use of Language

Firstly, these tips are aimed at those who are writing dissertations in the English language. If you are not a native English speaker, it is very advisable to get an expert to proofread your written work. Your tutor’s time is probably limited, so it makes sense to ask a few friends who are fluent in the English language to read your paper before you submit it to your tutor. The person or persons who help you should focus on the actual content without getting side-tracked on stylistic issues.  

On a side note, it also helps if at least one of your proofreaders is not an expert in the field your paper relates to. This will allow them to establish whether or not you have properly explained all the technicalities in a legible manner. 

Use of Grammar

There are several books available where you can get tips on the correct – and incorrect – use of English grammar. 

Which tense to use: Usually, it is best to use the present tense when referring to already published works, and to use the past tense in references to current results. This rule has one main exception and that is when you want to describe any experiments conducted by others, in which case you should use the past tense even when the present tense is used to describe the results. The results of any statistical analysis or calculations should be referred to in the present tense as well.  Example: “Basically, there are six human emotions. I have created some software that shows these by way of images of the human face.  

Use of voice: It is normal practice to use active voice, which generally requires fewer words and is more precision-focused.   

Therefore: "The software demonstrated six human emotions" instead of "It was discovered that the software could show six human emotions".

Use of person: The trend these days veers towards writing from the first person perspective, even though this is still subject to debate.   

References in singular and plural numbers: It is recommended you use the singular version or the plural version, whichever is more appropriate, when writing from the first person perspective. When referring to a work by one author, use the word “I” rather than the more pretentious editorial version “we.”     

You will find some useful tips on using the English language on’s website. 

Matters of Style

Levels of formality: Dissertations are formal papers. The preferred method is to write from the first person perspective, but bear in mind you are creating a high-level document rather than a high-school journal. The use of abbreviations such as “don’t” is too informal.     

Repeat yourself where appropriate: Make three references to everything that is important. Introduce your ideas, explain your ideas, and summarize them. Use this rule throughout your entire dissertation by way of introduction and conclusion chapters, and in any chapter that has an opening and concluding section. You should not, however, just copy whole chunks of text. Each variant has its own purpose and should be worded in a different way. 

Use of asides (or side notes): Try not to use too many parenthesized remarks and do not use footnotes excessively. When something is important, include it in your body text. If it is not important, do not include it.

How to incorporate referenced materials: When citations are placed in brackets, they are considered to be parenthesized remarks. These should not be used in noun-form, e.g., “Author Name [1990]”.

Keep language simple: It is difficult for readers to keep up with arguments when they are presented in complex, over-punctuated sentences with several clauses, so try to avoid these. It is much easier to retain reader attention with short, concise sentences.   

Nouns should not be used as adjectives: Sadly, this is a common error in certain publications, so limit these at least. 

Using Your Word Processor

Understand your word processing software in order to use it effectively. Most likely, you use LaTeX or Microsoft Word. Either way, it is important you know how to use the table of content (ToC), numbering, referencing, indexing, and bibliography features. Be consistent in how you use MS Word’s style features or consider using a WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get) editor (e.g. LyX) with LaTeX.   

Devise a consistent style for page layout and other aspects of your paper.