English Literature Dissertation Advice

Being completely honest, I had the worst time with my dissertation. My goal had been to achieve a first-class degree, so when it came to my final year of uni, I wanted to focus entirely on getting good-enough grades for top honours. Of course, dreams and reality are two completely different things, and by December I was beginning to crumble under the self-inflicted pressure to do exceedingly well. It was around this time that we were expected to have a solid idea of what our all-important dissertations were going to be on, and by that time the majority of my classmates had a solid idea and had already begun researching their topics, while I was constantly fitting between ideas. It took me a while to get there, but once my decision was made, it felt like a huge weight was lifted off my shoulders.

Then like an idiot, I didn’t actually start working on my project until three weeks before the deadline (though I never told anyone this!) and those three weeks were horrific. If I were to repeat my dissertation experience, I would do it pretty differently. Since it’s late September and students are preparing to get back into learning, I wanted to post some advice for literature students, or students in general, who seek advice on how to cope with their dissertations.

1. Choose a topic you’re passionate about

In regards to choosing your topic, it was recommended to me that I choose a topic that I loved, or had previously studied during my degree. You spend months on this paper (if you’re smart, unlike me) and by the end of it, you are sick of the sight of your novels and research. So why not choose a topic you’re passionate about? My topic was feminism – I chose novels that I had previously read and loved, and the research required for my topic I found genuinely interesting. As mentioned, I didn’t spend anywhere near as much time as I should have on my work, but I managed to write it in such a short space of time because I adored my chosen topic. I know that this piece of advice might seem incredibly obvious, but I knew some people who were overly adventurous with their work, wanting to pick a really obscure genre in an attempt to impress, when – for undergraduate level at least – it’s really not necessary. For an undergraduate literature dissertation, I’d say to stick to what you know and/or love!

2. Read and annotate your chosen primary texts ASAP

While I had already read my chosen novels within the past year of writing my paper, I failed to re-read and annotate them like I planned to. I think it’s pretty important to read your novels and annotate them as you go along, even if the majority of the notes you make don’t make it into your work. Close readings obviously make you more knowledgeable of the texts you’re writing about, and the resulting confidence really shows in your writing. I had so many ideas for my paper that didn’t make the cut because I didn’t make the time to do a close reading of my novels. I’d also advise that you read your chosen novels as soon as you can. I think it’s reassuring to know that, when the time comes to start your research, you have these novels you’re analysing fully read and annotated.

3. Organisation

Pretty obvious advice, but it’s essential. Organise your time so you can find a healthy balance of time to spend working on your paper, alongside other classes and assignments, part-time work, social time, etc. It’s really important for your health that you organise your time between responsibilities so that you don’t crash and burn before you reach the finish line. My boyfriend also has an English degree, and the morning his dissertation was due in he cut a 700 word chunk of his work out, and I vowed that I wouldn’t find myself in the same situation. Fast-forward a year later, and TWO HOURS before my deadline, I was writing my conclusion. I’m such an idiot!! For my other assignments however, I was much more organised. To track my deadlines, I used some printables I found on Tumblr created by thearialligraphyproject. They are really cute, simplistic printables that you can stick to your wall or in a notebook. I’d also recommend Momentum for Google Chrome. It’s an extension where, in a new tab on Chrome, you can personalise your own dashboard and write a to-do list amongst other handy extensions. I found it really useful when it came to organising all the things I had to do whilst typing up my paper at home. Plus it’s motivating and it looks cute.

Also, I’d suggest to be organised with your research and notes (if you aren’t already) because you’re gonna have a lot of them! Have all your digital notes organised too, and have copies to be safe! My friend recommended Dropbox to me so I could access my word documents whenever I needed them instead of sending emails to myself or using a memory stick, and I found this site very useful! For my online research, I had a huge bookmark folder with subfolders and subfolders in the subfolders. Again, all backed up just incase. That’s not even mentioning all the colour-coordinating I did… I’m that person.

4. Be assertive

One thing I would change if I were to do my paper again, would be to voice my opinions regarding the supervisor I was assigned. While my supervisor  was chosen to suit the topic of my dissertation, I feel that I didn’t get much help or guidance from her. I think I had a total of about 15 minutes with her discussing my ideas and progress, and I took next to nothing away from my time with her. Another tutor however loved my idea and the novels I’d chosen, and I think it was a shame that I didn’t reach out to her and ask to switch supervisors. If you’re unhappy with your assigned supervisor, speak up! See the head of your department and express your concerns. Your dissertation is seen as your defining piece of work, and with the huge amount of pressure put on you, having a tutor/supervisor who you feel unhappy with will just make you more anxious. Clashes happen: you just have to be professional about voicing your apprehensions. But make sure you get in early and don’t leave it too late!

5. Study group or solitude?

At the beginning of my final year, a group of friends and I had this plan that we would meet up every two weeks at the uni library and work together on our dissertations. I had this idea that we would read over each other’s work and give constructive criticism and advice. This plan didn’t really come to fruition however, as we all had different schedules and other responsibilities and what not. And part of me is glad this didn’t happen, as I think comparing my dissertation with my friends’ work would have made me more anxious about my own. Just overhearing people’s conversations about how far along they were with their paper had me on edge, and instead of motivating me to work it actually made me more reluctant to work on mine, hence avoiding it until weeks before the deadline. Decide which path works better for you – basically, does comparing yourself to others motivate you or put you off?

I really hate the pressure that’s put upon you when it comes to writing your dissertation. The last week before my project was due in, I was a total mess! I had put off my dissertation for months because of this pressure, and I ended up handing in a piece of writing I was massively disappointed in. Luckily for me, my paper got a decent grade, but I wasn’t at all happy with my work, and I really regret my behaviour.

I hope this advice may help people in choosing their topics and in handling the workload. Let me know what you think! Do you guys have any other advice for the people about to begin their dissertations? Let us know in the comments!

And good luck, you can do this!


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