Content Tips for your Dissertation or Project Write-up

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These tips are mostly focused at writing an academic (and scientific) dissertation. But I think most of these suggestions are sensible enough they should feature in any lengthy document. Based on my experience as an examiner and a supervisor, these are the most common things I notice each time I pick a project write-up.

Writing is hard, but the tips in this post can make it better

Here some tips to get you going:

  1. Use a proper (official) template; this will go a long way in guiding you
  2. Start with the ToC first, and show it to your supervisor.
  3. Additionally, write a two/three page document which describes the narrative of your work. This is for your own (and your supervisor’s) consumption, but will help you the setting of the scene
  4. Look at two or three “Distinction” grade dissertations, from the same department/course. This will show you what is acceptable in terms of the structure/contents
  5. Use the active voice, it makes reading more interesting. Also, most journals require this as a stylistic choice.
  6. Use first-person plural; i.e. we/our (e.g. We examine the performance of four freely available small molecule conformer generation tools.)
  7. Most of the project should be written in the present tense (with the exception of the methodology mostly).
  8. Each chapter should have an ending “Summary” section, with the exception of the Introduction and Conclusion. The Introduction chapter should have a “Document Structure” section instead of the “Summary”
  9. Consistency, above everything else
  10. For the “Introduction” chapter, “Aims and Objectives” should be clear and explicit. For scientific dissertations, the aims may be formulated as research questions. Objectives should not be implementation details
  11. Objectives should reflect the major experiments and findings in your work. This means that the rest of the dissertation, should follow the narrative set in the objectives (there should be subsections in your methodology and results to match the objectives).
  12. The objectives are not steps in your methodology
  13. No contractions (e.g. won’t)
  14. References must be consistent with each other and in the required style (e.g. year at end, full or abbreviated names). I personally prefer Ebejer et al. than a numbered reference [21]. The reason for this is that examiners will be familiar with the main papers in the area, and they can verify that you cited the most important work (and you cited it correctly) without having to flip through the “References” section
  15. Latin abbreviations should be in italic
  16. For an M.S.c from the University of Malta, your project is a dissertation (not a thesis). For a PhD there, your final write-up is a thesis. This is dependent on your institution, but typically these words are not interchangeable. You can also use the word study or research project to refer to your work
  17. Equation, Figure, and Table should be in full and capitalized if referring to a specific instance (e.g. Figure 3). Same for Section, Chapter etc.
  18. Titles should be short (less than 12 words), and punchy
  19. Your Title should not be hyphenated anywhere (certainly not on your title/cover page)
  20. 0-10 numbers should be written as words, otherwise numeric
  21. Numbers should have thousands separator
  22. Use a consistent number of decimal places when reporting your results (typically three in a scientific setting)
  23. References have to be consistent with each other (e.g. year always at the end). Make sure to include pages and volume information
  24. No references to Wikipedia and other non scholarly articles (blog posts)
  25. Each figure (or table) lifted from somewhere else should have “reproduced from Del Piero et al. (2010)”. If you have changed the figure slightly use “adapted from Del Piero et al. (2010)”
  26. Make sure to adhere to the the word limit. For M.Sc. in AI (ICS5200) this is 32,000 (but double check with the course by-laws, as this may change). Your chapters should be distributed accordingly with this in mind. For example, for a scientific dissertation – Introduction (4-5k), Background and Literature Overview (7-9k), Methods (5-6k), Results & Discussion (6-8k), Evaluation (3-4k), and Conclusion (2-3k) for a total of 27-35k.
  27. Capitalization (e.g. for section titles) is important; there are rules which govern this
  28. Section headings should not follow each other immediately but you should always have some preamble text explaining what is coming next and why it is important
  29. Cross-link between sections of your dissertation. It is fine to repeat yourself a few times across chapters (but not within chapters). Keep in mind that examiners will not read this in one sitting, but probably a chapter at a time
  30. Each equation/figure/table must be referenced from the text (and ideally placed closed)
  31. A caption should tell you the whole story. A good dissertation can be read only using the figures/tables
  32. Learn what should be placed in a footnote (e.g. URLs)
  33. The mark of a footnote, should fall outside of adjacent punctuation (such as quotation marks, a comma, or a period). So, footnotes at the end of sentence should be placed after the fullstop.
  34. Take care your paragraphs are not too long. Each paragraph should be made of a few sentences, and should convey one point. Also, take care your sentences are not too long (and without many sub-clauses).
  35. Scientific writing is terse by definition. Remove useless words like very and actually. More so, the word very is for lazy people. Avoid it. There is always a better word than very something, e.g. very tired = exhausted
  36. If you use “First”, readers also expect “Second” and “Third” nearby
  37. No hanging lists. Also related, no titles or headings at the bottom of the page, with no following text
  38. Make sure to use proper grammar; which vs that; where vs were, etc.
  39. Your literature overview should link back to your work, and not just be a report of unconnected work
  40. Never leave the reader questioning, tell them your story
  41. Avoid “above” and “below”, when referring to equations/figures/tables/sections/etc.
  42. You should explicitly define and explain each term in an equation in the immediate following text
  43. Keep regular backups of your writing, and in multiple locations. There is nothing more frustrating than finishing a chapter only to have to write it again because you lost it …

Do you have more hints and tips for the budding dissertation writer?  If so drop me a comment, an email, or a tweet.

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