Writing a thesis or dissertation is a daunting prospect, something that many Bachelor’s, Master’s, and PhD candidates dread. Even after years of schooling, having to put together and defend such a long piece is a huge job. In fact, it’s one of the most intimidating things that many students will face in their careers.

Fortunately for you, many people have come before you, so you can learn from their wealth of experience on this subject. In fact, the Brainscape spaced repetition white paper itself grew out of our founder's master thesis at Columbia University.

This article will share the five most important tips on how to write your dissertation or thesis.

Ready? Let’s get started.

How to write a great dissertation or thesis

1. Brainstorm your concept

The fundamental—and maybe most important—part of writing a dissertation or thesis is the ideas that form the foundation of the whole exercise. That’s why it’s so important to have a solid theoretical framework for your project before you begin. So, choose your idea wisely!

Ideally, you should be thinking in advance about your thesis or dissertation in the months and years leading up to it. When it’s time to get serious about moving forward and writing, take some time to do a “brain dump”.

Write down all your ideas, concepts, and thoughts related to your project on paper. Consider arranging this in a mind map to allow for linkages to be explored. Some people even like to create an online bank of ideas or flashcards with thesis topics so that they have access to important information at any time and can review the information easily.

To refine your ideas further, make sure to have plenty of conversations with your supervisors, colleagues, and instructors. Ask for honest feedback, and be prepared to revise your ideas based on this. Your adviser should be a constant help throughout this process.

2. Write the proposal

The next step in writing a dissertation or thesis is the proposal: a document that you will submit to your adviser detailing your plan. The proposal has two main goals. First, it serves as a framework to help you plan for and think critically about your project. Second, it allows your advisers to critically evaluate and provide feedback on your ideas before you fully dive into the work.

Your proposal should have a strong line of reasoning that links your work to the field in general, but extends an existing idea or introduces a new one. At this point, it’s important to be realistic about scope. Most people aren’t going to discover cutting-edge new material in their theses; instead, focus on small advancements.

If you’re having trouble with your proposal, you may need to take a step back and do more brainstorming and outlining. It may also be a good idea to read through some of the other proposals made by people in your field to give you a better idea of the standards.

3. Outline your argument

Drafting a table of contents and outline early on can help guide you through the writing process by reminding you to explore certain topics and explain linkages that may otherwise be overlooked. It gives you an important mental framework as you begin to find and document your sources of research.

4. Collect and organize your notes and sources

It is important to search as many research databases as you can, to find all the ideas and facts that might bear on your argument.

We recommend doing this using one of the powerful citation software options that exist, like Mendeley or Zotero. These can be a more effective way to organize your notes and references and save time later on.

If you prefer a more DIY version, you can always simply make a spreadsheet of all your sources with their appropriate bibliographical format as a starting point. Then, in a separate spreadsheet tab, write each fact in its own row, with a column documenting where the fact came from. This will make it easy to later re-organize all your facts into their respective outline item, with the bibliographical annotations ready to input directly into your document.

5. Start writing

Once your sources are all ready, it’s time to move on to writing. In general, it may be best to start writing with the sections that you are best prepared for. Some people, for example, may want to begin with the conclusion and work backwards towards the introduction. Getting started with the easy sections will make the rest come more easily.

Try to write in a clear, straightforward style, even from your first draft. Academic writing, in general, is valued for clarity over flowery language (unless you’re in literature, eh?).

This part of the process won't happen overnight. You may have heard rumors of people writing their dissertation the night before its due, but those are either false or the results were severely low in quality. You don't want that. A proper thesis or dissertation writing process may take months. If you want to find the ability to stick to consistent writing you'll need:

  1. Laser-focused concentration to optimize your writing sessions. Learn how to focus better when studying.
  2. Bullet-proof motivation to write your thesis even when you want to procrastinate. Luckily, we have collected the best tips and tricks for staying motivated.

Also, remember that your proposal doesn’t bind you to a certain path. If your research leads you down a different road than you expected, you should by all means follow it—but it’s probably a good idea to consult with your adviser first.

This article may have helped you learn al little on how to write a dissertation or thesis. But these tips won’t write your dissertation or thesis for you. Now it’s up to you get started. Good luck!