How to start writing your English Literature dissertation

Final year students – I feel your pain.

You’re sitting at your desk, staring at the blinking cursor on a blank Word document, waiting for the dissertation inspiration to hit. It happens to the best of us. Even if you’ve been planning for months, have written up detailed notes on your texts, met up with your supervisor and are convinced your dissertation will be revolutionary, it can be so damn hard to start writing.

So, as a dissertation veteran, I’ve compiled a list of tips and tricks to help you through this painful time. You can thank me later.

1.    Don’t panic

This is crucial. The amount of time spent staring at an empty screen is often directly proportional to the sense of panic and anxiety. Take a deep breath, go for a short walk, have a baguette (whatever works for you!), and start writing. Literally, anything will do.

2.    Write now. Edit later.

I’m a perfectionist. A lot of students are. I tend not to write anything unless I know that it’s worthy of hitting the paper. But this mindset won’t work for your dissertation. Your argument and ideas develop and change as you write. A lot of it is unplanned. My supervisor got tired of hearing: “I need to do more research. I need to plan more. I don’t want to write something crap.” Once I heard the words “Just staaaaaaart!” in response to my excuses, I just started.

3.    Start in good time, with goals

On this note, it was around October that the “Just staaaaaaart!” happened. If I were to do my dissertation again, I would definitely begin properly writing earlier than that. There’s a reason you have a whole year to write your dissertation, and that reason is: it takes a whole year. It really does. Set yourself goals that you know you can achieve. Some students are faster writers than others. If 600 words a week is a realistic goal for you, then stick to that!

4.    Go with the flow

An introduction doesn’t have to be written first. I was all over the place with my dissertation. Once you’re struck with a good idea, roll with it. Bouncing from the first chapter to the third, second, and back again is normal. Don’t worry too much about it getting messy. Dissertations are often a splurge of ideas before you link, edit, and refine your ideas.

5.    Start small

I found it best to start with a focus on one of my texts, before branching out to link it to my others, rather than trying to tackle three huge Victorian novels at once. Let’s not make writing the dissertation process more daunting than it already is!

6.    Remember, you can do it

There may be days where you just want to cry into your coffee. That’s okay! Check out some inspirational quotes on Instagram, phone a friend, meditate or practice mindfulness to declutter your mind. It’s usual to get frustrated and doubt your whole English Literature dissertation plan. But you can totally, absolutely get through this. The more of a struggle it is to start, the prouder you’ll be of yourself when you finish.

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