How to Write an English Literature Dissertation, in 21 Easy Steps

I feel myself to be a bit of a self-taught expert when it comes to English Literature dissertations. I’m now into the last few days of my Masters dissertation, and having spent the last few months navigating a veritable emotional rollercoaster, I thought it only right that I share some of the things I’ve learnt over the past few months (if only because drafting blog posts is an entirely welcome relief from reading literary theory for five straight hours at a time). So, with that in mind, I present you with:

How to Write an English Literature Dissertation, in 21 Easy Steps

Step 1: Pick a book or an author you like a lot. After all, you’re going to be reading it over and over! For an extra challenge, choose something particularly obscure and complicated so that you can look progressive and experimental. Also there’s less chance that the markers have read the book and can therefore contradict your ideas.

Step 2: Begin researching your chosen author.

Step 3: Begin panicking when you discover that there is either a) absolutely no research on your author, and you are therefore lost in the metaphorical woods, or b) so much research on your author that after reading the fifteenth psychoanalytical reading of the novel’s first two sentences you begin to wonder whether there’s any point in you even trying to do anything original.

At this point you may wish to learn some new profanities to add to your vocabulary. This is probably the closest you will come to acquiring any real-world knowledge over the course of the coming months.

Step 4: Spend three months reading masses of books, most of which are only vaguely related to your topic of choice. Realise, two months in, that you have failed to create a consistent and reliable system for organising your notes, and consequently lose two-thirds of them. For some, this will be the cue for the first full-on breakdown. (Popular choices of breakdown include: uncontrollable bouts of crying, unexpected and unpredictable spells of aggression (destruction of crockery a distinct possibility), and periods of insomnia so extreme you frighten your neighbours when you pass through the hallways like a ghost.)

Step 5: Write a plan for your first chapter. Promptly destroy it out of sheer embarrassment at the quality of your ideas.

Step 6: Begin questioning the very point of studying Literature, the Arts, writing dissertations, and Life in general.

Step 7: Confidence shattered, return to another two weeks of intensive and more focused research, cursing yourself for not realising sooner just how much reading you would need to do.

You may wish to take this opportunity to develop an unhealthy obsession with a new TV show, and waste hours of valuable time binge-watching all of the latest episodes on Netflix. (Note: in some cases you will re-watch this show in years to come and wonder how you ever became obsessed with something so poorly written, acted, and directed. But you’ll still think of it with fondness as the closest you came to human contact for whole days at a time.)

Step 8: Regale your friends, family, and random members of the public with your woes, dwelling with gusto on your own failings as a writer, student, and general human being. Simultaneously avoid organising meetings with your supervisor so they don’t know how far behind you’ve fallen.

Step 9: When you finally do schedule a meeting with your supervisor, lie through your teeth about your progress, and recall that about fifty per cent of literature degrees is learning the art of BSing with gusto. Your ability to BS effectively will likely give you a little boost of confidence that will quickly evaporate after three or four days and/or the next time you draw up an essay plan.

Step 10: Finally begin writing your first chapter.

Step 11: Fantasise about banishing your turd of a first chapter to the fiery pits of hell where it belongs. Banish it to the darkened recesses of your hard drive instead.

Step 12: Begin your next chapter, buoyed by the fact that you actually managed to finish the draft of your first chapter. You will fail miserably.

Step 13: Realise you have now failed to meet all three of your self-imposed deadlines. Laugh derisively at the naïve you of four months ago, who actually believed they’d have finished the draft of their entire dissertation by now. You may wish to cue another breakdown at this point, although some prefer to keep it for the final week, just to spice up the days leading to the final submission.

Step 14: Depending on your habits, realise that you have either a) not eaten a proper meal since February, and struggle to recall the last thing you ate, or b) find that stress-eating has turned you into a giant, bloated balloon filled with pasta, takeout food, and crackers. In the case of Option b), panic and strap on your running shoes and go for a brisk jog around the neighbourhood. Spend the next two days nursing your sore legs and consuming your entire body weight in M&Ms.

Step 15: As the deadline approaches, start writing your remaining chapters in a sleep-deprived panic. Begin speaking in short, disjointed sentences because only half of you can actually focus on human conversation at any one time.

Step 16: Develop an increasingly unhealthy relationship with your dissertation. Oscillate between thinking about it as ‘your baby’ when telling people how attached you feel to it, and hating it so much you have to fight off the temptation to set fire to your computer.

Step 17: Begin the painful process of editing your own work, which is usually about as enjoyable as most forms of medieval torture. At about this time you may wish, if you have not already done so, to develop an obsession with backing up your work. This usually includes the purchase of about three additional hard drives and USB sticks, and twice-daily uploads of your work to email servers and the Cloud.

Step 18: On the night before your dissertation is due, pull an all-nighter because you realise that you’re 7,000 words over the strict word limit your school has imposed. Shed countless tears as you mercilessly axe some of your favourite phrases, arguments, and observations.

Step 19: Take your dissertation to the university printer’s early the next morning, only to discover that half the student body has apparently decided to hand in their work today. Try to fantasise about all the different ways you’d like to hurt them; luckily, given your state of extreme sleep deprivation, the most you’ll be able to do is mutter a curse word under your breath and try not to fall over while you’re waiting in line.

Step 20: The big moment has arrived! It’s time to hand in your dissertation. Your heart is pounding, although that could be from all the caffeine you consumed this morning (it didn’t help). The staff at the office seem oblivious to the fact that today is the big day, and that you were expecting an enormous fanfare and maybe a cake. Experience the anticlimactic and slightly unreal moment when you hand over your dissertation. Then head home and sleep, struggling to remember all the while how to walk.

Community You Broke Me

Step 21: Go out and celebrate! You’re finished! You’ve earned a stiff drink and maybe some karaoke. You prepare yourself for a night of heavy drinking and partying. By nine pm you’re face-down on the bar table, having got about midway through your first drink. Depending on how close you are, your friends will either a) carry you home and carefully put you to bed, or b) put you in a cab, wave in the general direction of your house, and hope you don’t get robbed.

N.B. If you are planning to progress to a PhD thesis, the above steps will need to be repeated on a rotating twelve-month basis for three intensive years. You may wish to bulk buy tissues and chocolate, and preemptively cancel your Netflix subscription. Or try to figure out why academic stress seems to make you turn into a character from a 90s rom-com.

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3 thoughts on “How to Write an English Literature Dissertation, in 21 Easy Steps

  1. at least you retained a sense of humour. Re point 1 I would add that you should choose a novel or author that you are prepared to come to hate. You might love him/her/it now but after all those months of dissection that could change

    • Haha, yes, that thought does cheer me up. :D

      I remember when I first started planning my dissertation the advice we all got from PhD students was pretty much that – pick something you’re ok with coming to hate. I have to say, it’s pretty good advice!

  2. Pingback: August in Review (or, what I read, wrote, photographed, and loved this month) – Reflections of a Reader

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