Sunday, 3 August 2008

Writing a Dissertation - Part 1

While I may not have "done" much on the dissertation work this last fortnight, I have actually been very busy!

I've been settling into my summer job, had an interview up in London, and been working through a "real" content analysis using my new, improved (probably to be re-improved!) coding scheme!

Also, I've been mulling over the ideas my amazing supervisor and I thrashed out over a coffee last meeting. Plus, I've been reading the research guide in the latest ed. of Turabian. It's a rather good, concise, yet detailed, punchy and warmly encouraging blow-by-blow method for just getting down and DOING the dissertation writing!

I've realised that I've taken a rather "interesting" approach to dissertation drafting: I've actually written up most chapters of the thesis already, before I've done the definitive research upon which it is (to be) based!

This is actually an approach vindicated by authors such as Bolker - to get down and write without worrying at all if what you're writing is good, or properly organised etc. It's just a nice way to get oneself moving, get the ideas out of one's head and onto paper where they're not so daunting and may actually suggest new and better ideas.

In addition to this "zero draft", I have a small ream of notes produced in the Bolker free-writing style just documenting the progress of the whole thing - I think it's really helpful to have a "personal blog" which you only use for yourself. Taking back the "journalistic" roots, actually writing a "journal" for one's own personal benefit!

In my last meeting, with my supervisor, we talked about the overall outline of the dissertation, or, in more immediate terms, the plan of action that's slowly taking shape in my brain. It was very encouraging to hear my supervisor talk about possible conclusions and how I could try to relate my results to my aims. I could envisage this finished dissertation sitting there, making sense and hanging together. Wow!

Sitting here with a massive stack of research papers that I've been sorting through for my literature review (and references throughout the report) has made me see this beautiful vision again; the papers seem to fall (given a bit of mental effort and re-shuffling) into various categories... and thinking of the main themes of each paper and each category as I sort through them, I start to re-imagine the "story" (c.f. the Turabian research guide) that they are telling in the context of my research, and how they will support each section!

I got another useful mental model from my last supervision; the idea that each section of the report must at least briefly reference some or all of the other sections, but have as its main emphasis the points it alone is responsible for making. The whole in the part, and the part in the whole!

The physics graduate in me immediately translated this into a series of waveforms with the peak shifting from left to right as you look down the series (the x-axis is "section of report referred to" and the y-axis is "word count") - but that's not a mandatory visualisation! ;)

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