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Dissertation Planner: Write & Edit

This planner aims to help doctoral students through the dissertation writing process.

Dissertation Sections

Your dissertation introduction will be similar to your proposal introduction, so you can use your proposal introduction as the starting point for it. The introduction needs to introduce your topic to the reader, establish the context of how you conducted your research, and summarize past and present formulations of the topic. The introduction should also cover your rationale, theoretical perspective, and research design and methodology. Remember to explain the significance of your research question and potential outcomes.

The introduction might include acknowledgement of the previous work on which you are building. It might also provide an explanation of the scope of your research, i.e., you may want to explicitly state what will and will not be included due to any circumstantial limitations or conscious decisions about coverage. The introduction can be a road map of sorts that helps you construct a table of contents of the completed dissertation.

Here are some tips for writing your introduction:

  • The introduction will be the first section your readers see, but consider leaving it as the last section of your dissertation to write. Until the rest of your dissertation is complete, you may not be able to write with certainty about what exactly you are introducing.
  • Your proposal should have been written in future tense ("Through my research, I will investigate ..."). If you reuse parts of the introduction from your proposal, make sure to update the tense to past tense ("Through my research, I investigated ...").

The literature review should provide background for your research, explain your research question, and elaborate how your contribution will fit into the existing literature.  Further, through your literature review, you should:

  • Develop an in-depth understanding of the topic and clarify why your research is significant;
  • Ensure that your research is a distinctive contribution;
  • Understand the broader discipline(s) of which your topic is a part;
  • Position or frame the topic in your field and establish the link between existing research and your question;
  • Explore important methodologies, controversies, and research issues;
  • Identify key researchers by name, relevant research centers, core journals that publish research bearing thematic or methodological similarities to yours, and possible sources of funding; and
  • Explain your rationale for your research design and methodology.

Be aware of the need to be selective and strategic. Trying to include every article and source that you found on your topic is unnecessary (and is a quick route to making yourself crazy). Think of yourself as a curator at a museum. Select the most meaningful and representative works for the literature review. You will, however, read and critically evaluate many more sources.

The extent to which your dissertation will or will not include a separate and discrete literature review may depend on conventions within your department and/or discipline. As always, consult with your advisor!

The results section of your dissertation is the place to report your findings based on the data you gathered. This section should appear in a logical sequence based on your methodology. State your findings without interpretation.  

Use non-text objects, including tables, figures, images, and visualizations, to illustrate your findings.  These 10 simple rules show you how to generate better figures.  The University of Kentucky offers a variety of software for free download that can assist you in creating effective illustrations and graphics.

Below is a video about presenting information in a visually appealing way.

The discussion section is often considered to be the core of your dissertation.  It explains what your results mean and highlights the significance of your research. Consider having these elements in the discussion:

  • Include your research question identified in the introduction;
  • Incorporate notable elements of your literature review into the discussion; 
  • Explain how your results relate to existing literature and if they are consistent with previous research;
  • Describe the significance and implications of what you found;
  • Identify any unexpected or contradictory findings;
  • Explain how your research enhances or fills a gap in existing research and/or literature;
  • Describe how your research has advanced the discipline;
  • Describe how your results can be applied. This commentary could take a variety of forms, such as a real world application, a summary of best practices, or other recommendations.  

This section should contain the conclusions you have reached because of your research, an explanation of any limitations in your research, and some possibilities for future studies of the topic.


Reviewing & Editing

Review and edit

Seeking feedback, reviewing, and editing your draft will assist you in:  

  • Examining the overall organization to identify what is no longer relevant and what needs further development;
  • Synthesizing sections written at different times to create a coherent and connected whole;
  • Seeing your work from a reader’s perspective;
  • Clarifying your ideas for others, which will aid readers' understanding of your research; and 
  • Planning and discussing your progress in consultation with your advisor and committee members.

Feedback can help you immensely along the writing process.  Think about how to connect with your dissertation support network and members of your committee to solicit constructive feedback. 

You may receive more helpful feedback if you:

  • Discuss with your advisor and members of your committee to establish a process and a timeline to receive timely feedback on your drafts. 
  • Identify potential readers’ skills and expertise when deciding which part(s) of your dissertation you want them to review. For example, perhaps only people in your department can comment constructively on your methods and general conclusions while friends in other disciplines might be better-positioned to give useful feedback on your introductory chapter.
  • Give your readers some directions, e.g., explain what you want to accomplish in the draft and list your specific questions and concerns. 
  • Respond to all comments even though you may decide not to incorporate the reviewers' suggestions.

You should be editing and revising throughout the writing process, and you should also budget sufficient time to return to your draft for full-scale revision.

When making early edits, make large changes in organization and content ("Higher Order Concerns") first rather than spending time fiddling with a sentence ("Lower Order Concerns") that might end up being removed in the end.  Purdue University's Online Writing Lab offers helpful advice on managing higher order and lower order editing concerns

When it comes time to do your final small-scale editing and proofreading, pay attention to some common errors.  The Writing Center at the University of Wisconsin - Madison has created a list of common errors in its Writer's Handbook

Additionally, you can hire an editor to help you. The Department of Writing, Rhetoric, and Digital Studies at the University of Kentucky provides a list of editors available for hire

Copyediting can be tedious, but make sure to:

  • Correct mistakes with spelling, punctuation, and grammar; 
  • Check all calculations, visual details, and citations for accuracy and validity;
  • Update the reference section if you have added and/or removed citations in the dissertation; and
  • Prepare and/or edit the bibliography, appendix, title page, and acknowledgements last to ensure they account for last-minute changes.