How to finish and format your dissertation
(Last updated: 12 May 2021)
Hooray. You have now officially finished writing your dissertation. The challenges of determining what to write and how to organise it are behind you. Now, the task in hand is paying attention to the finishing touches, to make your dissertation writing reader-friendly.
Much of the discussion below is a general overview for a paper-based black and white printed dissertation. If you are submitting electronically, there may be other things you need to consider that are technology-based. These might include formatting of graphs and tables when converting to PDF, the inclusion of hyperlinks, and an interactive Table of Contents.
Correctly format your work
Dissertation formatting guidelines vary from university to university and even from department to department. Knowing the requirements for your institution and department are essential as you prepare to submit your dissertation.
Usually every dissertation has an abstract, acknowledgements, and a Table of Contents at the beginning with additional lists for abbreviations, tables, and figures being included if necessary.
You want to ensure that you include page numbers which actually correspond to your Table of Contents. Other than that, it is really about ensuring that you each chapter starts at the beginning of a new page, that headings/subheadings do not end up being at the very bottom of a page (if this is the case, just move them over to the next page), and that your bibliography is appropriately formatted to meet the referencing requirements outlined by your department (e.g. APA, MLA, Chicago, etc.).
It is essential to take the time you need in the formatting process because you want your document to be easy to read and to navigate.
Get your dissertation proofread
Having someone proofread your work can be particularly influential. When we write, and we proofread our own writing, it is easy to skip over the mistakes. An outsider is not likely to have the same issue and so they can catch those errors that you have missed.
If you are a native speaker of English, inevitably, there are going to be minor mistakes with language that can be addressed by another individual. If you are a non-native speaker of English, getting your document proofread is almost an essential part of the writing process.
Proofreading is different than feedback (described below). With proofreading, the reviewer is looking for errors in grammar, spelling, and punctuation, though some proofreaders will also comment on areas that generally seem unclear.
Get feedback from your tutor
Your tutor is going to be one of the main resources for you as you complete your dissertation. If you have a supervisor who is willing to read and make comments on your entire dissertation you should jump at the chance, as they will likely have the most insight into how your dissertation will be marked. But the final read of your dissertation should not be the first time that your tutor is seeing your work. You should have had feedback on each of the chapters – though this assumes that you finished your dissertation in a timely matter and gave your supervisor ample time to read your dissertation.
During this time, remember that your supervisor is only human and they probably have competing priorities. Asking them to read a 200+ page dissertation and make comments in a relatively short period of time is going to make for a very cranky tutor. Instead, ensure that your supervisor has enough time to provide useful feedback. Make sure you ask them about their availability well in advance of providing them with a copy.
You should also remember that you are the expert in your field. While your supervisor might make comments, it is not necessary for you to amend your dissertation exactly to fall in line with the comments made. Usually, these suggestions are simply that – suggestions. Only you know the details of your specific topic area and you are the one that has done the research in this area. If you feel strongly that your supervisor is taking you off track, you should make sure that you maintain the integrity of your work.
Get feedback from your peers
There may be times when your supervisor is simply not available to provide feedback within the timeframe that you need. In this instance, you have to find alternative resources to ensure that you are making the most of your dissertation.
One of these resources may be your peers. Recognise however, that peers are generally at the same level as you are, so their comments may not be as valuable or appropriate as the ones you would receive from your tutor. If you choose to have your peers read your work, make sure that any significant changes are carefully thought about prior to implementation.
Remember also that your peers may be equally as busy as you are, and so the amount of time that they are willing to spend reading your work may not be what you need. In addition, your peers are likely unfamiliar with the subject area you are studying. As a result, they are not going to be able to provide advice on your research, but they may be a valuable resource as an outsider. If there are areas of your dissertation that they do not understand, this may be a sign that you need to clarify these sections in some way.
It may also be useful to check your university guidelines prior to working with your peers. Some universities may classify peer to peer work as collusion, and this can have implications for academic integrity.
As a general rule, it is usually best to obtain either feedback from your tutor or external feedback when completing your dissertation, as these generally offer the most useful comments which can then be implemented (or at least considered) within your work.
For many students, there are inevitably times when feedback from your tutor is not enough. This may be because you were not able to submit your work on time or because the feedback you received was too vague. Regardless, there are always benefits to having your work read by an external third party.
A third party, and someone who is hopefully within your academic discipline, could offer you feedback that can be useful for either amending your dissertation or preparing for questions that might be thrown your way in the defence of your thesis. Before discussing these two types of feedback, it is first important that we highlight the importance of feedback from a reputable source.
While all feedback serves a purpose, you are the ultimate person who can decide how useful the feedback is. Just like with your peers, not all feedback is equally regarded. If you are going to pay money for feedback, you want to make sure that you are getting the actual feedback that you want. There are many ways to achieve this.
First, you should always look for a company that is able to provide you with feedback from a reputable source. This usually means that they can provide someone who is an expert in your academic discipline. This person will have insider knowledge as to what a dissertation is supposed to ‘look like’ and can provide tips that are probably going to be much more relevant to you.
Second, you want to be as specific as possible when requesting feedback. You are likely going to know areas of your dissertation that are weak. So when paying for feedback, you might want to highlight the weak spots and ask the reviewer to suggest ways that these sections could be made better. You are also going to want to make sure that, if possible, you provide the rubric on which you are going to be marked. If the reviewer knows what to look out for, they are more likely to provide relevant and appropriate critique. The more information that you can provide about your work, the better. A reviewer is going to want to know what you had to do, how it is being assessed, and what type of feedback you are looking for.
This brings us to the two types of feedback that can be provided to you. The first form is specific to your dissertation – the reviewer reads your writing and offers suggestions on how the writing can be improved. This can be provided in a range of different ways, depending on the level of in-depth feedback you are looking for. A more basic response might be: “This section seems a bit unclear. Can you revise the topic sentence to active voice to provide a clearer context?”. A more detailed example is: “This section seems a bit unclear. I would recommend changing your first sentence to the active voice. One way you could do this would be to write [insert example sentence for author]”. Here, the reviewer offers an example phrase to help explain the issue with clarity.
In both of these examples, the reviewer is working specifically on the document, making it better prior to submission. However, this is not the only type of feedback that is useful for improving your dissertation. You may want to also consider paying for feedback that looks at and critiques your dissertation as a whole, in preparation for defending your thesis in the viva.
Sometimes it is helpful to have a head’s up about the weaknesses that exist within your dissertation. Inevitably, every research project has areas of limitations, but knowing the ones related to your dissertation can be helpful when you have to speak to others about it. It is also possible to get feedback on this. In this instance, the reviewer would read your writing and offer up potential weak points in your project and how these might be addressed.
Do be mindful though, that not all students are required to do a viva, so this point may not apply to you.
Nevertheless, when you are buying feedback, you typically get what you pay for. Companies that are reputable and whom work with a wide variety of professional academics are going to be the best option, but likely also the priciest. If you feel that you need this type of support, choosing the right service is essential.
How to do your appendices
Appendices are documents that come at the end of your dissertation. They should be organised in a logical way that mirrors the order in which they exist in your dissertation.
Usually, in the submission criteria for your dissertation, the presentation of your appendices will be outlined. Typically, they must be numbered in sequence using either numbers (e.g. 1, 2, 3) or letters (e.g. A, B, C) and must have a corresponding title (this title will also appear in your Table of Contents). If you are presenting graphs, figures, or tables in your appendices, you want to strive to make sure that the formatting is appropriate so that these inclusions do not span multiple pages. You also want to ensure that the font is consistent with the rest of your dissertation. Ideally, you want the reader to be able to easily scan your appendices and figure out what is going on.
One common mistake made by students is to include items in the appendices that do not appear in the actual dissertation. If you have not referenced the document in your dissertation, it should not appear as an appendix.
Finishing and formatting your dissertation can be a tedious and time-consuming process. Being meticulous about how ‘pretty’ your dissertation looks for the reader will often sap any remaining fragments of unspent energy left after the mammoth dissertation writing process.
But despite a lack of energy and enthusiasm at this stage in the game, it's important you don't overlook this process. Getting it right can be the difference between appeasing – or really aggravating – your marker, and therefore scraping or losing a few extra marks.
Essentially, you want to make your dissertation as easy as possible to read so that the marker has a clear path as they navigate your work. There are many things you can do to make this process easier. Get your document proofread. Seek internal or external feedback on the dissertation. Make sure you take into consideration the requirements outlined by your university in terms of formatting and presentation. Keeping this in mind is going to put you in a great position for success.
Editing and proofreading are among the most important steps in finishing your dissertation. If you're thinking about getting some professional support, you've come to the right place.