Laying the Groundwork

Laying the Groundwork

This post covers the steps I first took before starting my dissertation. For those short on time The TL;DR provides a quick summary of the main points and tips. Otherwise, I also provide a more detailed outline and background of how I approached this crucial first step that I took before I even wrote that first draft.

The TL;DR

  1. Look at your calendar and work backwards.
    • Going back from the deadline date to the present moment, how much time do you actually have. Taking into account your other deadlines and commitments.
  2. Use the A2B method.
    • Get a blank piece of paper or your preferred note-taking method, draw a timeline from A to B.
    • Ask yourself the question: In order to get from A (assuming right now you haven’t started your essay/revision/project), what do I need to do or how can I get to B (the deadline)?
    • Keeping in mind the estimated time you have from the step above, mind map and break down the steps it will take to go from a blank word document to a finished and handed in essay.
  3. Make a solid plan.
    • Using the points made in Step 2, start to flesh out a realistic and balanced timetable that takes into account how you work. For each sprint or block of work, set deadlines and targets – this allows you to break down the task into manageable chunks rather than leaving you feeling like it has to be all done at once.
  4. Meet your deadline.
    • Laying the groundwork before you even start, means that you know what you need to do and where to focus your attention in the run up to your hand in.
    • By breaking down the problem like this, it allows you to approach the task in a focused and less daunting way.
    • If you do get a little lost once you start writing, you have a framework to follow, rather than panicking and trying to figure it all out along the way.

My Experience:

My dissertation was a form of assessment for the Lawyers, Practice & Ethics (LPE) elective that I chose. The remaining of my electives (Roman Law, Corporate Insolvency and Information Technology Law) were assessed via 3 hour exams in May 2016.

For LPE, 40% of the mark came from submitting a 4,000 word portfolio consisting of critical assessments of topics and materials that we had covered in the course throughout the year. I had to do four of these at around 500 words each. As well as this, I then had to write four corresponding 500 word critical reflections of my initial critical assessment i.e. how well did I think I had assessed the material and ideas initially and how could I improve my arguments etc.

60% of the mark would then come from a 6,000 word essay. This was based on either picking a question from a pre-approved list curated by the lecturer, or agreeing on one with him. Since one of the topics covered a theme I was interested in, I decided to go with that question. I will cover this a bit more in the following post on “How to pick your question / theme/ topic”.

1) Look at your calendar and work backwards.

Before I started writing my essay, I worked backwards and worked out how much time I actually had from start to finish. I did this by looking first at when my deadline for that essay was (29th April). Keeping in mind that my exams were in May also, I had to figure out how much time I would dedicate to normal revision whilst prioritising the essay as that deadline was the closest.

2) Use the A2B method.

I wrote A on one side the paper and B at the end on the right.

I then asked myself: where are you now (A) and where do you want to be in relation to this goal (B).  So my A to B and self-questioning looked something like this:

A

  • I have a blank page, I need to figure out my topics/ what I want to write about.
  • I need to find out what materials I need so that I have good quotes.
  • I need to then start writing this and go through three drafts minimum before I have something that I am happy with.
  • I need to pick which four critical assessments and which four critical reflections will form a part of my portfolio.

B

  • I need to have a 6,000 word essay and 4,000 word portfolio put together and ready to hand in.
  • I need a well put together bibliography as well.

An actual example from an essay that I had to hand in, in my second year for my jurisprudence dissertation:

I believe using the A2B method was crucial and useful for a number of reasons:

Create some brain bandwidth

  • Writing things down frees up your brain’s bandwidth. By mentally off-loading at the beginning, it allowed me to focus on the important details. The idea being that, you can’t focus on too many things at once. Additionally, if you want to solve a problem, writing down your thought can often help you to identify and discover your thoughts, the facts and your feelings about it. This way you then don’t have to use your mind to remember but to instead think clearly.

Create Ideas

  • By writing in this way it helped me to come up with some preliminary thoughts and ideas. It also provided me with some clarity and focus on what it was that I was trying to achieve. As I always say, fail to plan, plan to fail.
  • Additionally, by doing so it allowed me to create a blueprint that I could refer to in those moments when I was stressed. By thinking ahead I gave myself an essay lighthouse,bwhich inevitably came in handy in the tough moments and allowed me to redirect appropriately when I was stuck.

Create a focus

  • It allowed me to see the big picture and this in turn allowed me to prepare a realistic plan. By doing an overview, it was easier to see the big picture and the different components that I would need to think about in order to complete the whole task.
  • This is useful because you are not surprised as you go along because you’ve thought and planned ahead as appropriate. Breaking down the task also allows you to not feel as overwhelmed. By doing so it’s easier to see that you don’t have to complete everything at once and whilst writing a dissertation is challenging it doesn’t have to be daunting. This gives you a place to just start from.

3) Make a solid plan.

Using the A2B method, I identified a few main tasks that I needed to focus on that flowed from each other and would eventually lead to a finished essay.

It looked something like:

Week 1: Prep

  • Be Picky: In order to have an idea of what I wanted to say/ what I thought, I needed to pick apart my question. By mind mapping around the keywords and ideas, I would have some ideas on what I could research.
  • Using tips from my lecturers and reading I had already come across during my class, start collecting and sourcing relevant materials .i.e. articles and books.

Week 2: Research, Read, Repeat

  • Using the identified materials as a start, I dedicated a whole week to just reading, and collecting snippets from those books, articles and blogs whenever I came across an interesting argument.
  • Top Tip: use Cite This For Me as you go along.

Week 3: Planning and the First Draft

  • Keeping in mind the collected materials, I started by putting together a skeleton of headings which roughly outlined the direction I wanted my essay to go. This was largely informed by the ideas and reactions I had formed as I read and researched.
  • I also started to slot in the readings/quotes under the relevant headings, this is how I started my first draft.

From roughly week three onwards, I went through various iterations of my essay and I will cover this more in depth in a later post. A summary of what I had was:

  • February:
    • Research/read for LPE essay.
    • Begin an outline.
  • March
    • Start writing my essay.
    • Revise, revise, revise wise.
  • April
    • Review month.
    • Edit final draft of essay.

That’s how I started thinking about my dissertation, let me know in the comments below if anything is unclear or if you need more help!

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