As I’m sure everyone is all too aware, summative deadlines are looming on the horizon for most humanities students. Today I’d like to set out some steps for managing those longer assignments, particularly projects like the dissertation. This will be based around various academic styles of working, and might help a little in coping with deadlines. For those at the English Dissertation workshop this afternoon, this will be familiar. It’s worth reiterating, however, to calm down those students who feel overwhelmed at the workload ahead.
The first thing to work out is: are you a planner or a philosopher? Planners are those who, when approaching an essay, methodically work through reading, structuring and writing an essay. These types of academics will probably have planned out each chapter of the dissertation in painstaking detail, leaving them only to join up the notes to form their thesis. What I have rather cannily termed the ‘philosopher’ is the student who approaches work in a more abstract way. You also do all the reading, but perhaps you get bogged down in so much information that your ideas become layered, complex, and not so easy to formulate into an argument. Once you have established whether you are a planner or philosopher, you must decide on how to divvy up the remaining time before the deadline.
Planners should aim to have written their piece at least a fortnight before the deadline, and philosophers a week prior to it. The reason for the differing timelines is due to common pitfalls waiting to trap both students. Planners, having detailed their argument prior to writing, will have less difficulty in articulating their essay because of their meticulous approach. The danger of this is that the original argument, so beautifully planned before the actual writing, may end up being too linear and so clear that it appears to lack depth. The final fortnight before the deadline is therefore for substantial revision. Your argument already flows, so focus on elaborating and fine-tuning it to create a more nuanced thesis.
Philosophers, on the other hand, are likely to be students who have a cloud of reading preventing them from a clear-cut argument. For you, the act of writing itself is a clarifying process, and allows you to access your argument as you formulate it into words. The pitfall to watch out here is over-complicating, being over-ambitious, and not addressing the question at hand. The process of writing may take longer for you, so with one week to go, you should aim to have the work drafted. Less re-drafting is necessary here, as the multitude of details which informed your argument from extensive reading means your thesis is probably complex enough already. Instead, any editing of the essay should involve cutting extraneous, no matter how interesting, material from the piece. Also ensure that your writing is clear enough, as a deeply complex thesis needs extra clarification or risks being dismissed as muddled and lacking in cohesion or precision.
Finally, for all blank-page-facing finalists facing the end-of-Epiphany dissertation deadline, bear this in mind: your friends who have already written 10,000 words may just be planners who have the same amount of work to do as you, the endless reader who hasn’t started writing yet. Do not compare yourself to your peers, but focus on your project and the personal approach which best fits you. Good luck!