By Sarah Thomson |

Last week I was asked if I could speak to some postgraduate students about to start writing their Masters dissertations, as part of Historical Perspectives’ new series of summer workshops at the University of Glasgow. The students have to write a 15,000-word dissertation by the end of the summer, and, as a recent graduate, I was asked to share any advice or things I wished I’d known this time last year. I asked around my department (and on Twitter!) and gathered a range of advice from people at all stages of academia. Most of it is applicable to anyone who has a summer of writing ahead of them. So, if you’re drafting a thesis chapter, writing an article, or finishing up your masters, then this post is for you!

The following is a slightly abridged version of the notes I made for this session (with the initials of the people who sent in advice).

Planning and Research

  • CA: Being realistic about the amount of work you can do is important- if your topic is too broad, you can run the risk of stressing yourself out AND producing work that you aren’t proud of
    • AB: Ensure the chosen topic is very focussed in scope. This allows for a focussed historiographical analysis and a detailed historical investigation to demonstrate your research skills
  • ST: Do as much as you can before you get there- reach out to archivists in advance (sometimes if it’s a small archive or a small amount of material you need, they’ll scan it and send it to you so you don’t need to make the trip! The dream!)
    • ST: Make use of online finding aids and send a list of the material you’d like to access to the archive in advance so they can hopefully have it set up when you arrive
    • HZ: archivists are generally helpful people, and approaching them early could help you find material that will make life a whole lot easier
    • ST: Get a scanner app (CamScanner/Scanner Pro) that connects to Google Drive or something similar and it will save you so much time when you’re making copies of primary sources
  • TZ: it’s important to structure your research- start with secondary literature, then published primary sources (memoirs), then archival material, then press sources
  • ST: Make the most of your supervisor- they’re there to help, and will want you to produce the best work possible. Be honest with them about what you’re hoping to achieve
  • LW: zotero zotero zotero!! referencing software has saved me so much time and agony and the best time to get familiar with it is at the start of a project!
  • LM: Start with the end in mind, and work back from submission date, printing time, electronic submission. Also think about your conclusion and work towards it from quite early on

Coffee- the fuel of many a dissertation or thesis chapter!


  • ST: Personally, I like having a rough writing plan and sticking to it as best as I can. I can’t write 4,000 words in one day, though I know some people can! I aimed to write 500 words per day, sometimes breaking that into smaller chunks (100 words, 250 words- sometimes cheating and just writing really long footnotes just to see the word count creep upwards…)
    • ST: This (like everything else in this guide) is entirely subjective- some people write much more quickly than I do then trim their writing down. Just make sure you’re being honest with yourself (don’t say you’ll write 2,500 in a day if you know that’s impossible, or you’ll end up demoralised). Some people prefer to break their writing down by time (“I’ll spend an hour per day writing”) or into chunks.
    • ST: If it helps, there are online writing communities and groups that might help you to stay focussed and held accountable. On Twitter, look for #amwriting or #team500
  • KS: Do not (DO NOT) leave writing to the last minute…
  • DG: It’s never too early to start writing during the research process!
  • TZ: Do more signposting rather than less; emphasise the structure/evolution of your argument, transitions etc. Even if it sounds clunky, it’s important to make the dissertation easy to read quickly. And, clarity is important. One can never be too clear!
  • LM: Don’t get precious about a quote or line of argument if it doesn’t serve its purpose. But, store paragraphs/sentences you’re deleting in a separate document- just in case!
  • TT: Try to reread your work in its entirety a couple of times a week, so you can see the overall shape of the project


Formatting, Editing and Proofreading

  • ST: Format your bibliography and footnotes as you go- it’s #productiveprocrastination and will save you so much fuss at the end
    • Some other formatting things- you should renumber your footnotes starting from 1 at the beginning of each chapter
    • Don’t use ‘ibid.’ until you’re finished- you’ll most likely reshuffle things so short footnotes will make life easier.
  • TT: Have a plan for cutting from the thesis
  • ST: If you can, find someone to proofread your work. My friend and I were working on totally different topics, but that makes for a great proof reader as they’ll catch things you perhaps didn’t notice (excessive use of acronyms that won’t make sense to people outside of your immediate field etc.)
    • LMc: Have as many people read your work as you can (that you trust to give you constructive feedback)- no matter the state of the draft and no matter what their speciality is BUT be clear what you’re asking them to comment on- that way you’ll get writing advice, people who can consider the wider thematic points, and some who can just tell you if it made sense to them (ie. the ‘mom test’)
  • TB: Turnitin can identify plagiarism from Horrible Histories books, just fyi…
  • LM: Printing takes time- if you are using colour make sure the colours do work on a hard copy.


General Tips

  • ST: Find a community- a study buddy, a writing group, call it what you will. Someone who will work alongside you and that you can use to help keep you accountable and, more importantly, keep you company.
    • ST: This’ll work best if you have a similar schedule/work ethic- don’t get a study partner who plans to write the whole thing in the last two days if you plan to write in small chunks
    • LM: Fortnightly group meetings were invaluable- it’s a lonely process, stay connected. We also had an active whatsapp group
    • ST: Make sure you have some sort of hobby/part-time job/something else to help structure your time. Having something to do for fun that you can spend time on that’s not research/writing will help you to have a sense of routine and give your week some structure
  • ST: TAKE DAYS OFF. Try to choose one day per week (ideally two) where you won’t touch your dissertation. Working on it a little bit every day for three months will leave you feeling burnt out!
    • LM: “Keep office hours”- 9-5, Mon-Fri!
  • KW: learn to pace yourself, and do the reading consistently through the year so that when it comes to dissertation season you feel mentally prepared
  • TT: Try to read a thesis that got a first in your programme
  • MC: The most important thing for any dissertation is “It doesn’t need to be perfect, it just needs to be good”. Also, understand the purpose of the dissertation. You’re not trying to change the world, you’re demonstrating your skills as a historian, and your trajectory as a scholar.

And, last but not least, ENJOY IT. Getting to devote a full summer to researching a topic you’re interested in is such an immense privilege, and one that you’ll most likely not have again. So, good luck, and have fun!


Sarah is a History PhD student at the University of Edinburgh, working on 1980s American political history. She wrote her Masters dissertation at the University of Glasgow last summer on Reagan’s travels in Europe in 1984.  She’s also one of Pubs and Pubs’ Content Editors, and you can find her on Twitter at @SMGThomson.