The most difficult and complicated part of the writing process is the beginning. – A. B. Yehoshua


On one hand, it is the ultimate student paper, the final school-based display of knowledge and ability. On the other hand, it is often—in whole or in part—the first significant contribution to a disciplinary conversation.(Paré, Starke-Meyerring, McAlpine)1

Many dissertation authors struggle because they fail to appreciate that the dissertation is a unique genre. It is a unique literary form or a specific and distinct category of literature. As a broad category, it is classifiable as non-fiction.

It is unique in its format, language, purpose, conventions, and audience.


” A dissertation is more than an extended essay, however: it is an independent piece of work (by you, the student) to be completed in such a way as to satisfy the examiner(s) that you are a competent researcher with advanced knowledge of a specific topic, normally chosen by you, which relates to your Master’s programme,” (Biggam, 2015: 3)2


A dissertation is (generally) not bed side reading.

The language is highly formal. The content is necessarily and intentionally narrow. A non-expert or someone who may otherwise enjoy reading novels or non-fiction is probably not going to rush to the library to take out a dissertation. Why not?

Because …

It’s written in academese.

You have to learn this language. How?

By reading journal articles (I recommend you start doing this at undergraduate level); by looking over dissertations -look at the TOC (table of contents); by attending conferences, colloquia and symposia.

English still dominates as the preferred international academic language.

If English is your second or third language, ask someone to proofread your work. Your supervisor cannot be expected to double as your proof-reader.

Most universities in South Africa mandate that the examination copy of your dissertation be professionally edited. I require that second language students have their respective chapters proofread before forwarding it to me. It simply takes too much time to decipher poorly written work and can be disenchanting to the supervisor. My job is to concentrate on the technical and subject content without being distracted by incorrect grammar of the dissertation.

A bonus is if one of your readers is not a specialist in your area of research. If you have done a good job at explaining the technical concepts, this individual should understand it. It makes your research more readable.

Grammar: Tense, Voice, Person and Number

Tense —

As a general rule you’ll use the present tense when citing a previously published work and the past tense when referring to your current results. However, aim to describe the experiments of others in the past tense, even if they’ve reported their results in the present tense. If you’re in the numbers game, state the outcomes of calculations and statistical analyses in the present tense.

For example: “There are 716 instances of the aorist form of the verb “to be” in the New Testament (Elmern, 1992). I have designed a computer program that distinguishes them in in terms of their principal parts”

Voice —

As far as possible, use the active voice. It is usually more precise and is less cumbersome than the passive voice.

For example: Active Voice: “This verb describes simple actions” rather than Passive Voice: “It was found that this verb could describe simple actions“.

Person —

The general preference nowadays is to write in the first person, although the jury is still out on this one.

Number —

When writing in the first person, use the singular or plural as appropriate. A single author dissertation, should avoid using the “editorial we” in place of “I”.


Formality — A dissertation is a formal document. Give preference to the first person singular, but remember that you are writing a scientific document and not a fiction narrative. Avoid informal contractions like “I’d” or “don’t”.

Repetition — As a rule of thumb, state everything thrice: tell them what you’re going to say (introduce the ideas), say what you said you were going to say (explain the ideas), and then remind them of what you said (provide a summary of the ideas). You may want to apply this to your entire dissertation with introductory and closing chapters, as well as to each chapter with introductory and closing sections. Caveat—do not simply copy and paste whole paragraphs. The three variations of the text serve different purposes and should be composed differently.

Side-notes — Avoid placing remarks in brackets or parentheses. The same goes for excessive use of footnotes. If a statement or fact is important and related to the topic in the paragraph, include it in the main text. If it is not important or directly related to the paragraph topic, leave it out.

References — Citations in brackets are parenthetical remarks. Don’t use them as nouns.
For Example: “Elmern (1992) cites 716 instances of the aorist form of the verb “to be”. Avoid the following format: “Seven hundred and sixteen instances of the verb “to be” is in (Elmern, 1992)”.

Simple language — Long, convoluted sentences with multiple clauses—especially nested using stray punctuation—make it harder for the reader to follow the argument; avoid them. Short sentences are more effective and reader-friendly.


Steven King is famous as a thriller author. He writes to entertain. You don’t.

 You write to persuade.

You argue, adduce evidence, critically engage, synthesise in order to prove your hypothesis.

You demonstrate that you can as a PhD candidate produce new knowledge in your research area or discipline. Your purpose is to make a fresh or original contribution.

 If you’re a Master’s student, you are not required to produce novel or original knowledge. Your purpose is to demonstrate ability to conduct independent research—to identify a problem and address it using a stated scientific method, the end result being to demonstrate advanced specialized knowledge. 

“A Master’s qualification,… signifies that the holder has gone beyond the acquisition of general knowledge and has advanced specialised knowledge of a subject. Masters programmes come in various guises, with the more traditional and well-known Master’s titles-MSc., MA, MLitt., and MPhil.” (Biggam, 2015: 2)”



A dissertation must comply to specific academic conventions. Again, this may vary from one institution to the next and from one faculty to another. Check with your faculty or department to get clarity on this matter.


A PhD has a very small audience. The number may vary from institution and country. In the South African context (mine) and at my institution, within our Faculty (theology) five people will read the dissertation. This groups consists of examiners (we use two external and one internal), the supervisor and you, the PhD student.

Audience wise, we are talking 3 to 5 readers with a few others accessing it for research purposes usually only within your field or on your topic or closely related.

So, a limited, discipline specific audience of experts.

You will write to convince, firstly your supervisor and secondly, your examiners of the originality of your research, its contribution, validity of your thesis and argumentation.The university will place your completed dissertation in digital format in its archives. Most universities still require hard copies that are made accessible via the library.

But there’s more … good news …

Though the examination panel is the first audience that will see this project, it is not necessarily the only audience.

Dissertation chapters may eventually become articles. The entire doctoral work can become an early draft of your book project. Additionally, dissertation chapters are also the basis, potentially, for conference papers.

In this way, various elements of the dissertation blend together and give access to an extended readership reaching beyond the limited “first-level” audience.

Knowing this will help you approach the project of completing a Ph.D.


From the outset you know what you are dealing with. This in turn clarifies something of the expectations associated with the writing of your dissertation.

Now that we’ve established that the Ph.D. is a unique genre, what does this mean for you?

The implication is huge!

Do you realise what this makes of you?

You Are An Author

An author within a very narrow literary category.

You’re a dissertation author (or at least one in the making—if when you read this you are still at the “considering-it-stage of a PhD).

All the symptoms that “normal authors” experience are what you as dissertation author will experience (if you are at the front end or are considering doing a Ph.D.).

Ph.D. students experience overwhelm, impostor syndrome, procrastination, the lack of focus-these are all symptoms other authors experience everyday.

Now, knowing this should help you to understand why you may be stuck at this moment.

Good news!

Other authors struggle successfully through this or in spite of these challenges and become successful. You can too.

The resources on this page are designed or curated to help you in understanding the process as well as guide you in writing your dissertation.

The process is broken down into the various parts of the dissertation and presented bite-sized bits.

Simply select any topic that may apply to you right now.

Resources Consulted

1. Paré, Starke-Meyerring, McAlpine, 2009: 179, The dissertation as multi-genre: Many readers, many readings in Bazerman, Charles, Bonini, Adair, and Figueiredo, Débora (Eds.). (2009). Genre in a Changing World. Perspectives on Writing. Fort Collins, Colorado: The WAC Clearinghouse and Parlor Press. Available at https://wac.colostate.edu/books/perspectives/genre/

2. Biggam, J. 2015. Succeeding with your Master’s Dissertation: A step-by-step handbook. England, McGraw Hill Education



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