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Researching and Writing a History Dissertation

In preparing for a final-year History dissertation you need to bear in mind, firstly, that this is a 9,000 word essay and therefore a substantial piece of work (it is after all, a quarter of your assessed work for the year), and secondly, that to do it justice you need to give adequate time to think about your topic, the approach you intend to adopt, the sources you might use, and the way in which the dissertation is going to be structured.


Researching a Dissertation

Your dissertation supervisor should be able to help you with this, once you have decided on a suitable topic and approach. You need to bear in mind that both secondary and primary materials are likely to be involved.

Secondary sources are published (essentially academic) works – articles in journals, essays in edited collections, research monographs and so on. You will need to use these to give context to your topic, to aid you in framing your research questions, your introduction and conclusion. The historiography of your topic is likely to be a significant part of the dissertation and this will come from the secondary literature.

Primary source materials are far more varied. Some of you will be looking at a set of them in connection with your Special Subject; you may also have encountered examples elsewhere in your History modules. Primary sources might include: newspapers, memoirs, correspondence (published and unpublished), Parliamentary Papers, archival records relating to organizations and institutions (the Modern Records Centre on campus has examples of these which you can access via the University of Warwick Library website), literary texts (such as novels and plays), early modern political and religious tracts, contemporary medical texts, or oral and visual source materials (interviews, photographs, paintings etc.).

Some of you will carry out interviews, and thus engage in oral history. A recorded or transcribed interview can be considered as a primary resource - in this case you are creating your own archive. Before starting an interview, you should get permission from the person involved, see whether they mind being recorded or notes being taken, and ask whether they have any objection to being named in your dissertation. You should be very scrupulous in this respect. In a few cases, such work involves dealing with sensitive issues. If this is the case, there is an issue of what is known as the ethics of research. You should not do anything that will have a detrimental impact on anyone whom you are interviewing. If you feel that your work is going to be sensitive in this sort of way, you must discuss it with your supervisor beforehand and get appropriate advice. If you decide that this is the case, you should fill out an Undergraduate Research Ethics Form.

When you come to draw up the bibliography at the end of your dissertation you should divide your entries between primary and secondary sources (most academic books do this, so look at how a couple of historians have done it – but keep it simple). It helps if you can give the location for any archives you have used (e.g., Nottingham County Record Office), and the name given to a particular collection of papers. The time period may also be significant. For example, you may have looked at copies of the London Illustrated News but only for the period 1854-63: this is worth stating.

You should be able to locate a fair number of secondary sources (and some primary ones) in hard copy form in the Warwick University Library. Probably many more can be accessed electronically. The Library also has an inter-library loans facility (now known as ‘Document Supply’): for information how to use this, see the Library website, but it would be unrealistic to try to obtain more than a few items by this route.

You may also want to see what other libraries (especially university libraries) have to offer: many of these have on-line catalogues. You might also want to visit a university library elsewhere and for this you can obtain a SCONUL card from the Warwick University Library that will give you free admission (again see the Library’s webpage for information on this). You can also make use of the British Library reading rooms in London (but access for students is limited: see the Library webpage) or local archives, such a county record offices. This can be very rewarding but it is time-consuming (and in terms of travel and somewhere to stay) can be expensive.

One of the important aims of a dissertation is originality. What can you say that is new about a given topic? Originality really signifies one or two things – or both. It could meaning opening up a new line of enquiry that no-one else seems to have thought of or going back to the existing historiography and giving it a new twist. In this case it is likely to be your ability to reinterpret the existing material, to point out its flaws and limitations, and present logically and clearly a new case that is important. But, perhaps more often, we are looking for some new source – a collection of letters, say, or a first hand account of some kind – that adds a new dimension to an existing field of scholarship or which tackles a topic that no-one seems to have looked at before or thought to be of much importance.


Writing a dissertation

Writing a 9,000 word dissertation requires not just researching a topic but organizing your work effectively. You will probably need to write a couple of drafts, or substantially revise parts of the work, before it is ready for submission. You should have framed your topic (usually) in the form of a question: you (and those who read it) need to be convinced that you have, by the end of the dissertation, adequately addressed and answered that question.

One aid to do this is to structure your dissertation into different sections. You will need to have an introduction, which perhaps sets out the topic or identifies where the main lines of historiographical debate and division lie, or which makes clear what it is about the topic that you are (or are not) going to address. This need only be a couple of paragraphs in length, but it is important to try to get the tone right and to interest your reader in what follows. Clearly, too, you need a conclusion. This might be rather shorter than the introduction, but it should be a conclusion rather than a summary: what have you proved or shown?

Apart from these, you might find it helpful to divide your remaining essay into sections or chapters, each covering a particular aspect of the wider topic and hopefully progressing logically from one to the other. In a dissertation of 9,000 words you might have 3 or 4 or 5 of these, each with its own (brief) title. This should help you and your readers to think more clearly about the natural divisions of the topic, the stages in your argument and the balance between different strands of interpretation and documentation.


You are expected to reference your material (quotations, statements of scholarly opinion etc) through footnotes: you can check on how to do this, if you don’t already know, with the ‘Undergraduate Style Guide’ (which can be located on the History website under ‘Final Year Study’ and then ‘Final Year Handbooks’. But also note what other historians footnote and how they do it. Although you are encouraged to use the Warwick Style Guide, you will certainly not be penalised for using a recognized professional stylistic alternative. The Chicago manual of style, the MLA (Modern Language Association) style, and 'Harvard' style are three of the most used. Proper citation is also necessary to avoid any impression of plagiarism. In general, do not include too many footnotes or make them too long, or use the footnotes to go off on a tangent (see more under 'length and word-count'). It also worthwhile to keep quotations in the text relatively short so as to leave adequate room for your analysis and interpretation. Or, if you think a long passage is warranted, make sure that you analyse it: don’t assume that its meaning and significance is self-evident. Have footnotes and not endnotes (e.g. the notes should be at the bottom of each page).

In general avoid putting large amounts of text in footnotes. This is considered to be bad practice in a piece of history-writing, and you may be marked down for it. The general rule is that it will be considered bad practice to have footnotes that take up a third of the page consistently (the occasional exception is permitted). In general, use footnotes for source citations, rather than give information. Try to put information in the text. However, if the information would break the flow of the text, and is brief, then it is acceptable to put it in a footnote. Look at writing by established historians to get a feel for how they do this.

Length and word-count

You may write up to 9,000 words in your dissertation. This is a strict upper limit, and marks will be deducted if the dissertation is over-length. The rule is that 1 mark is deducted for each 100 words, or part thereof, over the limit. Footnotes , bibliography and possible appendices are not included in this word-count. The title page is not included in the word-count, but titles and subtitles in the text are. You do not need an abstract or content-list, but if you do include these, they are counted in the word-count. Although footnotes are not included in the word limit, you can be marked down for having over-long footnotes that contain material that could be in the main text. Although appendices are not counted in the word list, you should only use these sparingly and for a good reason, for example in providing access to data that you collected in the course of your research that you would like putting on the record. You will not gain any extra marks, as such, for an appendix, and it should not be used to advance the argument put forward in the main body of the dissertation.

When submitting the dissertation, state the word-count on the title page. Remember, as usual, to make it anonymous, with only your student number. You do not need to bind the dissertation, just present it in a neat form.

Don’t forget to leave enough time to proof-read your work: your examiners will not be impressed if your spelling is incorrect or inconsistent or you have clearly not bothered to check dates or obvious facts. You could (and probably will) lose marks if you don’t pay attention to this kind of detail.

Finally, writing a dissertation should be fun: it should give a real chance to work and think like an academic historian, to experience the pleasure of finding something out for yourself, and to have the satisfaction of presenting a well-researched, thoughtfully written and convincingly argued piece of work.

If in doubt about any of this, speak to your supervisor: he/she is there to help you, though not to write the final version for you – that is entirely your responsibility.