English Department Dissertation Handbook King’s College London Preface

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English Department Dissertation Handbook

King’s College London

This booklet is intended to help you in writing an undergraduate-level dissertation or research project in the English Department. For the remainder of this handbook, we will adopt the term ‘dissertation’, but the advice holds good for any such exercise. It is intended to supplement the very important specific advice given by your dissertation supervisor and any classroom guidance on dissertation work provided by individual programmes. Writing a dissertation, even with the very best supervision, can feel a lonely enterprise; this booklet should help provide an additional source of reference when your supervisor is not immediately to hand, and so help ensure that the overall support you receive in writing your dissertation is in line with what you receive in your other, taught courses.


This handbook is based on, and draws extensively from, one used very successfully in the Department of War Studies for a number of years, and its adaptation for a handbook now used in the Department of History and written by Professor Ian McBride. We are immensely grateful to both Departments and to Professor McBride for permission to reproduce much of their content, adapted where necessary to reflect the specific requirements of the English Department.


In some ways writing a dissertation may simply seem a matter of doing at greater length something with which almost any English degree programme will have given you considerable experience of as a matter of course: writing an essay! There is no doubt (and this should be a reassuring thought) that a key element in succeeding with your dissertation will be to build on the skills and techniques you have learned when researching and writing other English essays.

    However, there are three things you should note in tackling a dissertation rather than an essay:

  • Careful Planning – This is vital to ensure that you tackle issues in an appropriate order and allocate appropriate space to each aspect of your topic. This is particularly the case with dissertations since they will be two to four times longer than a normal essay.

  • Extra Time to Research – This is needed since there are no classes, essays or exams covering your dissertation and you will need more research for a dissertation than an essay. Your dissertation is expected to be the product of thorough and in-depth research and its success rests on it containing ideas or insights which make an original contribution to scholarship, rather than simply summarising established wisdom.

  • Freedom and Self-Reliance – This is more significant to your dissertation than in essays since no question is set for you and no reading list provided. This freedom is an advantage, in that you can follow your own interests and select for yourself (albeit in discussion with your supervisor) the topic you wish to pursue.

This handbook aims to address these distinctive features of dissertation work by discussing four areas of consideration:

  • Choosing a Topic

  • Conducting Research

  • Planning the Dissertation

  • Writing the Dissertation

This document is intended to be read in conjunction with the Department of History style guide, which also contains essential information on the presentation of your dissertation.

    Finally, the booklet will set out the regulations that apply to our dissertations in the English Department, including word counts, footnotes, and publication information.

  1. Choosing your Topic

The topic you choose should be one for which you have energy and enthusiasm, one which stems from your intellectual interests and priorities. If you are not sure of your topic it is fine to accept advice from your tutor, another member of academic staff, a friend or even the internet, but the final decision should be yours. It should be a topic that you are happy to live with for several months!

    It is not advisable to choose a topic simply because you have a preference for a particular supervisor with expertise in that field. While of course we go to considerable efforts to match you with supervisors with overlapping interests, it is not always possible to guarantee a particular supervisor for a particular project. Often there will be many more students wishing to work on a topic than a single supervisor could be expected to manage with any effectiveness. And, as the dissertation is intended to represent a piece of original research, and is your chance to study things you have not necessarily been taught on your other modules, it is also often the case that your topic may branch out into areas for which staff in the English Department have only tangential expertise. This is rarely a problem. Your supervisor will have read and/or supervised many dissertations before now, and is skilled in conducting research, finding materials, and writing and structuring work of this length. Your supervisor is not there to teach you anything about the topic, but to offer guidance and direction as you conduct your research, develop your ideas, and begin to structure a long piece of writing.

    As you choose your topic, it is important to avoid being over-ambitious. You should beware of using this opportunity to tackle a massive question that has been preoccupying you intellectually. The topic must be do-able. In composing your question consider the following things;

  • Express your topic as a question

Don’t ask “How important was the imagination in Romantic poetry?” – this has too many possible answers. Instead you could ask “How did Lord Byron define the ‘imagination’, and what role does he give it in Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage?” Instead of “How do medieval writers respond to the classical past?” you could ask “How does Chaucer construct Troy and the classical cityscape in Troilus and Criseyde?”

    By doing this you narrow the focus of your work making it more manageable and making your dissertation more concise and targeted. (The technical term for this is ‘adding a second (or third) variable’ which narrows down the focus of the first.)

  • Is the question actually researchable?

Some topics are more difficult to research than others. If you want to write about readers’ responses to a particular author, or indigenous literatures in colonial contexts, or to bring queer theory to the discussion of Anglo-Saxon poetry, you are going to have to think very seriously about your methods. Where will you find the sources to show what readers thought about your author? (Perhaps reviews, or diaries, or letters – and where are these located? Are they published sources, or are they originals in archives? Do you need to travel to see them, or permission to access them?) Do the texts you need to look at in order to answer your question actually exist? Are there too many texts, and have you thought about how to narrow them down? Are any of your texts in translation, or in other languages, and do you have the requisite skills to read them? Have you read current thinking about bringing together two seemingly-disparate fields, and do you have any ideas about how you will bring them into sensitive dialogue?

    Do not give up too soon, but never be afraid to drop or amend a topic where the resources are too thin, or to focus more narrowly within a broad topic if you find that there is more material than you first thought.

  1. Choosing your Topic

  • Where does your question fit within the literature on the subject?

Almost any topic you choose to write about will already have a body of scholarship surrounding it. The issue you have to determine is whether you are contributing something new to that body of scholarship. This contribution can either say something original about the topic using well known sources or discussing u familiar material to offer new perspectives on familiar debates.

    A note about originality, though. ‘Originality’ does not necessarily mean that you are offering a ground-breaking, earth-shattering transformation of all existing ideas on your topic. It simply means that you are a) generally aware of what has already been said before and b) have your own take on it. Originality can be quiet and understated: perhaps you are bringing well-known texts together, but in unusual combination; perhaps critics have always considered the role of sexuality in poet x, but have mostly focused on her longest and most famous poems, and have not systematically related these ideas to the diaries she wrote in her youth, for instance. Perhaps there are two broad schools of criticism engaged in debate about a particular playwright, but you see a compromise between them based on your close reading of a particular, lesser-studied passage. It does not matter what kind of originality your dissertation possesses: what matters is knowing the body of scholarship on your subject well enough to know when you are saying something different (however slight that difference may be).

  • How will you tackle the topic?

Do you have a method of approach which really suits the subject? Can it be broken down into workable parts? Is there a part on which everything depends but that needs more work before deciding and proceeding further?

    This set of issues does not need to be fully resolved right at the start, but these are questions worth considering before you begin your research.

  • How do you make the task as manageable as possible?

Planning. Having a good methodology for your research makes you more organised and disciplined and helps inform your critical approach. Choosing the right method of approach is therefore every bit as important as developing your basic question. Consider what you feel comfortable with:

  • are you at your best as a historicist, examining the relationship between the texts and the literary moments and cultures in which they were produced? Or are you a theorist, applying big ideas to the understanding of literary texts, or generating big ideas from them? Perhaps your inclination is to formalism, closely analysing the formal or material features of a text or a group of texts to elucidate their meaning? (Quite probably, you are a bit of all three. But you may have leanings in a particular direction, and it is good to acknowledge and build on those preferences and skills.)

  • do you need to incorporate visual, musical, cinematic, scientific, psychological or other kinds of sources into your analysis? If so, how will you acquire the skills to read them with as much fluency as your literary texts?

  • is the question you have devised actually suited to the approach you adopt?

  • if your approach is different to those which have already been done, what are its strengths or what does it add to the existing scholarship on the topic? (i.e. new approaches to old problems can be welcome!)

Don’t be afraid to ask people and to discuss your plan at length with your supervisor before beginning. Be sure that the topic suits the methodology and vice versa and that both the methodology and the topic suit your own academic strengths.

    As you conduct your research there are likely to be a number of interesting avenues of research that you might follow, all taking you in very different directions historically. Having both a working question and a method of analysis to which you return again and again will help keep you focused on the essentials.

  1. Conducting Research

  • What are your primary texts and sources?

One way to ensure that your dissertation includes ‘new’ research is to think about expanding the range of primary sources you include. If you were writing about Charles Dickens, for instance, you might think not only about reading his novels, but also consulting his published notebooks and plans for his novels, his letters (also published), his works of nonfiction, his journalism, or the magazines he edited in the 1850s and 1860s. Or, if you are writing about Renaissance prose narratives, you might think about paying as much attention to the paratextual materials that accompany them as to the narratives themselves. Do not limit yourself in thinking about what these sources might be: manuscripts, diaries, newspapers, private archives, works of art – all can be extremely helpful in enriching your understanding of a text, genre, or author. If you are still not sure what your sources might be, consider some of the following:

    • Search library catalogues for books and journal articles that cover the general subject area that you’ve chosen

    • Read the footnotes and bibliographies of works on the topic to see the texts other critics refer to

    • Check the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (available online with your King’s login) for any writers you are working on – especially the less well-known. Here you are likely to find biographies, and a list of primary biographical sources, for many of the subjects of your research.

  • Where are your sources?

    • Begin with the Maughan Library. Even if they do not have the texts you require they may have electronic subscriptions to newspapers, texts, or journals which allows you to access them online. The library also has specialist databases and search engines helping you to track down relevant source material, including 19th Century British Library Newspapers, British Newspapers 1600-1900, British Periodicals, Early English Books Online, Eighteenth-Century Collections Online, First World War Poetry Digital Archive, Middle English Compendium, Times Digital Archive, and World Shakespeare Bibliography Online. (Do not be afraid to ask the library staff for assistance.)

    • Try the numerous other libraries within London including Senate House and the British Library. It is always a good idea to have a look at manuscripts or first (or particularly important) editions of your texts first hand, or to examine complete runs of journals of special interest to you, even if they are well known or accessible online.

    • The National Register of Archives is fantastic for finding the location of manuscripts and historical papers relating to any individual or organisation in British history, and discovering where relevant collects are housed, and how to gain access to them.

    • DO NOT be afraid of using the internet to help you locate sources and even to read scanned primary sources online. Beware of Project Gutenberg with its many inaccuracies, but www.archive.org and Google Books and Google Scholar are very good places to start. However, do also take care using information from unknown sources. Also remember how transient the web is as a medium, with websites frequently changing and disappearing. When you find key material, save or print it straight away for future reference.

How will you make an appropriate list of secondary reading?

Read around your subject so that you can frame the terms of reference for your research question. Look at secondary material for clues from the experts who write on the subject for issues or aspects that have not been explored in any depth before. Another approach is to deal with a subject from an angle it hasn’t been examined from previously. Is there a theoretical approach that appeals to you but that hasn't been applied to this text or author before? Do you perhaps feel there has been an overemphasis on a particular theory, and that close reading, or paying attention to the material features of the book, might reveal something different about your texts than critics currently emphasise? Is there a historical event or context with which you feel your text is engaged, but which has not been considered? Or do you have a different opinion about the text, or a different response to it, than you have found expressed in the secondary criticism you have read? Make sure that you become aware of the different debates on subjects, and start to formulate your opinions – but be prepared to change those opinions as you do more research. While you’re doing this reading, take detailed notes, and begin to compile a bibliography. Finding secondary material can be difficult, but the following resources are invaluable:

  • Again, the library. Try searching the British Library catalogue for a more comprehensive list of books and articles on your chosen subjects, as this is a copyright deposit library and contains every work published in Britain after 1850. Remember that it is less comprehensive for non-British material.

  • It goes without saying that JSTOR and Project Muse are useful for searching for journal articles, but other library databases including the MLA International Bibliography and Periodicals Directory and WorldCAT are also useful.    

  • Follow the trail of references in the footnotes and bibliographies of the essays and books you read. This way you will get to see the critics whose work comes up time and time again and is therefore of prime importance when thinking about your texts. This approach will also help you find secondary materials that are not easily found through internet or library search engines.

    As far as possible, stick to your plan, but note that this plan, or even your research question itself, can change as you do more research. It may be that you find that some information cannot be obtained, or that there is some material that needs to be incorporated at the expense of other information. This is part of the research process.

  1. Planning the Dissertation

Missing a deadline can mean a straight Fail, so it is imperative that you plan your dissertation clearly before beginning to avoid rushing towards the end. You will also be working on other modules/essays/exam revision during this time, which makes careful planning all the more important. Remember that part of the test in the dissertation is precisely to see whether you have the self-discipline and planning skills to make the project fit properly within the time available.


  • Block off time in your diary on a weekly basis for work on your dissertation. You should spend as much time on your dissertation each week as on your other modules: a day a week is the minimum expected. This will prevent you from putting it off due to a lack of urgency until it is too late.

  • Divide up your total time between “research” and “writing up”. Do not underestimate the time required for the latter. Also, remember that there is overlap between the two: you should try to get ideas down on paper whilst they are still fresh in your mind, and begin brainstorming and drafting at as early a stage as possible.

  • You might wish to begin with a survey of some of the key secondary materials: this will help you to define the areas you wish to study in more detail. If you are working on Shakespeare, or a similar subject for which there is enough criticism to take an entire lifetime to read, perhaps try to get a sense of the main critical voices in your field, with help from your supervisor. In general it's a good idea to focus on more recent publications as they should include reference to what has been said before.

After initial research:

  • Break down your research, and time allowance, by topic. This way you can avoid devoting so much time to one aspect of the topic that you cannot give others the attention they deserve. Wait until you have some handle on your ideas/arguments and then use them to structure the work. This structure can be changed later on if required. This may involve answering distinct sub-questions or developing distinct sub-arguments which work together in logical fashion to build the overall argument you wish to make.

  • Try to leave yourself plenty of flexibility in your timetable, especially towards the end, to cope with unexpected emergencies and also to allow you to follow interesting and important angles which become apparent during your research and writing.

Before writing:

  • Divide your word count into the sections of your dissertation to avoid an overly long part one and a two-paragraph conclusion.

  • Look carefully at your organisation into sections and subsections, and your use of headings for each. Make sure that these headings follow a similar format (e.g. "The Body in Dubliners", "The Home in Dubliners", "The Soul in Dubliners") and that the sections are roughly the same length. This is a really good test of the clarity of your argument, and helps your reader enormously.

It is impossible to prescribe in generic terms the best way to structure your particular dissertation, since each approach has its own strengths and weaknesses, and the critical determinant is what is most appropriate for your own specific case. The main thing is to continue to revisit and develop your outline dissertation structure throughout your project. This will serve to focus your thinking throughout upon the final product, and will provide a very useful vehicle for discussing your evolving ideas with your supervisor at each stage of the process.

  1. Writing the Dissertation

Of the four areas which this booklet covers, the process of writing the dissertation is the one which differs least from the techniques with which you should already be familiar from writing shorter essays. Whereas your supervisor will be able to discuss with you at some length your choice of topic, your research methodology, and the structuring of your dissertation, he or she can only give you limited feedback on drafts of your final submission. This means that more, not less, effort should go into this side of the project since you will necessarily have less support available. Be careful – an apparently well-conceived dissertation can often be let down by poor expression, clumsy and unclear phrasing, or careless proof-reading.

Timing: the most important thing to remember when writing your dissertation is to ensure you leave enough time to do your research justice. DO NOT leave the writing to the last minute. In fact, the earlier you start writing the better, as writing is often the process by which we achieve our best and most detailed thinking. Writing up your close readings of key passages, or drafting a literature review outlining the key debates on your topic, will provide you with invaluable documents when you come to write the finished product, and working in this way before a supervision will help you direct much more effective and detailed conversations with your supervisor.

Drafting: you should be prepared to throw out many drafts, to pull apart and stick together your writing many times, and to write and rewrite over and over again. This is essential to good writing and is often a sign that you are pushing your thinking to new heights, rather than an indication that you are not good at writing or that things have gone wrong.

What to Include: You will almost certainly, during your research, amass much more material than you can possibly fit into the dissertation itself. It is important, therefore, to be selective when writing the final piece. It is here where the question you are addressing becomes at least as important as your overall subject area in helping you determine what is relevant and what is not. You should ask of each sentence you write the question, “so what?” If that sentence does not in some way advance your argument, it probably should not be there. Even in relevant areas, you should find that you know more than you have space to write, and that you are in effect summarising your own knowledge. This is a good thing, since such well-informed summaries are less likely to be flawed than are passages where you are writing at the limits of what you know. In other cases, there will be fascinating stories or ideas which you have come across, and which you will be tempted to include because of their intrinsic interest, regardless of their relevance to the argument at hand. You should try your best to resist such temptations, since such interpolations, however worthy, merely serve to disrupt and confuse your overall message. Your dissertation is not your only chance to include these ideas, and you should aim to find some other more suitable outlet for them elsewhere.

Imagining your Readers: it is all-too-easy to imagine that the only audience for your work is your supervisor and your examiners. While in practice this might be true, the best academic writing is lucid, persuasive and engaging. Imagine that you are writing for a general, intelligent reader. Read your work aloud – to real people or imaginary ones – so that you can hear where your argument falls off, where you are repeating yourself, where you have glossed over your examples too quickly, or where the pace slackens. Remember that you are trying to persuade your readers of something you care about, and the best way to do that is to make them care too.

Style: during your dissertation research you will have read numerous scholarly articles. As well as providing you with interesting arguments and details these can also be used as style guides. It is worth considering the way in which they construct their arguments and situate them within the existing scholarly debate, what techniques they use to convince readers of the power of their own ideas and how they use evidence without incorporating lengthy slabs of narrative. Try also reading other people's dissertations, in a range of styles, so that you can get a sense of what works - and what might work for you. We are working on producing an archive of good dissertations to make this more possible.

Writing: Avoid extremes of either assertion or narrative. Do not simply assert your points. Instead, ensure that each successive point is backed up with supporting evidence. You should similarly avoid slabs of narrative which lack a clear sense of what point you are trying to make. Another pair of opposing dangers to be avoided are advocacy and equivocation. Do not ignore contrary evidence and ideas, since it actually strengthens your argument to consider opinions opposed to your own and demonstrate why you have discounted them. On the other hand, you should not be so concerned to sit on the fence that your writing consists of a string of opposing points each prefaced by “However …” – an approach which soon leaves the reader with no idea of which side you are really taking. When making an argument, try and avoid over-using non-committal phrases (e.g. “seems like”, “maybe” and “perhaps”) as it comes across as if you are unsure of your argument and can weaken the tone of your dissertation. If you haven’t convinced yourself of your argument, should you be using it? What is your evidence?

Proof-Reading: The examiner does not know what you meant to say, only what you actually say! Ensure that you leave enough time to read and check your work for mistakes, overlap and compliance with the word limit. You may find it easier to proofread from a printed copy and then type up your corrections.

Plagiarism: although your dissertation should include some degree of original thought (as discussed above) you should not shy away from any reference to the work of others; quite the opposite. You must situate your argument within the broader scholarly debate, thereby demonstrating your familiarity with the secondary literature as a basis for your further research. Do ensure, however, that you are correctly referencing this literature to avoid the accusation of plagiarism. If in doubt, follow the the clear instructions in the English Department Style Guide, available here: http://www.kcl.ac.uk/artshums/depts/english/study/handbook/assessment/taught/styleguide/essayguide.pdf

Electronic backing up: you MUST take care to regularly save and back up what you have written. Hours of irreplaceable hard work can be lost very quickly.

  1. Submission

  • Dissertations should be 10,000 words in length. A 5% allowance either side of this is permissible. Beyond that the usual penalties apply.

  • All work is to be typed

  • Typing should be double-spaced and in 12 point font

  • We now only require KEATS submission. No hard bound copies of the dissertation are required. However, if you would like to keep a copy for posterity, both the Maughan Library and Ryman’s on the Strand offer cheap binding services.

  • Dissertations should have a cover sheet, which should include the dissertation title, word count and your candidate number.

  • Your name must not appear anywhere on the document. Please use your candidate number instead.

  • The word count includes the main text, footnotes and appendices (except where this is an illustrative reference) but NOT the bibliography.

Notes in Closing

This handbook cannot cover everything that goes into writing a good dissertation, and some of what is written here may not be relevant to all projects. Our aim is to offer some general hints, which you can take or leave as you see fit. Remember that as well as this handbook you should be consulting your programme-specific handbook for detailed requirements. Many of the sections of this guidebook will be discussed and workshopped in more detail as part of the Writing Strand series. Above all, as you know, your individual relationship with your dissertation supervisor remains by far the most important component of our support, and you should take full advantage of your supervisor’s help and advice as you tackle this challenging but fulfilling endeavour.

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