guiidelines for Masters Students on writing essays and dissertations in research

MEc – Business, Management and Economics: gguiidelines for Masters Students on writing essays and dissertations in research

guiidelines for Masters Students on writing essays and dissertations


The main purpose of these notes is to provide basic guidelines for writing essays and for the preparation of a dissertation from April onwards. The notes are arranged in three sections.

Section A         This  explains  the  importance  of  structure,  clarity,  objectivity,  logical  consistency  and presentation.

Section B         This covers conventions regarding the use of previous literature and highlights key issues about  plagiarism  in  academic  work.  It  also  includes  guidelines  about  the  format  of references.

Section C         This briefly reviews requirements  concerning the length of essays and dissertations and presentation.

Numerous  books  are available  covering  these and other aspects  of essay  writing  in more detail.  The University  Book Shop and the University  Library hold several of these. Two items in the SPRU Library may be particularly helpful:

Gibaldi,  J. (1999),  MLA  Style  Manual  and  Guide  to Scholarly  Publishing,  New  York:  Modern

Language Association of America.

Day, R.A. (1998), How to Write and Publish a Scientific Paper, Cambridge: Cambridge University



The essence  of a good  essay  or dissertation  is that it is built around  an argument.  It is not just an assembly of information  about a topic, nor is it simply a general discussion of a question. It should put forward a specific view about a subject – advancing a particular proposition about a topic, or developing a clear answer to a particular question.

Furthermore, it should be written to convince the reader of the validity of the argument being advanced. That does not mean, however,  that it should focus only on the argument  being advanced,  ignoring  all alternatives. On the contrary, a good essay or dissertation has to consider different arguments about the topic.    Some  of  these  may  have  been  advanced  in  previous  work,  but  others  may  be  plausible alternatives developed by you.

Assessing alternative arguments does not mean vaguely rambling through contrasting statements:   “On the one hand…, on the other … “.  Nor is it adequate to try to convince the reader simply by asserting the superiority  of the view being put forward.  Relevant  supporting  evidence,  logical reasoning  and related literature  must  be  drawn  upon,  yet  all  these  must  be  evaluated  and  assessed,  not  just  piled  up alongside  each  other.  Consequently,  much  of an  essay  will  evaluate  the  empirical  evidence  or logic underpinning the argument being advanced and compare this with the support for alternative views.

These points highlight the importance of selecting and then clearly defining the question or topic.*  Some forms of question will lead inevitably towards simple description or generalised discussion, and it will often be difficult to move from there to a clearly focused argument. Discussion with the relevant course convenor/lecturer  or with your supervisor will often help to define a topic in a way that leads more easily and directly into a good essay or dissertation.

Other features of a good essay are outlined below.

*    In some cases, essay questions may be set for students and the first step may appear to be simply to develop  the central  line of argument  in the answer.  Frequently,  however,  what might seem  to be the defined essay topic or question actually leaves open considerable scope as to the more detailed question to be addressed.  This is clearly  the case when  students  are required  to define  their essay  questions within only very broad topic areas.

  1. 1. Structure

The importance of structure in an essay or dissertation cannot be over-stressed.   It aids reader comprehension  but it also allows you to see the logic of your work. It is therefore essential to prepare a clear  outline  of  the  structure  before  beginning  to  write  the  main  text.  In  the  case  of  dissertations, supervisors will provide guidance on this crucial first step.

The introduction

An  essay  should  always  begin  with  an  introductory  section  and  a  dissertation  with  an  introductory chapter. This is often the most important component.  It introduces the subject area covered and explains why you have concentrated on this topic. It should outline to the reader what you intend to argue, why the argument is so important, and how you intend to move methodically through this argument. It should also introduce the layout of the essay or dissertation.

In  addition,  the  introduction  plays  an  important  role  while  you  are  writing  the  essay  or  dissertation. Although you will often re-write and modify it after the whole piece is completed, it is extremely valuable to write at least a summary of the introduction before embarking on the main part of the text. This serves two main purposes.

(a)      First, it provides  a way of checking  the overall outline structure.  If the central argument  running through  that structure  cannot  be summarised  in a few paragraphs  for a draft introduction,  then there is something wrong with the argument or the structure (or both). This should be sorted out before setting out to write the main text.

(b)      Second,  together  with the outline structure,  a draft introduction  acts as an excellent  ‘route map’ during writing. Re-reading it at regular intervals helps to keep your eye on the intended central line of  argument.  It  obviously  does  not  preclude  modifications,  or  even  additions,  to  that  line  of argument as the writing proceeds. However, it does act as a prompt for explicit consideration of the modification. Is this really a necessary development that helps to achieve the main objective? Or, is this just a diversion  that merely clouds the main issue, however  interesting  it may be in its own right?

The main body of the text

This should  be broken  into logical  sub-divisions  as suggested  by the particular  topic or the argument being presented. These may often cover three key elements:

(a)         a description, definition and/or clarification of the issue addressed, and an explanation of why it is important;

(b)         a review of what others have said on the subject, together with your critical assessment of those views;

(c)         a  presentation  of  your  own  views  on  the  subject,  along  with  the  necessary  evidence  and arguments to support those views.

How those components  are arranged will vary widely. For example, they may provide the framework of main sections in an essay or dissertation,  or they may be sub-divisions  of main sections that deal with different aspects of the overall topic. The balance between these components will also vary widely.

In addition to the headings of the main sections, it may be helpful to use sub-headings to clarify smaller sub-divisions  (although  this  should  not  be  taken  to  extreme  lengths).  When  producing  a  complex argument,  you should also remind the reader periodically  where the argument  has reached and where you intend to go next, together with justification for this direction (see below on “logical consistency”).

The conclusion

This should summarise the main thrust of your argument, the results you have arrived at in your analysis and  their  implications  (e.g.  for  policy  or  company  strategy).    It  should  not,  however,  introduce  new material or arguments – all this should have been covered in the main text. In addition, remember that the

‘conclusion’  section should not appear to be an afterthought;  rather, it is an integral component  of any good  essay  or dissertation.  In the  case  of the  former,  refer  to the  essay  question  at this  stage  and demonstrate in the conclusion that you have answered the question asked – not simply written a general description of the topic area.

  1. 2. Clarity

You should strive to keep the exposition  as clear and simple as possible.   Clarity is aided by making points  in the shortest  possible  way  consistent  with  adequate  treatment.  Avoid  unnecessary  repetition (apart from that required for logical consistency – see below) and general ‘waffle’ that is not making any particular point.

In part, simplicity is a matter of written expression. This is often a difficult task, especially for those writing English  as a foreign  language.  It is generally  aided  by keeping  sentences  short.  Very  rough  rules  of thumb are that any sentence could probably be clarified by shortening if:

(a)         it is longer than about four lines;

(b)         it contains more than three or four commas, semi-colons, etc.;

(c)         it includes more than one or two words such as “which” or “that” introducing subsidiary clauses;


(d)         it includes several nouns in sequence, or several adjectives all describing the same noun, or if the sentence contains several adverbs.


Simplicity  also means  not using  “jargon”  or technical  concepts  unless  they are explicitly  defined,  and restricting  the  use  of  theory  to  the  minimum  necessary  to  provide  the  analytical  basis  of  the  main argument (unless the essay question or dissertation title specifically refers to theory).

  1. 3. Objectivity

As noted earlier, the argument should avoid the use of unsubstantiated  assertion, thereby minimising its susceptibility  to criticism  on the grounds  of subjectivity.  You should pay close attention  to justifying each  claim  or strand  of the  argument  through  such  mechanisms  as  giving  sources,  citing  data,  and referencing relevant literature. However, a common mistake here is to argue by weight of quotation in the erroneous belief that the greater the number of quotations and citations, the stronger the argument. This kind of crude referencing  serves to detract from, not enhance,  the force of an argument.  Furthermore, when  supporting  an argument  with  logical  justification,  you  should  not assume  that  something  which makes sense to you will always make sense to a reader without an extra sentence or two of explanation, illustration or evidence.

A final point  here  relates  to one’s  own personal  values  which  usually  (some  would  argue,  inevitably) impinge in a variety of subtle ways and can often detract from the overall persuasiveness  of the essay. There is obviously nothing wrong with having, or even displaying, personal values concerning an issue. However,  academic  readers  want  to see  an essay  or dissertation  that  has  engaged  with  the issues, arguments and evidence, not just a polemical tract!

  1. 4. Logical consistency

The  essay  or dissertation  should  be written  in such  a way  that  each  strand  of the argument  follows logically from the preceding one and leads logically to the succeeding  strand. The greater the attention paid  to  this,  the  better  the  overall  flow  of  the  argument.  One  useful  technique  is  to  append  a  brief conclusion at the end of each main section or each chapter summarising the argument at this point and anticipating the development of the next section. Such ‘sign posts’ make life much easier for the reader. However, the term ‘logical consistency’ also involves other aspects. In particular, it means that one part of your  argument  should  not  be  contradicted   by  claims  or  evidence  put  forward  elsewhere  in  your essay/dissertation. It also means avoiding ‘non-sequiturs’ and other forms of illegitimate argument.

The features  outlined  above  should  be seen as objectives  to aim at. Sometimes  they may appear  to contradict each other. For example, the amount of necessary detail may preclude economy of exposition. The art of good essay  writing  lies in the ability  to achieve  the necessary  balance  consistent  with the overall objectives of the essay.

  1. 5. Presentation

Your  essay  or dissertation  should  be  neat,  well  laid  out  and  easy  to read,  with  correct  spelling  and punctuation.  Presentation  is very important, partly because it involves skills, which you need to develop whatever your subsequent career. In addition, sloppiness irritates the reader or examiner and is a sign of hurried or careless production and lack of attention to detail.

It can prevent the argument from being understood clearly.

By the end of the first term you should plan to be making use of a word processor. Accurate punctuation helps  to clarify  thought  in the mind of the writer,  as well as assisting  the reader.   Similarly,  accurate spelling helps the reader understand the argument. If your spelling is weak – and even if it is not – use the spell-check facility in the word processor.

You  should  give  special  attention  to  the  use  of  English  grammar  and  spelling.  A  good  essay  or dissertation will not contain abbreviations  or contractions,  (e.g. has not, not hasn’t). You are advised to have your essay or dissertation read by a fellow student or professional editor before submission to assist in clarifying expression.

Lastly,  a word  of warning:  current  word-processor  packages  are powerful  tools.  Do not go overboard using a huge variety of type faces, font sizes, bold, italics and underlining. Any page which contains more than three or four varieties looks messy. Look at books to see how professional  typesetters do it. Then choose one particular style that suits you for headings, main text, footnotes and references, and apply it consistently throughout.


Students will usually make considerable use of published work, and also of work such as reports, theses and dissertations  that have not been formally published. There are several conventions  about how this should be done, but there are two over-riding principles.

The first is honesty – that is, the use of previous work must always be explicitly acknowledged. Failure to do so is at the very least discourteous; and if it amounts to an attempt to pass off another author’s ideas as  your  own  (especially  in  the  context  of  work  assessed  for  degree  awards)  it  will  be  regarded  as cheating.  If  such  misuse  of  previous  work  (called  ‘plagiarism’)  is  found,  the  offending  author  will  be severely penalised.

The University defines plagiarism as:

“…the  use,  without  acknowledgement,  of the  intellectual  work  of other  people  and  the  act  of representing the ideas or discoveries of another as one’s own in written work submitted for assessment. To copy sentences, phrases or even striking expressions without acknowledgement in a manner likely to deceive the reader as to the source (either by inadequate citation or failure to  indicate  verbatim  quotations)  is  plagiarism;  to  paraphrase  without  acknowledgement   in  a manner likely to deceive the reader is likewise plagiarism. Where such copying or paraphrasing has occurred  the mere mention  of the source in a bibliography  shall not be deemed  sufficient acknowledgement;   each  such  instance  must  be  referred  specifically  to  its  source.  Verbatim quotations must be either in inverted commas, or indented, and directly acknowledged.”

The second principle  is clarity – you must give clear and full references  to your sources of ideas and information  so that any reader  can check them and see if they are valid and accurate.  It is therefore important for students to familiarise themselves with the relevant rules and conventions about references and  the  use  of  sources.     Most  of  these  refer  either  to  directly  reproducing  previous  work  or  to summarising  earlier work in your own words.   Let us consider  each of these in turn before examining exactly how to provide references to previous work.

  1. 1. The direct reproduction of previous work

Simply   copying   the   written   work   of  others   without   any   acknowledgement   is  clearly   plagiarism. Furthermore,  it  is  usually  fairly  obvious  to  a  well-informed  academic  reader  or  examiner!  However, provided  the  original  source  is acknowledged,  such  direct  reproduction  is essential  and  legitimate  in academic writing:

Sections  of text may be reproduced  for several purposes  – for example,  where they incorporate  some form of evidence that is particularly important for the argument being developed, or where they include an especially clear way of stating a problem (or an answer or explanation for a problem). In such cases, the directly reproduced text should be set within quotation marks: “…….”, with the source acknowledged – see below for details about acknowledgement.  If the section of reproduced text is quite short (say, less than three lines), it can simply be incorporated  into the author’s own text without any major re-arrangement. However, if the reproduced  section is longer, it is usual to indent it (sometimes  also with narrower line spacing than in the main text). For example:

Several studies have indicated that Japanese firms frequently combined the acquisition  of   foreign technology with their own intensive R&D activities. Usually the firms’ own R&D took place after technology acquisition in order to absorb efficiently what had been acquired.  However, it often also took place in advance of technology acquisition. One important study has indicated the main reasons for this pre-acquisition research:

These  approaches  enabled  Japanese  firms,  first,  to  know  the  real  merits  and

demerits of a new foreign technology (that is, to decide whether to secure a licence or not); second,  to prepare  themselves  technologically  to absorb  only the desired components of foreign technology (that is, to ‘unbundle’ foreign technology, thereby enhancing their bargaining power in negotiating with the supplier); and third, often to come up with significant technological improvements …”  (Ozawa, 1980, p. 146).

This kind of direct reproduction  of text should be used sparingly if it is not to lose its impact. Indeed, if used frequently, it gives the impression of a very derivative piece of work.

Tabulated numerical data or diagrams may be reproduced directly from previous work to demonstrate or illustrate  an  important  point.    There  is no  problem  about  this,  provided  the  original  source  is clearly acknowledged  (see below).   Sometimes the data selected from previous work may be re-arranged, or a diagram may be slightly modified. If the re-arrangement  or modification would be entirely obvious to any reader of the original, then the acknowledgement can indicate this in a simple way (for example: “Adapted from Table 6 in Smith, 1985, p. 43”). If something more complicated is involved (for example, combining the original information with data from somewhere else, or introducing some totally novel element into the original diagram),  further explanation  will usually be necessary  – perhaps  in a footnote  indicating  what information  came from the original and what has been added. If major departures  from the original are involved, the relevant steps may need to be described explicitly in the text of the essay or dissertation.

It should also be remembered  that information  cited from the Internet, or from other electronic sources, must also be acknowledged (please see below for guidelines).

  1. 2. Summarising and synthesising previous work

Very  frequently  you  will  need  to  summarise  the  work  of  others  without  citing  the  original  text.  It  is important that you should do this in your own words, rather than simply by reproducing sections of the original. Again, acknowledgement  of the intellectual debt is usually required, but judgement is needed to distinguish between three different situations:

(a)   Instances  where  no acknowledgement  is needed.  Some ideas are so well established  as part of general knowledge that they no longer require any acknowledgement  of the source. For instance, it is  no  longer  necessary  to  identify  the  person  who  first  demonstrated  that  the  demand  for  a commodity varies inversely with its price.

(b)   Instances where a general reference to a book or paper will suffice. As noted earlier, if previous work is being drawn on to provide specific support for a statement or a strand in the main argument, then it is necessary to indicate precisely where that support is to be found (see below). In other situations, one may be referring  to the general  contribution  made  by an author,  for example  in opening  up particularly useful discussion of an issue. In such circumstances,  it will be adequate just to cite the relevant work(s) without giving a specific page number – for example:

Much  of  the  literature  on  industrial  innovation  focuses  on  the  individual  firm  as  the  source  of innovations.  However,  an alternative  perspective  has emerged  over the last decade,  giving much greater  emphasis  to collaboration  and interaction  between  firms as a major source  of innovation. Following mainly from the work of Lundvall in Denmark, one of these perspectives  has focused on the interaction between users and producers of innovations (Lundvall, 1993).

(c)   Instances  where  specific  page numbers  are needed.  This is essential  when  sections  of previous work are reproduced verbatim – as in the earlier illustrative example on page 7, or in shorter sections that may not be separately indented in the text. It is also required when specific evidence or views are drawn from previous work to support the argument being developed in the essay or dissertation – even if that involves summary or synthesis in your own words. For instance:


Policy makers in many of the former centrally planned economies hoped that, with liberalisation  of controls on foreign investment, the inflow of capital would be accompanied by significant transfer of technology. In practice, this does not appear to have taken place – at least not in the case of Russia (Gutman, 1991, pp. 20-23).


When  in  doubt,  follow  the  third  of  these  conventions  and  give  page  numbers,  especially  if  you  are referring to a book or long paper.



3        How to reference


Apart from acknowledging  intellectual debt, references enable readers to consult the original material, to check the data and so on. Enough information should be provided to facilitate this. The usual practice is to include references to previous work in two places: a brief summary appears in the text, and full details


are given in a list at the end. There are many different conventions  for referencing,  and the notes that follow provide only a simple introduction  to one of the most common  approaches.  However,  once you have chosen a particular format for references, you must apply it consistently throughout.

Further details can be found in numerous guides and manuals such as those listed at the beginning  of these notes, and students should consult one of these.


3.1     References in the body of the text

Following  the  general  guides  outlined  above,  if you  refer  to another  author’s  ideas  in your  essay  or dissertation,  you  should  immediately  acknowledge  this  by  identifying  the  source.  This  information, included in brackets, should provide the author’s name, the date of publication and (where appropriate) the page(s) from which the ideas or information were obtained, for example: (Jones, 1991, pp. 295-296). The full information about this reference would then be provided in the reference/bibliography  section at the end of your work.


3.2     The reference/bibliography  section

There  is  a  distinction  between  the  terms  ‘bibliography’  and  ‘references’.  References  relate  to  those authors whose work you have directly referred to in your text. A bibliography, however, is an acknowledgement  of all the literature that you have read and which influenced your thinking on the topic addressed. Some texts separate the two, but most SPRU essays and dissertations require only a single list of references at the end.


  1. a) Books

Within such a list of references, one of the most commonly used formats for a book reference is:

Surname, Initials. (date), Title of Book, City:  Publisher.


The punctuation  and style conventions  should  be followed  consistently.    So, for example,  you might reference as follows:


Clark, N. (1985), The Political Economy of Science and Technology, Oxford:  Basil Blackwell.


Note the use of upper-case (‘capital’) letters for the main words in the title.  (If italics are not available, the title may be underlined instead.)


  1. b) Journal articles

A widely used format for a journal article is:

Surname,  Initials.  (date),  ‘Title  of  article’,  Journal  Title,  Volume,  [issue  number  if necessary], pages.


For example:


Mowery, D. and Rosenberg,  N. (1979),’The  influence of market demand upon innovation: a critical review of some recent empirical studies’, Research Policy, Vol. 8, pp. 103-53.


Note the use of inverted commas around the title and the full stops after abbreviations (e.g. “Vol.”, “pp.”). In this particular example, no issue number is required because the page numbers are sufficient to enable the reader to find the relevant  issue of Research  Policy.   However,  it is needed  for journals  like New Scientist where each issue begins at page 1.


A common format for unpublished or “in-house” papers is:

Surname, Initials. (date), ‘Title of Paper or Report’, Name of Institution, Address.


For example:


Freeman,  C. (1987),  ‘Information  Technology,  Structural  Change  and the UK Economy’,  Science

Policy Research Unit, University of Sussex, Falmer, Brighton, UK.


  1. c) Internet sources

It should be remembered that just like conventional books and journal articles, any information obtained from electronic sources must be acknowledged. There are a variety of different ways of citing information from electronic sources.


As a general guideline the following information should be included in your reference:

Surname, Initials, “Part title” (if article), Title, Medium (e.g. Online, CD-ROM),  Publishing  Information:

place, publisher date (if available), Available: Site Path, Access Date (not needed if CD-ROM)



Pritzker,      T.     J.     An     Early      Fragment      from      Central      Nepal.      Online.      Available: 8 June 1995

More information  on this subject can be found in the MLA Style Manual and Guides to Scholarly  Publishing, noted above.





  1. 1. Layout


For dissertation (see Appendices A and B)

The pages should be typed on one side only on A4 paper and should be set out as follows:


(a)      The text must be double-spaced or one-and-a-half spaced. It may or may not be right-hand justified, according to preference


(b)      Indented quotations and footnotes must be single-spaced


(c)      The left-hand margin should be 1½” or 3.75cm wide

The right-hand margin should be ½” or 1.25cm wide

The top and bottom margins should each be 1″ or 2.5cm


(d)      Footnotes must be single-spaced


(e)      Pages must be numbered at the top, in the centre



  1. 2. Length


Essays should be no longer than 5,000 words, unless otherwise advised.


Dissertations should be no longer than 20,000 words for the PPSTI and STS Programmes, and between

10,000  –  15,000  words  for  the  TIM  Programme.  TIM  students  should  also  consult  the  Technology

Management Project Handbook. The IM Programme dissertation length is 15,000 words.


Please note: the word limit includes include footnotes and/or endnotes, quotations in the text, but does not include the bibliography, appendices, abstracts, maps, illustrations, transcriptions of linguistic data, or tabulations of numerical or linguistic data and their captions.


You are asked to state on each cover sheet the approximate  number of words in the exercises.  If the Examiners  consider  that  you  have  gained  an unfair  advantage  by exceeding  the given  length  for an exercise they must reduce the mark for that exercise.


Appendix A


1” or 2.5cm margin at the top





Organisation is as follows:


  • Title page – see sample overleaf
  • Acknowledgements
  • Summary
  • Contents

⇒           List of titles of chapters and appendices (if any)

⇒           List of abbreviations (if appropriate)

⇒           List of illustrations, figures, maps and tables

(if appropriate)

  • Introductory section or chapter
  • Numbered sections or chapters, as appropriate
  • Conclusions
  • Bibliography
  • Appendices (if any)







1” or 2.5cm margin at the bottom


Appendix B


















Submitted in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of

MSc in name of the degree


SPRU – Science and Technology Policy Research


University of Sussex


Date (Month and Year)

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