Undergraduate dissertations

Abstracts, tone, unity of style


Some departments and institutions stipulate that your dissertation has to be prefaced with an abstract. If you’ve read the section on ‘Scientific writing’ you will have seen the definition of an abstract there. If you’ve come straight to this section, here’s what you need to know. An abstract is a condensed or abbreviated version of a complete work. It gives a clear description of the contents without reproducing them in detail and is usually somewhere between 100 and 300 words in length.

The key phrase is ‘a clear description of the contents without reproducing them in detail’. This means, for example, that an abstract will include a statement of the hypothesis the writer set out to test and the way that she gathered the data to do this. However, it will not include detailed interpretation of the data or criticism of parallel studies and their methods.

An abstract must be written so that it can stand apart from the main text to which it refers. Any reader should be able to read your abstract, understand what your complete work is about, and decide whether they want or need to read it.

Finally, an abstract should never ever refer to material that is not covered in the completed work.


A common anxiety students express about all writing at university is how to achieve the right tone. For example, how does one achieve a tone that is exploratory and tentative without sounding diffident? How can one achieve a tone that is confident without sounding dogmatic or even arrogant? If you’ve come straight to this section, then look at the section on the second draft in Drafting and editing (on the sidebar) to learn more about tone.

Unity of style

A common problem when writing a dissertation over a period of several months is how to achieve a unity of style. There might be times when you don’t work on your dissertation at all. You might also be working on different parts of it out of sequence.

The first thing to remember is that you must keep redrafting as you go along. Just because you wrote an introduction three months ago that you were happy with doesn’t mean it’s still want you want to say. A dissertation involves a long researching and writing process and it’s likely that what you wrote most recently is going to be better than what you wrote when you started.

The second thing to do is to read your work aloud and listen for differences between different parts of your dissertation. Is the introduction you wrote three months really chatty in tone? On the other hand, are the two pages you wrote last night after an afternoon spent reading Foucault stuffy and full of jargon? If in doubt, read your work aloud to someone else – they will be able to spot these differences more easily than you will.