Writing a dissertation is probably the hardest thing you will do as a student—not only is it much longer than any other paper you’ve written, but it involves doing primary research, not just summarizing the work of others. That being said, it is also one of the most rewarding experiences that most students will have. The whole process can be made much easier if you approach it methodically, following a step by step approach to it.
Regardless of whether you have already been accepted to your program with a proposed research topic, or you are just starting to look at programs and are figuring out what kind of topic you might be interested in, you will need to refine your topic. When choosing your topic, try to make sure that you are utilizing the resources available to you in your program, and that your topic is something that you’ll be interested in working on for the next several years.
This will be by far the bulk of your workload. Because it is primary research, you will need to seek out primary historical sources, such as journals, court documents, government records, or letters. As much as you can you should be trying to focus your research on these primary sources, not what other scholars have written about them.
You are looking at potentially writing a several hundred page document for your dissertation, so it is incredibly important that you outline your paper carefully. The more detailed this outline is, the easier the writing process will be. Try to organize your extensive notes and references within this document so that you can begin to see how all your sources and information fits together.
One common mistake that students make in this process is to not check in with their advisor enough. At every point in your process, and with each of the steps listed above, you should be constantly checking in with your advisor, showing them the work that you have done, discussing your ideas and direction with them, and gaining their feedback. This will not only help you to keep from going off in a bad direction, it will give you valuable ideas.