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By Cally Guerin

As I’m gearing up to take on the new semester and meet the new cohort of students, there are two PhD students in my corridor preparing to submit their theses in the next few weeks. It’s a stressful time after working on these projects for three or four years – so much of one’s identity is caught up in the thesis itself. And, to be perfectly honest, I think you need to go a little bit mad before reaching the point where you can let go of a doctoral thesis! But what can be done to make this final stretch a little more manageable?

One source of anguished howls echoing down the corridor arises from formatting crises. I asked our wonderful IT person, Helen Foster, about her recommendations. She has the following advice for people using Word documents:

1. Start with a template (if your university doesn’t have a recommended template already, it’s worth getting something put in place, at least in each Faculty or School). For students it’s much easier to modify an existing template than create a new one.
2. To ensure that changes to styles are applied to all future documents generated from the template, go to ‘Styles’ and then select ‘New documents based on this template’.
3. Almost every change to the look of the text should be done via styles, not by formatting text. Exceptions are the title page wording and the words “Table of Contents” that appear before the automatically generated table of contents.
4. Use Body Text style rather than Normal style for the bulk of text so that any modifications are confined to the ordinary paragraph style. Changes to Normal style will have a ripple effect through other styles.
5. Insert a section break any time you want to change the content of headers and footers, including the style of page numbering. Again, this confines the change to that specific part of the document.

Helen does say that it isn’t always necessary to use a separate template. An alternative approach is just create a word document for the first chapter and do a File > Save As to create additional documents for subsequent chapters, deleting the text but maintaining all styles, footers etc.

Using a template that already has the right page size and margins in place from the beginning will make it easier to manage tables and graphics in the final version of the thesis. One of the loudest howls of anguish came from a student whose beautifully designed, complex tables suddenly didn’t fit her page when she realised she had to leave room for binding.

Many PhD students are used to working with the basics of word processing programs, and don’t realise how much more there is to know. ‘Outline’ is another really useful function to view the headings and shape of a chapter to see the structure of the argument as it unfolds. It can also provide an easier method for moving text around the document. While all this formatting of doctoral writing seems unbearably mundane in the beginning stages when creativity is in full flight, it can save weeks of heartache in the final stages.

And yes, examiners do care about typos and other little errors, as we know from research undertaken by Mullins & Kiley (2002) and Carter (2008), amongst others. Proofreading is slow, painstaking work and not easy to do effectively on one’s own writing – it’s too easy to see what you are expecting to see, rather than what is really there. Supervisors can be very helpful, of course, but it can be reassuring to get friends and/or fellow students to read sections, not to mention professional editors (see my previous blog on that topic). Ensuring consistency of spelling, of titles and numbering of pages, tables, figures and diagrams across chapters is a separate task in proofreading – again, the use of templates right from the beginning can help here. While occasional errors are not the end of the world (I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve opened up a thesis at random in writing group discussions, only to spot a misspelling or wrongly numbered table at the first glance), too many of these mistakes can be extremely irritating to examiners.

Do you have some further advice on how to avoid formatting problems at the last minute? Or stories to share that might be instructive to those involved in preparing theses for examination?