Thesis writing: the importance of formatting

January 15, 2015

I re-learned an important lesson recently.

I started writing my book, PhD, in early 2014, and quickly reached about 20,000 words before something strange happened.

Although I had plenty of ideas and a clear vision of what I wanted to say, I got completely stuck. I couldn't get past the first few chapters. I felt anxious and indecisive and kept wanting to start again; a feeling I never had when writing my PhD thesis.

I was confident in my content, having previously presented most of it in lectures or in conversations with students, so what was the problem?

Writing without formatting

When I started writing the book, I wasn't formatting the text. This was mainly because of the software I was using—Scrivener is designed to let you get words down without other distractions, the idea being that you can format later.

This is fine in principle, but in practice it was extremely frustrating. I couldn't see what the final product would look like and everything I had written felt unfinished. The more I wrote, the more unfinished material I had and the more anxious I felt.

Formatting from the start

When I was writing my PhD thesis back in 2007, I never faced this problem because I set up the formatting from the start (using LaTeX). Once I finished writing a section, it looked and felt finished. Although there were always changes to make in editing, each section looked submissible.


So I decided to sort out the formatting of the book before trying to write any more. I made my choice of page size, I worked out how the pages would be laid out, I chose my fonts and text sizes, I made decisions about how long chapters should be and how they would be divided into sub-sections...

As soon as I made these decisions and figured out how to implement them (using Adobe InDesign*), the anxiety disappeared and the writing started to flow again.

Set it and forget it

Once you have your formatting set up, it's one less thing to worry about. As long as it remains undecided it'll be a small worry at the back of your mind (and if you leave it to the very end you'll have to do it all under time-pressure). The more worries you can take care of, the better!

*I wouldn't recommend using InDesign for a PhD thesis as it's difficult to add references.

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