Thesis writing: the importance of formatting

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.

23 thoughts on “Thesis writing: the importance of formatting”

  1. I just came across your website James, a useful resource. I just wanted to say that I prepared and formatted my PhD in InDesign (after writing chapter drafts in Word, referencing with Papers) and loved it. So reliable and clean, particularly if you are also using Illustrator or Photoshop for images. This video ( was really helpful for sorting out my final reference list.

  2. hi, hope i am not too late to respond this topic, i am agree the importance of formatting, because in my earlier phase studying it hard finding the correct format of thesis writing even guidance given by graduate studies just in general brief (pdf format) not really help, until I made myself start from scratch along my studies. There are arguments from ‘prof’ said there is no thesis can fit all but i can prove that my thesis have only 1 file that contains all from the front until the end of my thesis, it can be done in microsoft office because there have been a lot of features (just need to be learned and apply). Yet, it really hard to apply university format into 1 file, but I do it without any hassle after finish it. Yes, it’s all about margin, separation of roman and page number, table of contents (auto heading and numbering), caption (automatic) and etc. The most important of my thesis is i can save this doc into pdf in second and really nice to view with navigation pane each heading (easier for reviewer browsing and checking). Thats all, see ya!

  3. There are plenty of thesis templates available online. I Googled “thesis format template” and used the first hit, from the University of Texas. The templates were pretty close to the requirements for my university in Australia and only needed a bit of tweaking.

  4. Thanks James for sharing your experience here, I am on the cliff to write my dissertation, am just wondering what is the difference between Background and literature review. what I would say in both!! is it each chapter contains a background.

  5. Oh shit.

    I was under the impression that I just had to write the thing using Word/Pages in an appropriate font, double spaced and submit it. And now I have to do some kind of fancy schmancy formatting before submitting?

    Am I missing something here, because I googled LaTeX and I do not understand why anyone would use it. I looked at a range of thesis binders including the one at my uni and you can submit word docs or PDFs. I can’t imagine how long it would take to convert a word doc into LaTeX, but even if it’s pretty straightforward, it seems a hell of a faff! So please, why do it?

    • On reflection, I think I came over a bit luddite* in my comment.

      I went through as an undergrad and a masters student doing references by hand and it was only in the first year of my PhD that I finally accepted the wonder that is Mendeley. Similarly I was a pretty dismissive of livescribe pens until they revolutionised my research and made my life a million times easier.

      So when I heard about LaTeX here and had a look at it and found no way in which it would make my life easier as a writer, that was a snap judgement. So the question is really, what does writing in this format do that Word.docx doesn’t?

      As a side note, I had never heard of scrivener either. I’m not convinced of the benefits to a writer of that either, but maybe it’s just my writing style doesn’t lend itself to that seemingly scattered approach.

      *which from my academic and political interest is not a bad thing, but I’ll go with the general understanding!

    • First up, I’m not recommending LaTeX- it works well for some people, not for others. This isn’t a post about software – I have no interest in doing software recommendations – but about approach. If you leave formatting to the very end it can cause unexpected problems. That is the only point I’m trying to make.

      As for fancy formatting, your university will have certain requirements to do with margin width, style of references etc. It’s good to get these setup early.

      • ah, ok, thanks for clarifying. I can feel almost smug because I just assumed everyone had their word processing software set to the the standard academic format as default. It was the first thing I was taught on the first day as an undergrad. From your post, I thought there was some kind of different formatting that had to be done specifically for printing a PhD that I had somehow overlooked.

  6. Hi James,

    With all humbleness, I would like to try and come to “your rescue”, as you have done for me so many times these past few years, with your eerily timed posts that so often provide a fresh and alternative perspective to the very issues I am having at the time you post about them :).

    Whether its a standard document with a single “column” of text, or a two column journal article style document, we know what a paragraph should look like. It’s size and shape I mean.

    As an analogy, now that widescreen TVs are the default, with their aspect ratio of 16:9 (i.e. if your screen is 16 units of measurement wide, it will be 9 of those units high), when you look at an older TV with a squarer screen (4:3), the picture looks… odd. Something about it just doesn’t “look right”.

    I too heard about the wonders of Scrivener and started using it for a while, though far from at its full capacity. I recall the default formatting of the page, at least for me, had the text too small and the width of the line much much wider than in a Word document.

    In Word, a good looking paragraph taking up, say 1/3 of a page (good looking in that it looked neither too long, nor too short, but just right), when copied into Scrivener (especially in fullscreen mode, with small font, and a narrow Binder), might appear as only 1 or 2 lines of text. Exactly the same content, but skewed out of proportion.

    I found it helped put things into perspective to change the size of the text and the width of the lines, as they appear on the screen, to be more or less the same as what you are used to in Word.

    Hope that helps!

    • Thanks, but I don’t need rescuing! The problem was not how scrivener displays text, but the fact that it gives you no control over the formatting of the compiled output (margin size, position of page numbers, etc.)

    • My experience with it was awful. It was very buggy, and the inability to control formatting of the output means you need to use some other software to finish your document.

      Other people seem to like it, so I wouldn’t say “don’t use it”. Try for yourself and see if it works for you.

      • Hi James,

        Thanks very much for sharing your experience.

        I forgot to say that I fully agree with you on formatting. For years, I worked on my draft thesis with no proper formatting. My thought was that I’d better focus on the more important things first, such as writing. I word document I worked on was messy. Until one day I got really fed up and start properly formatted clean new documents and it changed my mindset! It no long looked like a draft and I was in the ‘finishing’ mode. I became careful about dumping random things and unfinished sentences. And I finished not long after that!

        Yes, I agree that formatting in word is relatively easy but it still needs to set up correctly from the beginning because it has consequences later on. One example is that I wasn’t aware of uni’s margin requirements and it caused me some pain because tables and figures were outside of the margin etc. So take James’ advice and do it right from the start. 🙂


  7. I use the style sheets and sections function in Microsoft Word – do the other programmes like Latex and Nota Bene provide more features? I also need to link with Zotero. Thanks!

  8. I felt the same way, James. I used Scrivener for most of the trial month and then bought it, and used it to start 2 papers. For both of them, I started with the academic paper format, and converted the text to a word document because I kept feeling lost in the Scrivener document. I discovered that Scrivener seemed to be a great way to get ideas down, and references and citations can be added by hand (typed in rather than being imported through Mendeley, which is currently impossible with Scrivener), but I always felt a bit lost and uneasy. Finally, I just stuck with the first draft converted to Word and continued using Word. I wondered if it was just that I wasn`t used to using Scrivener, but having read your very familiar account, I can see that it`s something else. Knowing absolutely that it`s finally properly formatted in Word (you always have to tweak details) brings you back to familiar territory, but there`s something else, too. You almost explained it, but not quite…any more thoughts on it? I will continue to use Scrivener, as it seems to be a great tool to get started, but your comment to switch to Word (or your usual word processor) rings true with me, after the initial draft.

    • Familiarity with software isn’t really the point- I had never used InDesign before, so had to learn it as I was writing. This took a bit of time, but the control it gave me over every aspect of the layout was crucial. It made me feel like I was finishing sections as I was writing.

      I don’t do initial drafts the way other people do- I am to have something submissible or publishable from the start (though I still edit this afterwards).

  9. Thanks, James. I agree. Settling the formatting issue will help unburden your mind. I used a combination of Scrivener and Nota Bene for my PhD dissertation. I used Scrivener to quickly rough draft the diss. (I had to know that I could get to the end). Scrivener helped with organization and my daily target word count. I then printed out the rough draft, discussed and proofed it with a reader, and used Nota Bene (which handled all of my formatting and bibliographic needs) to polish it off. Your videos were a big help!

  10. Right, once we decide name of chapters and section, subsection, then it is very easy for any kind of report.

    Thanks for sharing information.

    • That’s not what I said at all. I said that the fact I wasn’t formatting led to unexpected anxiety, even though I knew what I wanted to say.

      I didn’t say “it’s important to name your chapters”, and I didn’t even say “formatting makes writing easy”.

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