Use your software's formatting and editing tools

One of the most important things that dissertation, article, and book writers can do for themselves is to present their hard-earned texts in a professional manner. Sloppy presentation of an otherwise powerful text is like going to a formal wedding in yoga pants. No one cares what’s on the inside when the outside is inappropriate. To avoid this situation, go to your word processor, where some of the best help you can have in writing is available. Formatting tools like tabs, indentations, and hanging indentations automatically help you create a professional look to the paper. Most word processing software also has some form of “track changes,” comment features, display options, and spell and grammar checks. These tools all help you to present yourself professionally.

Action Steps:

  1. Use the formatting tools your word processor provides.
    • A “tab,” located on the keyboard, automatically indents a paragraph the same amount of space each time you use it. If you don’t like the length of the tab, use the ruler located above the text and move the arrows to the point you want. All tabs can be changed that way.
    • Similarly, use the “indent” key or click the indentation icon in the word processor. Indentations, unlike tabs, realign the entire text by a set number of spaces (also changeable on the ruler). Indentations are used for block quotes in formal scholarly writing; indent twice (not once) to meet most style guide requirements.
    • Find the “hanging indent” icon in the word processor. In Microsoft Word, it is located in the “paragraph” and then “special” indentation menu. A hanging indent is necessary for Works Cited and References lists that look professional. When people use the spacebar to give the look of a hanging indent, it risks incorrect indentation when even one capital letter is changed.
  2. Use “track changes” or some other kind of obvious marking to show that you’ve made changes on your revision or on the revision of a colleague’s piece. That way, you can see and keep track of the original versus the changes, revert to the original where needed, and understand your own writing/editing process as one that is open to changing text. Google Docs and Wikis also enable this ability to mark changes or to keep a history of revision.
  3. “Comment” features are available in PDFs, Google Docs, Word Docs, and most other texts. The ability to make a comment to oneself or to other writers without interfering with the original texts can go a long way toward opening the writer’s mind to new ways of thinking about the topic or writing. Ways to comment in “rich texts” include typing in the document and then bolding or highlighting the comments to set them apart from the original writing.
  4. The “display options” available in Microsoft Word (and possibly in other word processing systems) are vastly underused. Go to “file,” “options,” “display,” and check the boxes that allow you to see the formatting marks on the screen. You might find it a bit disorienting at first, but very quickly you can adjust and appreciate the ability to see where your text is properly formatted (One or two lines between each paragraph? One or two spaces between each word?), why it might not be properly formatted, and how to fix problems. I leave my display options on all the time. These are not visible when a text is converted to a PDF or when the text is printed.
  5. “Spell and grammar check”—well, these should be self-evident, but it’s amazing how many times writers send me texts they haven’t checked for correctness of spelling and simple grammar. While these checks can offer wrong advice and it’s up to the writer to make wise choices, there’s never an excuse for submitting writing to anyone for feedback without having correct spelling and basic grammar.
  6. Have a writing coach look at the final draft of your work. Don’t be surprised if he or she finds content issues that can be clarified, so don’t wait until the last moment. Strong presentation of your hard work is crucial to possible publication in this text-rich world. For dissertators, strong presentation of a draft that is ready for defense is one key to inspiring confidence in the text and its author.