Why You Should Take the Time To Format Your Thesis or Dissertation Well
Although the way in which you format the many elements of your PhD dissertation may not seem as important as the intellectual content (the research, results and argument) that goes into the dissertation or the accuracy and clarity of the language in which you express that content, formatting nonetheless matters a great deal. Your university or department may present you with specific guidelines or indicate a particular style guide to use for instructions on formatting a variety of elements in your dissertation; if so, these guidelines must be followed with precision to meet the requirements of your doctoral degree. Formatting tends to be a highly visible aspect of scholarly writing, so it will stand out, especially if it is ineffective and inconsistent, in which case the result will be both sloppy and potentially confusing for readers. Effective and consistent methods of formatting, on the other hand, can significantly increase the clarity of what you are attempting to communicate as well as the professional appearance of your dissertation.
In addition, a dissertation that is carefully formatted in a thoughtful and orderly fashion often indicates (and still more often is understood as indicating) carefully ordered patterns of thought. The assumption that there is a correlation between the quality of scholarship in a dissertation and the quality of its presentation is not always correct – sound scholarship can be hidden in poorly prepared dissertations and beautifully presented work can contain poor scholarship – but there remains truth in the idea that a candidate who can accurately and consistently follow instructions and format his or her dissertation according to guidelines and good sense is also an academic or scientist who reads and refers to sources and reports methods and results in accurate and meaningful ways. Exactitude and precision are, after all, not just requirements of effective formatting, but also aspects of quality scholarship, so they should be applied to the formatting and presentation of all doctoral dissertations whether there are specific guidelines to follow or not.
It is impossible to anticipate all the elements of a dissertation that might need to meet specific formatting guidelines, but if you are left without guidance, checking the formats used in successful dissertations earned in your department or discipline can be helpful. Keep in mind that there are certain elements of academic and scientific writing that tend to require special attention when it comes to formatting regardless of the specific style guide and guidelines you are following. These include titles, headings and subheadings, capital (or uppercase) letters, special fonts (especially italic and bold), numbers, references and quotations. When you are checking university guidelines or devising your own formatting methods, give particular consideration to the formats of these elements, for which the formatting requirements tend to be fairly rigid and yet vary considerably from style guide to style guide and discipline to discipline. There will usually be a threshold, for instance, below which numbers should be expressed as words and above which they should be expressed as numerals: 10 is a relatively common threshold in the sciences, whereas 100 is often used in the humanities. References and quotations will generally need to be presented in a specific style or format, with the use of special fonts for titles and other elements dictated by the requirements of the method and style. Patterns of capitalisation (beyond an initial capital for the first word of a sentence) and headings of all kinds are usually subject to particular formatting as well, so the title and headings in your dissertation may require the use of initial capitals on all main words or a minimal pattern of capitals in which only the first word and proper nouns bear initial capitalisation.
Whether you are following specific guidelines or devising your own system of formatting, remember that consistency and distinction are the primary concerns. This is to say that your formatting practices should be consistent across similar elements (italic font for all book titles in references, for instance, or initial capitals on all main words in headings), but make use of subtle distinctions that clarify differences within larger stylistic features (so, for example, article titles might appear in quotation marks instead of italics, and a more minimal pattern of capitalisation might be used in subheadings). Whatever the requirements or choices for your dissertation may be, all aspects of the formatting you adopt should be maintained with rigorous consistency throughout every part of your dissertation.
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