Mechanics of writing


Mechanics of


Today, the most widely used general-
purpose word processor is Microsoft
Word, or the OpenOffice equivalent; in
the mathematical and physical
sciences many researchers use the
more technically oriented markupbased LaTeX. I do not explore the
specifics of these word processors, but
encourage you to use resources such
as advanced guides and manuals to
ensure that you are using them well—
even an occasional revisit to an online
tutorial can be surprisingly rewarding.


A typical word processor can be viewed as a suite of separate
tools, perhaps bundled together under a common user
interface. These tools might include an editor, for entering and
modifying text; spelling and grammar checkers; a bibliography
database; a line-art environment; and a system for laying out
the text in a form suitable for printing or for viewing online. This
last point is particularly important: a word processor allows the
style of a document to be separated from its content, and the
two issues are important at different stages of the thesis
creation process.


The fine details of the style of your thesis may not
become settled until it is almost finished, and I
strongly encourage that, in the early stages at
least, your focus is on creation of content rather
than on how it appears on the page. Nonetheless,
right from the start you need to write within the
constraints of a style—for example, so that all
headings of the same kind, such as chapter titles,
are displayed in the same way.
Innovative Methods


Pay particular attention to the way you cite references, both in-text and in the
bibliography or reference section of your thesis. Your professional handling of
references is one way that examiners assess your readiness to enter the community
of scholars. If you are sloppy, or maintain incomplete lists, or perhaps fail to cite a
work, it signals that are you not respecting colleagues. Quite apart from the
inherent importance of this, you will annoy an examiner if you cite material and fail
to list it.
One way an examiner checks to see whether you know what you are
talking about is to check the references as you cite them. Conversely, you shouldn’t
put references in your list of references unless you have cited them. So all of these
have to be checked, one by one. Read your own text the way that the examiner
would, checking the list every time you come to a citation. My advice is to be
systematic when you are collecting the reference material in the first place, and
remain aware of the importance of correct citations throughout your professional


A thesis consists of several different parts that need to be tied together with a set
of conventions. Without a standard format across the entire document, the work
will appear random and unprofessional. For example, you should put all chapter
headings on a new page, using the same style; that is, the same font and
paragraphing. You should give all major section headings a style that is different
from that of the chapter headings. Captions to figures should all have the same
style, but be different again from section headings and different from the main
text. All new paragraphs should begin with the same indentation (except for the
first paragraph after a heading, which may have no indent at all), and so on. All
this will help your readers to navigate their way through your thesis. This styling is
provided with templates, which govern the appearance and numbering of every
element of a document.


Before you start writing your report or thesis, you should think about its format
and devise styles and formatting rules that are appropriate for your field of
study. Begin as you mean to continue. Introduce rules as necessary, and be
aware that too much complexity can work against you. For example, avoid
deep structures—is it really necessary to have paragraphs with numbers like Once you have a style, any element of the document can be put in
that format, and you are on your way to producing a professional-looking
thesis. While you may have had little previous exposure to creation or use of
styles, in my view templates are the single most important feature of a word
processor, and you must learn how to use them properly.


Writing Tools
Most word-processing programs include a facility for checking spelling. It
checks every word you have typed against a dictionary built into the program.
Do not ignore it! However, although the spell-check is good at picking up
typographical errors, it can’t make decisions for you. Typical problems are
proper names (people’s names or place names), and words for which there are
alternative spellings. In the case of proper names, the temptation is to tell the
program to ignore its questionings, and go instead to the next area of doubt.
This is a mistake: you should check any proper name the first time the spellcheck comes to it and, when you are satisfied that you have got it right, add it
to the dictionary. The second problem is words for which alternative spellings
are permissible ( -or or -our and -ize or -ise are the most common). The most
important constraint here is that you be consistent. Before you start, determine
your preferred spellings for these words, and keep to them.


Grammar-checkers look at every sentence, and make checks such as: Does it
contain a verb?; Is it missing connecting words?; Does the subject agree with
the verb (plural subjects must not have singular verbs)?; Is the verb in the
passive voice (permissible, but should be used sparingly)?; Are stock phrases
being used (examples: ‘over and above’; ‘in order to’, ‘part and parcel’)?; and
so on. You may think that your English is better than that of the grammar
checker—and some of the time you will be right—but my experience is that they
are often useful, and it is essential to use a grammar-checker at least once
before finalizing your thesis.


The name and year (or Harvard) system is the most popular
reference style for theses. It works well for readers, because it
names references in an understandable way, and also works
grammatically. We can write for example ‘Rami and Tuntara
(2002) found little evidence of …’ or ‘… there was little
evidence (Rami and Tuntara 2002)’. There are many
alternatives, but the Harvard style is simple and effective.


A typical PhD thesis will end up with two hundred or more references (yes,
you will read that many, and understand them). Even a minor thesis may
have thirty to sixty references. Keeping track of these is a daunting task. For
this reason alone it is worth learning how to use an effective bibliography
tool. Word-processing programs can collate and maintain references, using
bibliography software that builds up a catalogue of references. Each entry
consists of elements such as, in the case of a journal article, the author (or
authors), the title of the article, the journal name, year of publication, and
publisher and place, together with an optional abstract and keywords. This
reference database can be used independently of your thesis as a way of
recording the papers you have read, where they can be accessed, and your
views or comments on the content.


Make sure you capture full bibliographic details, and perhaps a
permanent URL such as a DOI < doi.org >. I recommend keeping
a softcopy (that is, an electronic version) of all papers that you
find online. You will end up with hundreds, so be sure to
organize them carefully. If you really feel that you need paper
versions to help keep you organized, consider strategies such
as just printing the first page.


Tables and Figures
I recommend that you find good models and imitate them.
Remember too that tables are sometimes copied and used out
of context—in slides, lecture notes, and so on—so they should
be reasonably independent of the text. That is, take the effort
to create captions and headings that make them at least
somewhat comprehensible on their own.
Innovative Methods


Your tables and figures are intended to convey the key messages of
your thesis, so give them the time and care that such messages
require. I continue to be astonished, and not in a good way, by the
fact that students who labour for months or longer over the text of a
thesis often seem satisfied with throwing together illustrations in a
few minutes. In the process, they produce ugly or misleading figures
that undermine their work and erase any impression of quality. Take
the time to locate best-practice models to imitate, and work over
your figures until they are as good as the rest of your work. As is true
for text, producing a good illustration takes time, and includes
drafting, reflection, revision, and iteration.
Innovative Methods


Document and Version Management
Frequently save the document you are working on. Most editors have a
feature for automatically saving to disk every few minutes. This copies
your file to whatever working storage you are using—local hard disc on
your desktop, your area on a departmental file server, or a home
server. In addition, I strongly recommend that you copy your work to
some other backup storage every hour or two.
Innovative Methods


Create explicit versions. When you save your document to disk, you
automatically delete the earlier version of it by overwriting with the new
version. (Some software is slightly more flexible, and automatically
keeps both ‘current’ and ‘previous’, but earlier versions are still lost.) For
example, if you are reorganizing the structure of a document called ‘Ch
08 Discussion’ and have saved once or twice, then decide you don’t like
the new version after all, you will have lost the original. Therefore, if you
have any doubts as to whether you might want to keep the earlier
version, make a copy of it and call it ‘Ch 8 Discussion backup 2011-03-19’
before you start editing.


Writing Style
We develop a writing style long before we start to write a
thesis. Some people can effortlessly write beautiful, clear,
direct English that aids communication. Others have writing
styles that hinder the reader: verbose, ungrammatical, turgid,
laboured. There is an important point here that many students
seem to miss. Writing well is not just about adhering to an
arbitrary set of rules just for the sake of it; it is about the
messages you send to your readers.


Use of the First Person
Theses, reports and scientific papers had to be written in the third person,
as if someone else had made the discovery. To remove the presence of the
writer from the text, scientists resorted to use of the passive voice. Originally
scientists wrote perfectly clearly in the first person: ‘I observed that …’ or ‘We
observed that …’ But over time, they began to use the third person: ‘The
researcher observed that …’, or, if this wasn’t clear enough, the incorrect—
and confusing—‘This researcher [which one?] observed that …’; or often the
awkward ‘The present writer observed that …’ Worse, they began to use the
passive voice: ‘It was observed that …’, or, since the use of the passive may
prevent us from knowing who observed, ‘It was observed by the present
writer that …’ Using eight words where three did the job very well is one of
the building blocks of thesiese.


There are some situations where it is just plain silly to stick to the third
person. Examples are given below from theses in the social sciences that
were dutifully written in the third person, except for the situations listed.
When you are recounting personal experiences
When you are stating personal opinions
When you are explaining the choices you made in research procedure
Innovative Methods


Between items in a list, and before the final and, etc., and or: ‘their own
surveys, interviews, observations, experiments, and so on’. In a sentence
such as ‘the four main groupings were children, employees, pensioners
and the disabled, and the unemployed’, the consistent use of the list
comma allows the reader to easily see that ‘pensioners and the disabled’
are a single grouping.
After transitional words such as however, nevertheless, moreover,
therefore, and similarly.
Innovative Methods


The main use is to separate parts of a sentence that are too closely
related to be broken into separate sentences: ‘Writers of thesiese nearly
always use the passive voice; their verbs are activated by other verbs;
their sentences are long and complicated; they prefer long and seldomused words to the short equivalent words common in every-day
communication; jargon is rife; and so on.’
Innovative Methods


The three main uses of the colon all have a sense of introducing
something that is to follow: a list, or an explanation, or a quotation.
‘These systems make checks such as: whether it contains a verb; whether
it is overly complex; whether the subject agrees with the verb; or whether
stock phrases being used.’


Dashes and hyphens
They are different, and each has its own specific uses. You should find
out how to create both on your word processor.
• The dash (or em rule, ‘—’) has two principal uses: to indicate an abrupt
change in the sentence structure, and to indicate material that is in
parenthesis. Use sparingly. As with all parentheses, use two or none.
• The hyphen ‘-’ is used to build up complex words. The most common
are words built up from suffixes such as sub- or non- (these suffixes
should never stand alone as separate words). As time goes on, some of
these complex words become words in their own right, and no longer
need the hyphen: thus sub-zero, but nonconformist. Consult your


Exclamations Avoid them! They are annoying!
Capitalization Some researchers seem to like capitalizing Important
Terms and descriptions of Common Processes, almost as if they were
headings embedded in the text. This excess of uppercase letters seems
to say ‘the author is unfamiliar with academic English’. If the meaning is
still clear with a lowercase initial (and the word isn’t a proper noun)
then don’t use a capital.
Brackets Curved brackets (parentheses), and square brackets have
quite separate uses. Don’t use them interchangeably; and don’t use
other types of bracket, such as curly brackets (braces), except perhaps
in mathematical expressions; they don’t have an agreed meaning.


• Long quotes from the work of others, say longer than thirty words, should
not be designated by quotation marks and contained within the normal
text, but instead should be presented as a separate block. The whole block
should be in slightly smaller type, indented, with space above and below.
Quotation marks are not needed, and should not be used. And the quote
should not be in italics.
• Quotation marks are used to indicate that the enclosed words are the
title of a chapter in a book, a paper in a journal, a poem, and so on.


• Quotation marks were used to indicate colloquial words in formal writing,
or technical words in non-technical writing. However, it is now common to
use italics for this purpose. (On this point, note that use of underlining is
obsolete.) After the first use of the word the quotation marks may be
omitted. Many writers extend this use by putting pet words or humorous
expressions in quotes. It is best to avoid this as much as possible: it can
become a bad habit.


Link words We use link words to indicate the logic flow in a passage of
text. They are of two kinds: conjunctions, which are used inside sentences
to link clauses, and transitional words, which are used to link a sentence to
the one that preceded it. Many writers seem to use them interchangeably.
This is a great source of confusion. Commonly used conjunctions are but,
although, unless, if, as, since, while, when, before, after, where, because,
for, whereas, and, or, and nor. Transitional words are used to link one
sentence to the next. Commonly used transitional words are however, thus,
therefore, instead, also, so, moreover, indeed, furthermore, now,
nevertheless, likewise, similarly, accordingly, consequently, and finally. We
also make use of transitional phrases: in fact, in spite of, as a result of, for
example, and for instance.


Repeated words In creative writing, or writing for popular publication such
as newspaper articles, the usual advice is to avoid repeating words. In
academic writing, such avoidance of repetition can be downright annoying
—if you have a precise thing you need to say, use the precise word to say
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