Practical Dos and Don’ts before the last stretch

Or: details and technicalities that students (and scholars) tend to overlook during the writing process – to their later exasperation

The most important part of an academic work is of course its contents: an analytically compelling presentation of the conducted research and its results. During their Master’s projects, students are therefore primarily focused on the research and writing process itself, as they should.

For better or worse, it can be an immersive process; things like reference styles or document layouts might be overlooked as trivial details and low-priority tasks that can be tackled later. However, ‘later’ always comes sooner than one expects, and unresolved technical details have a tendency to accumulate into a despair-inducing endeavour in the last minute.

This post is hence a kind reminder and warm recommendation to deal with those minor yet surprisingly time-consuming details in good time and in the course of the process. Trust me – you’ll want to spend the last days before submission proofreading your text for the umpteenth time, not fiddling with page numbers, tables of content or reference formatting in a fit of rage.

And you definitively do not want to be faced with corrupted documents, lost files or other data management disasters when your submission deadline is looming around the corner.

[Please note: This post is written by a qualitative historian/social scientist primarily for students with similar specialities; it hence does not necessarily correspond to practices and guidelines in quantitative research, let alone entirely different scientific fields and disciplines.]

References

Make a habit of diligently completing your references as you go, especially if you aren’t using a reference management software (why not?).

  • Look up all the details you need right away: author names, page numbers, journal volumes and issues…
  • Format your references in accordance with your chosen referencing style: author names, editor names, inverted commas, italicisation…
  • Also remember to include all references in the bibliography.

In other words, don’t leave unfinished references for your future self to tackle in the last minute! Make sure that you don’t leave a trail of half-baked reminders like “check this!”, “add more”, “author [which publication??]”, “pp. XX”, “where was this discussed?” – this strategy has magnificent potential to backfire. If possible, resolve all open issues at the end of each writing pass.

Of course, not all issues can be tackled at once from home, but might require a visit to the library, archive or similar. If you need to check something that’s relevant for the substance of your thesis, take care of it promptly. Otherwise, I recommend gathering detailed information on all unresolved issues in one online- or mobile-accessible place (e.g., Google Doc/Spreadsheet, note app on your mobile). Allocate a pessimistically approximated time slot for taking care of all visits at one go. Take it as a well-deserved break from the intense brainwork – if your schedule (and Covid restrictions) permit(s), enjoy a long lunch or coffee break, take the evening off.

Schedule this task relatively close to the submission date. For obvious reasons, don’t leave it for the very last days. However, if you want/need to optimise your use of time and get away with as few library visits etc. as possible, don’t jump the gun, either. Also remember to check and re-check the opening hours of all the places you intend to visit!

Microsoft Word

Harness Word’s automation features! The less you do manually and ad hoc, the better. This minimises inconsistencies and careless mistakes, saves time and hence frees your time and mental resources for more important stuff – namely, the actual content of your thesis.
I’ve included links to Word instructions at the end.

If you haven’t already made use of paragraph styles, go through your document and apply the applicable styles as you go: Heading 1, Heading 2, Quote etc. You can use Word’s default formatting; the most important thing is to have all headings in the correct style. This allows you to change the formatting (typeface, font style and size, paragraph spacing, line spacing and so on) for all same-level headings at once.

Furthermore, heading styles are necessary for creating automatic tables of contents in Word. They are a common cause of frustration among students, and TOC issues are often related to an incorrect use of styles. If your document only contains a body text style (e.g., Normal or No Spacing), Word cannot recognise headings and hence cannot create a table of content for them.

I recommend creating your table of contents and adjusting its settings as soon as you have your heading styles in place. You can then just update it whenever you’ve edited your document, and you’ll always have an accurate TOC.

Page numbering in Word is a perpetual source of grief and terror for students. Tackle the pagination demon in good time and with ample patience and determination. Don’t worry, it is by no means an impossible task, but you’re better set up if you’re not in the middle of a pre-submission meltdown.

Do not use your single thesis document as test piece! Practise tricky layout features like page numbers, TOCs, sections etc. in a dummy document first. Or at least remember to save and make a copy of your main document before you start – what you should be doing anyway.

Version management and backup

Don’t leave all your hard work hanging on one single document: make several copies of the main document in case of file corruption, data loss etc.

You’ll write a lot of stuff that won’t make it into the final work, but don’t let your hard work go to waste. As your project progresses, create clearly labelled versions of your main document and collect deleted bits into ‘killed darlings’ documents. You’ll probably need to revisit something at a later stage.

Most importantly: for the love of everything good and holy, set your documents to automatically back up into a cloud service.

Note: automatically. Your stressed-out brain will absolutely fail to remember uploading the latest version after every single use.

Choose whichever service and method you like, just as long as you do it.

Seriously.

Do it.

Microsoft Office instructions

Customize or create new styles:
https://support.microsoft.com/en-us/office/customize-or-create-new-styles-d38d6e47-f6fc-48eb-a607-1eb120dec563

Insert a table of contents:
https://support.microsoft.com/en-us/office/insert-a-table-of-contents-882e8564-0edb-435e-84b5-1d8552ccf0c0

Start page numbering later in your document:
https://support.microsoft.com/en-us/office/start-page-numbering-later-in-your-document-c73e3d55-d722-4bd0-886e-0b0bd0eb3f02

Add different page numbers or number formats to different sections: https://support.microsoft.com/en-us/office/add-different-page-numbers-or-number-formats-to-different-sections-bb4da2bd-1597-4b0c-9e91-620615ed8c05