Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Proper Document Formatting: Your Readers Want It!

Since our undergrad years we have been told to use seemingly arbitrary formatting conventions for many of the academic assignments we've turned in.  There are lab report formats, literature review formats, citation styles such as APA, MLA, and a hundred others. As an English student, I learned MLA, scoffed at what I thought was APA's fixation on dates and enshrining of other people's research, and never looked back.

But now that I teach writing, and sometimes research writing, I've had to learn how format and style is dependent on discipline.  My students use what suits them. APA makes much more sense for many of the sciences.  I, a literature student, could write many pages on a hundred year old piece of scholarship, as long as I knew what else has been said about it in 2016.  But a science student or psych student has no use for moldy old papers, beyond understanding the history of their discipline. Dates matter, and I'm glad we don't take medicine produced with ancient methods or visit hospitals built upon century-old research!  (APA helps make sure of it.)  Just as I'm glad that engineers even have their own way of documenting things (ASME, and others) that respects the research of others, so that when someone uses their findings, our bridges stay up and our cars drive straight. (I'm showing my humanities understanding of how things work now, haha!)  So, there really are reasons for these things.

But even though I know about the plenitude of research styles and the uses for them now, I see even more clearly that all the formatting of these styles, on the page, is definitely arbitrary.

So why the heck do we format?  

What's the point? I'll tell you. Because it is a convention that is absolutely necessary to keep your reader from pulling their hair out and losing their eyesight!  (Especially now that you are writing a hundred or even hundreds of pages for someone else's review). Students, especially my freshman writers, sometimes balk at this arbitrariness. But I kind of revel in it.  (After all, even language itself is arbitrary. And so are apostrophes.). Arbitrary strictness, when it comes to documents, is far and wide preferable to willy-nilly personal formatting quirks (at best), or incoherent methods of document organization that impede meaning (at worst).

Here at the Thesis Office, we understand that many quirks about your document have to do with whether you are a biologist, or an art therapist, or a computer scientist, or a linguist, or... you get the idea. We see the marks of your discipline on the page, and we can even help you make sure you are making those marks correctly (citations, references, tables, etc.) before your committee even sees the thing.  Please, come see us!  But in addition to those formatting requirements handed down from your discipline gods, the Thesis gods have a few more.  And this is where you might really need our help.  Again, you're asking EGADS! WHY?  Because someone has to read your paper, that's why. And hopefully for your sake, many someones will read your paper. Format, and every other kind of orthography, that is, the way things look on a page, is about making yourself easy to read. Your document will go into a repository with thousands of other documents, and if it looks different, it will look funny.  And it may even look confusing. The reader has to know: Where do I find the list of tables? How is the front matter arranged and numbered? What corner are the page numbers in? What level of heading am I reading, like is this an important section or a sub-thought?  Can I put this in a binder and be sure the holes aren't going to punch right through the data sets? Etc. Standardized formatting means readers know what they're getting, and can use it easily.  Nothing we ask you to do will compromise the goals of the formatting of your discipline. But it might drive you crazy anyway.  Seriously, come see us.

A reader's experience

I have a first grader, and I commend the teacher who can read thirty little papers in thirty handwriting styles and in thirty invented spelling styles, all written in everyone's favorite crayon color. I salute you! As a teacher of philosophy and freshman English, I don't have it so bad. But I see so many papers. A few hundred every term.

While it is certainly nice to have everything typed on white paper, I also ask my students to use certain formatting, and invariably they don't take it very seriously until about mid-term.  I get papers in the default Microsoft Word font, I get papers in fonts that look very much like Times New Roman but are not Times New Roman ("TNR 12pt!" I write, in screaming teacher commentary at the top of their paper, right next to "TITLE!" because for some strange reason they don't title their work...)  I read the piles of papers, and the idiosyncrasies drive me mad. The font called Cambria makes me want to scream. OMG CAMBRIA UGH! The attempted use of 2.25 spacing to pad their papers (instead of a double-space) just makes me laugh. 1.5" margins make me put my head down on the table and take a break.  While some of these things are because of students trying to trick me (I know grad students don't do that!), some are them are out of pure carelessness.  They are not bucking against convention. They are being undisciplined and causing problems for their reader.  The students with the best grades?  The ones with good formatting.  Not because I grade them on their perfect margins!  But because they are people who pay attention to detail, and that comes out in both the content of their papers and in the presentation.  While the Thesis office won't have much to say about your content, your committee will. The presentation of it is important.

So when Carolyn at the Thesis Office finally reads your work, we don't want to hear her head thud to the table in the next room, or hear her scream "AAAACK 1.5 inch MARGINSSS!" from down the hall. We'll all want to know who did it.

You have worked so hard on this thesis.  Do it an honor and do your future readers the honor of formatting it like a pro!  Because once you pass this last "test," you are a pro.  Conventions are annoying, they take up time and brain-space, and no one can tell us exactly why they are the way they are.  But they are still important, just as important as the conventions of using a period to end a sentence or quotation marks to set off a quote. If we value our research and its products, we should do everything we can to participate in the community by keeping our reviewers', committee's, and future readers' eyes on the page and their heads off the table.


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