Doing your dissertation with Microsoft Word: A comprehensive guide to using Microsoft Word for academic writing (by Jacques Raubenheimer)21/2/2014 | 10:27
Throughout my academic training, I’ve had to write a number of reports and memos of all sorts. As an undergrad during my PhD training, I wrote scientific articles of various complexity, but it’s only really when I had to put together my Thesis defense that I realized that I wouldn’t make it unless I took a serious look at how my workflow could be improved.
A thesis defense in my field is a long and complex manuscript with a detailed introduction section providing a thorough general background on just about everything even vaguely related to what you’ve been studying, then you insert your publications and some sort of analysis of your work and how everything is supposed to fit together to make a “thesis”. It’s long, complex, structured and illustrated. It also needs to integrate previous work from other manuscripts. A nightmare in perspective if you want things to be kept in a somewhat decent shape.
Back then, I already had some general knowledge of what could be achieved in Word, but I didn’t know much beyond the basic formatting options. Fortunately for me, at that time, software like Microsoft Word still came with a printed manual. I had bought the Academic version of Word 6 and had the very nice (and heavy) manual that came with the set of I-can’t-remember-how-many floppies (the rectangular plastic thingies that stored programs in these days…). I read that book from cover to cover (literally) and used my newly acquired knowledge to implement proper style management and image placing in the excruciating task that a thesis defense represents.
Needless to say that interest was piqued when I was contacted to review Jacques Raubenheimer’s guide. The book promises to help people like me write academic manuscripts using Microsoft Word.
This book is indeed quite extensive: 546 pages covering just about every function and command you can think of in Word, providing a number of captures of the user interface: Big emphasis on the term Comprehensive in the tagline. The book is focused on using Word 2007 or 2010 for Windows, but you’ll be just fine with version 2013 that just came out, or using an equivalent Mac version of Microsoft Office. There are a few user interface differences between the Mac and the Windows version, but I don’t see it as a major throwback as the main aspect of the book, as far as I am concerned, is to learn how to better use the program to the full extend of its capacities to put a long and complex manuscript together. You could even easily adapt the same general knowledge to other related software like Pages or LibreOffice for instance. There is far more in this book than a simple detailed description of the various commands available in Word. It’s more of a guide to structured documents, styles and managing layout, with a hint of typography to make sure it all looks sharp.
The tagline for the book also mentions “a guide for Academic writing”. While it seems to me like it is indeed perfectly adapted for academic writing, I think its scope can easily be broadened to include writing any form of long and complex manuscript, being legal or technical for instance.
While I read the book from cover to cover for the purpose of this review, I’m not sure everybody needs to. Depending on your level of expertise with Microsoft Word, you might want to focus on specific chapters and only browser over the others. It’s also a good source for references if ever you are experiencing difficulties with any specific aspect of how you want to manage your document.
The immersion in the book follows a somewhat progressive slope. The first chapters describe general notions about Word itself and its user interface, then some information about typography and page layout. The following chapters go through inputting text and automating the process, but the real meat starts (as far as I am concerned) with Chapter 5. From then on, the book becomes more technical and covers all important aspects for a complex manuscript: Templates, styles, page layouts, numbering, tables of contents, search and replace, inserting tables and figures (with legends), Math equations, and everything all the way down to printing the manuscript.
Chapter 13 covers inserting and managing citations. It properly describes everything that can be done in Word itself (including Word’s Citation Management tool), but third-party citation managers (EndNote, Reference Manager, Zotero…) are only briefly mentioned. While going into the details of the possibilities of any of these applications could be worth a full book in itself, the use of a software like EndNote in academic writing is so generalized and so crucial that I would have thought it’d be worth a little more attention.
I personally enjoyed reading the book. It took me forever — really (I wanted to read it all before I could formulate a proper opinion), but it was well worth it. It would have made my life tremendously easier if the book had been available when I wrote my thesis. A very good and detailed reference guide you can go to at any time if ever you want to improve on your skills with any aspect of what you’ll need to master to write a proper dissertation. It will help save a significant amount of time over the years, whether you’re writing a full thesis, a book or a simple document of a couple of pages or less.
The book is easy to read and well organized. You can jump to any section of the book and find all the details you need to master about the feature of your interest at the moment.
In addition, the author offers a Word (for Windows) add-on that will bring up a new tab in the Ribbon to provide easy access to some very useful functions for document management, styles, bookmarks, reviewing, etc.: Word uTIlities