Tools for Dissertation Writing

ToolsRecently I have been working hard on my dissertation, and I wanted to share a few thoughts about making good use of the writing tools that are available. First of all you will need three things, each of which can be done with the proper software tools:

  1. A place to collect citations as you do your research
  2. A way to build your list of works cited (bibliography) and insert properly formatted footnotes
  3. A full-featured word processor for the actual writing.

I was unable to a good tool to handle both the citations and the biblography, so I settled on EndNote for the bibliography and created my own MS Access database for the citations. For word processing, the default standard is MS Word.

EndNote has excellent integration with MS Word, which makes inserting and formatting footnotes a breeze. I added an extra macro to the toolbar to make it even easier. Now all I have to do to insert the proper footnote at the cursor location is (1) switch to EndNote and navigate to the correct source, and (2) click two buttons on my tool bar. To insert the page number of the reference requires one more click on the tool bar and typing in the page number.

The beauty of this arrangement is that the footnotes are always correctly formatted, including the correct form for first and subsequent references to a source. If you rearrange your paragraphs or insert another citation, everything is adjusted to maintain the proper format. If you discover a typo in the book title, you simply need to fix the reference in the EndNote program, and all the reference in your document will be updated. These updates do not necessarily occur immediately, but they will all be updated when you click the “Format Bibliography” button to automatically update the list of works cited. Very cool! It works this magic by attaching a hidden tag to each footnote which links it with the correct reference in the EndNote library.

In order to meet the formatting requirements of your academic institution you will need two things:

  1. A MS Word “template”
  2. The MS Word template contains the document styles that you will need to use to format your paper. Using document styles will ensure that your formatting is consistent, and it will also make it very easy to instantly make formatting changes throughout the entire paper. For example, suppose you have level three headings in italics, and your school tells you to make them bold. With styles you simply have to change the formatting of the h3 style, and all the headings with that style will be instantly updated. I like to write with single spaced text so that I can see more lines on my computer screen. When I am ready to print, I simply change the “Body Text” style to double space and all my text paragraphs become double spaced. To read more on this topic, and for links to some excellent tutorials, see my article Using MS Word for Academic Writing.

    If you use heading styles (which you should!), you can also use the Document Map to navigate within your paper. The document map displays an outline of your paper in a box on the left, and when you click on any section heading you are taken immediately to that section. It will save you lots of scrolling!

    You will need to have a document template that defines all the styles that you need to format your paper. The EndNote web site has a long list of templates designed to meet the requirements of many different schools and journals. If you find the one you need you can simply download it. Otherwise you will need to find something close and modify it to suit your needs.

  3. An EndNote “output style”
  4. EndNote uses “output styles” to determine how to format footnotes and the bibliography. The program comes with a long list of output styles, and on the company web site you can download more. If you can’t find exactly what you need, you can find something close and modify it to suit your purpose.

It takes a certain amount of effort to create a MS Word document template and and EndNote output style to meet your needs. It is probably not worth the effort for a single short paper, but for a lengthy dissertation or a series of papers it will save you a lot of formatting work in the long run. I hope that in the future more schools will offer these two types of files, customized to meet their requirements, for their students to download.

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