Success in Academic Writing - Trevor Day 2018
Handling large documents
Using technology to help you
If you are going to write a large document - perhaps a dissertation of 15,000 words or more that contains memory-hungry graphics - you may wish to use your word-processing software’s more advanced functions. Among these is the ability to link files or create master documents.
If your document is large and memory-hungry, you may find that the word-processing software’s functions slow down as a result. Large files are also more likely to crash your software, which can involve you losing precious work and wasting your time. One way to solve such problems is to divide your large file into several smaller ones that are linked. That way, you can work on one of the smaller files, quickly and efficiently, knowing that you can save any changes, and your file will be automatically linked to the other files. In Microsoft Word, one elegant way of doing this is using the master document function. You can, for example, make a document’s title page, contents list and so on (the front matter) the master document, and link to it the various sections of your dissertation as sub-documents. The power of doing so is that the master document can automatically store all the styles you use in your sub-documents. It can also automatically compile the contents list, list of tables, figures and so on, without you having to do so manually. This can save a great deal of time if your document is large. As with using any software, you need to make a decision whether spending time learning its more advanced functions will save you time in the long term. If you are intending to have an academic career after completing your first degree, it might be time well spent.
Back up regularly
Every year I hear about students who have lost valuable work because they did not back up their electronic files regularly to a safe place. Back up your work-in-progress files every 2-3 hours in at least two places. One of these should be geographically separate in case of fire, flood or other rare
catastrophic events. These days, electronic memory is cheap and so there is little excuse for not having an electronic ’trail’ of revisions to your work-in-progress, saved under different file names. I also find it useful, when working on an assignment, to keep a file with the abbreviated assignment name and the suffix ’offcuts’. When I am editing my work, this is where I put all the paragraphs or phrases I have rejected. Should I change my mind, it is easy to find material I had earlier discarded.
On group projects, use ’track changes’
If you are compiling a document as a group, it can be helpful to use the ’track changes’ function in Microsoft Word. This highlights who made which changes to the document, and when, and all changes can be agreed and accepted in a systematic manner. When changes are made, make sure you alter the name of the document using an agreed system to ensure that there is no confusion and that you are all working with the latest version.
Staying up to date with apps
The software applications available for computers, smartphones and tablets - and which are the best for particular tasks - can change swiftly. One way of keeping up to date with latest developments is to visit websites that keep track of the best ones. At the time of writing, www.dnamatters.co.uk/resources/ was a useful first place to look.
Key points in the chapter
1Using the functions of word-processing and other kinds of software can enhance your writing efficiency, but should not become a distraction from the process of writing.
2Word-processing software’s functions - such as the dictionary, thesaurus, readability, spelling and grammar checks, styles and tracking changes - should be used with critical awareness.
3How to search bibliographic databases efficiently is a key skill to master. This includes learning how to expand or narrow your search based on the material you find.
4Reference management software can automate citing and referencing, but should not be used until you have mastered manual citing and referencing. With that experience you will then be able to identify and correct errors, omissions and inconsistencies.
5A wide range of software is available to help create visual elements such as figures and tables. Choose the format of your graphics files with awareness so that you can manipulate images, but create a final output of appropriate file size and image quality.
6If you need to create a large written document, such as a final-year dissertation, it is probably worth learning to use some of your word-processing software’s more advanced functions.
7Safeguard your work by saving work-in-progress every few minutes and backing up onto other storage media every few hours.
Hacker, D. and Fister, B. (2015). Research and Documentation in the Electronic Age. 6th edn. Boston: Bedford/St Martin’s.
Thomas, G. (2017). Doing Research. 2nd edn. London: Palgrave Macmillan.