A long time before I embarked on a career in research, I was part of an event celebrating the life and music of the composer Ralph Vaugh Williams. In all honesty, I remember very little about it, but one of the things that became indelibly etched on my mind was an anecdote from his days as a student. Another eminent composer, Charles Villiers Stanford was one of his tutors: apparently Williams went to see Stanford one day for a tutorial and Stanford gave him a lecture on architecture, with a particular emphasis on windows. Music was not mentioned at all, except at the end when Williams was sent off, with fairly sparse directions, to write something for their next meeting. Williams duly returned on the appointed day. Stanford is supposed to have exclaimed “But where are the windows?”. In a round about way, he had been talking about the use of rests and other pauses in music, as a form of punctuation in order to provide emphasis.

When people are setting out to write a talk for the first time, or some other kind of speech, if they are given any advice at all they are often directed to the great orators of the past. If you are British, then Churchill is one of the most obvious examples. Whilst writing, and academic writing in particular, is very different to giving a speech, there are a number of things that you need to think about when presenting your work, and it can be as well to imagine even quite technical writing being read out aloud. For example, the reader can get out of ‘breath’ reading a long sentence, so it is best to avoid going much over about 3 lines (of 12 pt font text on an A4 size sheet) which comes out at ~50 words or so. It may be appropriate to use long sentences from time to time, but try to leaven these with shorter sentences. Equally, very short sentences may not give you the scope to say what needs to be said in sufficient detail. Hence, aiming for an average of around 20-30 words per sentence, with the occasional 50 word monster and 5-10 word tiddler is probably about the mark. Similarly, you should think about the size of the paragraph. As a rule of thumb, you probably get about three to four paragraphs to a page (again, 12 pt font, on A4), but some paragraphs will be shorter and some longer.

Designing a paragraph is the kind of thing no one ever really talks about*. In some ways it is incredibly simple, and in others it is incredibly difficult. At a fundamental level, a paragraph should be self-contained and provide a complete argument or description. A drabble is a really good example of this – a complete story in (exactly) 100 words. Where it gets a little more complicated is when you come to string these paragraphs together to tell a bigger story: your paragraphs are like beads, and there must be some kind of thread to connect them all together. Each bead is discrete, but if you get the order right, then you get something that is intelligible and greater than the sum of the parts.

*Possibly because the phrase ‘designing a paragraph’ makes you sound like you need professional help. Sadly, at the time of writing, there are no support groups for this.

There are 14 different punctuation marks in ‘common’ usage: you’ll be pleased to know that I’m not going to discuss them, except briefly and as a class. Use them, with their own special characteristics, to provide cadence, rhythm and momentum to your work. They provide another form of windows to your work, a way to produce pauses which will give your reader a chance to catch their metaphorical breath. They are another way of forming discrete beads which have their own texture and can be strung together to form a whole. They are an essential part of your toolkit, another way of controlling the presentation of your work.

The presentation of your work (another recurring theme) is almost as important as what it is you are going to say. After three or more years of working on a project, I can, to some extent, understand the desire just to get everything down on paper and out of the door. However, some thought as to the aesthetics of your book can pay dividends. How is your thesis structured? Do you have a story that is internally self-consistent? Does it flow? What does it look like on the page? The most fundamental thing of course is your choice of font – this is so important that I’ll be spending a whole post looking at this question. After that, it’s generally a good idea to include page numbers: how will you place this? Will you simply put a number, ‘1’, or will you emphasise it in some way, ‘-1-‘? (I would avoid using brackets, as this may make it look like a misplaced reference or footnote; likewise ‘page 1 of 312’ doesn’t look quite right in a thesis, somehow). Will you put lines to divide headers and footers from the main part of the page? How wide will you make your margins? Don’t forget that officially this should be bound, so you will need a wider margin then normal on the left, but you don’t want to lose too much space on the right, or you may end up making your document pages longer than it needs to be…

This list of points may look silly, but to some extent we’re coming back to the ideas that I talked about during the ‘B’ post – you need to be proud of your book. You need to make sure that it looks good and that you are happy with what it looks like. What defines the work of particular artists? What is the house style of your institution and how much latitude do you have? And don’t forget the windows – the chapters, the spaces around the figures and tables, the breaks between paragraphs, the pauses between clauses…


3 thoughts on “Design

  1. Most of the institutions that I know of have a fairly rigid formula for page layout, often including which font and point size to use for body text and footnotes. This is a often a constraint if you want to make your ‘book’ attractive.

    And whilst I agree to a certain extent with your comments on paragraphing, I wonder if there is a qualitative difference between a ‘scientific’ dissertation and an ‘arts’ one?


    1. Yes, it’s true that most institutions have a guide, and in some ways I wish that the formulae was agreed at a national level – I think there are many areas of producing a thesis which would benefit from this. In practice, I suspect that the even apparently quite draconian institutions are more flexible than you might imagine.

      Also true that there will inevitably be differences between the sciences and the arts in terms of style – but I think the ethos (still not a musketeer) of my post still stands. Aesthetics has as much a place in good writing as good grammar, and, whatever flavour of architecture you prefer, I think we can all agree that ’60s concrete brutalism should be avoided! Also, there are always was in which you can personalise your thesis, but this should not be at the expense of the house style or, perhaps more importantly, good scholarship.

      Perhaps though,the fundamental differences are actually limited not to the Arts/Science divide, but to those that have no opportunity to use figures as windows in the text.


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