“Editing” your own PhD

Writing and editing are two heavily codependent and yet two very different skills. To be an effective author means years of training and – more importantly – practice. Perhaps you redrafted your first journal article once or twice, but more likely, you’ve done this four, five, maybe even six times. It’s stressful work, but quite often the struggle is worth the reward.

Editing your own writing, however, might not feel as worthwhile. You’ve got your message across and staked your claim on a new, emerging or already existing field of knowledge. But what about the reader? Maybe you’re not expecting a huge audience (your dissertation, after all, will only definitely be read by you, your supervisors and your examiners*), but spending the time to ensure clarity in your own text will go a very, very long way in improving your reputation as a strong and convincing author.

* This doesn’t take into account any help you’ve received while drafting the thesis. I had many, many more sets of eyes on my dissertation than those present in the viva, and I’m glad for that support. My dissertation, however, has yet to go anywhere past graduation. It’s sitting on my shelf while I help others make more of their own 😉

As a PhD candidate, what matters most to getting your degree is that final pile of paper that you’ve spent four to seven years writing. How, then, do you prepare your dissertation for submission and examination? Here are some useful and hopefully easily implemented tips from my experience as a viva survivor and an academic copyeditor that will help you polish your own writing before the thesis defense and beyond.

Make the most of Microsoft Word

Word is for most academics the be-all-end-all software. You can write, rewrite, format and design your entire dissertation on Word either manually or by making use of its many useful features. Some of these you might know already – Spelling and Grammar, Track Changes, Margins, Headers and Footers – and the list goes on. But what about some more advanced features? You’ve already mastered your own subject matter over several years, so what’re 30–45 more minutes to familiarize yourself with, say, the Styles Pane or Macros?

Styles Pane

Perhaps the most useful feature beyond the standard Word repertoire is the Styles Pane. You may have seen it on the Home ribbon, there at the top-right hand of the screen. Using Styles, you can standardize the appearance of various levels of headings – chapters, sections, sub-sections – along with your main text and any block quotes or footnotes. The main reason to use the Styles Pane, however, is to easily build a table of contents when the time comes to finalize your dissertation.

From my own experience as a very stubborn, recovering graphic designer-cum-sociologist, I regret not having made use of this Styles Pane at this final and most stressful stage. Rather than relying on Word to build – and, more importantly, update – my table of contents, I had to comb through a 300-page document packed full of images and figures to manually enter and revise page numbers after successive rounds of feedback from my supervisors and examiners. Just don’t do it!

You can adjust almost every imaginable feature of your headings, from font, size and color through to language, margins and indents. Even if you’re not keen on design and just want the damn thing done, you can simply use Word’s existing heading templates to the same effect – simplifying your formatting and table of contents.


Unless you’ve survived an advanced course in Microsoft Excel (yuck!), you’ve likely not used or even come across macros and the programming language VBA. That’s because Microsoft Word hides the “Macros” and “Visual Basic” tabs (the window in which to program in VBA), probably for good reason. A small mistake in macro construction could create a fatal flaw in your document.

Fear not the Visual Basic window!

But fear not! Paul Beverley, hero of all Word heroes, has built a massive, free library of tried-and-true macros for all authors and editors to use. While his site is certainly geared toward Word freaks (… us editors), once you install and use one of his macros, you’ll be hooked. To install a macro on Word, you only need to enable the Developer tab,* open Visual Basic from there and copy the macro straight from Paul’s website into the Visual Basic window. Press Enter and it’s done! A more detailed guide on installing macros is available here (see “Write a macro from scratch in Visual Basic”). Next, open the Macros window from the Developer tab and run the macro you’ve just installed, as long as your text is ready for editing and you’ve saved a back-up copy.

* To open the Developer tab, do the following (information from Microsoft):

  1. On the Word menu, select Preferences.
  2. Select Ribbon and Toolbar > Customize the Ribbon > Main Tabs.
  3. Check Developer and select Save.

For PhD students, I specifically recommend the following macros:

  • ProperNounAlyse: This macro creates two documents that list in the first all proper nouns used in the document and in the other any potential inconsistencies in spelling. These you can then search and rectify in the Word document directly. Also massively useful in building an index since it pulls out all the names of people and places you’ve mentioned!
  • HyphenAlyse: Is it macro-economics, macro economics or macroeconomics? (Knowing the ins and outs of hyphen usage, it’s certainly not the second!) Perhaps, however, you’ve written a term with a hyphen in one chapter and without one in another. HyphenAlyse catches these inconsistencies for you. Note, however, that you should never touch punctuation originally used in a quote that you include in your text!
  • LongSentenceHighlighter: Academics are known for winding and often unwieldy prose. We write long sentences to explain complex ideas and in doing so neglect basic tenets of style. While there’s nothing wrong with a long sentence, using this macro will highlight those passages where you might have gone too far and not given your ideas some room to breathe. You may also have just forgotten to include a period or a semi-colon. LongSentenceHighlighter will show that, too.
  • CitationAlyse: My absolute favorite when it comes to formatting a bibliography. CitationAlyse cross-checks bibliographic entries with in-text (parenthetical) citations and tries to match citations to entries. This way, you’ll find rather quickly where you’ve left a stray entry in the master bibliography when you’ve removed the citation from the body of the text or, conversely, whether you’ve forgotten to add the matching bibliographic entry for a parenthetical citation. This one takes some finesse to use properly, but always double-check anything from the macro results you may be doubting using Word’s search function.
A sample output from the HyphenAlyse macro, showing potential discrepancies in hyphenation.

Other features

Microsoft Word offers many more features that can help you to format your dissertation for submission.

Does your university have a style guide for theses and dissertations? If so, these might specify which margins you need to use and whether you need different margins on alternating pages. This was the case with my PhD and it may very well be the same with yours. It might seem archaic since we mostly read our work on a screen, but having different margins will make a lot more sense when you see the printed version you submit for examination (if this is still required). You can adjust margins for print layout in the Layout tab under Margins > Custom Margins… > Multiple Pages > Mirror margins.

Make use of the Find and Replace function, too, to ensure consistency across your text. Did you originally write up part of a chapter in US English but need to submit your thesis in UK English? If you’re not using an add-on like PerfectIt (more on this later), you can use the search bar to find words containing -our or -ise/-yse to change this one at a time. Don’t be tempted to find and replace all cases of -ise to -ize as this might change words like “promise” to “promize” or -our (“mourning”) to -or (“morning”). Leave out the hyphens to search for all words containing these letter combinations.

Finally, use Track Changes between each iteration of your chapter or dissertation to remind yourself of your most recent amendments to the text. Save these as distinct versions, too, and give them an easy-to-search title: Chapter2_TM_Draft2.docx works just fine! I was a bit reluctant to do so just to cut down on the clutter on my Dropbox account, but building a consistent naming and filing system will do wonders not only for your work flow but for tracing your steps as an author for future reference.

PerfectIt: A (self-)editor’s best friend

If managing the nitty-gritty of Word is too much to handle, let someone – or something – else do the dirty work. If you’re on the absolute final draft of your dissertation, sign up for a free two-week trial of PerfectIt, a plug-in for Microsoft Word that handles all matters of editorial nitpicking. PerfectIt, brought to you by the brilliant minds at Intelligent Editing Ltd, screens your text for consistency in spelling, grammar, punctuation, italicization, variations in global Englishes, abbreviations, contractions, bullets – you name it, PerfectIt does it.

PerfectIt catching a consistency error in my web copy (using UK English spellings in US English text).

One caveat to using PerfectIt is that you may be tempted to “Fix all” of each kind of consistency error it may find. As with Word’s Replace All function, you may mistakenly change something that doesn’t or shouldn’t be changed. This might be quoted material or speech, proper nouns, minor spelling differences that change meanings or minor formatting points that should be left alone, particularly in tables. Nonetheless, PerfectIt is such a useful and powerful tool that you won’t hesitate to purchase a full license even when the free trial expires. It’s a small investment into taking a very heavy editorial burden off your weary shoulders. Visit the PerfectIt site to sign up (and no, this is not an ad! I and my editor pals all swear by it).

Wrapping up

While it may be easy to overlook small errors in consistency when you’ve just finished a tiring, multi-year, career-determining project like a PhD, doing a bit of editing on your own will help strengthen your positioning as an author and scholar. This will also ensure that your readers understand the message you’re wishing to convey.

The tips I’ve provided here are just a starting point to better exploit the functions of Word and compatible programs like PerfectIt to achieve your career ambitions. These tools alone won’t erase all errors in your text, but 75–80% is better than zero! And if you have any doubt about your work, don’t hesitate to contact an experienced academic copyeditor (like me!) for more pointers. We’re here to be your cheerleaders, not your Reviewer 2.

For more information on my services for PhD students and early-career academics, click here.