How can I make my thesis look beautiful?
July 23, 2008 4:36 AM   Subscribe

I have a 50,000 word medical thesis to write. I don't want it to end up looking like a big ugly Word document, just printed out on A4 and bound. I would like some graphic design inspiration/tips for making it look more like a real book, which would actually be a pleasure to pick up and read.

The bulk of the thesis is made up of existing papers, which I wrote in Word 2004 for Mac, using Sente and Papers as my bibliographic system. At this stage I don't think it is worth the effort to learn to use LaTeX. Unless there are convincing arguments for switching systems, I am mostly looking for suitable design resources online, and tips for making this as painless as possible in Word.
posted by roofus to Science & Nature (23 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Before you get too far into this project, have you checked with your school to make sure that deviating from a particular template is ok? Sometimes you get thesis checkers that will automatically reject anything that doesn't line up perfectly to the approved template.
posted by stefnet at 4:46 AM on July 23, 2008 [2 favorites]

Best answer: It's actually quite possible to create beautiful looking documents using Word. It's not easy or pleasant, but it is possible. Basically, you need to learn to use style sheets and other typo/layout tools.

And take stefnet's advice and double check the requirements that your institute expects you to follow.
posted by Foci for Analysis at 5:06 AM on July 23, 2008

Best answer: Agreeing with stefnet (and, on preview, Foci for Analysis): thesis checkers are well known to be fairly ruthless about your document following school specifications exactly. I spent a week reformatting part of my dissertation because a page number was displaced from those on other pages by, like, two millimeters.

Which is not to say that good design isn't possible -- some schools allow enough flexibility that you can make your thesis look either really great or like crap, but the obvious place to start is with the thesis guidelines. It's pointless to put a lot of effort into design that you have to dump in favor of plain old Times New Roman and Word's default settings.
posted by dseaton at 5:11 AM on July 23, 2008

Best answer: If you don't have time to pick up LaTeX, there's always, Lyx, a graphical interface for TeX/LaTeX. That would still give you the elegance of a TeX'd document without having to fight against the learning curve.

TeX documents are so yummy I could eat them.
posted by ellenaim at 5:19 AM on July 23, 2008 [2 favorites]

Best answer: How to recognise a thesis written in Word: look at the layout of the headings: bold and/or italic, bad font-sizes (different, but not different enough), bad use of vertical whitespace.

Using just the basics from the "The Non-Designer's Design Book" (Robin Williams) can get you very far in Word. Don't think changing to InDesign/LaTeX magically gets you a nice design if you don't know the basic 4 rules of design which is documented in Williams. The magic of this book is that it enables non-talented people (such as me) to make better designs by enabling me to improve designs by being able to apply the basic rules. (I'm not in any way affiliated by the author, this is just a book that's made a difference. Enough to get nice words from people I consider much more creative than myself).
posted by flif at 5:35 AM on July 23, 2008 [3 favorites]

Best answer: British institutions are often less strict about the 'look and feel' of a thesis than their foreign counterparts -- the guidelines for Oxford theses say 'Where a word processor produces output which imitates letterpress then the layout may be that of a well designed book.' (Albeit with single-sided printing.)

Anyway, you can do it with Word, with judicious use of styles, a good font with embedded kerning (only supported on TrueType for MS Word) and careful hyphenation, word spacing and justification. Still, A4 is an awful starting format for anything with bookish aspirations.

If you're given leeway, tweaking the margins can make an immediate difference to the look/feel. However, if you're printing single-sided, the proportions for book margins (meant to be viewed with two facing pages) may not look right.
posted by holgate at 5:41 AM on July 23, 2008

A layout for A4 which uses wide margins to avoid too wide body text: the five-factor model (in Danish, unfortunately). Not a thesis, but a bachelor project. Created in FrameMaker, but should be doable in Word.
posted by flif at 6:10 AM on July 23, 2008

Best answer: There are three simple steps that anyone can use to make a good-looking book layout without knowing much at all about design.

1) Choose a book that has whatever qualities you want in yours. (Make sure it is not so distinctive that people will immediately think of the original, however. What you want is a generic book, a good-looking book that is nonetheless not very different from a lot of others. You are trying to produce bookness here, not necessarily a distinctive design.)

2) Do yours the same way, in every detail, down to the margins, the fonts, the line spacing, what's in the footers and how they're positioned, how far down the page each chapter starts, etc. Get out a ruler and measure! Pay attention even to where sections start. If you can only get a couple of lines of a new section at the bottom of a page, the book probably forces a manual page break at that point. Do the same.

3) You can do some minor tweaks to "make it yours" but be careful you don't lose the bookness of it.

The #1 mistake design novices make is to start from scratch and try to get where they want to be via trial and error. It is a lot faster to start with a design that you know is book-like because it was used in an actual published book. You don't have to come up with the design details from your head; they're right there in front of you!

You don't have to be really exact with the fonts -- just use the same number (usually two) and type (usually serif for body and sans serif for headings and other text). Ideally you can choose two that work well together and that have the feel you want (old-fashioned, modern, etc.). Here is where you might ask for help.

There is no reason at all you cannot do this in Word or any competent word processor. Word 2007 does kerning much better than previous versions, so if you can, use that version. It will make your document, especially the headings, look nicer. But probably nobody will notice if you do it with an older version of Word. I once laid out a 500 page book in Word 5.1 for Mac. The kerning on the headings was gruesome in places, but only designers noticed.
posted by kindall at 6:39 AM on July 23, 2008 [1 favorite]

Best answer: How many people will ever read this? How many of those would care about whether it's an elegant masterpiece or a Comic Sans atrocity? Half a dozen? I know you want it to turn out nice, but it's better to spend your time on the last-minute issues that will come up with the content. However...
I was pleased with the way my PhD thesis turned out. I spent a lot of time choosing a font that I felt was lighter and more interesting than Times, but more solid and reassuring than Palatino (and less overused than either). For headings I used Helvetica, but nowadays I would choose a font family that comes with serif and sans-serif forms to get a more complementary match. Ten the key is to use as much white space as possible - really big margins. The line spacing was 1.8 rather than double spaced as per Cambridge guidelines, but this depends on the font. Will this be hard bound? If so the edges will get chopped down so make the margins even bigger.
When writing the text I used Word's "Styles" features correctly so that changing any of these things was trivial even at the last minute. It is definitely worth learning to format text this way, rather than by applying paragraph formats to your text. This is my big tip for making this painless in Word; my other tip is to use Endnote for bibliography.
Finally, I worked quite hard to make the pages with figures match the main text pages as closely as possible. Make sure they get a page number by inserting blank pages in the text, to be replaced with the figures before binding, and make them match the text pages as well as possible with numbers and headings and text styles all the same.
posted by nowonmai at 7:05 AM on July 23, 2008

Best answer: Agreed, re: checking beforehand on formatting limitations.

If there aren't that many, consider breaking up the big block paragraphs into shorter chunks and using formatting like bolding, italics, blockquotes, horizontal rules, lists and so on. In other words, appealing to the modern problem of Short Attention Spans and people who scan but don't really read. I realize these issues are treated as a web phenomenon, but in this day and age, it seems like a chunkier/formatted approach enables better reading comprehension, especially while reading a long thesis.
posted by deern the headlice at 7:52 AM on July 23, 2008

Best answer: The difference between Word and LaTeX can't be overstated. With a little practice it's easy to tell a document that's been typeset in TeX from one done in Word, even if the fonts and margins are set the same. It also makes a big subliminal difference even to people who don't know what they're looking at — TeX-produced documents are just much more "book-like" or "professional". I think this is because the typesetting algorithms it uses are just much better than Word's. (Word, even 2007, seems to get confused and over/under space words on a regular basis, although I have noticed an improvement in both kerning and orphan and widow control in the latest version.)

Unless you have a lot of formulas or tables, moving a finished document into LaTeX isn't really that hard. The most time-consuming part will probably be the Bibliography/References section; the actual text is fairly easy.

You can do all sort of tricks in Word to make documents look better, but at the end of the day, a document printed from Word is going to look like a document printed from Word. It's not a typesetter, no matter how much it tries or purports to be.
posted by Kadin2048 at 8:11 AM on July 23, 2008

Best answer: Switching between Word and LaTeX is profoundly painful. There are tools that will get you part-way, but they tend to barf on anything reasonably complex. But on the other hand, MSWord 2004 fails at kerning and ligatures. (The worst thing about editing in MSWord is seeing such ugliness as un-ligatured "fi" and ugly kerning around every comma and period.)

I'd say your best bet if you are starting from MSWord is to typeset the final product using InDesign (and perhaps Quark, but I've never used that). InDesign can import MSWord documents with most formatting intact. With a few hours of study, you can easily create a basic facing page layout that will incorporate most of your text. The tricky part is that you will probably loose the connection between reference and citation, so you should wait until close to the final draft form to do this.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 8:40 AM on July 23, 2008

Best answer: Nthing the TeX/LaTeX if you have the time. If the document is due in a couple of months, then I would say you have the time to become very proficient in the ways of TeX.

I used both during college, and even though TeX took a couple of days to get comfortable with and understand the supporting tools, it has provided a lifetime of benefit.

One of the biggest benefits to me, is having my documents in plain text markup. I can use any text editor that I happen to be near/fond of, and if necessary, the text can be simply copied/pasted into whatever word processor for rework if required by convention (I am required to provide a Word .doc file for all office correspondence). Additionally, back to the time element you can start your document content now, without worrying about any formatting and use whatever tools you are comfortable with.

And I'll confirm what the other TeX supporters say, the base result from a TeX document is noticeably more professional looking. I have actually experimented on co-workers by providing the same document in both Word styled, and LaTeX styled output and the result was 8 to 1 in LaTeX's favor. Word 2007 is better than the older versions, but I still prefer the results of a TeX solution.

One last thing, on a project this big consider some sort of version control system so your changes can be tracked and rolled-back or merged. If you are unfamiliar with version control systems consider TortoiseSVN as a start. TortoiseSVN can create a standalone system that does not need any additional tools to work and the storage repository can be placed on a network or USB drive.

Other tools to consider:
BibTeX - The main tool/system for creating technical bibliographies. Several standard formats are predefined.
Scribus - Another page layout program. It's little rough, but can be very useful.
posted by Hollowman at 9:02 AM on July 23, 2008

I just want to add that my recommendation against LaTeX comes from having written my own thesis using LaTeX and BibTeX, and using it for a variety of other documents as well. If you are starting from scratch, LaTeX is a great system. But if you already have 300+ pages of copy in MSWord, something like Scribus or InDesign will get you there a lot quicker.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 9:44 AM on July 23, 2008

I'll happily agree that LaTeX used well -- heck, LaTeX used with default settings and something like the palatino package -- will knock the socks off anything created in Word. The memoir class is also right up your street. But converting a host of other documents from Word will be a pain.
posted by holgate at 10:14 AM on July 23, 2008

Best answer: Just say no to LaTeX.

You don't need it. It is a pain and just totally unnecessary if you're not using lots of mathematical symbols and/or formulae (which you may well be doing, since it's a medical thesis you're talking about).

I'd go with flif's suggestion and work on making the best use of Word and or InDesign or something similar.
posted by yellowcandy at 10:42 AM on July 23, 2008

Best answer: n-thing tex/latex. Try reading this document (PDF) for some helpful starting pointers.
posted by tomcochrane at 11:11 AM on July 23, 2008

That PDF about LaTeX features some ugly layout. Not a way to win converts.
posted by yellowcandy at 7:53 PM on July 23, 2008

Will this do? sigh.
posted by holgate at 8:40 PM on July 23, 2008

Response by poster: Thank you everyone for lots of good advice and good links. I've made a first draft of the design (low res screenshot), employing a Garamond serif-font (?ITC), big margins for a narrow text column, and a slightly fancy header, partly borrowed from tomcochrane's link. I'm going to have a designer friend cast a critical eye over it this weekend. Best answers all round for being so great!
posted by roofus at 11:56 AM on July 24, 2008

A suggestion: make the page header and page number different in style from the body so it's easy for the eyes to see the difference before reading the text. E.g. bold font but smaller, or switch to a Sans Serif font such as Helvetica.
posted by flif at 3:15 AM on July 26, 2008

Here are two ideas: download the Open Office 3.0 beta. You can open your Word document in that, and save it as a Latex file. Run it through latex and most of the Word formatting will be clearned up, corrected, and made to look "nice." You could also use Scribus for this, but then there's a learning curve. Open Office's word processor is very similar to Word and there isn't a learning curve at all. I would recommend using a Mac because using different fonts other than the core tex fonts is trivial using Texshop and Xetex.

The other idea is to get a copy of "Perfect Pages" by Aaron Shepard. It's available on Amazon. He identifies what makes Word less than satisfactory "out of the box" for a typesetting job and shows how to handle workarounds.

I have no connection with the author, his web page is at Good luck.

BTW, awhile ago I posted a request to see if anyone had any book templates for Latex. I was referred to a couple of interesting document classes, but no real book plates. Here is a list of "specifications"--note that there is not technical term under Tex--for a book: Why can't someone package these into a book template--or better ones, or different ones for different kinds of books? A .tex file is a text file after all, it would seem to me that this would be a simple task.
posted by tesseract420 at 11:58 AM on August 3, 2008 [1 favorite]

I'm not sure why you're even considering LaTeX given that you've got the documents already in Word. Yes, TeX is the best way to easily produce beautiful documents, but conversion negates the easy.

You should look for specific thesis templates designed for your university's thesis specifications. Such files have been tweaked by numerous graduate students who've had their theses rejected for slightly improper formating.

Any university granting PhDs in math or physics will have such a package for LaTeX, but I suspect you'll find them for Word too.
posted by jeffburdges at 4:46 PM on November 13, 2008

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