A Little Bit of Editing, A Little Bit of Proofreading, A Little Bit of Formatting: The Final Steps in Polishing Your Dissertation

by Lesley-Anne Longo

Published at 2017-04-12

TEC has had a number of dissertations cross our desks over the past few months, and working on these important documents is always a process that requires a lot of attention and an eye for detail. We take editing dissertations (and theses as well) very seriously: when we work on such a document, we know the work we do can have huge impact on our client's life. We take pride in knowing that we're helping the client achieve a goal they've been working on for years.


However, working with dissertations requires a bit of a different process, simply because when we edit these projects, we have to keep in mind that the client is the expert in the subject matter, having studied in their field for years. This creates an interesting dynamic between editor and author (for more on this, check out this blog on the value of having your dissertation edited), and often results in more in-depth conversations about the material itself as we navigate the ways in which we can help polish the author’s writing.


One of the things we must watch for extremely closely is consistency: consistency in spelling, punctuation, styles of headings/subheadings and figures and/or captions. When you’re managing big, overarching themes and ideas that guide your entire work, checking for little things like whether or not your figure captions are all formatted the same can sometimes fall by the wayside. That’s where an editor can truly shine—catching all those details that the author may have missed while working with the big picture. So, what exactly do we check for?


Punctuation Style

  • Are all commas and periods inside quotation marks where applicable? In Britain, it is often customary to place commas and periods outside the quotation marks (“Like this”.), however, in North America this is not the norm. 

  • Is the serial comma being used, and if so, is it used consistently?
  • Is the author using double quotations (“like this”), or the less common single quotations (‘like this’)?
  • What kind of dash style is in use (em dash: — / en dash: – / hyphen: -), and is it used consistently throughout?
  • If the author uses ellipses, what style is predominant (like…this / like … this / like…This)?



Is the author working with American or Canadian spelling? Catching inconsistencies between the two can be tricky, so we always create a style sheet to keep track of words that must be spelled a certain way—think judgment/judgement, labeled/labelled, etc. As the author of your dissertation and after spending years working on it, it can be difficult to spot little inconsistencies in spelling—this is why a fresh pair of eyes checking your work can be so helpful.



In academic works, there are very specific guidelines about the styling of heads and subheads. In descending order of importance, the ones you’re most likely to use are as follows:


A Heads

B Heads

C heads.

D heads.


Most style guides will have rules for how to treat these (the style I’ve used above is APA styling rules, for example), but every once in a while, we come across an E or even F head, and must decide how to style these headings that are lower on the hierarchy, as style guides often only cover down to D heads. We also watch to make sure an author doesn’t jump from, say, an A head to a C head—the headings must always go in order.



This goes hand in hand with heading styling. Making sure your formatting is consistent means ensuring that your paragraph treatment is always the same—usually, the first paragraph after a heading is flush left, and every paragraph following is indented. An author may want a bit of space added after each paragraph, so that would be checked for consistency as well. We would also look at the formatting of table and figure captions to make sure they all look the same (flush left? centred? bolded? italics?). Using style guide rules is always helpful here, but sometimes authors use style guides that are less popular, and therefore less rigid (Harvard style, we’re looking at you). In these cases, we just want to make sure that whatever style the author has gone with makes sense, is clear, and is consistent throughout.


Front and Back Matter

What this means is your table of contents, references, and appendices if you have them. We check the table of contents to ensure that the heads and subheads there match the ones that are in the actual text, and that they are where the TOC says they are. We check your references to make sure they have all the information required (and if they don’t, we query it to let you know) and that they are formatted according to the chosen style. We also check the in-text references as we proofread, cross-referencing to make sure that if a source is listed in the text, it shows up in the references and is spelt correctly in both locations.


Details, Details, Details

Writing a dissertation is a project that requires countless hours of work over a number of years—when you submit one, you want everything to be just right. An editor can help you achieve your goal, as they are practised in the styling, formatting, and general setup of dissertations. An editor will know what to look for, what details may need to be checked for consistency, and how to polish your writing and make sure it is clear and concise. After years of working with your subject matter, it’s always worth it to have a pair of fresh eyes look at your masterpiece to catch the small things you may have missed. Such a process can add a great deal of value to your work, and any editor worth their salt will take pride in helping you achieve your goals.