Separating Writing from Formatting

As I began writing a manuscript that I plan to submit to a specific journal, I thought it would make sense to follow that journal’s style sheet, which is rather different from what I am used to. I noticed, however, that I was constantly looking things up, from the very first sentence. How do I cite that source with this particular system? How do I spell that word in British English? How do I handle quotation marks for this particular situation? It was hard to get any thinking and writing done under such circumstances.

I have decided to put an end to these unnecessary distractions by separating the formatting from the writing, making the formatting a separate step in my workflow. I will write in plain text documents without any formatting and using only basic parenthetic citations. I will focus on the content during all stages of the writing, editing, and rewriting. And then I will worry about the formatting. That will mean extra work in the end, but it will enable me to write without unnecessary distractions, which is what I need.

I handled many sections of the dissertation in a similar way, even when I was working with a style I understood, Chicago. In that case, I wrote five or ten pages at a time, and then I integrated it into the word processing document with formatting—after I was sure about what I was doing. This process also enabled me to devote those times when my mental energy was highest to just plain writing, and then I could turn to formatting when my brain was less sharp but still able to perform basic tasks.

One other advantage to the plain-text format: I will be able to edit or add text on the go with my iPad, whose text files I keep synced via Dropbox. Ideas often come to me on the bus, so this is no small thing.

One thought on “Separating Writing from Formatting

  1. I’ve not yet experienced the need to write in different formats, but it’s clearly a problem and your solution looks to be an elegant one. For my thesis, I attended a course on ‘Formatting your thesis in Word’ organised by the university which told you how to set up a template to the university’s desired format. It didn’t include footnotes, but I managed to format these in Endnote. Of course, other bodies will have different formats. My current plan is to stick with the Glasgow University format and to later change to the required one.

    Some of my colleagues in a former job in the UK had to send reports to US clients. Their solution to the problem of US v. UK spelling was to write in UK English and then spell check in US English. One issue is mobilize or mobilise. In the UK academics generally use ize but most other people use ise. MS Word’s UK English spell checker accepts both, so will not pick up on inconsistencies. Being a mature student, I returned to academia after years of using ise and decided to stick with it. This wasn’t commented on by my supervisor or examiners.

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