What Makes a Stylish Thesis?: Creating your own Style Guide

Ever feel stuck in a maze of artfully-constructed sentences while writing your thesis? In part one of this two part series, Sophie Shorland discusses the importance of using your own style guide whilst writing – and sticking to it!

Part of a PhD is communicating complex, original concepts. You don’t, therefore, want your writing to get in the way. But when it comes to the English language, nothing is ever that simple. There are a lot of ambiguities to think about, which is where having a style guide for your thesis comes in handy. A style guide is essentially a list of rules to have next to you while writing and again in that important proof reading stage, to ensure consistency through the thesis. It makes the page neater, cleaner and less confusing for your examiners/supervisor(s). It’s also the kind of thing you need to think about when it comes to turning that chapter into an article or the whole thesis into a book. Newspapers use them to ensure in-house style is coherent and readers aren’t confused!

First up, there are certain field-specific conventions you may want to follow. In Computer Science, for example, ‘Alice’ and ‘Bob’ are names generally used to refer to communication between two parties.  While you may decide to ignore these rules, using field-specific conventions can ease communication between you, your examiners and other academics working in your field.

In Theatre Studies, ‘actor’ is used for both genders, ‘actress’ having largely been dropped. But how about other gendered words; hero/heroine, steward(ess)/flight attendant? This relates to another important choice; when talking about more than one person, will you use ‘he/she’, ‘they’, ‘zie’, ‘s/he’, or some other combination? They’re all technically correct, but switching between lots of different combinations can confuse readers.

Other questions to ask yourself (and then answer as a ‘style guide’) include:

  1. How will you approach regional/international variations? Are you happy for your syntax to be non-standard?
  2. Are you using American/British/Australian/South African/Canadian/any other spelling? Pick one and go with it!
    • British = colour, prioritise, legitimise.
    • American = color, prioritize, legitimize.
  1. For headings, are you using title or sentence case? How about subheadings?
    • This Is Title Case
    • This is sentence case
  1. When quoting from primary sources, will you use original spelling, will you correct errors, or will you note errors (more relevant for archival work)?
  2. Will you use the Oxford comma?
    • I like books, cats, and the Oxford comma.
    • I hate books, cats and the Oxford comma.
    • (the Oxford comma is the comma before the final ‘and’).
  1. What kind of register will you use? Is ‘I’ OK, or will you go to any lengths to avoid using it?
  2. Will you use words that don’t occur naturally in speech, like ‘plethora’ or ‘myriad’?

Once you’ve answered these questions, it’s a good idea to type up and print your style guide and place it somewhere visible when you’re writing. Be sure to refer to it during your writing sessions and especially when you’re editing and proof-reading.


This is part one of a two part series by Sophie Shorland. Read part two next month!


Do you have a writing style? What ideas to you keep in mind while writing? And what’s your approach to gendered language in your thesis? Tweet us at @ResearchEx, email us at libraryblogs@warwick.ac.uk, or leave a comment below.


Sophie is a PhD candidate working on Early Modern Literature at the University of Warwick. She’s interested in Shakespeare, celebrity culture and early modern women’s writing. You can find her on twitter @sophie_shorland.


Cover image: office-note-notebook-pen-planning-266562 / webvillaCC0 1.0

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