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Thesis Content Positioning: Techniques to Avoid and Embrace

Effective management always means asking the right question . Robert Heller Of all the tasks that trouble research students when it comes to the management of their thesis documents, its the seemingly never ending battle they face to get content to position itself correctly that causes them the most grief. The question is why is this so? Well, its really the combination of three (3) things: 1. The need to position content correctly throughout a thesis document 2. The constantly evolving and changing nature of a thesis document as it develops 3. The selection and implementation of content positioning techniques that do not accommodate change well, if at all Lets look at the three (3) of these in turn. The need to position content correctly throughout a thesis document The positioning of content is dictated in three (3) main ways, these being: 1. Specific requirements stipulated by your university 2. Visual aesthetics 3. The content itself Stipulated content positioning requirements You may find that your university has rules that stipulate how content is to be positioned within and across pages of your thesis document. Most common is the rule that no paragraph sentence is to sit by itself at the top of a page with the rest of the lines that precede it sitting on the page prior. In fact, so common is this requirement that Word has a feature known as Widow/Orphan control that is switched on by default to prevent this from happening. However, your university may require that no single paragraph split across pages at all. Similarly, it may also require that bulleted lists remain unbroken, that table rows remain un-split or that level one headings always start on a new page. You of course must comply with these requirements lest your thesis attract avoidable criticism or be delayed in its submission.


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Aesthetic appeal Even when no specific content positioning requirements are stipulated, you will often need to make adjustments simply because things just dont look right. Indeed, a bulleted or numbered list that breaks across pages doesnt look good. Nor does a predominantly blank page whose only occupants are the last two lines of a paragraph that mostly resides on the previous page. Tables that split across pages look awful, as do headings that remain unaccompanied by even a single paragraph to which they refer. Now, you can bet your bottom dollar that if these positioning issues are bugging you, they will most certainly bug your reviewers and readers as well. Naturally, you will attempt to rectify these issues by employing one or more content repositioning tactics. Position as dictated by the content itself Often content elements must be positioned in precise ways due to the important relationship that exists between them, for example: Two or more paragraphs that must stay together because they work in unison to articulate a complex concept or argument A paragraph that must stay with a table, image or diagram that precedes or follows due to the explanatory support that it provides A table that must always stay with its caption, because a caption sitting by itself is utterly meaningless

Once again, these are issues that you will naturally endeavour to rectify using any content repositioning techniques you may know. The constantly evolving and changing nature of a thesis document as it is developed The thing to keep in mind is that your thesis is a living document from inception all the way through to its final submission. Its content is almost constantly being added to, modified or removed throughout the entire development process. As this change can be almost impossible to foresee due to its highly organic nature, the way in which the content in your thesis will ultimately lay itself out in the finished version is very much an unknown until you actually arrive at that point. This fluid, and largely unpredictable content change process, is an inescapable part of the thesis development, and is one which causes havoc if not accounted for appropriately. The selection and implementation of content positioning techniques that do not accommodate change well, if at all This is why it is absolutely vital that you avoid any decisions and any specific actions that cannot predictably accommodate continual change. Unfortunately, two (2) of the most commonly used content positioning methods are in fact the worst that could possibly be chosen. Each of these will be discussed in detail below, however, before we can truly understand why these methods are disastrous, we need to understand the purpose and effects of the automatic page break.


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The purpose and effects of the automatic break Once the content you place into a page exceeds its capacity to hold it, Word automatically inserts a special page break of its own known as an automatic page break. It does this by calculating the number of content lines that exist within the page, including tables and images, and when these reach a limit dynamically determined by Word, an automatic page break is inserted, thus generating a new page into which any successive content flows. This lines per page value changes dynamically in accordance to settings such as paper size, margins, line spacing and even the type of printer connected to your computer. Dependent upon these factors, some pages can hold more lines of content and some can hold less. The key thing to understand here is that as you add, modify and delete content in your thesis, Word continually recomputes the location of these automatic page breaks and adjusts them as it sees fit based on its own internal rules and calculations. Word performs this recalculation process as you pause between keystrokes, a process known as background re-pagination. Another key thing to understand about automatic breaks is that you have no direct control over them. You cant see them or interact with them directly to get them to do what you want them to do. At best, you can only influence when and where Word applies automatic breaks by adjusting certain document and content settings over which you do have control. However, this can be a difficult and imprecise way by which to handle automatic breaks in an attempt to manage their unwanted and unexpected effects. Now let me make it perfectly clear at this stage that automatic breaks are a perfectly logical and necessary feature for Word to have. However, the reason they tend to cause havoc in a thesis document is because most research students dont understand their purpose or effects. As a result, a thesis document can be adversely affected, not by the breaks themselves, but by how you react to them when they are inserted. The problem begins when you decide that you dont like where Word has placed an automatic break. In particular, you may have often become very annoyed when: A heading sits by itself at the bottom of a page, with the paragraphs it pertains to sitting on the next. A paragraph is split across two pages, when you wants all of its lines to stay together on a single page. Two paragraphs have separated across pages, but as they both address a key concept, you want them to always stay together on a single page. A table is split across two pages, when you want it to stay complete on a single page. A table and its caption are separated across two pages when you wants them to always stay together on a single page.

However, where the problem really begins to escalate when you go about counter-acting these unwanted positioning effects using two very bad tactics, these being: 1. The insertion of manual page breaks 2. The insertion of empty paragraphs


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Manual page breaks and why to avoid them The use of manual page breaks needs to be avoided at all costs in the thesis development process. I know that this statement will disturb old school Word purists, but allow me to explain. For those unfamiliar, a manual page break allows you to create a new page in Word at a time and place of your choosing, and as such, allows you to override the operation of the automatic break. Most people who use this feature do so to position content in the way they want rather than in the way Word appears to dictate. Lets take some of the content positioning issues above and examine how manual page breaks are commonly used to seemingly overcome them: A paragraph is split across two pages, but you want all of its lines to stay together on a single page. To correct this, you places the cursor at the beginning of the affected paragraph and insert a manual page break. This moves the entire paragraph to the next page as desired. The issue appears to then be resolved. A table is splitting across two pages, when you want it to stay complete on a single page. To achieve this, you place the cursor just above the table, then insert a manual page break. The issue appears to then be resolved. A table and its caption are splitting across two pages. To correct this and keep both items together, you place the cursor just above the table, then insert a manual page break. The issue appears to then be resolved.

However, heres the problem. When you insert a manual page break into a document like this, it becomes an object just like any other. Referred to as a non-printing character, a manual page break counts as part of the document, influencing the layout and positioning of the content that surrounds it, regardless of whether this influence is beneficial or otherwise. Further, when your document changes for any reason, a manual page break will move up and down accordingly, just like the surrounding content does. And herein lies the problem. Every time a manual page break moves to a new page either up or down to accommodate changes in surrounding content, it causes an unwanted effect in that it creates large areas of unwanted white space. This is because a new page is created where ever a manual page break is located. If therefore, a manual page break moves from its originally intended location to another, it creates a new page at that point. For example, you may use a manual page break to ensure a paragraph that was being split across two pages now sits on one. However, if you add new content above this break and it repositions itself from its current location to the page that follows, it will create a new, but completely unwanted page at that point. The effect of this is very bad, as it creates a huge gap of white space between the content above the manual break and that which follows it. The image below shows this effect very clearly.


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Image 1: The unwanted effect of a manual page break that has moved from its original position

As a result of inserting new content higher up in the document, two paragraphs and the manual page break that follows them have moved down (1) from their original location to a new page. Of course the manual page break has behaved exactly as it was designed to and has itself created a new page at the point in which it is now located (2). This in turn has caused the remainder of the page to be left blank (3), with subsequent paragraphs not appearing until the page that follows (4). Now multiply this effect dramatically when you insert literally dozens of these manual page breaks into a document that is constantly changing. Thats right - utter chaos! So the message is clear. When you are in the process of developing your thesis, stringently avoid the use of manual page breaks! Even if you use them after the content of your thesis is finalised, and fully intend not to change it any further, your document may still change its layout in response to third party printing or conversion to a digital format such as PDF. Ive seen this happen many times. A student inspects her thesis as printed or converted to PDF only to find a couple of big gaps of white space in it, despite the fact that everything was perfect on-screen or when printed out on her own equipment.


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The fact is this. Your thesis is an ever changing document. Even when its finished and you send it off for publication, it can still change in response to the production techniques used when printed or converted to an electronic format. However, manual page breaks do not respond well to change. When they move, the content that follows also moves, but in an entirely unwanted fashion. So my advice is simple - dont use them! Inserting empty paragraphs and why to avoid this too This is another commonly employed content positioning strategy that must be avoided at all costs during the thesis development process. This is how it goes. You notice that the insertion of an automatic break has caused content to split across pages in an unwanted fashion, as per the examples stated above. In response however, you place your cursor at the beginning of the affected paragraph, heading, table or image and then just keep hitting the Enter key repeatedly until the paragraph appears to be positioned as desired. However, this approach only creates an illusion of solving the problem, and creates a number of others in the process. These problems stem from the insertion of large numbers of empty paragraphs. So what is an empty paragraph? Before I can answer this, you first have to understand the purpose and function of the paragraph mark. Each time you hit the Enter key, Word inserts a special, non-printing character known as a paragraph mark, which is also often referred to as a carriage return. The job of this character is two-fold. Firstly, it allows Word to mark and keep track of where one paragraph ends and the next begins in a document. Word needs to know this so that it can correctly apply layout and positioning settings that have either been defined by you or by the applications built-in rules. The amount of space between one paragraph and the next is a classic example of such a setting. Secondly, the paragraph mark contains all of the format settings that are to applied to the paragraph it appends. Were paragraph marks not to perform this critical task, you would be unable to have different formatting for different paragraphs; they would all have to be the same. The fact is that many research students are completely unaware that paragraph marks even exist. This is because they are not visible by default. It is very much an out of sight - out of mind scenario. However, paragraph marks can be made visible simply by clicking the Show/Hide button located under the Home tab of the Ribbon. Once you have done this, any paragraph marks that exist within the document can now be seen. The image below shows a set of such paragraph marks. Once you can see them and are aware of them, their role in a document becomes much more apparent, as does the effect of using them injudiciously.


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Image 2: The location/appearance of paragraph marks once they have been revealed using the Show/Hide button

Now that you understand the purpose of paragraph marks and can see where they exist within a document, the issue of inserting empty paragraph marks can be explained. An empty paragraph mark is one that has been inserted into a document that contains no associated content. An empty paragraph mark is created whenever you hit the Enter key twice or more, without actually adding any content to each new line created as you go. Now, you are likely to engage in this practice for one of two reasons. Firstly, you may use this approach as a means by which to position paragraphs in the way you want them arranged because you dont like the way Word has done this. Secondly, you may hit the Enter key multiple times in succession to created the white space between paragraphs you desire, as one used to do in the typewriter days. If you are unfamiliar with the concept of a typewriter, consult Wikipedia The image below shows part of a document in which hitting the Enter key multiple times has been used to achieve paragraph positioning and spacing.


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Image 3: The appearance and effects of empty paragraphs once they have been inserted to control content spacing and positioning

Note the five (5) empty paragraphs (as circled) that have been created using this method. Doesnt look that good once theyve been revealed does it! So allow me to make this point never use the Enter key as a means to position or space paragraphs, or any other thesis content for that matter. Let me reiterate this to make the point abundantly clear: Do not use the Enter key as a means by which to create desired white space between paragraphs Do not use the Enter key as a means by which to position paragraphs within a document, especially in response to the effects of the automatic break

Performing either of these actions is very bad practice for multiple reasons:


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Your thesis is a living and constantly changing document. If you use the Enter key as a means by which to fix a perceived paragraph positioning issue, the fix will be temporary at best. As you add content to the thesis, any positioning achieved in this way will be undone immediately. What youll get instead is excessive white space between paragraphs that were once on separate pages, but are now on the same page. Not only does this look terrible, it is a problem you will have to go about fixing later in the thesis development process. It makes Word potentially much more unstable than it already tends to be. As discussed in other chapters, Word has a tendency to become increasingly unstable as the page count of a document climbs into the hundreds. This issue is compounded if the document contains numerous non-textual content elements such as tables, diagrams, charts, graphs and images. Therefore, inserting any unnecessary objects in addition to these only contributes further to this instability. An empty paragraph mark is one such unnecessary object. By frequently inserting empty paragraph marks as a content spacing and positioning method, you are forcing Word to keep track of all of these, despite the fact that they serve no valid purpose. Even though they are empty, Word still has to track their position and the formatting information they contain nonetheless. Therefore, if Word is already struggling with a large, content-heavy thesis document, inserting scores, if not hundreds, of empty paragraph marks compounds the issue extensively. It increases the length of your document. With standard thesis paragraph spacing, 12-15 empty paragraph marks would fill a standard page. Therefore, were you to insert 1000 empty paragraph marks into a Masters or Doctoral thesis for example, this would generate the equivalent of over sixty extra pages that are devoid of any actual content. I bet you never thought about this did you! Now this is a huge issue when strict maximum page counts have been applied by your university. Printers and PDF conversion programs often handle empty paragraph marks in unpredictable and unwanted ways. What you see on the screen is not always what you get when the document is printed to hard copy or converted to an electronic format. PDF converters for example are designed to capture a Word documents content and layout and display these as an image. Although one would hope this to be a precise and completely accurate procedure, it often isnt! This is because the rules and standards by which Word handles a documents layout differs from those a particular PDF program will employ. And whenever such differences exist, so does the potential for unwanted change during the conversion process. For example, one of the key items of disagreement between Word and PDF conversion programs is how they measure content spacing. As such, spacing that you have applied to get content positioned just right in a Word document can be altered by a PDF program during conversion, with the end result being unwanted layout changes. This is an annoying, but inescapable reality. Now, two (2) of the key determinants of spacing in a Word document are paragraph marks and manual page breaks. Hence, the more of these you place into a Word document unnecessarily, and as far as I am concerned they are all unnecessary, the greater the scope for unwanted layout changes when a PDF conversion process is applied.


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Controlling spacing between paragraphs the right way! There is only one effective and efficient means by which to establish and maintain paragraph spacing within your thesis and this is through the use of the Spacing (Before/After) setting. This setting allows you to tell Word the amount of white space it is to create between one paragraph and the next, a distance measured in points. You can set both the amount of spacing that is created before and paragraph and after it. For example, the default Body Text style that ships with Word 2007 has its spacing set up as 0 points before and 6 points after. These settings of course are not appropriate for a thesis and you would have to change them to that which is required by your university. More specific detail regarding this can be found in the paragraph formatting chapter. It is in fact not necessary to set both the before and after settings, just the after. This is simply because the spacing after value of the preceding paragraph or heading applies the necessary spacing before for the paragraph that follows. Even if you were to set the spacing before value of a paragraph the same as the spacing after of the preceding paragraph, they cancel each other out. If they didn't, and you set both of these values to 12 points, you would have a net separation of 24 points; which would be way too much. However, this does not happen as to avoid this issue. So when setting paragraph spacing, it is only really necessary to set the after value. The image below shows the same set of paragraphs as the prior image, but this time spaced using the Spacing (Before/After) setting instead of the multiple Enter technique. You can immediately see the big difference it makes.


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Image 4: Paragraph spacing achieved using the Spacing Before/After setting rather than empty paragraphs

As you can see, there are now only three (3) paragraph marks instead of the eight (8) used before, however, the required spacing has been achieved nonetheless. The key thing to understand about this approach is that it places paragraph spacing duties fully in the hands of Word so that you dont have to worry about it. Once you have set this up, all you have to do each time you want to create a new paragraph is press Enter once. Just once! Word will create the required white space between the preceding paragraph and the new one for you. As a result, you will never have to press the Enter key multiple times to create the required white space between paragraphs. And in doing so, you will completely avoid the insertion of scores, if not hundreds, of empty paragraphs. Not only will this save you huge amounts of time, both in putting them in and then having to remove them later, your document will be much more stable as a result.


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Controlling paragraph positioning the right way To control the way in which paragraphs and headings position themselves across pages when they encounter the automatic break, you can use one (1) or more of the following settings. All of these reside under the Line and Page Breaks tab of the Paragraph dialog box Widow/Orphan control Keep with next Keep lines together Page break before

Each of these is explained in more detail below. Widow/Orphan control This setting is very important. When checked, it ensures that the last line of any paragraph does not end up on its own at the top of a new page. It is considered very bad practice to allow this to happen from a readability and pagination point of view, and this applies fully in the context of a thesis. This feature is almost always on by default, but if for any reason its not, then it needs to be activated without exception. Keep with next When this setting is applied to a paragraph, it ensures that it stays with the next content object if it crosses onto a new page. When I say content object, I could be talking about another paragraph, a table, an image or a heading. You would apply this setting when two content objects must always stay together. For example, if you have two paragraphs that work together to explain and complex point, you may not want these to ever become separated across two pages, but rather, always stay together on one page. By applying this setting to the first of these paragraphs, you ensure that it travels with the one that follows, should it ever cross onto the page that follows. Keep lines together When you apply this setting to a paragraph, it will not break at all across the automatic break at all. In other words, the entire paragraph will remain entirely on the current page or the one that follows, with no splitting across the two pages ever occurring. Although not always the case, this is a common requirement in a thesis, as it is not considered good practice to allow paragraphs to split across pages in this way. Once again, it is a matter of readability and ensuring that the content flows and hangs together appropriately. Page break before This setting will ensure that the paragraph always appears at the top of a new page and is most commonly applied to headings. For example, the thesis style guide used by your university may require that all Level 1 headings commence on a new page. If this is the case, the Page break before setting should be checked.


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The question is, when should these settings be programmed into the style that controls the paragraph or heading, and when should it be applied directly on a case by case basis. The answer is that any positioning requirement that must apply universally to all headings and/or paragraphs should be programmed into the styles that control them. The table below acts as a guide in this regard.
Setting Widow/Orphan control Keep with next Best Applied In the style that controls the paragraph or heading For paragraphs, it should be applied on a case by case basis For a heading, it should be applied in the style that controls it If required for paragraphs, it should be applied in the style that controls them If headings are likely to span multiple lines on occasion, this should be applied in the styles that control them Not applicable to paragraphs If applicable to any heading level, apply in the style that controls it

Keep lines together

Page break before

Table 1: - The appropriate manner in which to apply position settings to paragraphs and headings in a thesis.

Conclusion By avoiding manual page breaks and the injudicious use of the Enter key to space and position paragraphs within your thesis document, you will save yourself a great deal of time, frustration and disappointment. As you have seen, by using the tools and settings Word specifically provides for paragraph control purposes, you avail yourself of a set and forget strategy in which all content positions itself correctly and automatically without your direct involvement, no matter how much it changes over time. To take any other approach would be an exercise in chaos. In short To position content correctly in a document that is in a constant state of change requires the implementation of the correct tools and strategies for the task The insertion of manual page breaks and the repetitive use of the Enter key, seem like sound content positioning methods, but they are not and should be avoided Paragraph spacing should be achieved by setting and applying the Spacing Before/After value in the Paragraph dialog box Paragraph positioning should be achieved using one or more of the settings available under the Line and Page Breaks tab of the Paragraph dialog box Be sure to use these set and forget strategies that ensure all thesis content positions itself correctly and automatically without your direct involvement, no matter how much it changes over time


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