Another Way to Use InDesign to Layout your Thesis (with some help from Zotero and Word)

“There is only one real sin, and that is to persuade oneself
that the second-best is anything but the second-best.”
Doris Lessing

Tomek left a reader comment about his workflow when it comes to using InDesign for a Masters thesis in Architecture. Thank you 🙂 I found the comment helpful and to give it some more exposure, I copy-paste it into a posting of it’s own.

He writes:

I’ll be writing my Masters thesis in Architecture next year and doing it in anything other than InDesign seems nuts to me. I need to have full control over formatting and I need it to be reliable and consistent. Not qualities that Word is known for. However, Word has it’s uses. Here’s the workflow that I have used in the past and it seems to work quite well.

– Use Zotero to create a database of your references. Zotero is free, excellent and has kickass support in Word. It makes inserting citations into our document a complete no brainer and also will create a bibliography/references page in whatever style.

– Write the body of your thesis in Word. Be sure to set up some basic styles like a range of headers, etc. Name them something specific to your thesis, you could prefix style names with a few letters that are meaningful in the context of your thesis. For example, TP-Heading-1, TP-Heading-2, TP-Footnote, etc. (TP are my initials).

– PLACE your Word document into a new InDesign file. Be sure to tick “Show Import Options”. This is where the magic happens. InDesign will import your word document with all the formatting AND it will automatically create all the styles you have created in Word (TP-Heading-1, etc).

– Now all you have to do is place the pages and tweak the newly defined styles to achieve your desired look.

So, use Word to write the words and us InDesign to format your document.


If I remember correctly how I did work with my own dissertation thesis, his way saves a lot of work regarding the formatting of headers and the like (I did it manually). And I think his way of working is especially suited for those working on Windows PCs, giving that, e.g., Papers (for literature management) is not available (love the cite-while-you-write shortcut feature). Zotero seems like a good choice (though personally, I would be careful which literature to add — if you go on a spree, you might end up with a lot of literature that clogs up the database that you never use. Sure, the database can handle it, but it might slow you down when you cite something and have to search and select the right paper).

Personally, I would still write in Scrivener and rather invest some more effort at formatting (either in the Word file or in InDesign) than write in Word. But that’s a personal choice.

And most importantly, it’s nice to have options — and know that you have them. 🙂



  1. Like you, I’d pick Scrivener over Word. It’s a far better writing tool. I’d also prefer to bring in unformatted text rather than Word-formated documents. When I do layout for others, the Word import is always my biggest headache. Too much extraneous formatting appears and has to be cleaned out.

    I generally write and edit in Scrivener until I decide the flow of the text isn’t going to change. Then I import it into InDesign for the serious editing and layout. I also export it to multiple platforms (i.e. epub on an iPad) for the proofing, The more different ways to view a document, the more likely you are to correct mistakes.

  2. Hmmm, never thought about exporting it to ePub to find spelling and grammar mistakes … good idea. And yup, it’s really difficult to find errors when you’ve spend a lot of time working on the text. I find having it read out loud (if you have the time) to be really useful here. The computer is objective and reads what is there, not what you think is there.

  3. Daniel, thanks for this post. I would just add that there is another option (and the best option I’ve found): Write in Markdown format in Scrivener (or any other text editor, but we all agree that Scrivener is the best, with amazing control of document organization, comments and footnotes, and much more). When you are ready to export to Adobe InDesign, “compile” the Scrivener document to a MultiMarkdown file. Then use the free document converter Pandoc to convert the Markdown file to a Microsoft Word file. (Pandoc’s Microsoft Word conversion is much cleaner than Scrivener’s, at least on a Mac.) Then import the Microsoft Word file into InDesign, showing the import options. Then it is easy to adjust styles in InDesign using the Paragraph Styles palette and GREP Styles.

    But wait, “Why write in Markdown?” you ask. Markdown is a plain-text format that is platform independent, backwards compatible and future-proof. It allows you to focus on writing without the distractions of font styling. You can use Pandoc to convert it to any other format. Other writers have explained the virtues of Markdown for academic writing (most of them convert Markdown to LaTeX, but their arguments about the virtues of Markdown apply just as well to this Markdown-to-InDesign workflow), for example: Why (and How) I Wrote My Academic Book in Plain Text by W. Caleb McDaniel, Write Your Thesis in Plain Text! by Scott McPhee, Sustainable Authorship in Plain Text using Pandoc and Markdown by Dennis Tenen and Grant Wythoff, and Markdown for the Humanities by David Smith.

    I’ll refrain from explaining how to handle scholarly citations in this Markdown-to-InDesign workflow, since there are multiple ways to do it depending on which reference management software you choose to use.

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