A lot of graduate students discover a bit late in the game that they do not know how to use Microsoft Word as well as they thought they did.  Theses and dissertations require a lot of tedious formatting, and many writers make the mistake of trying to do a lot of it manually. I’m thinking of the days of the typewriter when using the tab key with each new paragraph.  Thankfully, Word has several useful automated features that can help a savvy writer not only save a lot of time, but also and ensure accuracy and consistency during the writing process.


This WEX guide aims to help writers get started on the right foot as they begin to write their theses/dissertations.  It provides tips and general instructions for the most important Microsoft Word formatting tasks but does not include screenshots or detailed instructions of specific steps, since the layout of various menus and “ribbons” in Word varies from version to version, and from Mac to PC.  However, a quick Google search using any of the underlined terms in this document will bring up help pages and discussion forums specific to your version of Word.

Getting Started:


Before you begin writing, you will want to prepare your document and set certain format expectations. First, consult your advisor and your program thesis/dissertation handbook to get a sense of the required layout for your thesis/dissertation.  Each program will have its own formatting requirements for title pages, copyright pages, committee pages, margins, spacing, pagination, tables of contents, lists of tables/figures, and section order. To ensure that you only have to set these required sections up once, you will want to do the following tasks in Word:


Show/Hide Paragraph Marks in Word


Remember the pilcrow symbol from high school English class? It looks like this: ¶


It is the symbol that indicates the start of a new paragraph.  Some versions of Word will feature this symbol somewhere under the Home menu.  If clicked on, it will visually track, with paragraph marks, all the places where indentations, page breaks, section breaks, spaces, and carriage returns occur in a Word document.  Some versions of Word have alternative ways to activate this setting. It is helpful to turn this setting on while setting up the main sections of your thesis/dissertation. This helps you visually see where Word is establishing your section and page breaks, which we will discuss next.


Insert Page Breaks and Section Breaks in Word


Some versions of Word have Insert and Layout menu options that allow you to insert page and section breaks.  It is important to use these functions at a few key points in the first several pages of the thesis/dissertation to ensure that content from each distinct page/section is never shifted onto the pages of another distinct section as you add and alter text during the writing process.  These options will also help you ensure that page numbers appear in the desired places and follow the desired formatting.

Section and page breaks can be helpful for ensuring that the following pages/sections remain distinct (note that the requirement to have each of these sections, as well as the required order of these sections, varies from program to program):

  • Title/cover page
  • Committee page
  • Acknowledgments page
  • Table of Contents
  • Lists of Tables/Figures
  • Abstract
  • Individual chapters
  • References section
  • Appendices cover page
  • Appendices

When to use page breaks:


  • Between sections that need to stay separate from each other, but that have continuous page numbers and page number styles (e.g., all Roman numerals or all Arabic numerals)
  • After a figure/table to ensure that it remains entirely on one page.  (In most cases one should never divide a figure/table across more than one page.  If that kind of division is impossible to avoid, then the table is typically included as an appendix rather than in the main text.)


When to use section breaks:


  • Between sections that need to stay separate from each other, and that also need to have different page number sequences or page number styles (e.g., Roman numerals followed by Arabic numerals)
  • If using multiple page numbering sequences/styles in consecutive sections, you will need to ensure that you turn off Word’s Link to Previous option when you establish a section break, which is revealed in most versions of Word when you click on the header or footer sections and look under the Design menu.


Adding and Formatting Headers/Footers/Page Numbers in Word  


Your program handbook may require you to insert headers, footers, or page numbers for specific sections of your thesis/dissertation.  To accomplish this, you may need to do the following:


  • Use Word’s Insert menu to add headers, footers, and page numbers.  (Note that you can edit or format headers, footers, and page numbers in most versions of Word by using the drop-down menus for each function, which are listed under the Insert menu in most versions of Word.)
  • Change the page of your document on which Word begins page numbering.  This is often accomplished through a somewhat challenging orchestration of inserting section breaks, together with disabling the Link to Previous setting and checking the Different First Page box.  (These latter two settings are revealed in the Design menu in most versions of Word by clicking on the header/footer space.)  Many dissertation writers find this to be the single most frustrating formatting step, but once it has been set up, you are golden and will not need to do it again.   


Writing the Thesis/Dissertation


As you write, you will want to use chapter titles, headings, and subheadings to organize your content and to help you maintain a consistent order in which parallel topics are explored in various sections.  For example, the research questions you pose in your introduction will need to be addressed in a consistent order in your methods and discussion sections. Using headings and subheadings will help you do this effectively.


Headings and Automatic Table of Contents in Word


In most versions of Word, you will notice that the Home menu includes various heading styles to choose from.  These include Heading 1, Heading 2, Heading 3, and many others.  These headings help you create the hierarchy of different sections and subsections in your thesis/dissertation.  Use Heading 1 for Chapter titles, Heading 2 for section titles within chapters, and Heading 3 for subsections within chapter sections.  (Note that headings styles should never be applied to the main body text of a paragraph. If the text of your paragraphs is showing up in your Navigation pane or your automated Table of Contents, it means you have accidentally applied headings styles to non-heading text.)


Heading styles are the single most helpful Word function a student can use when writing a thesis/dissertation.  They not only enable you (and your delighted advisor!) to quickly move around between sections in your ever-lengthening document, but also allow you to create an automatically updated Table of Contents so you won’t have to manually insert page numbers for your various sections into the Table of Contents.  Word’s default heading styles are typically in font colors, sizes, and types that are inconsistent with what you will be using in your thesis/dissertation. By right clicking on each heading style in the Word Home menu, you can select the option to modify each heading style.  This will allow you to choose the font, font color, and appropriate bold and/or italics setting that makes each heading’s visual appearance consistent with your citation style system’s requirements (APA, MLA, Chicago, CSE, etc.).   Make sure to check the Automatically Update box before you close the modify menu to ensure that all settings are applied to headings of that level throughout the document.


Once you have typed out some chapter titles, headings, and subheadings into Word using the headings styles, you will be able to do two things:


  • Use the navigation pane on the left-hand side of your Word document to quickly jump from heading to heading
  • Insert an Automatically Updating Table of Contents.  This is done by clicking on the page where you want the Table of Contents to appear and then going to the References menu in Word and clicking Table of Contents.  The drop-down menu this opens allows you to choose which style you want.  As you add new headings and text to your thesis/dissertation, you will need to update the Table of Contents.  This is done by clicking inside of the Table of Contents and then clicking the Update Table option that becomes visible.  You will be given the choice to update the entire table (includes page numbers and headings) or to just update page numbers.  Sometimes you will have to take additional measures to ensure that Word does not change your font style, size, and color in the Table of Contents when you update the entire table.


Automatically Updating Lists of Tables/Figures


If you have tables or figures in your thesis/dissertation, you will need to include sections in the beginning with separate lists of tables/figures with page numbers.  As you add tables and figures to your thesis/dissertation, make sure to right click on them and add an automatic table title or figure caption. You can then insert automatically updating lists of tables and figures in the appropriate place in your thesis/dissertation (see your program handbook) using Word’s References menu.  This is similar to the process for inserting a Table of Contents, except you click on the Insert Table of Figures option instead.  Updating the lists after you’ve added all your tables/figures works just like updating the Table of Contents.


Note that if you have figures within different chapters, you will want to ensure that their numbering reflects that.  The first figure in Chapter Two should be numbered as Figure 2.1, while the third figure in Chapter Four should be Figure 4.3.  You don’t have to do this manually, however. If you play around with your Headings Styles and the formatting options available when you add a figure caption, you can instruct word to designate caption numbers by chapters.  This can be a bit tricky at first, so you may wish to Google “add chapter numbers to captions in Word” for instructions relevant to your specific version of Word.


If you have color images as figures, please don’t forget to compress them before finalizing your document.  (Do this using the picture formatting options available in Word, some of which are accessed by right clicking on images.)  This will make the final file size much smaller and easier to share by email and in digital repositories. Note also that citation styles such as APA strongly discourage the use of color tables and figures.  Two additional tips: (1) Avoid double-spacing inside of tables, especially in column and row titles. (2) Use Word’s Design and Layout menu options when working on text inside your tables to ensure that text is positioned in the most efficient and aesthetically pleasing way.


Citation Manager


Word has a built-in citation manager under the References menu that will allow you to automatically format and link your in-text citations to your thesis/dissertation References section(s).  The key functions to use for this task are Manage Sources and Insert Citation.


Final Notes


No matter which citation style you are using, there are seemingly endless and nitpicky little formatting requirements beyond what is explored in this guide that our WEX coaches and editors can double check for you.  (For example, do you know when to use a short dash, an en dash, and an em dash? If not, take a look at the WEX FAQs above.) We are here whenever you need us to take a look at your thesis/dissertation drafts.


Happy writing!

Written by: Loretta Rafay