Top five dissertation formatting tips and tricks

Top5It’s dissertation season for final year students! Once you’ve finished your research – burying yourself in journals and spending hours transcribing – you’re faced with another challenge, formatting!

Formatting will either seem very basic to you, or outrageously advanced and confusing. It just so happens that I really enjoy formatting, and I have helped a number of people with their dissertations, so I’ve pulled together a few tips and tricks you can use to format your dissertation, essay or report.

This article is meant to be helpful and not to patronise. Many people have no reason to use these functions before dissertation!

Please note, I use Word  2013 for Windows, so you may find you have to follow a slightly different process if you use another version, but they will be there, and if in doubt use my favourite tool – Google!

The tools I’ll be detailing are:

  1. Page and Section Breaks
  2. Page Numbering
  3. Headings
  4. Contents Pages
  5. Clear Referencing

1) Page and Section Breaks

Have you ever created a new page by entering enter multiple times? No need, this is where Page Break is useful!

Page Break

This option will take you straight onto the next page. It’s particularly useful because if you add more text before the page break, you don’t need to worry about having to remove spaces from the next page.

Tip: You can create a page break by pressing CTRL and ENTER simultaneously

Section Breaks allow Word to recognise a new section. The advantage of this is that you can change the formatting in this section and it will not affect other sections (unless you specify  it to). For example if you want to have some pages in your document in landscape and others in portrait, a section break makes this very easy to do. Find out more about this here.

Section breaks

There are a few different types of section break depending on what you want to achieve.

2) Page numbering

Your dissertation may need to have some pages numbered, some using Roman numerals, and some pages unnumbered.

To create this, you need to make sure each of those pages are in separate sections – see above.

Open the Header and Footer view – this can be done by double clicking at the top or bottom of the document.

Page number

You then need to add the page number, select if you want it at the top, bottom, or in the page margins depending upon your preference. Then select Format Page Numbers.

Page number format

Select the number format that you want to use. You can also change where the Page Numbering starts from here. If you want the number to be different to the automatic one, enter the one you want in the Start at: option.

When you change the format in another section, make sure you deselect the option to link to previous sections, otherwise it will change all sections.

Link to prev

You can now change the page numbering to as many formats as you like!

Read more about this here.

3) Headings

Using Style Formats in your document helps with consistency, and can be used in the contents page and referencing which I talk about below.

Styles are already set up, select ones which are relevant. For example, choose from headings, titles, quotes and normal!


If you’re not a fan of the preset style, you can change this easily. The Design tab on Word 2013 (this is different for other versions) allows you choose from other presets, or change colours, fonts, spacing etc.


You can also manually edit your styles individually, do this by right clicking on the style, selecting Modify, and  editing to meet your requirements. This will then update any existing text in that format.


If you want to distinguish your Appendices, I recommend you read this article.

4) Contents Page

If you’re manually writing out your contents page, you will save so much time by using an automatic one.

To set this up, you need to ensure that you had formatted all your headings as detailed above.

Once this is done, go to the References tab and use the Table of Contents option to insert a contents. There are a couple of options already set up, and the option to add a custom one.


It is preset to automatically add in Headings 1, 2 and 3, and each heading is indented. If you want to change this, choose the Custom Table of Contents option. Click the Options button, and then choose what headings you want to include, and at what level you want them to be. In the picture below, I have including Heading 4, at the same level at Heading 3.

contents edit

The advantage of a automatic table of contents, is that if your chapters move onto different pages, all you need to do is select the Update Title option, and it automatically updates the page numbers with no manual work at all!


5) Clear Referencing

Has all this formatting made a mess of your document? Have you pasted in text from a document that now looks completely different. You can quickly remove all formatting from the text by selecting the handy Clear Formatting button.

Clear all formatting


If you are at Leeds Met, the Skills for Learning team run a brilliant workshop on using Word formatting for dissertation,more details here. According to their Twitter, the library staff can also help you if you’re having trouble with formatting – what a brilliant service!

If this article was useful, and you’d like to know more formatting tips, let me know!

  1. Rachel – thank you for sharing this. I am so often stunned by how little many students know about formatting in Word. We think that those much, much younger than my generation are brought up with this kind of thing – but I am wondering if it has never been taught since the times I see the enter used instead of a page break amazes me. Also the lack of realisation that using headings and other style aspects can make life easier.

    One thing you’ve not mentioned that is another critical aspect is the tab function. Again, whether in tables or tabs within a paragraph (eg indents), you see multiple stabbing type tabbing (as it appears to me) rather than setting tabs where they are required.

    Mind you, I’ve just been sent a Word document to complete by a solicitors firm (but could be any organisation) and there is no attempt to present this in any way that resembles a form. So I could completely screw up the formatting if I didn’t know how to see the non-formatting characters (it’s that backwards P icon for those not in the know), I wouldn’t have the faintest idea what they’d done in setting it up to avoid causing chaos. Do they expect me to print it out and complete by hand?

    Sometimes I wonder if it really is 2014 and a digital world 😉 That’s a bit like the joke about why is there a hashtag on old telephones long before Twitter was invented…

    • Rachel said:

      Thanks for the comment Heather.

      This stuff is definitely taught at schools, but my theory is that because it isn’t relevant at that point people simply don’t remember it! I think most universities do have services teaching people how to use these function, but I do not know how well used they are. My dad taught ICT at schools, and taking after him I’m extremely keen to use all the functions – plus anything that saves me time is a huge bonus!

      They really are such key skills and people just don’t know what they can do for them! I’ve received so many documents from people that just are not logical! And the idea of writing out a contents page by hand terrifies me!

      Oh I like the hashtag joke!!

  2. Faith said:

    Thanks Rachel I am also not very glued up with formatting. From now on I will be a changed students.

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