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Thesis and Dissertation Formatting

Before Starting to Write

Setting up your document correctly when you begin writing saves time and effort in making corrections later. These suggestions are intended to make the format review process easier. Check the Microsoft Word Formatting Tips for help with specific formatting tasks.


  1. Consider saving your thesis or dissertation in several files to reduce the chance that one mistake will ruin the formatting of the entire document. Suggested file divisions:
    • Title, approval, and abstract pages:
    • Each chapter: Makes inserting page numbers easier because you don't need section breaks!
    • Table of contents, list of tables, list of figures: After you finish writing, you can copy and paste headings, then add page numbers.
    • Bibliography.
    • Each appendix.
  2. Start by setting page and header/footer margins for the entire document. The first page of each chapter must have a two inch margin at the top, but that's easy to add later.
  3. Select a font and font size. Choose a standard font such as Times New Roman or Arial. If your department or advisor requires a specific font, use it. You may not use a script or decorative font. You should use the same font and font size throughout your document.
  4. Find out if your department or advisor requires you to follow a specific style guide, such as APA. Use that guide for formatting citations, tables, and other elements of your thesis or dissertation.
  5. Choose formats for each level of heading in your document. Each level of heading must have a different format. Some possibilities are: bold and center, bold and left-aligned, italics and center, bold italics and center, underline and left-align, and numbering schemes that designate chapter/section/subsection. Some style guides (APA, MLA, etc.), require specific formatting.
  6. Select a format for table titles and figure titles. The Guidelines for Preparing Theses and Dissertations have examples of several acceptable formats, but you must choose one and use it consistently.
  7. Learn to use the basic formatting features of your word processing software. Specific operations to learn include:
    • Using bullets and numbering,
    • Turning on and off Reveal Formatting or Show/Hide Formatting Marks,
    • Changing line spacing,
    • Setting tabs and tab leaders,
    • Using header/footer to insert page numbers,
    • Setting hanging indents, and
    • Using page breaks and section breaks.