Computing Skills

Hints on formatting documents in MS Word

These notes were first prepared as a guide to thesis preparation for Honours students in Biological Sciences at the University of Sydney. (For thesis you can substitute essay or report.) This brief guide is by no means comprehensive but is designed to introduce you to useful techniques to automate formatting and improve the look of your written work. Refer to the manual or Help window of your particular Word version. Share your expertise with your fellow students - it will be reciprocated.

Rule 1: The science/scholarship is your first priority.

However, proper formatting makes easier writing and reading. Setting up your files with appropriate paragraph formatting and heading styles at the start will save time in the last frantic days when you are producing and editing drafts of your thesis. Using heading styles allows you to change the style within an entire document with one keystroke. Formatting paragraphs and heading styles will give your work a consistent look, prevent hanging headings and make paragraph spacing coherent.

Rule 2: Use techniques that will SAVE time, rather than WASTE time.

Rule 3: Decide on a formatting style and set up headings and paragraph formatting as you start your writing.

Style formatting allows you to automatically apply character formatting (font, size, etc.) and paragraph formatting (spacing, text flow) to sections of your text.

Paragraph formatting

What is a paragraph?

It is worth remembering the definition of a paragraph (as given in the Intermediate Skills Manual): ‘A paragraph is essentially a unit of thought, not of length’ (Fowler, 1965). Each paragraph should be homogeneous in content and should treat the content in logical and sequential order. There is no general rule about the length of a paragraph and it should be a matter of common sense. Avoid writing lots of very short paragraphs or excessively long paragraphs. Sensible paragraphing gives your reader a rest and indicates that you are going on to the next point.

A paragraph should be able to stand alone and be understandable independent of the preceding paragraph so do not start a paragraph with ‘Its ...’, ‘These ...’, ‘They ...’ or any other pronoun that is defined in the preceding paragraph.

A good way to check that your prose flows logically is to summarise the point of each paragraph with a single sentence or phrase. Check whether the flow is logical, with ideas moving easily from one to another, as you read through the summary. If you follow the principle that a paragraph is homogeneous in content, it should be easy to summarise the guts of it in a phrase or sentence."

Formatting paragraphs

Normal style is used for the text. Select Format, Style, Normal, Modify and choose Format, Font and Format, Paragraph in turn. Set your Normal style in an easy-to-read font, set line spacing so that the text is easy to read and edit, and set Space After so that you don’t need returns between paragraphs.

Line Spacing/Space Before/Space After: In 12 point font the following conversions apply: 12 pt = 1 line. 18 point = 1.5 lines. 24 pt = 2 lines. You can set the line spacing to any point size you wish (e.g. 15 point, to save paper when printing drafts)

Text flow

Keep with Next = the paragraph will stay on the same page as the next one.
Keep Lines Together = the entire paragraph will stay on one page.

Heading styles

Set up your own preferences and create your own ‘form’ file (or template if you are familiar with templates). Use a large Space Before and a smaller Space After. (The Space Before will not be inserted if the heading is at the top of a page.) All headings should be formatted with Keep With Next so that the heading stays with the next paragraph and prevents it being stranded at the bottom of a page.

The style is set with respect to the paragraph mark at the end of the paragraph (ΒΆ). If you delete a paragraph mark the style of the next paragraph will change to that of the preceding one. Beware of this when you are editing documents.

Your Word program will have default settings for headings - you can change these! Don’t use italics or underlining for headings as it makes the text difficult to read.

An example of heading styles:

Heading 1

Font: Times New Roman 16 point Bold, Line spacing: Single, Space Before: 12 point, Space After: 6 point, Keep with Next.

Heading 2

Font: Times New Roman 14 point Bold, Indent: 0.5 cm, Line spacing: Single, Space Before: 12 point, Space After: 6 point, Keep with Next.

    Heading 3

Font: Times New Roman 12 point Bold, Indent: 1 cm, Line spacing: Single, Space Before: 12 point, Space After: 6 point, Keep with Next.

To change the Style of any heading: make the changes in one place, highlight the relevant text, select that style name from the Toolbar, select Update the style to reflect recent changes. This will automatically change all headings of that level to the new style. (This works for other style settings as well EXCEPT Normal style in more recent versions of Word.)

View, Outline

In outline you can view as many heading levels as you wish. This allows you to quickly scan the order of sections and check that heading levels are appropriately formatted and numbered.

You should make an outline of your thesis as early as possible: you can then type small sections at a time when inspiration strikes.

Numbering Headings

To number headings go to format, bullets and numbering, outline numbered. You can select the format of heading that you like.

1. Heading 1

Depending on your version of Word you can automatically number headings. You can choose the extent of indenting from the margin and from the number.

1.1 Heading 2

If you indent lower level headings don’t do the same for the text. Using this automatic function allows you to change the positions of text and the headings are re-numbered automatically. You can use the Increase Indent and Decrease Indent buttons in the Toolbar to change the heading level if required.

    1.1.1 Heading 3

Page Numbering

You don’t want to be freaking out about page numbering when your thesis is due the next day. Include page numbers in a Header or Footer, or you can use Insert Page Numbers. (I prefer the former as you have more control over where they appear.)

If your thesis is in several different files you will have to print them one at a time and set the appropriate starting page number for the start of each section. To you make these changes use the Insert Page Numbers function but do not click OK when you exit this window - choose Close. If you click OK from the Insert Page Numbers window it will insert page numbers every time (and they will overwrite each other).

Header and Footer

Select View, Header and Footer and set appropriate tabs and margins. Make sure the margin for your header is the same as the margin for the text. Set a Right Justified tab for the page number if you want it at the right hand edge of the page (although I prefer to have page numbers centred in the Footer). You can have a running header that is the chapter heading. You can choose not to have the header appear on the first page - select Format, Document, Layout, Different First page number.) Or click on the "different 1st page" button on the toolbar in Header and Footer view.

Useful keystrokes

You can make a new line without making a new paragraph by holding down Shift and Return together. This will give a new line without the automatic space between paragraphs. This may be useful for lists (that you don’t want to be numbered).

If you use certain symbols often (e.g. a , ) you can assign a shortcut key (e.g. Ctrl-D for - degree). Select Insert, Symbol, select the symbol you want and then Shortcut Key, and set the key you want to use. You can also use Autocorrect to change abbreviations to full words, e.g. temp to automatically become temperature. To do this go to Tools, Autocorrect then type the words in.


Select Insert Table and choose the number of rows and columns (you can always add or delete them later). Use the Space Before and Space After functions in the Format, Paragraph window to improve the appearance of your tables. Column widths can be adjusted using the mouse when the cursor is aligned with a border (the cursor becomes two parallel lines with arrows pointing left to right). Once you have set up paragraph formatting for tables you can make it a Style and format all future tables automatically.

Example 1. Default paragraph formatting (your tables will formatted according to your Normal style). Space Before 0 point and Space After 0 point, cell alignment Left, column headings Bold.

Symbol Shortcut key Meaning
Ctrl-D degrees
a Ctrl-A alpha

Example 2. Space Before 5 point and Space After 5 point, cell alignment Centred, column headings Bold.


Shortcut key







Note that the Tab key will select the next cell in the table. If you want tabs WITHIN a cell hold down Option and Tab together.

Table of Contents

If you have used heading styles throughout your document you can automatically create a Table of Contents. Do this when your document is complete - not for drafts. (If you edit and hence cause page numbers to change you will have to re-create the Table of Contents.) Position the cursor where you want the table, then select Insert, Index and Tables, Table of Contents. You can choose how many heading levels you want to display in the Table of Contents.

Reference Management

Endnote is a commonly used referencing software package in the School. This allows you to create a database of references then create a reference list based on the citations in any document. Record ALL details of every reference you read as you read it. If you do not have access to the software, use a card index.

Further help

Refer to the Help menu in your particular version of Word for further details on these functions. I am very happy to help you set up formatted files and provide advice on these techniques. Elizabeth May, Rm 248 (A12) Ph: 9351 4482