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Microsoft 365 software: Word

“Using standard formatting for academic papers shows that you understand the customs of the university community and therefore helps to boost your own credibility. ”

Digital Writing 101 [online]

Most students have used Microsoft Word for a long time and are usually self taught. Just like learning to drive a car, if a friend or someone in your family teaches you, then you often pick up their bad habits; so if a friend has shown you how to format documents in Word then you could be doing things the long and hard way. These pages introduce you to the University templates for long documents as well as helping you improve your own practice.

University templates for dissertations and theses

The University has a set of templates which can help take the stress out of formatting your thesis, dissertation or final year project.

Masters and doctoral level:

There are four templates available and they can be downloaded here:

Ask your supervisor if they prefer your headings to be numbered or not so that you know which ones to choose.

The first two templates can be used either as stand-alone documents (if you are working in a single document such as a masters dissertation) or can be combined with the Chapter templates (if you wish to work on each chapter separately).

Undergraduate final year project/dissertation

HYMS Template

We have put together a version of our template for Hull-York Medical School (HYMS) students. This template has not been checked by HYMS, so it is the responsibility of students to check their template meets the requirements of HYMS before using it. 

Videos from the Skills Team

Here are two video series showing you how to format your dissertation or your thesis. Note that if you are an undergraduate or a masters students, you are writing a dissertation. If you are a doctoral student, you are writing a thesis.


Access formatting a dissertation videos here

Access formatting a thesis videos here

Assessing your own practice

As mentioned above, most people learn word processing as they go along and often use methods that are considered bad practice (because they work for them). Whilst the templates above will help you avoid many of these, you may not be aware of your own poor practice until you have to create longer documents in the work place etc. The table below gives common examples of poor practice and what you should do to avoid them. The other pages in this guide will then give you the skills you need to employ good practice moving forward.

Click on the bad habit to see why it is bad and how to avoid it.


Avoid this because: It just looks unprofessional – you do not want your wonderful work to end up looking like a ransom note.
Better practice: Stick to one font for heading and one for main text. Use bold or colour to emphasise text.
Best practice: Use only two fonts at the most, one serif and one sans-serif (never mix two serif or two sans serif). Use bold on headings for more impact and bold (and colour) for emphasis. Do not use colour alone as this is bad for accessibility.
Avoid this because: Typing in all capitals is the textual equivalent of SHOUTING. It also looks old fashioned as it was used to emphasise text on a typewriter before alternative methods became available.
Better practice: Use bold and/or increase font size and alter paragraph spacing to make your headings stand out.
Best practice: Apply the above formatting as part of a Style.
Avoid this because: This just looks old fashioned, again it was used to distinguish between headings and body text when no alternatives were available. Centring should only be used on a front page where everything is centred, mixing alignments should be avoided if possible.
Better practice: Use bold and/or increase font size and alter paragraph spacing to make your headings stand out.
Best practice: Apply the above formatting as part of a Style.
Avoid this because: The space does not belong to either the paragraph above or below so if you try to rearrange your paragraphs, the space gets left behind and you have to go through checking all your spacing is back in the right place.
Better practice: Alter the paragraph options to add automatic space after each paragraph.
Best practice: Alter the paragraph options for Normal Style and make sure it is applied to new documents so that all future documents automatically have the space added.
Avoid this because: You need to change many things (usually font, font size, bold at the least) to make the headings stand out and doing this to each heading will take time you do not have. Even if you use format painter you will have to find every heading if you want to make a change.
Better practice: Apply a Heading style to each piece of text you wish to make into a heading (one click). Modify the style and all headings will automatically update.
Best practice: Create a template that has all the heading styles you like to use already set. Apply these to your text as needed.
Avoid this because: The size of a "space" is different depending on the font and text size so it is impossible to line things up if they have slightly different formatting. If you use the tab key, you can only indent in jumps of half an inch also several key presses are needed where one could be used.
Better practice: Set a new tab at the position you want the text to be indented – then you will only need to press once to get to exactly the point you need and it will be consistent whenever you use it. Alternatively, if you need the indent to last for several lines of text, use the indent feature to create the white space on the left instead.
Best practice: If you need to indent things regularly, create a style for indented text and save it to your Normal template.
Avoid this because: Whilst you will have control of where items are positioned horizontally (if you add your own tab stops), you will have no control of vertical spacing and will not be able to easily add lines or shading etc.
Better practice: Insert a table instead. You will gain more flexibility and you can format it to have lines and shading if you wish. You can still include tabs within table columns if you need to (although this is usually only needed for decimal alignment).

Techniques for using MS Word effectively

Whilst the guidance document that supports our templates covers a lot of these skills, some students may want to dip into just one area, learn how to do things themselves or prefer to use videos. Click on the tabs below to see step-by-step instructions or watch videos covering each topic.

Why use styles?

If you are writing a long document such as a dissertation or thesis, you will need to use styles to format the text. If you format it manually using the ribbons, or even short-cut keys, you will waste incredible amounts of time that you do not have. By using styles to format your headings and subheadings you will also be able to create an automatic table of contents which can be easily updated if you make any changes.

Paragraph styles can be applied to the different types of paragraph in your document (normal text, headings, subheadings, block quotations etc). Once you have applied the styles, a single modification (such as changing the size of a heading) will be automatically replicated throughout the entire document.

Styles can be accessed from the Styles Gallery on the Home ribbon:

Styles gallery on the Home ribbon

By default, all text is initially formatted using the Normal style.


Step-by-step instructions

Displaying the full styles palette

If you are using styles in a long document, it is best to display the full style palette rather than relying on the Style gallery in the Home ribbon.

To display the palette:

  • Click on the small dialog launcher in the bottom right of the Styles gallery.

This will display the floating style palette.

  • Drag on the word Styles at the top of the palette and push it towards the left of the screen until it ‘docks’ at the edge of the Word window.

This will stop it obscuring any of your document.

  • Click on the Show Preview box towards the bottom of the palette so that you can see what the styles look like.
Graphical representation of instructions given here

Applying a style

  • Place your insert point anywhere inside the text you wish to format (for example in a heading).

You do not need to select all of the text.  

  • In the style palette (or gallery) click on the style you wish to apply (for example Heading 1).

The paragraph will display the text formatting and spacing for the style you selected.  

  • Repeat this for all the paragraphs you want to be formatted using the same style.

Graphical representation of the instructions given here

Modifying a style

It is important for many other features to work that you use some of the default styles in MS Word such as Normal, Heading 1, Heading 2 etc. These often need modifying to meet your needs (blue fonts are not suitable for thesis headings for example). There are two different ways to modify styles as shown here:

Using the Modify Style dialog box

  • Right click on the style name in either the Styles palette or Styles Gallery.

Alternatively you can left click on the drop-down arrow next to the name.

  • Select Modify...

This opens the dialog box shown opposite.

  • Change any common formatting using the options in the Formatting section (Font, Size, Emphasis, Colour, Alignment, Line Space, Space before, Indent).
  • If you want to change anything that isn’t in the immediately visible options, use the Format button at the bottom left of the box to access all the other relevant dialog boxes.

Anything that you can change about text in a paragraph can be set using one of the dialog boxes accessible here.

  • Once you have made your change, click OK.

Any text that had the style you modified applied to it will be automatically updated.

graphical representation of the instructions given here

Updating to match selection

This is an alternative method which means you can see what your changes look like before you update the style.

  • Place your insert point in a paragraph which has the style you want to modify applied to it.

If you are changing font options, you may prefer to select the text so that you can preview the changes you are going to make.

  • Using the usual ribbon and dialog box options, make your changes to the text.
  • Right click on the relevant style name in the Styles palette or gallery.
  • Select Update [style name] to Match Selection.

graphical representation of the instructions given here

Creating a new style

Sometimes you need to create a new style rather than edit an existing one. Remember though that new styles will not automatically be recognised by Table of Contents and some other automatic features.

  • Click into a paragraph that is the most similar to the style you want to create.

New styles are based on the selected style so you can save work by making sure you are in the most similar one to begin with.

  • On the Styles palette, click the New Style button from the very bottom

This opens a box almost identical to the Modify Style box.

  • In the top section, give your style a name – it cannot be the same as an existing one.
  • If necessary, choose which style you want to follow your new style (what style it returns to when you press the enter key).
  • Edit the style options to your preferred new settings.
  • Click OK.

graphical representation of the instructions given here

Automate the creation of your table of contents  (TOC)

If you apply any of the standard heading styles (Heading 1-3 and more if necessary) to the headings in your document, you can use these to automatically generate a table of contents that can be easily updated as necessary.


Step-by-step instructions

Inserting a TOC

  • Go the point in your document where you want your table of contents to appear.
  • On the References ribbon, select the Table of Contents option on the far left.
  • Select one of the first two options shown (the only difference is the title of the table).

Your table of contents will be inserted.

  • Look through the table and make sure the headings are correct – you often notice where you have applied an incorrect style at this point.

By default, the page numbers in the table are hyperlinks to the content itself - so you can use these (Ctrl-click) to go to any wrongly formatted material to edit it.

graphical representation of the instructions given here.

Updating a TOC

If you need to update your table, for example if you have applied a different style to a heading or if you have added more text and the page numbers have changed, you need to update the table:

  • Click into your Table of Contents (near the top if it is a long one).
  • Click where it says Update Table above the title of your table.

A small floating dialog box will appear with two options.

  • If you have only made minor changes, such as adding or deleting text, select Update page numbers only.
  • If you have applied or modified styles in your document, select Update entire table.
  • Click OK.

Your table should be updated.

graphical representation of the instructions given here


graphical representation of the information given here

Removing a TOC

Place an insert point somewhere in your table of contents.

  • Click on the small TOC button at the top left of the table.
  • Select Remove Table of Contents from the bottom of the list that appears.

graphical representation of the instruction given here.

Editing what appears in a TOC

Most of the time, if you use the standard styles you will not need to do this. However, you may need to add further levels of headings if your document is complicated or if you have used a non-standard style

  • On the References ribbon, select the Table of Contents option on the far left.
  • Select Custom Table of Contents… from towards the bottom of a list.

The Table of Contents dialog opposite appears.

  • To add more levels of headings, increase the Show levels option on this first tab.
  • To choose to include specific styles, click the Options… button.
  • Scroll down the list of styles and enter a number in the box alongside that corresponds with the level you want the entry to take in your TOC (no indent = 1, first indent = 2 etc). If you want to remove a style, make sure the box is empty.
  • Click OK and then OK again.
  • If you already have a TOC you will be asked if you want to replace it – select Yes.

Note if you don’t want something to appear in your TOC you must make sure it is formatted using a different style to the entries that you DO want to appear.

graphical representation of the instructions given here


graphical representation of the instructions given here

Splitting your document with page and section breaks

If you are writing a long document in MS Word, you need to be in control of where some new pages start and you may need to format some sections of your document differently to other sections (for example changing page numbering style or page orientation). This control is achieved by using a mixture of page breaks and section breaks.

Step-by-step instructions

Page breaks

Viewing your breaks

In order to see where you have put a break, it is necessary to show the non-printing characters in your document:

  • On the Home ribbon. Click the Show/Hide option in the Paragraph group.

You will notice symbols appear to show things like paragraph markers and spaces. It will also show where you page breaks and section breaks are set.

graphical representation of instructions given here

Inserting manual page breaks

  • Place your insert point where you want the page break to be.
  • On the Page Layout ribbon, select Breaks and then Page.
  • Alternatively, use the shortcut key combination of Ctrl+Enter.

If you scroll back up to where you had your insert point, you should see the Page Break marker as shown here.

graphical representation of the instructions given here.

Applying page breaks to styles

If you always want your chapter headings to start on a new page, use this option.

  • Right click on the style you want to modify in the Styles palette or gallery.
  • Click on Format and select Paragraph.Click on the Line and Page Break tab.Check the box for Page Break Before.
  • Click OK.

Every time you apply that style to a paragraph, it will now start on a new page.

graphical representation of the instructions given here.

Section breaks

Inserting a next page section break

This is the most commonly used section break. You need to place a Next Page section break wherever you want to change something in the document such as page numbering, margins or orientation.

  • Place your insert point where you want the section break to be.
  • On the Page Layout ribbon, select Breaks and then Next Page under Section Breaks.

Again, if you scroll up to where you had your insert point you should now see a Section Break marker.

section break marker

graphical representation of the instructions given here

Inserting a continuous section break

This is exactly as above but the section break stays on the same page – you use it if you want to do something like change to a two column layout before changing back to normal layout.

Inserting a column break

If you have a layout that uses columns and want to force text to move into the new column earlier, use a Column break (also in the Breaks menu).

The can also be achieved using Ctrl+Shift+Enter.

Deleting breaks

  • With your non-printing symbols showing, click in front of the break.
  • Press Delete on your keyboard.


Text in columns

Column break marker

Page numbering requirements

In a document like a dissertation or thesis, page numbering is not always simple. They have to change between different sections of the document. These are the usual requirements:

Title page No page numbering
Introductory material (TOCs, lists of figures/tables, acknowledgements etc) Lower case Roman numerals (i, ii, iii. iv, v)
Body of the document and references Standard Arabic numbers (1,2,3,4,5)
Appendices Upper case Roman numerals (I, II, III, IV, V)


Step-by-step instructions

Setting the page numbering as indicated in the table above

  • Insert Next Page section breaks between each of the sections above.

If you need help with this, look at the Pages and Sections tab above.

  • Place your insert point into the second section in your document (the page after the title page).
  • From the Insert menu, select Footer and then Edit Footer.

This will place you in the footer at the bottom of the page and display the Header & Footer Tools ribbon.

By default, all the footers are linked to each other so that if you change one, they will all change. You need to stop this happening:

  • On the ribbon, click on the Link to Previous option to remove the link..


graphical representation of the instructions given here


graphical representation of the instructions given here

  • From the Header and Footer ribbon, select Page Number and select the option you require (one of the Bottom of Page options – usually centred or right aligned).

This will place a standard Arabic number in your footer. Probably a number 2 if it is the second page

graphical representation of the instructions given here

  • Again from the Page Number button, select Format Page Numbers…
  • In the dialog box that appears, select the lower case roman numbers (i, ii, iii…) in the Number format box.
  • In the Page numbering section, change the Start at: option to 1 (this will change to an i).
  • Click OK.

graphical representation of the instructions given here

graphical representation of the instructions given here


  • On the ribbon, click on Next.

This will take you to the footer of the next section which should be section 3 (check the label at the top left of the footer).

  • Click on Link to Previous again to break the link.


  • Select Page Number, Format Page Numbers… again.
  • Make sure it is displaying standard Arabic numbers and again starts at 1.
  • Click OK.

You should now have your numbers set as required by most thesis templates.


graphical representation of the instructions given here

  • On the ribbon, click on Next.

This will take you to the footer of section 4 – your appendices if you have any.

  • Click on Link to Previous again to break the link.
  • Select Page Number, Format Page Numbers… again.
  • Change the Number format to be upper case roman numerals (I, II, III…).
  • Change the Start at option to 1.
  • Click OK.

You should now have your numbers set as required by most thesis templates.

graphical representation of the instructions given here

Captioning tables and figures

Adding captions to your tables and figures not only keeps your numbering correct, it also allows you to automatically generate lists of tables and table of figures within your Microsoft Word document. Numbering will update automatically and you can easily update the lists to reflect this.

Captioning will create a style called 'caption' that can be edited to adjust the look and feel. See the page on styles for more information on how to adjust this. 

Step-by-step instructions

Inserting a caption on a figure/table

  • Select the figure you wish to add a caption to.

If you already have a label under your picture (plain text) put your insert point in front of that text (do not select it).

  • On the References ribbon, click the Insert Caption button.

The Caption dialog box will open.

  • In the Caption box, type in your caption for the figure you had selected (you will need to add any punctuation and spaces too)

If you already had label text, leave this set to Figure 1 only.

  • Select the appropriate label (Figure/Table/Equation).

The position will automatically change when you select this (Below selected item for figures, Above selected item for tables).

  • If you want your figure numbering to follow your chapters, click on the Numbering… button.

This opens the Caption Numbering dialog box.

  • Check the box to Include chapter number.
  • Decide on the separator that you want between the Chapter number and the figure number (this is usually a full stop/period but the default is a hyphen).
  • Click OK twice to insert the caption.

If you had label text already, press the space bar to insert a space between the Figure label and the text.

graphical representation of the instructions given here.

graphical representation of the instructions given here.

graphical representation of the instructions given here.

Modifying the Caption style

  • In the Styles gallery or Styles pane, right-click on the Caption style and choose Modify.
  • Modify the font, font colour, size, style or style of the Caption text to suit your requirements.
  • Click OK.


Creating a table of figures or table of tables

  • Position your insert point where you want the table to appear.
  • On the References ribbon, click the Insert Table of Figures button (next to the Insert Caption button).

The Table of Figures dialog box will open

  • Select the appropriate Caption label (Figure or Table depending on which type of table you are inserting – Table of Figures or Table of Tables).
  • Click OK.

Your table will be inserted into your document at the position of your insert point.

  • If necessary, add a heading above the table (i.e. 'List of Figures' or 'List of Tables').

Make sure you format this to use a non-numbered style if you are using numbered headings elsewhere.



Updating tables

If you need to update the table at any point (to take into account extra text or figures):

  • Right click somewhere in the table and select Update Field.

The Update Table of Figures dialog box will open.

  • If you have just inserted extra text meaning that the page numbers of your figures will have changed, leave it set to Update page numbers only and click OK.
  • If you have inserted extra figures or captions, select Update entire table and click OK.



Numbering your headings using a multi-level list

If you want your headings and subheadings to be numbered (1.1, 1.2, 1.2.1, 1.2.2 etc), you need to use a multi-level list. By numbering chapter headings your tables and figures can also be numbered to display chapter numbers too.

Before you set multi-level numbering you should format all the headings in your document to use styles. We recommend Heading 1 for your chapter headings and then Headings 2 through 4 for headings and subheadings within each chapter. 

On this guide, the video takes you through a slightly more complicated (though more flexible) method. The step-by-step instructions show you an easier way to achieve this.

Step-by-step instructions

Defining your list

  • Click into the first of your chapter headings.
  • On the Home ribbon, in the Paragraph section, click on the Multilevel List button.
  • Choose the 6th option.

This already has the correct numbering styles linked to the Heading styles.

Editing the chapter heading format

It is usual to put the word 'Chapter' in front of the number so that it says "Chapter 1: Introduction".

  • Click on the Multilevel Lists button again and this time, choose Define New Multilevel List from near the bottom of the menu.
  • Make sure level 1 is selected at the top left of the box and click into the Enter formatting for number box, and press the Home key on your keyboard to make sure your cursor is before the number 1.
  • Type Chapter: (and then a space).
  • Click OK.

graphic representation of the instructions given here


graphic representation of the instructions given here

Stopping earlier headings influencing your chapter numbers

If you have headings before your Chapter 1 (for instance for your Tables of Contents, Acknowledgements etc) then you may find these are also unintentionally numbered and your Chapter 1 is showing a different number. 

To rectify this you need to create a different style, without numbers, for your earlier headings:

  • Click into one of the earlier headings (before your first Chapter heading).

Note whether this is using the Heading 1 or Heading 2 style.

  • Create a new style – either by selectingCreate a Style from the drop down next to the Styles gallery on the Home ribbon or by clicking on the New Style button at the bottom of the Style palette if you have it open down the right of the screen.
  • Call this Front Heading 1 (or or Front Heading 2 as appropriate).

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  • If necessary, click the Modify button (you may not need to do this).
  • Click on the Format button (bottom left of the box).
  • Select Numbering and click on the option for None (it may look like it has already got None selected but click on it anyway).
  • Click OK to accept the numbering option.
  • Click OK to create the new style.
  • Apply this new style to all those headings at the beginning of your thesis that you do not want to be numbered.

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