How to format a thesis to university guidelines

how to format a thesis

Once you’ve written your thesis you’ll breathe a sigh of relief, but it’s not quite finished. Remember those guidelines you got from your tutor, thesis office or department? It’s now time to make sure your thesis meets these completely. Afterall, you want your tutor focused on what you’ve written, not marking up all the formatting mistakes. So with your guidelines at your side, let’s see what’s required.

Overall, there’s really two things you want to achieve – make sure you follow the guidelines, so your thesis doesn’t get rejected, and make it look as good as possible whilst staying within the guidelines. Just how much flexibility you have to make it look good will depend on the detail of the formatting instructions you’re working with, but there’s one overriding consideration which will definitely help meet the guidelines AND help it to look as good as possible. You need it to be formatted consistently.


Now, this may sound straightforward enough. After all, you wouldn’t set out to do it inconsistently, would you? But it’s actually much harder than it sounds, especially if you are not used to using Microsoft Word. There’s a whole area in Word which is designed to help, but it tends to only be used by those with a fair bit of experience. If you want to achieve a consistently formatted document you have to use paragraph styles properly. There really isn’t any way around this, so if you’re not really familiar with paragraph styles and how they work, now’s the time! The Other resources section at the bottom of this article provides some useful links to help.

Even though you may know about styles there is one temptation that you must avoid – never use direct formatting to format parts of your document. That means don’t ever be tempted to select some text and just make the font a bit bigger, or increase the space between paragraphs. It’s direct formatting like this which causes a document to be inconsistent and makes it incredibly difficult to update should you need to later.

So, if you have your content, your university guidelines, a reasonable understanding of Word and how to use styles, and you are determined to keep away from direct formatting, then you really are ready to go.

Review of Guidelines

Start by thoroughly reading through the guidelines. They may be reasonably short but there are universities whose guidelines run to more than 100 pages. Whichever you have read them carefully and consider what styles you are likely to need in order to be apply to comply with them properly.

Creating Styles

So what styles might you need? Word comes with a Normal style and you can use that for any paragraph of regular text which isn’t to have the first line indented. But many sets of guidelines will require some paragraphs to be first line indented, and for this you can create a style called Indent which is based on Normal but with a first line indent on it. The advantage now is that if you change the font, the line spacing or the before or after spacing on Normal it will automatically update Indent too, which all helps you keep some consistency.

If your document has quotations these will typically need to be formatted differently so create a Quotation style and apply the necessary indents, italics etc. to get it to either look the way you want it to, or to conform with the guidelines you’re following.

You’ll need a Caption style for figure and table captions, a Bibliography style for formatting all your references along with a number of Heading styles. If your headings are being numbered you’ll probably want to have a numbering scheme on Heading 1, Heading 2 etc. But you might also want some unnumbered headings for the front matter and the Bibliography. For these you might setup a heading called Head 1 which is similar to Heading 1 but without the numbering scheme.

If your document has footnotes it will automatically use the Footnote Text style. Of course you might want to change the font size or other details of the style, but it will then get applied to all your footnotes so they’ll be consistent throughout your document.


The guidelines are often quite specific about the order of material especially the front matter before the first chapter. Make sure your material is organised into the correct order before you go any further.

The proper use of headings and subheadings is really important. Not only does it help to break up your document so that someone can more easily follow the flow of your argument, but it’s the headings that control the creation of the table of contents. Word offers styles called Heading 1, Heading 2, Heading 3 etc. and these will work well for your headings and subheadings. You will just need to modify the styles to either conform with the guidelines or to produce something which looks good in your document.

Page Setup

Before you can apply the correct styles to the manuscript, make sure all the pages are set up to the correct specifications. The guidelines will generally specify the page size and the margins required. It’s not so easy to fix this later, so fix it right at the beginning and then check that it’s right before proceeding.

Often guidelines will ask for a bigger margin on the left for binding. If your guidelines ask for double-sided printing then you’ll need to setup mirror margins so that it’s the inside margins which are larger and allow for binding.

Front Matter

The pages of a thesis up to the first chapter are known as the front matter. University guidelines are often very prescriptive about these pages and they may need to be formatted quite differently from the rest of the document. It’s always a good idea to setup a few specific styles which will just be used in the front matter to make sure it’s really consistent. You’ll be able to use the Head 1 style you created earlier to style your front matter headings

Back Matter

The back matter or end matter has slightly less convention to the way it should be ordered and styled. This is where the bibliography and any appendices will usually go and they are both likely to need their own styles.


The guidelines will typically specify the required pagination providing details of both placement and whether roman numerals are to be used for the front matter.

Font Selection

This is usually quite tightly specified and Times New Roman 12pt or Calibri 11pt are both very typical. Your guidelines may allow for some elements like footnotes, quotations and table text to be in a reduced size font, so you’ll need to alter your styles accordingly.

Main text

Often the line spacing and whether ragged right is required are specified in the guidelines. It is common for one and a half or double line spacing for normal text but single for footnotes, quotations, bibliography etc., so the guidelines should be carefully reviewed.

Punctuation Formatting

As you work through formatting your document it’s a good opportunity to check that the punctuation is as consistent as possible and follows any specific rules.


Theses are typically divided into chapters which may or may not be numbered. Often the guidelines will specify exactly how these are to be set including the spacing above and below, but some standards do not specify how to set chapter titles, e.g. APA, in which case you have some latitude.


The guidelines will often specify whether a numbering scheme is to be used or not. As a rule scientific disciplines tend to use numbering schemes whereas humanities do not.


Often referred to in guidelines as seriation these should be kept as simple as possible. Once again the use of styles is essential. Don’t use direct formatting and any lists in your thesis will look as consistent as possible.


Quotations will often be specifically covered in guidelines and will typically be indented and use single spacing.


Tables are a clear way to represent data using columns and rows. Table styling typically depends on the type of data in the cells, the quantity of data and the use of merged cells throughout the table. Tables will often include lines or shading to divide cells clearly.


If your document contains images, you’ll want them to look as professional and consistent as possible. It always helps to have any text in images in a consistent font and for similar images to be sized and cropped so they look like they are part of a matching set.

When placing images into a document there are a number of things to consider. Pictures must maintain their resolution, have borders applied if required, be appropriately sized, stay consistent with other similar images, have carefully applied text wrap and be anchored to enable future changes to the surrounding text.


Captions should be styled and placed depending on their frequency in the document, length, level of detail and importance to the book. There will often be specific guidelines as to how captions should be formatted.

Footnotes and Endnotes

These will often be specified in the guidelines and will typically be styled with a reduced size font and reduced line spacing.


Having gone through and styled your thesis, if you’ve used heading styles consistently and you have styled all your figure and table captions with the correct styles, you can now quite easily use Word’s tools to create an automatic table of contents and list of figures and list of tables. Guidelines will often specify the number of levels of heading to be included in the table of contents.


Most guidelines require the removal of widows and orphans so a certain amount of balancing is required. This may also require some backfilling of text around tables and images to limit the amount of white space.

Other resources

And because using paragraph styles is so vital to making this work, here are some great resources to understanding how they work.

Styles by Shauna Kelly is a good overview from someone with heaps of Word experience
HowToGeek Document Formatting Essentials provides a really good set of online lessons
Office Support Styles Videos is really easy to follow Microsoft training

and of course if you google “learning about Word styles” then there’s plenty more.

How can we help?

Whether you have detailed guidelines which require you to create a properly conforming document, or more limited guidelines but you want to ensure your document looks as good as possible, formatting your document consistently requires a fair degree of knowledge and skill. That’s fine if you are already a bit of an expert with Word but it can be very daunting if you’re not.

If you’d prefer to leave the detailed formatting to someone else now you’ve written your thesis, our thesis formatting service ensures your thesis is formatting precisely to your university guidelines. Not only are our staff very familiar will all aspects of thesis formatting to a wide variety of guidelines but we have created a number of tools in Microsoft Word to ensure that your thesis is completely consistent throughout. So confident are we in our service that we guarantee we will meet your guidelines.