14 – Basic tips with Microsoft Word

I’ve been putting together some notes for postgraduate students, covering various aspects of the task of successfully completing a research thesis. It includes some tips for Microsoft Word that might be of broader interest, so here they are. It’s a bit of a random collection, but hopefully contains something you didn’t know about.


Use the Help facility to learn about any of the following features of Word that you don’t currently know about.

Learn to use “Styles” in Word as one of the first things you do, and use styles for all your formatting, especially for headings. Styles allow you to ensure that all headings at a particular level have the same format, and they allow you to change the formatting of all similar headings at the same time.

NEVER use tabs to indent or undent lines, such as at the start of paragraphs or references. Get into the habit of using Format|Paragraph|Special|Hanging. You can do it easily by marking the required paragraphs, switching on viewing of the ruler and dragging the upper or lower pentagonal (nearly triangular) marker to the desired level of indent. Even better, define a “References” style and use that.

Learn all about the options in Format|Paragraph. Use them.

In a big project, like a thesis, sort out all the formats you are going to use very early on in the project. Create a document for yourself that records them, and define all the formats in appropriate styles in a file before you start writing your first chapter (or as early on as you can). Create a template from that file, and use that template to create all of your chapter files, so that they will all have the same formatting without you having to work at it.

Never use blank lines to position stuff, especially not to move stuff to a new page. Try not to use page breaks either within the body of a document, except say for a table that you want to be on a page by itself. Generally it is best to use “Keep with next” in Format|Paragraph. Be careful not to switch on “Keep with next” except where you really want it. I once saw a thesis that had it switched on in every paragraph!

Switch on “Show” formatting markers (Ctrl-*). Hold down control and shift and hit the 8 key. Always leave this on so you can keep track of paragraphs and special settings like “Keep with next”.

For the formatting of normal paragraphs, don’t alter the formatting directly. Do it by editing the formatting of the Normal style, and applying the style to the paragraph. If this seems a bit strange, have the patience to try it. You’ll appreciate it in the long term.

In my experience, the master document facility in Word is more trouble than it is worth. Just maintain separate files for each chapter, and set the starting page number in each when they are finished.

Setting the starting page number in a file: go into Insert|Page numbers|Format and specify the number to start at. If you already have page numbers in your document, make sure you select “Close” rather than “OK” to preserve any existing formatting or placement of the numbers.

Include a version number in the names of all files.

When you are working on a document, regularly save it to a new version number, and keep the old ones as a form of backup.

For pictures and graphs, switch off “Float over text”. It makes it much easier to control their position. You do this by selecting the picture or graph and editing its properties.

When copying graphs from Excel into Word, do it as a picture, rather than a spreadsheet object. To do this you should hold down the shift key before you select Edit|Copy in Excel. This stops Word from saving an entire copy of the spreadsheet behind every chart.

If you use page headers in your thesis, the header should not appear on the first page of the chapter. Within File|Page setup switch on “Different first page” before you start creating headers and footers. You will then have to use the page number insertion facility within Page setup to insert a page number counter, and you’ll have to do it twice: once for the first page and once for the rest. If you use Insert|Page numbers in some versions of Word it switches off “Different first page” and you have to start the whole process again. Very annoying.

If annotating graphs in any way, do it in Excel before you import it into Word. That avoids having lots of floating objects in Word, which can often be troublesome (e.g., by getting separated from their graph).

David Pannell, The University of Western Australia

Further reading

Some advice for postgraduate research students