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Hanna Peacock is a PhD student in Cardiovascular Sciences at the KU Leuven. You can find her on Twitter @hannapeacock or at her website.

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It often seems that formatting requirements for theses and other documents were dreamt up by someone who has never actually had to fight with word processing software. But a few quick tricks can help you conquer any formatting hurdle you’re thrown. This post will focus on formatting in Microsoft Word since that has, for better or worse, become the standard software used for word processing. The exact menu commands are for the Mac version of Word, but the same functions are also available on Windows.

Page and Section Breaks

Page breaks and section breaks can be easily inserted by placing the cursor and selecting the appropriate break from the Insert > Break menu. Page breaks should be used when you want a certain section of text to begin at the top of a new page, regardless of the amount of space left on the previous page. Simply place your cursor at the very start of the new text and select Insert > Break > Page Break and the text will jump onto the next page. The page break is preserved even if you add more text before it.

Section breaks should be used when you wish to alter formatting for a page or group of pages. For example, if you want to put one page horizontally (landscape), or change the numbering from Roman numerals to letters, or change the margins for a page or group of pages, you can put a section break at the beginning and the end of the section and alter formatting only in that section.

Example: Using Section Breaks For Page Numbering

If you want to have the pages in the first section of a document numbered in small Roman numerals, and then have the rest in Arabic numerals, do the following:

1. Place a section break (Insert > Break > Section Break (next page)) at the top of the first page that will be given regular numbers

2. Turn on page numbers in the first section (Insert > Page Numbers and click on “Format” to change to Roman numerals)

3. Place the cursor in the second section and adjust the page numbers back to Arabic numerals (again, go to Insert > Page Numbers and click on “Format”)

To start over from page 1, make sure that “Continue from previous section” is unchecked, otherwise, the first Arabic numeral pages will be numbered sequentially continuing on from where the Roman numerals left off (i.e., the pages would be numbered i, ii, iii, 4, 5, 6 etc. rather than i, ii, iii, 1, 2, 3 etc.).

Example: Turning a Single Page Horizontal

To make a single page in a document horizontal, do the following:

1. Make section breaks (next page) at the end of the previous page and start of the following page

2. Place the cursor anywhere on the page to be turned horizontal

3. Select Format > Document, click on “Layout,” then “Page Setup…,” and choose the icon for Landscape

Using Breaks to Insert a Figure Precisely Where You Intended

Line breaks can be used to keep an image from jumping all over the page and messing up the document formatting. Simply create a line break before the spot you want the image to go, press return 3 times, and insert another line break (Insert > Break > Section Break (continuous)). Now place your cursor on one of the lines between the two breaks and insert a picture, making sure to select “In Line with Text.” Your picture is effectively trapped between two breaks.

Use The Search Feature to Find Acronyms

You may be required to provide a list of abbreviations/acronyms and their meanings for your document. To quickly find all the abbreviations in your text, open the search feature and search for “<[A-Z]{2,}>” and make sure that “Use Wildcards” is selected. This will highlight all the words in your document that consist of multiple capital letters and/or numbers.

Use Paragraph Styles to Generate a Table of Contents

Instead of manually formatting headings and subheadings, use the paragraph styles that show up in the ribbon or by Format > Style. You can customize these easily by clicking on Modify in the Format > Style pane. To generate a table of contents, you then simply place your cursor where you want the table of contents to go, and select Insert > Index and Tables and clicking on “Table of Contents.” If you add more text or move things around, simply right click on your table of contents and choose “Update Field.”

Bonus Tip: Versioning

Name your file as “YYYY_MM_DD File Name.docx”. Each time you work on your document, duplicate the file and change the date as appropriate, then work on the new document. This way, you have a record of all the work you've done, and if you change your mind (or your supervising prof changes their mind) you can easily change the document back to how you had it a few days ago. To see the most recent version, you simply sort the files by name.

Do you have tricks for formatting documents with Word? How have you worked through strange formatting requirements?

[Photo of the author’s thesis, and used under Creative Commons Licensing]

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