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Microsoft Word for Dissertations

Describes many of the special features of Microsoft Word you can use to make formatting your dissertation easier. While it's focused on dissertations, this information is useful for any long document.

Help with Microsoft Word

Members of the University of Michigan community can get dissertation & thesis formatting assistance from the experts at ScholarSpace:

Please visit this link to make an appointment, or send an email to

We're here to solve any formatting problems you've run into, and can give you guidance about captioning figures, solving numbering issues, creating a List of Tables/Figures/Appendices, and more.

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Introduction to Word for Dissertations

Formatting your dissertation (or thesis) will likely take more time than you expect. But using the special features described in this Guide will save you a great deal of work, particularly if you use our template (available in the box below). The earlier you begin to use these tools, the more time you'll save and the less stress you'll have as your submission deadline approaches. Students at the University of Michigan are also encouraged to contact the experts at the Library's ScholarSpace anytime you run into a problem or have a question.

To meet Rackham’s Dissertation Formatting Guidelines you will need to modify the standard settings that Microsoft Word uses. This guide will show you how to use the tools to make the necessary modifications.  While we do follow the requirements from Rackham’s formatting guidelines to demonstrate the tools, in the end, you are responsible for verifying that your document meets the requirements that Rackham sets.

To save yourself time and effort, please consider using our Dissertation Template (link available in the box below). Many of the settings discussed in this Guide are already included in that document.

Please note that, as a University of Michigan student, you have free access to the Microsoft Office suite of tools -- including Microsoft Word. Visit this link to learn more and to download Office to your own computer.

Dissertation Template and other Resources

A word about LaTeX

LaTeX is a markup language (sometimes accessed through the Overleaf editor) that is often used in science and engineering documents because it allows for great control in creating complex equations and formulas. ScholarSpace does not maintain a template for dissertations created with LaTeX, and we can only provide very limited support for it. That said, there is a community of U-M folks who actively maintain this LaTeX template to keep it in line with Rackham's guidelines.

Here are some other very useful resources:


Can I use Google Docs for my dissertation?

No. Google Docs can get you pretty far down the road to something that looks like what Rackham requires, however, it's going to take a lot more work to get that far, and as you approach the finish line you will collide with obstacles that Google Docs just won't be able to get around. The issue is that Google Docs was not designed for complicated documents like a thesis or dissertation. To get it to do many of the special things that Rackham requires, you'll have to do a great deal of work that Word will just do for you. A few examples:

  • Rackham requires 1" margin on all pages, but a 2" margin at the top of each new section. You'll have to manually adjust every relevant page yourself in Docs to get this, but Word will just do it automatically.
  • Docs gives you three choices for how your Table of Contents will look, none of which are suitable by Rackham's standards. While you can adjust the format, many aspects of it (such as spacing) will revert to the original every time you update it.  With Word, you're in charge of what your ToC looks like.
  • In Docs, you'll have to manually type in your figure numbers ("Figure 3.6") and change them every time you add or move them. But Word will manage numbering and caption placement for you, it will renumber figures or tables as you add or move them, and it will create your List of Figures/Tables automatically – correct page numbers and all. 
  • With Word's figure/table numbering, you can also insert cross-references, so when you refer to "(see Figure 4.2)" but then you add some new figures before that, not only will Figure 4.2 renumber itself automatically, but anywhere you've referred to it will be updated, too. No more anxiety about whether you've updated everything accurately.
  • Page numbers: Rackham wants the first two pages to have no page numbers, the rest of the frontmatter to have small roman numerals, and the body of the document to have arabic numerals.  Docs just plain can't do that.

If you're concerned about the learning curve of using Word, please know that this Guide goes over how to do everything, AND the Word template found here has nearly everything already set up for you. We also regularly offer a workshop that serves as an introduction to the most useful features, and you can set up a meeting with a ScholarSpace expert anytime you run into something that you can't figure out. 


Writing Assistance

This Guide is all about how to properly format your dissertation -- how to make it look the way Rackham wants it to look. But what if you need help with the actual composition of your content? Our friends at the Sweetland Writing Center offer such assistance, through their Writing Workshop program. From their website:

Sweetland offers one-to-one, in-person and online writing assistance for U-M Ann Arbor graduate students in Writing Workshop. This service allows you to meet individually with an experienced faculty consultant at any stage of writing, from getting started to final revisions. You can get help with understanding assignments, generating ideas, developing arguments, organizing and structuring your project, using evidence and sources, and clarifying your expression. 

Quick Tips

These are just a few quick but especially important tips to help you get started. See our more expansive Tips & Troubleshooting section for suggestions that are a little more complex.

  • Save early, save often, and create backup versions as you go along. Consider setting up Microsoft OneDrive (you have free access with your umich login credentials). With this, you can turn on "Autosave" in Word to automatically save your document at regular intervals, and have access to previous versions.
  • Be sure to toggle the visibility of non-printing characters ( on the Home ribbon) so you can see how your document is being formatted, and avoid accidentally deleting section or page breaks. Deleting these can affect Style formatting, page numbering, and other aspects of your document.
  • Use our template (available above), it will save you lots of time. Nearly all of the difficult formatting stuff we discuss in this Guide is already built into the template. Consider doing all of your writing in it -- even if you're working in separate files for each chapter, you can use a copy of the template for each one of those chapters.
  • Use Styles to control the formatting of your dissertation. The bulk of this Guide revolves around the use of styles. Styles allow you to:
    • Set the margins including the two-inch margin for chapters titles (Setting Margins).
    • Define styles for Headings 1-3, Normal, Captions, and Quotes – these are most common; you may need others (Working with Styles).
    • If headings need to be numbered (for example, 1.1, 1.2, 2.1, etc.), define a multi-level list (Automatic Numbering).
    • If captions need to include the chapter number, define a multi-level list (Automatic Numbering).
  • Share your file(s) with your advisors using Track Changes (Commenting and Reviewing).
  • If you use EndNote to manage your citations and create your bibliography, use only one EndNote library for your entire dissertation (see our EndNote Basics guide).
  • Did we mention that you really ought to try out our template (available above)?