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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.

Ensuring that all readers can navigate your document

Microsoft Word’s “Styles”

Screen readers and other accessible reading software rely on structural “tags” to understand the hierarchical structure of the textual information that appears on every page. In the context of dissertations, this means that all headings must be labeled correctly in terms of their numerical hierarchy: the title should be labeled with “Heading 1,” sections with “Heading 2,” and sub-sections with “Heading 3.” Note that regular text should be marked as “Normal” and that block quotes should be marked as “Quote.” In Word, this is accomplished by applying “Styles” to these portions of text.

Please use Word’s built-in Styles to mark up text, as opposed to changing font sizes manually, because Styles apply the structural tags. Styles also help with formatting, which can be a major help later on. For example, let’s say that you’ve set “Heading 2” to be 16 point, bold, Helvetica, and left justified. If you decide later on that you want “Heading 2” to be 14 point, bold, Times, centered; then you only need to modify the style once and all the text marked “Heading 2” in your document will be updated accordingly.


Describing Images

It is important to be intentional when inserting images. That is, the decision to include an image, the selection of image, and the placement of image should be carefully considered. 

It is also important to describe each image in text, using a combination of the body text, caption, and alt text. Textual description of each image ensures that all readers can understand the content and purpose of that image. This includes readers who cannot access the visuals due to visual impairment or disability, and readers who benefit from your expert interpretation of the image.

It is not necessary to repeat all the same information in the body text, caption, and alt text. Rather, they should work together to provide an effective description of each image.



Captions provide additional information to all users about visual content. Unlike alternative text, which is embedded, or hidden, in the document and describes visual information to users who cannot access the original visuals, captions are available to all readers. Captions generally provide context and brief notes for visual content. In scholarly works, this usually involves attribution of visual imagery and additional notes about graphs, charts and other data sets. 


Alternative Text

Alternative text (alt text) is a textual description of visual content that translates important visual information—such as figures, graphs, tables and equations—into words. Descriptions provide equitable access for users who cannot access the original visuals. An easy way to remember this is that all non-textual items that require a caption—figures, graphs, tables, equations, etc.—should also be described using alt text. 

Alt text is usually a sentence or two, and it should succinctly describe the visual information while also providing context on the information’s relevance. A graph, for example, should be described both visually and the trend it demonstrates in its context. Ideally, alt text should not repeat information found in a caption.

To learn how to write good alt text, follow the instructions at


Multiple Languages

To make multi-language documents more accessible, each language should be labeled with a separate language tag. This allows accessible reading software, such as screen readers, to read text in its appropriate language. Fortunately, Word allows authors to assign language tags to specific words, phrases, or sections. 

Please note that Word’s default language is English. This means that Word believes that everything that is written is in English. Thus, whenever an author embeds another language within their dissertation, they must complete the following steps:

  1. Highlight the text that is in another language.
  2. Open the Review tab at the top.
  3. Click the Language button. 
  4. Select the appropriate language. 
  5. Please also note that there is an option for “Detect language automatically,” but it doesn’t always work, even with the most popular languages. 

Tagging languages appropriately within Word is also a huge help for authors, not just for accessibility purposes, because Word would then pull up the correct dictionary to run spelling and grammar checks. 



Get help ensuring your work is accessible

Accessibility Remediation Program staff can work with you to make digital materials accessible. This applies to digital documents, audio recordings, and video materials you are creating, publishing, or using in teaching or supervision. If you have a question about how to make your dissertation more accessible, please contact us at