How to write your dissertation in MSWord

without going insane

Alright, as you know, Microsoft Word is evil. (However, it's nowhere as evil as Latex. I personally find the notion of having to compile what is essentially a text document fundamentally offensive.) Word is actually quite nice to use, once you've figured out its idiosyncrasies. Hopefully the notes I kept while writing my dissertation will be helpful for you.

I used WordXP, which has some cool features (Smart Tags are a good thing). That being said, most of the advice given here should also be applicable to Word2K.

Using a template

Here's the template I use for the main text chapters. You need to put it in your Templates directory. For those of you using Win2K or above, this should be "C:\Documents and Settings\Your login name here\Application Data\Microsoft\Templates".

I've defined a bunch of styles that might be useful for you; in particular, you'll probably want to check out:

  • Heading 1 (it shows up as "Chapter 1 Heading 1" under styles)
  • Section title
  • Subsection title
  • Text
  • Table Name

The first three styles update their numeric sequence automatically. The only problem is that Section and Subsection titles do not reset themselves back to 1 for each new chapter (e.g. if Chapter 1 had sections 1.1 to 1.5, then the first section in Chapter 2 would actually be labeled 2.6 rather than 2.1). The simple solution around this is to right-click on the first Section of each chapter and choose "Restart Numbering" from the menu that pops up. There's probably a better solution, but I was too lazy to find it. The Text style is for the main body of the document, and Table Name is a Level 1 style that's used for headings such as "Table of Figures" or "Acknowledgements".

Heading levels are the mechanism by which Word generates the table of contents. See Word Help for more information on this. 


Unless you enjoy typing out your own Table of Figures and Tables, I highly suggest using Insert->Reference->Caption. If you use the template I provided, the caption is already linked to the chapter. So you'll notice each caption starts with "Figure c:n" or "Table c:n" where c is the current chapter number and n is the sequence number for the present figure. The sequence numbering automatically resets to 1 for each new chapter.

If you're prefer to set it up yourself:
When you insert Tables or Figures for the first time, click on the Numbering button on the Caption window that pops up. Select "Include chapter number". If you use the "Heading 1" style to start your chapter each time, everything should just work properly.

I found I used Caption so much I just put it on my toolbar. To do this, just go to Tools->Customize. Select the Commands tag, and choose the Insert category. Scroll down to find Caption. Click and drag it to an appropriate place on the toolbar.

If you're diligent about using Caption consistently, your life can be made easier with Insert->Reference->Cross-reference. This can insert a "link" or "smart tag" back to a bunch of different things, like numbered items in a list, figures or tables. You can choose how the smart tag looks. More importantly, when you update the positions of stuff (e.g. you insert a figure between two existing ones), you don't need to physically look for all references to that figure in your text. Just select the whole document (use Ctrl-A), right click, and choose "Update field". This will make sure all your references are up to date. I also found this useful enough that I put it onto my toolbar.

Master Document

The Master Document feature in Word allows you to split your large document into smaller pieces (perhaps one chapter per document) and then link them together. I used to think it made sense to do this, but now I think it's actually not worth the trouble. This feature can introduce formatting errors that are somewhat annoying to fix.

If you still feel like using the Master Document feature:

Start a new document with the dissertation template. Go to View->Outline. This puts you in the Master Doc view. Look for the Master Document toolbar. You can create, insert or remove subdocuments. One chapter per subdocument probably makes the most sense.

If you create subdocuments before inserting them into the Master, note that the Chapter number will be incorrect at first (by default it always starts with 1), but when you look at it in the Master, you'll see that Word does the right thing and increments the chapter numbers appropriately.

If this makes you feel uncomfortable when you're editing the individual chapters, you can actually fix this. Go to Format->Bullets and Numbering. Look for the tab that has Chapter 1, 1.1 Section title, 1.1.1 Subsection title, click on it and then click on customize. You can increment the "Start at" number to anything you want.

Page Numbers

Page numbering, as you know, is the spawn of the devil due to Northwestern's requirements and the stubbornness of MSWord. Basically, for all chapters, the first page of the chapter has to be numbered at the bottom center of the page, and all other pages should be numbered on the top right. Word really wants all its page numbers on the same location; you can do this kind of formatting, but it is a big pain. Let's say you're finishing Chapter 1 and going onto Chapter 2. There is a transition from numbering on the top right (last page of Chapter 1) to bottom center (first page of Chapter 2) back to top right again (remaining pages of Chapter 2).

  • Put a section break (use Insert->Break and select an appropriate type of Section Break) on the end of Chapter 1.
  • Put a section break at the end of the first page of Chapter 2.
  • Click on View->Header and Footer.
  • Go to the first page of Chapter 2, click on the Footer (bottom of the page) , then choose Insert->Page Number. Put the number in the center.
  • If there isn't a number on the top right corner of the page (in the Header), go ahead and insert a page number there.
  • There is a "Same as Previous" button associated with each Header and Footer of every section; it should be located on the Header-and-Footer toolbar at the bottom of the screen. Click this button off for both the Header and Footer of the first and second page of Chapter 2.
  • Now delete the top right page number on the first page of Chapter 2, and the bottom center page number on the second page of Chapter 2.

If all went well, you should now have a page number on the bottom center of the first page of Chapter 2, and numbers on the top right for the rest of the pages. Good luck!

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