DIY Formatting: Using Microsoft Heading Styles to Speed Up Your Dissertation

Styles are hugely helpful. To be honest, though, I didn’t understand their importance until I started editing. When I was writing my own papers for grad school, I never used them. Learning the ins and outs of Microsoft Word felt like something I didn’t have the mental space for. As I began editing and needed to figure out how to solve clients’ formatting problems, I figured out that styles were the simplest solution to a slew of problems. 

Why should you use styles?

Using styles saves you time in the long run.

Even though styles take a moment to set up, you only have to set them up once. That’s a huge timesaver over formatting each heading and subheading throughout your paper. Once the style is set up, you only have to make one click: simply change the style of your headings, and you’re good to go.

Use styles to avoid widowed headings.

Similarly, styles are the best way to avoid widowed subheadings, or headings that get left alone at the bottom of the page. 

Generally, you have three options for fixing widowed subheadings. You can use a hard return and manually create the space you need to fix it. This works until you need to revise something further up in the paper, and then your spaces get off. 

Another option is to use Word’s paragraph formatting options. I don’t love this option simply because it’s difficult to remember. Even as an editor, I had trouble keeping track of where the paragraph formatting options were. 

So, the best option is to use Word’s heading styles. The native heading styles already ensure that headings aren’t left widowed. (Word calls it “keep line with next.”) If you ever need to update the controls on a new style, again, it’s much easier to do it once than to redo it every time you’re faced with the problem.

Using styles makes your table of contents easier to create.

Using styles helps you with your table of contents later. Microsoft Word keeps track of the headings in your document. When it’s time to create your table of contents, you can insert a table that Word has automatically generated. Furthermore, when your pages numbers inevitably change, you can update the table of contents with a single click. That’s so much easier than scrolling through your document, making note of each page number, and updating the table yourself. 

One quick, related note: I really like using the automatic table of contents builder, but I do not like the automatic references creator. It takes less time to do it yourself than to try to override its mistakes.

Using styles allows you to easily adjust your paper to suit guidelines.

The final, though less common, reason is grad school requirements. Infrequently, I’ve had clients tell me that their committee would like one style for their defense while the university grad school formatting requires something different. 

In one particular case, the committee wanted double-spaced block quotes while the grad school required single-spaced block quotes. It was a really minor difference, but styles were a huge help, anyway. For one thing, this client was able to change all of her block quotes by changing the formatting of the style. That meant she didn’t need to change all of her quotes individually. Perhaps the most important difference was that she was then able to update her table of contents automatically and didn’t have to painstakingly do it herself.

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