How to write a thesis or disseration – Structure

In this third part of the ‘how to write a thesis or dissertation’ guide we tackle the detailed  structure of your document in detail.


Don’t mess around

Do not play with changing margins, letter spacing or line spacing to shorten or lengthen your text. It will give a very bad impression of your writing skills.

Avoid exotic fonts

They are not easy to read and sometimes do not print well. The proven recipe is, as here, to write the body of your text in a Serif font (e.g. Times New Roman) and use a Sans Serif font for the headings (e.g. Arial)

Tables and figures need a caption

Captions appear before tables, but after figures.

Tables and figures need an explanation

What is in the table or graphic? How is it organised? What are the important ideas or information to take from it? Why are these ideas or this information important? What does the table or graphic show, what is the message?

Tables and figures need an index

Create an index of tables and an index of figures and insert it after the table of contents. If you use the styles built into your word processor to create the titles of the tables and figures the indices can be built automatically.

Technical terms? Create a glossary

Collect together all your the technical terms in a page or two and define them. Place the glossary immediately after the table of contents and the indices.

Explain acronyms

The first time you use an Expression That Has An Acronym (ETHAA), explain it and follow it with the shortened form in brackets. From that point on, you can use ETHAA in the text. Don’t overuse acronyms, they slow down your reader.

Create styles for titles and sub-titles

This enables you to automatically produce a table of contents. You will avoid numbering errors and make inserting new sections easy.

Begin new sections (not sub-sections) on a right-hand side page, leaving the left-hand side blank

This is how books are written. Why not adopt standard practice?

Try not to exceed three levels of headings

If you think you need more, ask yourself how your reader is going to understand the structure of your document.

Use cross-references

They show your reader that an idea or an argument has already been discussed, or will be addressed in a later section. These cross-references (e.g. Please see section 2.3 for further details) reinforce the coherence of your text.

Number the pages of your dissertation

For a final polish, number all the pages, up to and including your indices (preface, acknowledgements, summary, table of contents etc.) using lower-case Roman numerals (i, ii, iii, iv etc.). Begin the first page of your first section with Arabic numerals (1, 2, 3, 4 etc.)

Your dissertation will be bound

Leave 5-8 mm of space on the inside margin for binding. Word processing software will do this for you. Because of the binding you will have left-hand side, and right-hand side pages. The numbering must be even and aligned to the left on the left-hand side pages, and odd and right-aligned on the right-hand side pages.

Read part two: Some writing rules

Read part four: Saving time

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