Formatting your assignments
Illustrated step-by-step guides to help you understand the formatting and presentation expectations of university assignments.
Although formatting your essay, report or dissertation can feel like a lesser priority than the process of research and writing itself, it is an important way to ensure your ideas are given the spotlight through visually accessible, professional presentation. Formatting can be a minefield, especially when you’re formatting at the last minute; it’s important to leave a few days at the end of your essay writing process for working on your formatting, and to spend some time familiarising yourself with the different aspects of formatting.
Below, you will find some general introductions to the key areas.
Action: know the rules
Because formatting rules can vary greatly depending on your department or assignment, it’s crucial to check the formatting specifications in your assignment description/rubric, and any general departmental presentation standards, as a first port of call. Many referencing systems also have specific rules about how to format your work, so make sure to familiarise yourself with the university library’s referencing guides. Many referencing systems also have more detailed style guides available via their websites.
Formatting key information
Assignment cover sheets
In some departments, you may be expected to include a cover sheet on the front page of your assignment. This is a page including key information about your assignment, such as your module number, student registration number, essay title, and submission date.
You may be asked to submit a plagiarism declaration and to make your markers aware of any disabilities through the yellow sticker system. If you are asked to include a cover sheet in your assignment, your department should make you aware of where you can access this.
Place your assignment title at the top of your first page, either centre or left aligned, in bold font. At university, you may be assigned a pre-designed essay title/question, or asked to select from several possible titles. You may also be asked to design your own essay title. Here are some top tips on designing your own title:
- To bring focus to your essay, draft a working title at the essay planning stage. You can come back and review this title in light of your finished essay draft.
- Make sure to use action words in your essay title that reflect the skills your assessors are looking for, both in the assignment description and the marking criteria you have been given. For example, if heavy emphasis is placed on critical analysis, you could use a title like ‘Analyse the effect of…’ See this glossary of essay terms, containing examples that you can use in your own titles.
- The action words you choose can also help you to reflect the structure of the essay in your question. For example, an essay using the action word ‘Discuss’ might use a for/against/conclusion or advantages/disadvantages/conclusion structure, or an essay using the term ‘Analyse’ might break an issue down into parts, e.g. into key themes, to understand its meaning as a whole. Think about the type of essay you want to write: do you want it to be comparative, look at several topics equally, or do you have a clear argument that you want to put forward? You can then create a question that gives you the opportunity to approach the topic from your own perspective.
- Make sure to include the main terminology you are working with in your assignment title.
- Make sure your question has a realistic scope, without being so broad that you cannot answer it within the limitations of your essay. To limit your question, you could include any limiting factors you are working with, such as specific time periods, geographical regions or sub-themes within the overall topic area. For example, in the title ‘Evaluate the proposition that a global monoculture will destroy diversity and difference’, the broad topic of global monoculture is limited down through a specific sub-focus on diversity and difference.
Stating word counts
Depending on the instructions you have been given, you may be asked to state your word count, either on your cover sheet or at the beginning of your essay. If you are asked to include this information, make sure your word count accurately reflects the assessment guidance: for example, are references included in your word count?
Most assignment descriptions specify that you should increase the space between each line on the page, from the standard 1.0 spacing to either 1.5 or 2.0 spacing. You are asked to do this to make the essay more visually accessible and easier to read, by breaking up the number of lines on each page.
Download this step-by-step illustrated guide to line spacing in Microsoft Word and Google Docs.
All non-examination based assignments should be word processed rather than handwritten. Most assignment descriptions will specify that for visual clarity, and to ensure a professional appearance, you should use a plain, sans-serif font such as Times New Roman or Arial. For readability, this should be in 11 or 12 point size. Check your departmental or assignment guidance for any specific rules about font choices.
Page numbering, headers and footers
Including page numbers in your assignments makes them more accessible. Depending on the departmental guidance you have been given, you may be asked to include these in either the header or the footer of your essay (the blank space above and below where the text would go on a normal page in a word processor). It may also be helpful to include your registration number and the module code of the essay in the same header or footers that specify the page number.
Download this step-by-step illustrated guide to adding page numbers and using headers and footers in Microsoft Word and Google Docs.
A margin is the amount of blank space on either side of a paragraph in a normal word processor. Traditionally, assignment descriptions specified that the margins should be made wider at the binding edge (the left hand side) of the page, to allow for easier reading of printed essays. However, with the shift to online essays, you might not be asked to do this any more and the default settings on your word processor are likely to be sufficiently wide.
For printed dissertations and theses, you may receive specific guidance about the suitable layout of margins, as these are more likely to be printed: see this university guide on formatting PhD theses.
Download this step-by-step illustrated guide to adjusting margins in Microsoft Word and Google Docs.
Most formatting instructions specify that paragraphs should be lined up in a straight line (aligned) on the left hand edge, but left jagged on the right hand edge (like this page). This is called left alignment, or flush-left style, and should be the default alignment setting for your word processor. This style can be helpful for visual accessibility, but check any specific instructions you have been given by your department to see which style of alignment you have been asked to use.
Download this step-by-step illustrated guide to adjusting paragraph alignment in Microsoft Word and Google Docs.
You may be asked to add indents to your paragraphs: an indent is an additional small gap between the margin and the beginning of a paragraph (it makes a ‘dent’ in the first line of your paragraph). Indents are used to provide extra clarification that the reader is starting a new paragraph after finishing the last one: therefore, they should not be used in the first paragraph of your essay. Indents are not always required, and whether you are expected to use them may depend on your referencing style, and any formatting instructions you have been given by your department.
Download this step-by-step illustrated guide to indenting paragraphs in Microsoft Word and Google Docs.
Formatting referenced material
Footnotes and endnotes
Some referencing systems require you to use footnotes or endnotes to format your references (make sure to check the library’s referencing guide to familiarise yourself with the expected format of your referencing style). Inserting a footnote into your word document when you have cited from a source adds a superscript number (a number formatted in a smaller font) to the sentence. It creates a note with a matching number at the bottom of the page you are working on (in the footer), which you can add the reference information to.
Endnotes work in the same way, but instead of appearing at the bottom of the page, the reference list appears at the end of the document.
Download this step-by-step illustrated guide to manually inserting footnotes and endnotes in Microsoft Word and Google Docs.
References and bibliographies
Instead of, or alongside footnotes/endnotes, some referencing systems ask you to include a bibliography and/or a reference list at the end of the essay (make sure to check the library’s referencing guide to familiarise yourself with the expected format of your referencing style). A reference list is a list of all the sources you have directly referred to in the essay, which could be ordered numerically or alphabetically, depending on your referencing style.
A bibliography could be used alongside, or instead of, a reference list, depending on your referencing style; here, you list all the sources you have consulted that have influenced your ideas, whether they are included in the essay or not. The way this is ordered also depends on your referencing style.
If you auto-generate your citations in Microsoft Word or Google Docs, you can auto-generate your bibliography instead of creating it manually: instructions for doing so are in the resource below. If you use a different reference manager, such as Mendeley, Zotero, or Endnote, these have their own specific instructions for auto-generating bibliographies. See the reference management resources offered by the university.
Download this step-by-step illustrated guide to manually or automatically formatting a bibliography or reference list in Microsoft Word and Google Docs.
When you need to include a quotation in your essay that is three or more lines long, you can add this as a block quotation. A block quotation appears on a separate line to the other parts of the paragraph, and is indented (i.e. there is a wider gap between a block quotation and the left-hand margin than there is between the rest of the paragraph and the left-hand margin). Block quotations aren’t placed in quotation marks, so the indentation is used to indicate that you are using a quotation.
Check your referencing guide and any departmental guidance to learn more about the specific rules on formatting block quotations in your department. Because they take up large chunks of your word count, and break up the flow of your texts, make sure to use block quotations sparingly: they are especially helpful when you are going to perform close analysis of a large section of text. For more information on different types of quotation and how to use them, see our workshop on paraphrasing and using academic sources.
Download this step-by-step illustrated guide to formatting block quotations in Microsoft Word and Google Docs.
Headings and contents tables
Most standard short essays do not include headings, other than the essay title and reference list and/or bibliography. Section headings may be required for some longer or more structured types of academic writing, such as reports; reports often follow a very closely prescribed structure, so it is essential to pay very careful attention to the specific guidelines issued with your brief. Make sure that any system you use for numbering your headings and subheadings is consistently applied throughout the document.
Depending on the advice you have been given, and the length and complexity of a lab report, you may also be required to include a table of contents to help the reader navigate between headings. Contents tables are generally standard practice in longer assignments such as dissertations and theses. Make sure to check any departmental guidance you have been given about formatting reports.
Download this step-by-step illustrated guide to formatting headings and contents tables in Microsoft Word and Google Docs.
301 Recommends: Scientific Writing and Lab Reports Workshop
This workshop will help you to familiarise yourself with some of the specific expectations associated with this assignment format.
Figures and tables
Some kinds of essays, dissertations and reports will require you to make use of figures (pictures, diagrams, and graphs) and tables (any data in a table format). Figures and tables are normally numbered in sequence, e.g. ‘Table 1’, ‘Figure 4’, and are directly referred to in the text according to their number, rather than according to their location on the page (e.g. ‘as shown in Table 2’ rather than ‘as shown below’).
If your text is of dissertation or thesis length, or if your text has several figures, it may also be helpful to include a list of figures immediately after the table of contents. Some referencing guides have specific rules about presenting and referencing tables and figures, so make sure to familiarise yourself with these and carefully read any specific instructions about figures and tables in your assignment brief.
Download this step-by-step illustrated guide to inserting figures and tables and creating lists of figures/tables in Microsoft Word and Google Docs.
Top tips for formatting tables and figures:
- Make sure that any tables or figures you use are placed below the paragraph where you refer to them, and that you have directly referred to all figures and tables in the text of the essay.
- The caption for a table usually acts as its title, so this is placed above the table in the document. The caption for a figure is usually placed underneath the figure. Do not include unnecessary additional titles in the graph image itself, if the title is already included in your image caption.
- Make sure to label your captions consistently, choosing between ‘Fig.’ or ‘Figure’ and consistently using either a full stop or a colon after the label (i.e. ‘Figure 1:’ or ‘Fig. 1.’)
- Your caption should clearly and succinctly explain what the figure or table is. If the figure is taken from an external source, you must provide a reference that accurately reflects its copyright status (see these university library guides to inserting and attributing images and figures in university work).
- Make sure to include legends in any charts you use (a key that helps to explain the data in the chart). Any data series you use should be clearly distinguishable from each other (e.g. avoid printing a report with coloured graphs in black and white!) If you are only using one series of data, a legend is not always necessary.
- Make sure tables are clear and easy to read, using sans serif fonts, a readable font size, and avoiding unnecessary use of colour.
- Make sure graphs are clear and easy to read, with clearly and appropriately labelled axes. Be wary of 3D effects that may obscure the clarity of a graph.
- Make sure to avoid presenting the same information in a graph and a table.
- Images and figures in printed essays, such as dissertations and theses, should be large enough for the text and numbers to be legible on the printed copy. Make sure they do not extend beyond the print margins of the document.
301 Recommends: Displaying Data in Graphs and Tables Workshop
This workshop will provide more technical advice on using graphs and tables in your work. See also this Engineering department guidance on formatting graphs and tables in Engineering lab reports.
Appendices commonly appear in dissertations, theses, and lab reports. An appendix provides supporting information that gives the reader a better understanding of the essay, but that might be too long, detailed or awkward to insert into the main body of the essay without breaking up its flow. Interview questions or transcripts, sample questionnaires, raw data, figures, photographs, large/complex datasets, and diagrams are all examples of information that could be included in an appendix, if it is relevant to do so.
The reader should be able to understand the essay without reference to this supporting information, as all the most important and relevant information needed to answer the question should be included in the body (i.e., the appendix should not be used to make room for content that doesn’t fit within your word count). Your appendices must be clearly signposted and explained in the body of your report, highlighting any information that is essential for your reader to understand. Do not include any appendices that are not referenced in the text itself.
The appendices should be placed in numerical or alphabetical order, and signposted according to this specific system (e.g. ‘Appendix B indicates that…’) They should be clearly labelled, using headings that match up to the in-text reference. Appendices usually appear at the very end of the assignment, after your references/bibliography. Make sure to list any appendices used in your table of contents; if you have been instructed to do so by your department or within your referencing system, you could include a list of appendices separate to your contents list.
The specific format of the appendix heading, and the reference made to the appendix in the text, depends on your referencing style, so make sure to carefully review this information before you design your appendices.
Download this step-by-step illustrated guide to inserting appendices and creating lists of appendices in Microsoft Word and Google Docs.
Tips and resources
- Use this 301 proofreading checklist to check over your work when you are finished.
- Use the University Library referencing guide for advice about referencing and formatting that is specific to your referencing style. If you need extra clarification about formatting rules, it is often possible to download an extended style guide from the official website for a specific referencing system.
- For further training on referencing, using reference generators, and using images in your work, see the University Library workshop programme.
Book a Study Skills Workshop or 1:1 appointment
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