Formatting a Research Paper

Formatting a Research Paper

With all the time it takes to research and write a paper, often the last thing on a student's mind is formatting. When you've spent hours and hours reading, taking notes, organizing your thoughts, writing, and rewriting, issues like spacing, margins, and font don't really seem that important. But whether you like it or not, formatting is an important part of a good paper, which means you need to learn how to keep your papers looking neat and tidy.

What's Formatting?

The term formatting can mean a number of different things depending the context in which you use it (for instance, it can refer to a file type on a computer or the layout of a television show). For our purposes here, formatting is the specific settings you use in your word processor that determine how a research paper looks. This includes a broad range of items, including spacing, indentation, margins, fonts, and headings as well as the settings for features like tables and footnotes.

Why Should You Care About Formatting?

Why should you care about how your research paper looks-after all, isn't the content of your paper what's important, not its appearance? But while what's in your paper is certainly the most important aspect of your work, good formatting is a key part of making sure that your ideas can be fully appreciated. Not only will mistakes in formatting make your paper look unprofessional, but minor irregularities in things like heading fonts, footnote numbering, and citations will distract the reader and can detract from your ideas.
Think of the formatting of your paper as being like a road map. If the symbols on a map don't always mean the same thing or if the scale keeps changing, the person using it is probably going to get confused and lost. The formatting of your paper works in much the same way as the symbols and lines on a map: the spacing, font choice, and all those other settings combine to tell readers what to expect from a particular section, paragraph, or figure.

Elements of Formatting

There are dozens of tiny details that crop up during the process of writing a research paper or dissertation. While it's impossible to handle all of these, here are a few of the most important issues you need to consider when formatting your work:
  • Spacing. Will the paper be double-spaced? How many spaces will be between paragraphs, headings, and subheadings? Will chapters start on a new page? How much space should there be between the main text and graphics like tables and figures? You should also decide whether you will use one space or two between sentences.
  • Table of contents. You'll need to figure out what you want your table of contents to look like. Also, Word can automatically create a table of contents from the headings of your paper, so you need to tell it which headings will go on the contents page (i.e., all the headings and subheadings? Only the first level of headings?).
  • Pagination. Where will the page numbers go? Which page will they start on (title page? table of contents?, etc.)?
  • Sections. What font, justification, and effects (bold, italics) will you use to differentiate headings, subheadings, and chapter titles? How many layers of subheadings will you need?
  • Margins. Do the requirements for your paper ask for certain margins?
  • Footnotes/endnotes. How do you want footnotes and endnotes formatted (e.g., regular numerals, Roman numerals, letters)? What size should the text be?
  • References. What reference system are you using? How will in-text citations look like?
  • Tables and figures. Set the format for table and figure captions and titles. You'll also want to set the format for tables so that each table has the same look (i.e., the size and content will change, but the overall design remains the same). Microsoft Word can also be formatted to automatically compile lists of tables and figures.
  • Headers/footers. Will your paper need a header or footer (for instance, a running title)?

Creating a Template

The easiest way to minimize errors in formatting is to use a template, which is a blank document that already has all the stylistic elements listed above embedded in the document. When you open a template, components like headings, margins, and page numbers will already be formatted. Whenever you open a Word document you're actually already using a template (most likely the generic one called "Normal") even if you don't realize it.
There are a number of ways you can find templates specifically for research papers, theses, or dissertations. Often university programs will have templates available for students to use (or may even have templates that they require students to use). If your department or professor doesn't have one, you can also download them from various sites online, such as the homepage for Microsoft Word, and there are many templates out there designed for long research papers.
If you can't find a template you like, it's also easy to create your own. Just create a document with all the settings you want (i.e., with all the stuff from the list above), then click "Save As" in Microsoft Word and choose "Word Template" from the drop down menu. Then, when you start working on your paper, the formatting elements will already be in place.
Keep in mind that formatting issues are a lot easier to handle if you address them from the very start of the writing process. Going back and changing the spacing around tables or the font in headings one by one will be tedious and likely lead to mistakes, but if you set up a template from the beginning, it's easy to go back and change all the tables and fonts with a single click.

Formatting Tips

When you're using a template it means that all the sections of your paper are linked together-when you change the font or spacing in one paragraph, it may affect how your paper looks ten pages later. While this is often convenient, it can lead to trouble if you're not careful with the changes you make. Here are a few tips you can use to help keep your document looking the way you want:
  • Makes changes using the "Style" feature, not by altering the text directly. The "Style" button on Word documents allows you to change the font, color, and spacing for individual elements of your paper like body paragraphs and figure captions. When you want to change the text, altering the "Style" will change the text in every element throughout the paper, but manually changing the font will make that element look different from the rest of the paper.
  • Create a separate style for your body paragraphs. If you just use "Normal Style" for these, when you change them it will affect other elements as well.
  • Use section breaks when you want to make formatting changes that will apply only to certain parts of your work. The section break will allow you to alter font, spacing, headers, etc. within that section of your work only; the rest of the paper will be unaltered.
  • Section breaks can also be used to create pages that are in a landscape format instead of portrait (e.g., for tables and figures).
  • The "Outline" view in Word will let you see all the headings and subheadings you've created, and will also allow you to move those sections around easily.
  • Create bookmarks by clicking on the "Insert" menu. You can then use bookmarks to easily navigate to and from important parts of your work.

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