Written by Dr. Hannes Nel
The attention that a student pays to the layout of the thesis or dissertation is often an indication of what the quality of the work is.
Why would a post-graduate student pay careful attention to the quality of his or her research and the contents of the thesis or dissertation if they do not care about the quality of the reporting?
You will save yourself lots of time if you study the university policy on the layout of the thesis or dissertation before you start writing your thesis or dissertation.
The hints that I share in this article should be accepted by most universities.
However, you should also consult the university policy, even if your study leader or lecturer suggests that you use the suggestions given here.
General layout rules
Universities mostly require either double or one and a half spacing, font size 12 on one side only of A4 paper. Quotations and footnotes should be single spacing and either in Italics or a smaller font size, for example font size 10. The preferred font type is Times New Roman although some universities might also accept other font types that are easy to read and sufficiently formal, such as Ariel.
The following are examples of such requirements taken from the policies and procedures of different universities.
Typing format, text structure and general prescriptions
You need to format your thesis or dissertation exactly according to the university’s instructions. A good thesis or dissertation should be extensive and precise. Use a good yet simple and concise language (UK version of English) and keep sentences short without damaging the flow of your arguments.
A-4 size bond paper of a good quality should be used. The thesis or dissertation must be printed in at least one and a half spacing with one and a half spacing between paragraphs. Paragraphs are justified against the left-hand margin. Take care to be consistent and follow the general typing rules.
The margins at the top, bottom and right-hand side should be 25 mm, while the left-hand margins should be at least 30 mm.
Some universities have no set rules for how long a thesis or dissertation should be. A thesis does not normally exceed 50 000 words of text (approximately 150 pages). It is often accepted that dissertation on PhD level should not be more than 70 000 words.
Language and spelling
If English is your second language it is most important that help is sought during the initial draft reading process already. Faultless language, good style and correct spelling are a prerequisite for the writing of a thesis or dissertation. It is difficult to learn technical writing skills as well as concentrate on a second language.
It is advisable to have your thesis or dissertation language edited by an expert if English is your first language and a must if English is your second or third language.
Check your writing for spelling and grammatical errors. Also pay attention to minor details such as punctuation and when to use a full stop or comma. Use the spell-check facility of your computer but keep in mind that it is not foolproof.
Don’t try to make your writing look more academic by using highfalutin words and concepts that you do not really understand.
Always write full sentences.
All sentences should have a verb.
Keep your sentences simple and as short as possible without damaging the flow of your arguments.
Use adverbs such as ‘however’ to link sentences. This will often improve the flow of your argument or narrative.
Sentences and paragraphs should be linked to one another. Avoid jumping around between unrelated arguments, topics or discussions.
Reports of work done are usually written in the past tense except for discussions and conclusions, which are written in the present tense.
The present tense is used where universal truths such as natural laws are stated.
Do not change tenses in a sentence unless there is a good reason for doing so.
Paragraphs will help you organise your writing by breaking the text up into manageable sections.
Short paragraphs are better than long ones. Variation in paragraph lengths reduces the monotony and renders the work easier to read.
Paragraphs should be linked to one another to ensure the flow from one paragraph to the next.
Each paragraph should deal with one aspect only. A conclusion or summary should be a next paragraph.
Lower-case letters are used, except in cases where grammatical rules require capital letters.
The first word in a sentence and in a direct quotation is capitalised.
Proper nouns are capitalised and common nouns such as mountain and business are capitalised if they form part of a name. For example, ‘the mountain is dark and covered in mist’ versus ‘Table Mountain is dark and covered in mist’.
Common nouns are capitalised when they are used with a number or letter to designate a specific thing, for example ‘Room 101’.
Acronyms and abbreviations
An acronym is a word formed from the initial letters of a name or by combining initial letters, or parts of a series of words. The full word, name or concept that can have an acronym must be written out in full, followed by the acronym in brackets where they are used for the first time in your thesis or dissertation.
Certain acronyms, like ‘radar’ and ‘scuba’ have become accepted words and can be used without any explanation.
Abbreviations are short representations of words or terms, for example e.g. for ‘exempli gratia’ or ‘for example’. They should be used with discretion because they can make the text difficult to read. Unfamiliar abbreviations must be written out in full, followed by the abbreviation in brackets where they are used for the first time in your thesis or dissertation.
You should have a list of acronyms and abbreviations as an addendum at the end of your thesis or dissertation.
The word ‘percentage’ is written out in the text and written as a symbol (%) if it is used with a number, e.g. ‘15%’.
Pages are numbered from 1 in sequence throughout the thesis or dissertation, not chapter by chapter. The first (cover) page is page number one, but the page number is not shown. Page numbers are shown from page two.
Page numbers should run consecutively through the thesis or dissertation with all pages numbered.
Number items or paragraphs that need to be numbered in numerals and sub-paragraphs in further numbers. The paragraph number “7” would, for example, be followed by sub-paragraph number “7.1.”, and sub-paragraph “7.1.” would be followed by sub-paragraph “7.2.”) or, if the sub-paragraph is further divided, by sub-sub-paragraph “7.1.1.”. Some universities prefer that the full stop after the last number presenting a sub-paragraph or lower be omitted.
Bullets are used if you have three or less points to number.
Figures are numbered numerically and go with the figure heading under the figure. Figures should fit onto not more than one page.
Tables are also numbered numerically, and table numbers go with the table heading above the table. This is because tables can stretch over more than one page.
Chapters and sections should have headings. Headings should be selected carefully and should be short and to the point. It should be a ‘summary’ of the contents of the chapter or section.
Headings that do not constitute full sentences do not end with a full stop, unless the contents of the section follow directly after the heading on the same line.
You need to consult the university policy for the layout of a thesis or dissertation.
Make sure that the layout that you use will be acceptable to the university.
Issues that you should check include the following:
- Line spacing.
- Font size and type.
- Paper size and type.
- Page numbering.
- The numbering of tables and figures.
- Language usage and spelling.
- Paragraph length, spacing, numbering and justification.
- The use of capital letters.
- The use of acronyms and abbreviations.
Some universities will allow you some leeway in the layout of your thesis or dissertation.
This, however, will mostly be when you add to or enhance the prescribed format and playout.
You might, for example, add an illustration representing the context of each chapter directly after the chapter heading.
Or you may include an electronic copy of your thesis or dissertation if you are required to submit a typed and professionally bound report.
Enjoy your studies.