Writing Tips:

Report and Thesis Layout

I came across this set of writing tips on the WWW, and thought that it would be a good idea to have it permanently on our web-site. The content should be useful to all, especially those who have to produce research reports and theses.

Apart from some re-formatting, I have left the document in its original form. Since the article was targeted at readers in Singapore, there will be some words and phrases that will be unfamiliar. However, the main points should be clear.

Happy reading!

M. Tham, August 1996

Score a higher grade with a professionally laid out report or thesis

by Dr Robert Kelly

[AsiaOne] Computer Times Features, 7 August 1966

You breathe a sigh of relief. You have finally finished with the research work and now comes the easy part of putting your thesis together, or so you think. After half-a-day of toying with the fonts and deciding on the format and software needed, you wonder if you should just farm the task out. After all, a professionally laid-out, pleasing-to-the-eye report could immediately win you some points or put your examiner in a better mood when he evaluates your submission. There is no need to blow your budget though. Here, we provide some tips on how to lay out your thesis.

Before you begin, find out if there is a format that your examiner expects from you. Most universities have quite precise rules governing the formatting of theses so you do not want to hand in a well laid-out document only to find that it does not conform to the rules. Be proactive. It is easier to get the format correct from the start than having to make amendments to the layout as you go along.

Software choice

Before you start, choose the right software. You should not be juggling different software as you go along. Go with what you are most comfortable with. While the bulk of the work will be done on a word processing software, it might be better to choose an office suite with integrated word processor, spreadsheet, database and other goodies. Thus, instead of confining yourself to Microsoft Word for Windows (Winword), Lotus Word Pro and Corel WordPerfect, you are deciding between Microsoft Office, Lotus Smartsuite or Corel WordPerfect Suite.

Page layout

You should have an idea of what your document should look like before you begin laying it out. If the work is to be reproduced as a single-sided document, your task is easier. Decide on the overall document design. For example, where the page numbers are to go and whether you will use headers or footers (text included with page numbers at the top or bottom of each page). All word processors have simple commands for adding page numbers, headers and footers automatically.

If you are producing a double-sided document, with text on the front and back of each page, you will have to allow for this. The right (odd-numbered) page formats must be mirror images of the left (even-numbered) page formats. For example, if you have your page numbers near the top outer edge of the page, you will need to set them to the left on the even- numbered pages, and to the right for the odd- numbered pages. A short-cut to working out the formatting details is to use one of the formatting styles that come with the word processor. When you apply a style to a new or existing document, all the formatting options will be controlled by that style; how chapter headings are set out, the format of bulleted text, etc. Winword, for example, has over 20 pre-defined styles, including those for theses and reports (click the Format menu item and choose Styles Gallery). These styles also select appropriate fonts in useful sizes for body text, headings and the other components of your document. You can modify the styles and save them under another name.


Most document styles will invariably specify a selection of fonts for your document. But should you decide to select your own, remember that theses and reports are conservative and formal documents, so your choices should match these expectations. For the body of the document, choose a serif font such as Times Roman with a point size of 12. You may use a sans serif font for headings to complement the body text. Do not use too many fonts in the same document (a maximum of three is recommended) and stay clear of fancy fonts. Otherwise, your document might start looking like a cluttered "lelong" flyer, which is not in keeping with serious work. If you feel that you have more than three design elements that require a different look and feel, for example, you might want your readers or examiners to identify that the quotations, headers and footers are different from the rest of the text, continue using the Times Roman font but italicise it, bold it or change the point size.


You will probably need to add an index to your document. Indexing is a tedious business there is no escaping it but word processors can automate much of the work. The basic procedure is to go through the document line by line, looking for topics you want to include in the index. You highlight the word or phrase to be included, mark it as an index entry (by pressing Alt + Shift + X in Winword, for example), edit the entry if necessary in the dialogue box, and then move on to the next entry. When all the entries have been marked, there are simple commands that allow you to create the index. For example, in Winword, choose Insert from the menu, then select Index and Table, and follow the instructions.


Word processors have special sets of commands for creating tables from data that you have typed in. However, if your data sets are complex, you may prefer to use a spreadsheet. If you are using an integrated office suite, importing the spreadsheet tables into your word processing document is simple. A further advantage here is that you can insert the tables in OLE format and link the table in your document to the spreadsheet. When you alter the spreadsheet's data, the tables in your word processing document will be automatically updated.


Your spreadsheet can also create charts which you can import into your document in OLE format, with the same updating feature as for tables. However, choose the appropriate charts for your data. Use:

  • Column and bar charts for showing simple comparison data at a given point of time. For instance, the different performances of a set of computers, or the different sales figures from various offices in an organisation.
  • Line and area charts for representing changes over time. For example, sales trends in an office over a 10-year period.
  • Pie charts for illustrating proportions such as the percentage contributions of various products to a company's overall profits.

Charts may be produced in 2D or 3D format. Beginners are sometimes fascinated with the power of their graphics software and thus produce 3D versions for all their charts. A better way is to use a 2D chart for presenting two-dimensional data, such as the price of different cars. A 3D chart would be excessive as the unused third dimension of the chart hinders communication. Consequently, when you have a three-dimensional set of data, you can convey your point more effectively with a 3D chart.


Including graphics in your document is the most complex part of the process. First of all, there is the problem of actually acquiring the graphics you need. If you merely want decorative items (most unlikely in a thesis or report), you can choose from among the thousands of images available from clip art CD-ROMs. Otherwise, you have basically three options:

  • Create the graphics you need in a drawing program.
  • Scan images from photographs you have taken or from a publication.
  • Draw the graphics by hand in black and white and scan them.

When you create your own graphics in a drawing program, be sure that the program can export your graphics in a file format that your word processor recognises. If you decide to scan a published picture or image, you have to consider copyright limitations. Whether you scan a photograph or hand-drawn image, you will need to edit the scanned images with graphics editing software before they are suitable for printing. For example, if the original is in colour and your document is to be printed in black and white, you will need to touch-up the image so that it will print with sufficient contrast. A top-end program for this purpose is Adobe Photoshop. At the lower end is Paint Shop Pro (shareware) and Adobe's PhotoDeluxe.

Report Writing/Layout: do's and don'ts

  • Use a spell checker to go over your document. But don't assume that it will detect every spelling error. For example, it cannot detect when "there" and "their" are misused.
  • Use a grammar checker but as with the spell checker, don't assume that it will pick up every error as it is not programmed to deal with many of the errors that Singaporeans typically make. For instance, using "would" instead of "will" or using verb forms such as "had seen" -the past perfect- instead of the simple past tense "saw".
  • Get someone to proof read your copy before it is finally sent for printing and distribution. Have them check grammar, spelling and punctuation.
  • Label your tables and charts fully. Include legends and sources where necessary. Number your tables and charts in a consistent way throughout the document. Remember that charts, drawings, diagrams, photographs and other images are all referred to as figures in formal documents. In labelling your figures, you usually use the abbreviation Fig. Your first chart in Chapter 2 will be labelled Fig. 2.1, your next diagram Fig. 2.2, your next image Fig. 2.3 and so on.
  • Back up your work on the computer and on diskettes often.

Dr Robert Kelly is a senior lecturer in the Language and Communication Department of a local tertiary institution. Ganesh Ram is a multimedia developer in the Educational and Staff Development Department of the same institution.

Copyright 1995 Singapore Press Holdings Ltd. All rights reserved.