Formatting academic writing

Your assignments will have conventions for how to format and present your work. These can include the font size and line spacing of your document, and even the margin size. These are not just arbitrary rules or being picky; they are important stylistic conventions that help your audience (usually the tutors marking your work) read your work more easily. 

Scroll down for our recommended strategies and resources. 

Follow your module handbook

Always check your module handbook and assignment brief on Moodle for the specific formatting guidelines for each assignment as they may be different. Your module handbook should usually specify things like the font type, font size, spacing, plus any information about margins, page numbers and other formatting features if they are needed. 

Double space your work

It is a normal academic convention to double-space your assignments as it makes it easier for your markers to read and to add any feedback comments above the relevant line. Usually your reference list is not double-spaced but you do leave a line between each entry in the reference list. See Microsoft Support below for how to double-space text in Word:.

Have clear paragraph breaks

When your work is double-spaced, you need to make sure you leave enough space between each paragraph so that it shows up as a distinct paragraph break. It is a usual convention in academic assignments to use a larger space between paragraphs, as opposed to indenting the first line to show a new paragraph. Also academic English doesn’t have a ‘semi-paragraph’, so you can’t indent a line, or start a new line to show that an idea is ‘sort of’ related to the point before it. You must either start a new paragraph or combine the idea into the current paragraph, but don’t have something in between.

See your formatting in Word

Sometimes our spacing and formatting becomes confused and we are not sure why the text is behaving in a certain way. It can help to turn on the formatting marks in your word processing programme to see exactly where line breaks and other formatting features are appearing. See Microsoft Support below for how to turn on the formatting marks in Word:

Write numbers correctly

There are conventions for how to include numbers in your academic writing. Generally, we write out the numbers zero to ten in words, and then use numerals for the numbers 11 onwards. However, there can be important exceptions and specific cases depending on what the number represents, where it appears in a sentence, and the subject you are writing for. The EAP Foundation guide below gives a good basic overview of the conventions for writing numbers. 

Use capital letters consistently

There are a lot of rules about when to use capital letters in academic writing. One of the main purposes is to draw attention to specific named people, places, titles, or things. Therefore, we would use capital letters when writing, ‘Doctor Watson works at Brookes University’, but we wouldn’t use capital letters when writing ‘many doctors find work in a university’. The resource below has a list of the main rules, and a good general principle is to be consistent.

Decide to use double or single quotation marks

In academic writing, there isn’t a fixed rule about whether single or double quotation marks should be used. Therefore, you can make a choice, but be consistent; if you start using double quotation marks, continue using them throughout your assignment. On the rare occasion that you might need to include a quote within a quote, you would use the other form of quotation marks to signal this, for example: "When I say 'immediately,' I mean sometime before August," said the manager. 

Spell out acronyms first time

Although abbreviations like can’t or e.g. are not acceptable in academic writing, using acronyms for names of organisations or theories is acceptable. Always write the name in full the first time you use it in an assignment, and put the acronym in brackets after it. On the first usage in an assignment, you would write, the Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC) and then it would be fine to refer to just the NMC after that.  

Understand how to format references

A vital part of academic writing is knowing how to format both your in-text references and your reference list. The correct formatting of references is not just a matter of style, it is a key part of academic integrity. If you have information missing or a confused reference list, you could lose marks or be penalised for poor academic practice. Check that you understand how to reference correctly.  

Create contents pages easily

Most assignments do not need a contents page, but some assignments, such as dissertations or reports do require a contents page. Save time by using headings in Word consistently so you can automatically generate a contents page. This video shows you how: