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Using Word to Write your Thesis: Making a Table of Contents, Inserting Captions, and Cross-referencing

In the last post I showed you how to make an outline for your thesis in Word. You should now have a document outline with a list of headings for your sections (maybe even a few sections filled in if you were feeling motivated to make a start!). From here, we can move on to:

  • Setting up a Table of Contents,
  • Learning to insert captions which will make compiling a List of Figures/Tables at the end a painless process
  • Learning how to cross-reference your document, so that figures or paragraphs that you refer to in the body text are always numbered correctly, even when you move things around.

Automatically generating a Table of Contents

A thesis requires a detailed table of contents that lists the headings and page numbers of each section. Rather than manually scrolling through your document making notes of where everything is (and having to go back and change numbers every time you add something new or move a section) why not let Word do all the hard work?

When your document is properly laid out, generating a Table of Contents in Word is as simple as 1, 2, 3 (something my silly undergraduate self could sorely have done with knowing 3 years ago!!).

With the cursor at the start of the document where you want to insert the Table of Contents:

  1. Click the “references tab”
  2. Select Table of Contents
  3. Pick a style

Done. It’s that easy when you have things set up properly!

word for thesis fig 8

word for thesis fig 9

The Table of Contents will be generated automatically using the different levels of heading that you defined when you set up your outline. This is why it’s really important to use the headings from the styles gallery rather than just manually changing the size and font that you’re using!!!!

Don’t forget, if you move things around, add bits in or remove others, you should update your Table of Contents too!

Return to the Table of Contents options in the References tab and select “Update Table”.

Inserting captions

After a Table of Contents, most theses also include a List of Tables and a List of Figures. To make compiling this list less difficult, you can use a specific kind of label each time you insert tables and figures that will allow you to generate the list automatically in Word.

To do this:

  1. Go to the References tab and click on “Insert caption

word for thesis fig 10

2.  Select a label from the dropdown list for what you are inserting i.e. Table or Figure and press “OK”.

word for thesis fig 11

3.  Next to the caption Table 1, add a title for your table, which will appear in the list of tables.

4.   When adding a figure legend for tables or figures, make sure to go to the next line after the title to ensure the entire legend doesn’t get included in the list!

Create a list

Once your figures and tables have been captioned, inserting a list is very similar to how you created a Table of Contents.

With the cursor at the point where you want to insert the list:

  1. Click the References tab
  2. Click “Insert table of figures
  3. Select a caption label (table or figure)
  4. Click “OK”

word for thesis fig 12


Ideally you will be inserting lists of figures and tables at the end when the layout of your thesis is pretty much finalized. However if you need to move your tables or figures around and the order or page number changes, don’t forget to update your list!

  1. Click anywhere on the list to highlight it
  2. Click “Update table

And done! I repeat –it’s that easy!

word for thesis fig 13


Another useful tool found in the References tab is the Cross-reference button

word for thesis fig 14

Cross-referencing allows you to link back to other paragraphs, tables or figures referring to them in your body text.

Cross-referencing is useful for not only creating a hyperlink in the text for you to jump back and forth, but also for keeping your referenced paragraph, table and figure numbers up to date if you need to move them about. This saves you the trouble of going back and re-numbering every paragraph where you have mentioned a figure or table whose number has now changed!

***A small warning with this one, sometimes it doesn’t automatically update immediately – if after saving and re-opening your document it has still not updated, you might need to insert or update the List of Figures or Tables for the document to recognise that things have been moved a little bit – so don’t panic too much!***

Using Word to automatically generate your Table of Contents, Lists of Figures or Tables and to ensure that your internal references stay up to date takes a little bit of planning and some practice, however it will also hugely benefit you in the long run! Thinking back to my silly undergraduate self, leafing through a printed copy of my thesis, typing out each heading, fretting that the numbers weren’t aligned properly and nearly having a nervous breakdown when my supervisor suggested moving things because I would have to redo it all, I shudder at the wasted hours that could have been spent doing something productive (like learning to use Word properly!).

The bottom line is that writing a thesis is hard enough as it is, don’t give yourself extra work that the computer could be doing for you instead!!


**Note:  All screenshots taken from Word for  Windows, 2013.

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