Word formatting for academics

Word Formatting for Academia

We’ve covered advanced formatting techniques for Microsoft Word in the past. But as I reviewed these tips, I realized that Academics in particular need to be aware of some specific word formatting options when laying out a textbook or other academic work. Which brings us to the blog you’re reading now!

The MS Word Disclaimer

I feel that I always need to make a statement about Microsoft Word before I dig into talking specifics. I know that the majority of writers (from the novelist to the academic) use Word to write, edit, and design their book.

My personal feeling, after having designed dozens of books, is that Word is among the worst options for book layout. For writing and editing, it’s just fine. But when it comes to creating a PDF for printing the book, Word’s features are cumbersome and narrow. That said, my opinion only means so much.

The fact is, Word is still used by most book creators out there. So knowing how to use Word is still highly applicable for most book makers.

Word Formatting #1: Footnotes and Endnotes

Adding Footnotes and Endnotes is one of Word’s better features. In fact, it’s the only thing I can do in Word that I find easier and more intuitive than dedicated layout software like InDesign or Affinity Publisher. So, plus-one for Word here.

Inserting the note is simple. Just place your cursor in the document where the Endnote or Footnote will originate and go to Insert > Footnote. That will pop out a menu:

Word’s menu has options for the location, the column (more on this) and the formatting of your note. Once you click ‘Insert’ the note is added and you can type or paste in the contents of your note.

Bam! That simple.

The How and Why of Notes

Where Endnotes and Footnotes get complicated is in the logistics. When is it right to use one over the other? What’s an acceptable length for a Footnote? What about an Endnote?

Fortunately for you, the USC Library Guide has a great write up detailing the pros and cons of Endnotes and Footnotes, as well as offering advice on when to use each. Here are the highlights:


  • Pros
    • Allows readers to quickly access notes and annotations with the content on the same page as the source material.
    • No need to flip too or search out the note in an Endnotes section of the book.
  • Cons
    • The page can become cluttered by multiple or lengthy Footnotes
    • Longer Footnotes may ‘take over’ the page copy, possibly distracting the reader.
    • When using Columns, the Footnote must remain associated with a Column, leading to possible confusion or organizational issues.


  • Pros
    • Less distracting while reading.
    • Maintains the narrative flow without interruption of supporting data.
    • With a complete Endnotes section, the reader can view and consider all notes together after (or during) reading.
  • Cons
    • The notes are indirectly associated with the contents of your book.
    • Organizing the Endnotes can be challenging, and readers will not be able to simply access the notes.
    • The perception that something is being hidden (because the Endnotes are, ironically, at the end of the work).

Word Formatting #2: Columns

Much like Footnotes and Endnotes, Columns are fairly easy to insert. They can be found under the Format > Columns with a range of options for the number of columns and the spacing.

Once the columns are created, you can use this window or the ruler to adjust the width and spacing. Notice that I’ve used an A5 page size for my example, resulting in two columns with a small amount of text (due to the page and font sizes). Most academic works will utilize columns for larger page sizes (like 8.5 x 11) to create a textbook dense with text but still using the page space efficiently.

Again, the principle application of columns in Word is fairly simple. Where columns differ from Footnotes and Endnotes is that Word is no simpler than any other layout program. In fact, columns can be a major pain for Word users, as the layout shift and space between columns can cause the book’s page count to bloat.

I’ve only used a column layout sparingly, but I found the best way to manage them is to write and finalize the copy as a normal page, then apply the column settings to the sections as needed. This affords a lot of control over columns throughout the contents, though it is important to remember that the application of columns will shift your contents. So work through the addition of columns carefully.

Word Formatting #3: Images

A coworker shared this image with me the recently and I cannot get over how accurate it is:

Images and Word are like oil and water. For academics, this can present a number of problems. If you’re using Footnotes or Endnotes and Columns, your troubles only compound.

Adding and manipulating images is far and away Word’s weakest point. From the issues of placement and incorporation into the text, to the way Word downsamples images and destroys clarity; Word is just not very good at handling images.

Adding the image is rather simple, under Insert > Picture > Picture from File. This will insert the image at your cursor. And Word will treat the image much like an over-sized text character. The image occupies a line and follows the same rules as a piece of text. But for textbooks and the like, using Columns and other rich formatting, the image may result in some serious distortion or displacement.

Unfortunately, aside from being careful when adding your images, there isn’t a great solution. Well, aside from running a different program of course. But we’re talking about Word and images are just Word’s most glaring problem. For academics, this means trial and error to get the images place correctly

From Word to Page

There it is, three elements of academic works you’ll need to know about utilizing when laying out your book in Word. For better or worse, Microsoft Word remains the premiere page layout tool. Learning how to manage it is nearly mandatory for serious academics looking to publish their books, dissertations, or research findings.

3 thoughts on “Word Formatting for Academia”

  1. Any suggestions on preferred typeface and font size when using size A5 pages? I am working on a book using Garamond 10pt and it seems awfully small.

    1. Hi Gary,
      It definitely comes down to personal preference. I like using an 11 pt font for A5 size, but you’ll want to be careful about the line spacing too. If you’re writing a memoir, you might spread the lines out a bit more to offer white space, while a fantasy epic you may need to keep everything tightly spaced to avoid a massive page count.
      The most important thing is to review a proof copy. The spacing on your screen will never give you an accurate impression of how the book will look printed. I’ve stared at many pages on the screen and still am surprised by the spacing, size, and weight of my fonts when I see them in print.

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