Understanding instructions and stylesheets

For any writing assignment, it is important that you understand what kind of text you are expected to submit. Students who are new to the demands of university writing may struggle with instructions and knowing how to approach their writing tasks. Similarly, students transferring from one discipline or faculty to another may experience new demands.

Whether you are writing as a student or as a researcher, there are usually instructions you are expected to follow. Depending on what type of text, such instructions contain different elements. Below we bring up two types of instructions:

Start with the section that best fits the type of writing you are doing, but note that there may be useful informaton in the other section too.

Further down on this page, you will find a list of terms often used in writing instructions:

Instructions for student writing

Whether you have been asked to write an essay or an assignment of some other kind, understanding the instructions as well as the grading criteria will be essential. Always ask your teacher if you have any questions; academic writing is a wide field, and the information provided here is general, not course or subject specific.


Instructional video from the free online MOOC "Writing in English at University" which was developed at Lund University in 2016.

Instructions for research writing

If you are writing a degree project or an MA thesis, or if you are submitting a text to an academic publisher, you will most likely have received guidelines in the form of a style sheet. Many departments, or courses, have their own style sheets, as do journals and publishers. Such guidelines stipulate format as well as structure and reference style.


Instructional video from the free online MOOC "Writing in English at University" which was developed at Lund University in 2016.

Common terms in writing instructions

Typeface, font and font size

The terms typeface and font are often used interchangeably. A typeface is a set of characters of the same design (such as Times New Roman), whereas the word font refers to the specific version of the typeface that is to be used (such as Times New Roman bold, 12 p).

There are many typefaces/fonts, and depending on their appearance, they are divided into sans serif and serif. A serif is a little line at the bottom and top of some letters. On this webpage we use a sans serif typeface (i.e., without serifs), whereas Times New Roman, for instance, is a serif typeface.

Typeface and font size are often stipulated in instructions and style sheets. If you have not received any information, choose a neutral typeface such as Times New Roman.

Line spacing

Line spacing is the space between the lines of text in your document. A common line spacing is 1.5.

Margins and justification

Instructions sometimes specify the width of the margins; if not, use the default setting of your word processing programme.

You will sometimes be required to set the justification. In running text, there are two common formats: full justification, which means that both the left-hand and the right-hand margins are flush (straight) and left-alignment, which means that the right-hand margin is ragged. See the illustration below:


The picture shows two texts, one with full justification and one with left alignment.


Sometimes, documents are to be paginated, which means that you need to insert page numbers, usually at the bottom of the page.

Titles, headings, sub-headings, and numerals

The title is the name you give your essay or article, whereas headings and sub-headings refer to the names of sections and sub-sections, respectively, of your text. Sometimes numerals are required, and if there are several levels of headings in the text, the numerals will often look like this:

1. Heading
1.1 First sub-heading
1.2 Second sub-heading

When it comes to numerals, there may be different preferred formats; the example above uses Arabic numerals, but you may also be required to use Roman numerals.

Chapters, sections and paragraphs

Although the words 'chapter' and 'section' are sometimes used interchangeably, a chapter is usually a part of a book, whereas a section is a part of an essay or an article. Each section (or chapter) of a text will be divided into paragraphs. For further information about text structure, see

Indicating a new paragraph

There are two ways of marking a new paragraph: either you leave a blank line between paragraphs, or you indent the first line of each new paragraph. If you have been instructed to use indentation, you need to check whether the first line after a heading should be indented or not.

Word count

Essay guidelines as well as journal publishers often stipulate the expected length of the text. Word counts are usually not recommendations but requirements, so if you plan to exceed the given word count, always contact your teacher or the journal before submitting to check if there is some leeway.


Style sheets provide information about which reference style to use. You will find information about referencing on AWELU, but make sure you check what guidelines your teacher or publisher has provided, as some departments and journals have so-called in-house styles, which may differ from reference styles you have previously used.

Page Manager: aweluluse | 2021-11-12