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This page is a collection of best-practices and common-mistakes for technical writing at NPS - in particular for theses in the MAE department.  These resources are meant to complement the thesis guidelines and template; if there is any conflict in the style recommendations, you should use the official NPS processing guidelines.  Ideally these resources will save you time so that you don't have to fix known issues during the revision process.

Common Issues

General Grammar

If you don't know how to use a particular grammatical construction, please look it up rather than make it up.  For example, when you use the word "but", when should there be a preceding comma?  There are tons of specific guidance online from many wonderful sources.

For the basics, which will cover 95% what you need, I highly recommend Shrunk and White's, The Elements of Style, available for free online.  If you can develop habits to follow the usage guidelines from this very short book, you will avoid a lot of time spent revising.

Figures and Tables

  • Figure titles and captions.  There is a distinction between titles and captions. 
    • The NPS thesis template uses Figure titles below the image.  As explained in the template, figure titles should be capitalized as a title (like a book title).  This is what will appear in the list of figures. 
    • A figure caption is a brief explanation of the image contents and should be complete sentences, punctuated accordingly.  As explained in the template, these elements are formatted as Figure Secondary Caption. Although figure captions are optional, but you are encouraged to use them.  (A good portion of readers will look at your figures and read the captions as the first step in reading your work.)
  • All graphs should have labels on all axes, and the labels should include engineering units.  Any text in the figure (labels, legends, etc.) should use a font size similar to the font of the text and be clearly readable.
  • A common mistake is to have an image (e.g., a MATLAB graph) that has its own title.  For use in figures there should not be a title in the image (i.e., no title() command used in generating in a MATLAB figure), the title is part of the document.
  • MATLAB Figure Preparation: Tutorial on using the export_fig package to generate high-quality images for publication.

Numbers and Units

  • A succinct set of rules for using numbers in text rules_for_writing_numbers.pdf (source doc: rules_for_writing_numbers.docx).
  • A good set of guidelines: coes_equation_guidelines.pdf - in particular, see Section 4: "Numbers and units of measurements, in equations or anywhere in the document" for some useful guidelines.
  • A few specific rules include:
    • Use SI units - use the abbreviation for the units when accompanying numerals.
    • Use a space between a number and its units, e.g., 0.5 m, not 0.5m.
    • When using a number less than 1.0, use a leading zero: e.g., 0.5 m, not .5 m

Style Guide

For issues not explicitly defined in the NPS template and style guide, the MAE department defaults to the ASME guidelines which are described here.  Pay particular attention to the "Equations" and "References" section

Use of Equations

Here is a good description of how to use equations in your text: writingman.pdf

  • Equations are grammatical elements within your document and should be punctuated accordingly.
  • See ASME Guidelines for how to reference equations in the text.


  • Use ASME citation style (ASME Guidelines)
    This is very similar to IEEE citation style


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