Simple stuff: MLA-style formatting and presentation

The "simple stuff" presents conventions for formatting and presentation of written work. The SS items for handwritten work are matters of common sense; the conventions for typed work outlined below follow MLA-style formatting for formal essays. On graded assignments, "simple stuff" problems may be noted as SSM, SSH, SSLP, etc.

MS Word sample document                            

Typed work: MLA-style formatting
The MLA (Modern Language Association) is the authoritative organization for scholars in language and literature. The MLA guidelines for formatting (and for citation and documentation) are the industry standard: they apply in most college English classes, in many other courses in the humanities, and in scores of scholarly journals and other publications. Parenthetical references below are keyed to the MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers, 7th ed., by Joseph Gibaldi.

("P" for "paper"): Formal essays written outside of class must be typed or printed via word processor in black ink, on white paper of copier-grade quality or better (20 lb. bond minimum)
(MLA Handbook 4.6).

("D" for "double spacing"): Double space typed papers throughout their entirety
, from your name at the top of the first page to the last line of text (block quotes included). Works cited pages are double-spaced as well—see QD5ds (MLA Handbook 4.2).

(margins): one inch margins above, beneath, and on both sides of the text
(excluding page number headers, which should be one-half inch from the top margin) (MLA Handbook 4.1). Note that some versions of Microsoft Word default left and right margins to 1.25 inches, so you may need to change the margin settings in blank Word documents.

Setting margins in Microsoft Word:

In Word 2007 and Word 2010: Select the "Page Layout" tab, then select "Margins" and choose the option labeled "Normal," with one-inch margins on all four sides.

In versions of Word before 2007: Click "File," select "Page Setup," then "margins": enter the number 1 as needed in the "top," "bottom," "left," and "right" boxes.

margins capture

SSF (font): Use only standard Times, Arial, or Courier fonts.  Avoid exotic, fancy, or "cute" fonts in formal writing. Aside from sometimes being more difficult to read, exotic fonts can suggest whimsy or frivolity on your part—not signals you should send your reader. Use the same font (and font size) for the entire document: the title, the text, block quotes, headers, works cited entries, etc.

(font size): Use only 12 point font size
.  Text in smaller fonts can be hard to read; essays in larger fonts can look like kindergarten work. Even when it is not the case, essays in font sizes larger than 12 point give the impression that you're trying to make the paper look longer than it is—never a good signal to send. Larger font sizes and wider margins than are standard can make it appear that you realized the paper was short and tried to hide it. Your professors are not dummies! And you don't want them ever to think of you as "sly" in covering up shortcomings in your work (MLA Handbook 4.2).

(justification): Align or "justify" the text only on the left margin
.  Do not use "full justification" so that both margins are straight, as in newspaper columns, e.g. (MLA Handbook 4.2)

left align

SSN (name, date, etc.): Double-spaced at the top left margin of the first page only, in the same font and font size as the text of the paper, list:

    1) your name
    2) professor's name

    3) course number and section
(English 1102.51, e.g., not "Composition II")
    4) date paper is turned in (MLA Handbook 4.3).

(title/title page): Titles are mandatory, title pages are unnecessary
.  Some professors prefer title pages for formal papers and other printed work, but MLA guidelines dictate that there should be no title page. Ask professors who don't specify if they do expect title pages.

Titles: You should give each formal essay its own unique title. "Paper 3" or "Essay One" is not an actual title. The original title of a literary work is that work's title and should not be used as the title of your essay. If you submit a paper entitled "Frankenstein," your professor might say, "That title is Mary Shelley'swhere's yours?" Also note that titles should not be followed by periods.

As stated in the Harbrace College Handbook, Revised 13th ed, "A good title fits the subject and tone of an essay. The title is the reader's first impression and, like the introduction, should fit the subject and tone of the paper. Sometimes the title announces the subject simply and directly: 'Grant and Lee' or 'Civil Disobedience.' Often a title uses alliteration to reflect the writer's humorous approach, as in "A Pepsi Person in the Perrier Generation,' or a twisted cliché, as in 'The Right Wrong Stuff.' A good title may also arouse the reader's curiosity by asking a question, as does 'Who Killed the Bog Men of Denmark? And Why?'" (360). 

Except for brief questions, titles should not generally be complete sentences, but instead should be brief phrases, as in "Gender Roles Gone Awry" or "Cell-Phone Hell"

(title position): Center your title, double-spaced immediately beneath the date
—there should be no extra spaces between date (SSN) and title, or between the title and the text of your paper. As noted above (SSD), the entire paper should be uniformly double-spaced from your name at the top of page one to the end of the text (MLA Handbook 4.3).

(title font): Use the same font and font size for the title and the text of the essay; do not underline your title, do not put it in quotation marks, do not type it in all capital letters, do not make it bold or italicized
(MLA Handbook 4.3).

Use the <Tab> key to indent the first line of each paragraph one-half inch from the left margin. Make indentions uniform throughout the essay (MLA Handbook 4.1).

(header): At the top right corner of each page, including the first page and Works Cited pages, put your last name, one typed space (and no more), and the page number in a "header."
  Headers should be one-half inch from the top of the page and aligned hard (flush) on the right margin (MLA Handbook 4.4).  Do not "tab" over to the right side of the page or use the space bar —you will save time and trouble in the long run by learning to create proper headers with the alignment justified "hard right" (see instructions below). Headers should not include the word "page" or the abbreviation "p.," nor should there be a comma, dash, hyphen, bracket, or any other typographical symbol before or after the page number.
Headers written by hand on typed work are unacceptable. For instructions on creating and modifying headers in Microsoft Word, see below.

(header font):
Make headers, including both your last name and the page number, the same font and font size as the text of the essay. See instructions for creating and modifying headers below. 

Works cited note: There's no reason in a paper shorter than 30 pages to create or save your works cited page in a separate file from that in which the text of the paper is saved. If, however, you do make the works cited page a separate document, you will need to change the page number formatting in the header for the works cited page. Go through the necessary steps above separately for the works cited page, but also click the "Format Page Number" button on the Header and Footer toolbar—it's the one with the # symbol and the hand at the top of the page—then under "Page numbering," select "Start at" and enter the appropriate page number in the box. 

format number

Page break tip: To set a page break after the text of your essay so that the works cited page automatically begins on a separate page, press the control (<Ctrl>) and enter keys simultaneously.

For reference, see this sample.  

Handwritten work:

("LN" for "longhand" and "name"): In the upper left corner of the first page of all handwritten assignments, write

SSLPN ("longhand" and "page number"): Put your last name and the page number in the upper right corner of all pages after the first.

("frayed edges"): Avoid turning in work on pages with frayed or tattered edges
—i.e. pages ripped from a spiral notebook (without perforations). Turning in work on pages with frayed edges is like going to court in clothes spotted with stains and riddled with holes. In court you hope the judge or jury will hear your side of the story impartially no matter how you dress. Invariably, though, defendants with common sense wear nice clothes in court, dresses or coats and ties even, no matter how obvious their guilt or innocence. All work you submit to your professors is "judged," too, including assignments that are not given grades, so you should always "look your best" even if you're guilty of missing a day's reading or screwing up a lab experiment.

("longhand" and "ink"): Unless instructed otherwise, use only pencil or blue or black ink on all handwritten assignments. 
Pink, purple, lime green, and aqua are beautiful colors, and sparkly, glittery ink is truly nifty. But all your academic work should reflect professionalism even in the smallest details, such as ink color. Use the cool-colored ink for taking notes, but stick to the basic black, blue, or pencil for work you turn in. Express your individuality in the substance of your written work, not in its visual presentation.

("longhand" and "paper"): Use only standard 8.5x11 inch notebook paper. 
Turn in handwritten assignments only on standard sized notebook paper. Legal-size paper and paper smaller than 8.5x11 inches can be difficult to file or paper clip with "normal" sized pages, and smaller pages can fall out of stacks of papers just like subscription cards in magazines. Your work should stand out from the rest of the stack in substance and quality, not literally by separating itself from the others on your professor's office floor.

In sum:

Your work should speak for itself—in its quality. If you write a brilliant essay, it shouldn't matter if you pen it in purple ink on tattered paper that measures four inches by six. And in most cases, your work will indeed be judged on its merits and not by its presentation. But each and every assignment you turn in should reflect your professionalism in every detail. If you are the kind of person who would bathe, shave, fix your hair, and dress nicely for an important job interview, you should attend to the details and make sure that all of your academic work is similarly clean and spiffy before you turn it in. You care deeply about each and every scrap of your college work, right? Even if you don't, it's never a good idea to send your professors even mildly negative signals, however subtle, about you or your work.

Updated 2/15/2014