MLA Format Papers: Step-by-step Instructions for Writing Research Essays

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0.1) If you’ve been asked to submit a paper in MLA style, your instructor is asking you to format the page and present the content in a specific way. Just as football referees dress a certain way, and Japanese chefs cook a certain way, writers in certain disciplines follow a certain set of conventions. This document will show you how to format an essay in MLA style.

0.2) If, instead of questions about putting the final formatting touches on your essay, you have questions about what to write, see instead my handouts on writing a short research paper, coming up with a good thesis statement, and using quotations in the body of your paper.

MLA Format Papers: Step-by-Step Instructions for Formatting Research Papers in MLA Style0.3) On this page:

  1. Document Settings
    (1 inch margins; double spaced; 12-point)
  2. Page Header
    (name and page number, upper right of every page)
  3. Title Block
    (assignment info and an informative title)
  4. Citations
    (no comma between the author and page number; commas and periods go outside of inline quotes)
  5. Works Cited List
    (lots of tricky details! sort alphabetically by author, not by the order the quotes appear in your paper)

For the most complete information, check your campus library or writing center for the MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers, 7th ed.

Screenshot of the title page of an MLA style paper, showing the page numbering and title block.

How to format the first page of an MLA style paper.

Screenshot of an MLA Style Works Cited page, showing the heading, hanging indent, and alphabetical order of the individual entries.

How to format the Works Cited page of an MLA style paper.

1. Document Settings

Your word processor comes with default settings (margin, line height, paragraph spacing, and typeface) that will likely need adjustment. For MLA style, you need:

  1. 1-inch margins all around
  2. 2.0 line height (double-spaced)
  3. no extra spacing after paragraphs
  4. 12-point typeface (usually Times New Roman)

(Jump directly to instructions for adjusting MS-Word settings in Windows or Mac; or, skip ahead to 2) Page Header.)

1.1 Adjusting Document Settings in MS-Word (Windows)

My copy of Microsoft Word for Windows defaults to

  1. 1-inch margins all around
  2. 1.15 line height
  3. 10pt spacing between paragraphs
  4. Calibri 11-point  typeface.

Changing to MLA Style (Windows)

  1. The default margins in my test run were fine, but if you need to change them:
    Page Layout -> Margins -> Normal (1-inch all around)
  2. The default line height is too low. Change it to 2.0.
    Home -> Line Spacing -> 2.0.
    (You could try fudging it to 1.9 or 2.1 to meet a page count, but any more than that and your instructor may notice.)
  3. The MS-Word default adds extra space after paragraphs.(MLA Style instead requires you to  signal paragraph breaks by indenting the first line.)
    CTRL-A (select all your text)
    Home -> Line Spacing -> Remove Space After Paragraph
  4. Change the typeface to Times New Roman 12-point.
    Home -> Font Face Selector (change to Times New Roman)
    Home -> Font Size Selector (change to 12)

1.2 Adjusting Document Settings in MS-Word (Mac)

My copy of  Microsoft Word for Mac defaults to

  1. 1.25 inch left and right margins, 1 inch top and bottom
  2. 1.0 line height
  3. no extra spacing after paragraphs
  4. Cambria 12-point typeface

Changing to MLA style (Mac)

  1. In my test run, the left and right margins are too big. To change them:
    Layout -> Margins -> Normal
    (1-inch all around)
  2. The default line height is too low. Change it to 2.0.
    Home -> Line Spacing  -> 2.0
  3. My Mac copy of MS-Word does not add extra spaces after paragraphs. If yours does:
    Home -> Line Spacing  -> Line Spacing Options… (a new window will pop up)
    Don’t add space between paragraphs of the same style
    (check this box) -> OK
  4. The 12-point Cambria will probably be fine, but to change the typeface:
    Home -> Font Face Selector (change to Times New Roman)
    Home -> Font Size Selector (change to 12)

2. Page Header

In the top right of every page, use your word processor’s “Page Header” function add an automatic page number and your surname.

2.1 Adding the Page Header in MS-Word (Windows)

  1. Insert -> Page Number -> Top of Page -> (choose the right-justified “Plain Number” option)
  2. The cursor will jump automatically to the right place for you to type your surname.
  3. Click anywhere in the body of the paper to exit the header area.

2.2 Adding the Page Header in MS-Word (Mac)

  1. Insert (in the top menu) -> Page Numbers…  -> (Set “Position” to “Top of Page (header)” and “Alignment” to “Right”)
  2. Click just to the left of the new page number, and type your surname.
  3. On my test document, my name was too far over to the left; grab the triangular tab adjuster just above your name, and drag it a notch to the right.

3. Title Block

In the upper left corner, type your name, your instructor’s name, the course number and section, and today’s date. Centered on the next line, type an informative title that actually informs the reader of your main point (not just “English Paper” or “A Comparison between Hamlet and Macbeth”).

  • Like all the other text in an MLA style paper, the title block is double-spaced.
  • The title is in the same font as the rest of the paper — it is not boldface, or enlarged.
  • There is no extra space above or below the title.
  • A truly informative title will include the general topic, and your precise opinion on that topic.  (So, if you pan to compare Hamlet and Macbeth, your title should state the unique point you want to make about Hamlet and Macbeth. Reuse part of your thesis statement.)

4. Citations

This handout presumes you already know why you should cite your sources (to establish your authority, to introduce persuasive evidence, to avoid plagiarism, etc.), These instructions focus on how you format the page. (For a resource to help you determine how to cite a specific source, see the MLA Bibliography Builder).

To fully cite a source requires two stages.  The first happens in the body of your paper (the “in-text citation”) and the second happens in a list at the of your paper (see “Works Cited List,” below.)

4.1 Citing a Block Quote (more than three lines)

  • Long quotes can start to look like filler. Only use a block quote if you have a very good reason to include the whole passage. (You can usually make your point with a shorter quote.)
  • If you do have a good reason to quote a passage that is several lines long:
    • Select the text and click the “Increase Indent” icon (see image, right).
    • Place the parenthetical citation (the author’s name and the page number) after the period. (This is different from inline quotes, below.)
    • There is no comma between the author’s name and the page number.
    • If the quotation runs across more than one page: (Wordsworth-Fuller 20-21) or (Wordsworth-Fuller 420-21).
  • Skip wordy introductions such as, “In his informative guide The Amazing Writing Book, published by Elizabeth Mount College in 2010, the noted composition expert Maxwell Wordsworth-Fuller describes the importance of citations in MLA style papers.” Cutting the filler leaves more room to develop your own original ideas. (See “Integrating Quotations.”)

4.2 Citing an Inline Quotation

When the passage you want to quote is less than three lines long, use inline style.  Here we have two brief passages, taken from the same page of the same source, so we can handle both with a single parenthetical citation.

  • The parenthetical citation appears outside the quoted material.
  • The period that ends the sentence comes after the close parenthesis. (This is different from block quotes, above.)
  • In this example, we have changed the first word a little, lowercasing it in order to fit it into our own sentence. To let the reader know what we changed, we put [] around it.
  • Again, note the absence of a full sentence that explains who Wordsworth-Fuller is and where the quote comes from. All that info will be in the Works Cited list, so we leave it out of the body of the paper.

4.3 Citing a Paraphrase

Let’s imagine we want to reference Wordsworth-Fuller’s general idea about citation as a way to establish credibility, but we don’t need to include any of the technical details. We can save space, and make it much easier on our reader, if we paraphrase:

  • Use paraphrasing for variety, or to make a passing reference without taking up much space.
  • If we use an author’s idea, rephrased in our own words, we must still cite the idea.

5. Works Cited List

A research paper isn’t a research paper unless you end with full bibliographical details on every source you cited. This part can be tedious and tricky; leave yourself plenty of time to do it.

  • Start a new page.
    • MS-Word Wind: Insert -> Page Break -> New Page.
    • MS-Word Mac: Document Elements -> Break -> Page.
  • Title your new page: Works Cited
    MLA style calls for no extra spaces above or below the page title; no special formatting.

5.1.  How to Create an Individual Works Cited Entry

Exactly what goes into each item in your bibliography depends on what kind of item it is. The following pages give you some questions to answer, then let you push a button to get an individual works-cited entry.

MLA-Style Bibliography Builder: Create Works Cited Entries by Filling in a Form

  • Article (in a periodical, or chapter; printed or electronic)
  • Book (printed or electronic)
  • Web Page (corporate web page, blog entry, YouTube video, etc.)

If you prefer a more narrative explanation, see Purdue OWL’s handouts for how to create a bibliography entry for a book, an article in a periodical (such as a journal or newspaper), or an electronic source (such as an email, web page or a YouTube clip). See also this list of other common sources (such as a personal interview or a movie).

5.2.  How to Organize Your Works Cited list

Sort the entries alphabetically by the author‘s last name.

  • If the author is an organization (such as a government agency or non-profit foundation), alphabetize according to the name of the organization.
  • If you are citing a painting, or a composer, then obviously “author” has to be interpreted a little loosely.
  • Unless your instructor ask you to organize your Works Cited list differently, everything should be alphabetized together, in a single list. MLA does not require that you separate works of different kinds, or that you cite works in the order that they appeared in your paper, or that you write annotations to go along with each item.
  • Use double-spaced line height. (in my copy of Word, I select the text and choose Format -> Paragraph ->  Line spacing -> Double -> OK.)
  • Use hanging indent paragraph format. (In my copy of word, I select the text then choose Format -> Paragraph -> Indentation -> Special -> Hanging Indent.)

29 May 2011 — new document posted, replacing outdated handout written in 1999.
06 Jun 2011 — expanded section on organizing the Works Cited list, since several readers asked for clarification.
07 Jun 2011 — reorganized for emphasis
19 Apr 2012 — added numbers to more subheads
24 Mar 2014 — added details on Works Cited paragraph formatting. 


Related Writing Links

Dennis G. Jerz
Researched Papers: Using Quotations Effectively
If your college instructor wants you to cite every fact or opinion you find in an outside source, how do you make room for your own opinion? Paraphrase, quote selectively, and avoid summary.Dennis G. Jerz
MLA Works Cited Citation Builder
Choose a form, fill it out, and push the button… you will get an individual entry for a “Works Cited” page, which you may then copy and paste into your word processor. The BibBuilder is more like a guide than a full-fledged utility, but you may nevertheless find it helpful.
Jerz’s Literacy Weblog
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496 thoughts on “MLA Format Papers: Step-by-step Instructions for Writing Research Essays

  1. when you say page numbers (Wordworth-Fuller 20), are you referring to the page number within the MLA document or the page number the text appears on within the authors works?

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  3. Thank you for valuable information. Before my college year in America I didn’t know what MLA Format was, but with this delicate information I will survive my college year.

  4. Thank you for useful information about how to write MLA format essay. Before my college year I didn’t know there were many different forms of essay. When my professor asked me to write MLA format I had no idea how to write it, but with your delicate information I think I will survive my college year. Thank you again.

    • I’m glad to know you found this page helpful. Most instructors will be happy to help if you stop by during their office hours, and if your prof is too busy for that most universities will have a writing center where you can get help at any stage of any assignment involving writing.

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