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.

0.3) On this page:
MLA Format Papers: Step-by-Step Instructions for Formatting Research Papers in MLA Style

  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. I am writing research paper in MLA format, and I can’t figure out why my title block’s spacing is so much wider than the body of the paper. It’s the latest version of Word and I have the font sized correctly and the spacing set at 2.0 Have you run across this problem before, or do you know how I can fix it?

  2. nevermind…I figured it out. I had to remove the space while the entire paper was highlighted, not just the title block section. Yay :)

  3. Pingback: Final Paper Instructions « Critical Game Studies

  4. If I am doing a short research paper with a group and we are to turn in one paper, whose name goes in the header?

  5. I have to write a 10-12 page essay on the Book of Ruth. These are the guidelines/parts I have to include in my essay but I don’t understand exactly what they mean. Can you put this is plain English for me, please? Thanks.

    1. The correct identification of the passage (where the passage starts/stops, its placement within the book, its placement within the Bible, etc.), giving specific reasons for each of your conclusions
    The passage begins at Ruth 1:1 and ends at Ruth 4:22 (which is the entire Book of Ruth)

    2. An analysis of the literary style and characteristics of the passage (citing specific references)

    3. A detailed and thoughtful application of the appropriate exegetical approach suggested during the course

    4. A concluding section on the modern relevance and/or application of the passage

    • Janice, the best person to answer this question is your instructor.

      You might Google for “Bloom’s Taxonomy” for help on what it means to analyze and apply, but other than that, without knowing the course objectives, how previous assignments have been graded, how long ago this paper was assigned, etc., I’m not sure that rewording the assignment instructions will help much.

  6. i think you have some really good information, it has helped me learn something new about how to organize my papers while writeing.Writing and knowing how to write a paper is very confusing but after reading this information as helped me.

  7. Thanks very helpful, however I do have a question, if my quote is longer than 3 lines does it have to be indented? thanks!

  8. Every works cited page i have found uses all authors. Can you please show an internet source that does not have an author? and please show me how to use it in the paper when i am citing a direct quote.

    • For any source that doesn’t have an individual author, a print source would use the name of the organization and the page nmber (Modern Language Association 123). MLA style for any online source is not to use page numbers, so you would cite the source using just the name of the organization that wrote the document.

  9. Wow, I am pleased to finally come across a website that explains step by step what MLA format should be. I am a Pre-School teacher, and an Undergraduate student, soon to receive my BA in ECE in June 2012, and all of the written reports must be typed in MLA style. What a wonderful and informative sight. Excellent work!!!

  10. I don’t understand the citing part, or whatever it’s called. The part where you give a quote, then put the Author name after. Like your example: “bla bla bla bla” (Author name 20)……What is the 20? The page number?

  11. Quick question: when you cite after a quote, “bla bla bla” (Author 20). The 20 is the page number right?

  12. Question I am doing a research paper on video gammers, if I want to include a quote that a gamer has said in my research paper how do I cite it?

    ” I care most about improving global quality… (goes on for three lines)

    do I site it by putting his name in () or the website where I found it

    • The answer will depend on whether you are quoting a gamer who was quoted in a book or news article (in which case you would cite the author in the parentheses) or quoting from an interview you conducted yourself (in which case you would put the speaker’s last name in the parentheses).

      Try the Purdue Online Writing Lab for details on how to cite an interview.

  13. I am doing it on a game called superstruct, the gamer makes a quote that I want to use but I do not have his real name I just have his game name. Its not an interview its just a quote that he put on his gaming diary. Therefore should I just put his gaming name in (_)

    • I would cite the gaming diary the same way you would cite any web page, and when introducing your quote, say something like:

      A gamer who posted a diary under the name “nyan_cat” wrote, “I love rainbows.”

      Later in your paper, you might write

      Furthermore, “sparkly stars are amazing” (nyan_cat).

      Here are general tips for how to cite a web page.

      http://jerz.setonhill.edu/bib/web.html

  14. if we have a Cover/Title page, do we still need to include our name, teacher, class, date, on the first page of the research paper, and does it still need a title?

    • MLA style does not include a cover title at all. If you’ve been told to follow MLA style, and add a non-standard cover page, the requirements of the first page don’t change. Of course, your teacher is free to require whatever he or she wants.

  15. If you are citing a book within a book how do you cite in your paper? Say a literary book of different authors works.

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