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 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, 8th ed.

Use a header with your last name and the page number, a title block, and an informative title. (See http://jerz.setonhill.edu/mla for details.)

MLA Style Format (First Page)

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

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

See Also

   

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:

Good Example
  • 1-inch margins all around
  • 2.0 line height (double-space the whole paper, including title block and Works Cited list)
  • no extra spacing after the title, between paragraphs, or between bibliography items
  • 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 on a separate page at the end 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.
02 Oct 2016 — updated with MLA 8th Edition details.
30 Nov 2016 — added annotated Works Cited sample image.


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

553 thoughts on “MLA Format Papers: Step-by-step Instructions for Writing Research Essays

  1. i was on this same page a couple days ago and you had the whole steps ..what happend to that? it was very helpful to me and i need to read them again

  2. I personally do not know how to organize my works cited list. Nor did my teaher give me the information to know how to. So it would be extreme helpful, if this website had that information. Other than that this webite was a big help.

    Thank you so much,
    Natalie

    • Anna, see my answer to Natalie, above. I’ve added a section title “How to Organize your Works Cited list,” and beefed that part up a little. I hope it helps.

  3. I think what everyone is trying to ask is that you show the format of a works cited page. This would include what info is needed in it such as Author(last name, first name) followed by book title, and so on. I think it would be a good idea to show how to form a works cited for a book and a web page aswell. and also how to form your intro, body paragraphs and conclusion.

  4. Great page. And it looks like I’m just in time as it appears to be a brand new site. I just started class on Monday and your blog is already a goto site (saved to favorites).

    thanks for the much needed help,

    Martin

  5. I just got a rough draft back from my professor with a note that said my spacing was off. I hadn't messed with anything so I didn't know what she meant but now I'm pretty sure she meant the extra spacing after the paragraphs. Thanks so much for the help! I'm bookmarking this page for future reference.

  6. This is all gibberish to me…I was assigned to write my papers in either MLA or APA styles,but I no clue what that means at all. All I need to know is how I’m supposed to type out my papers :(

  7. Hi quick question… How do you change the Header font and in my name header so instructors want 1.5 line spacing and others want 2.0
    Thanks

  8. On the Works cited-Citing an Inline Quotation is it the author and the page number of where it was located? is that what the number means?

  9. Dennis…
    Nice job! I’ve bookmarked you and I am sending my students to this site for extra help when they’re not in class. Keep up the good work.

  10. Azah, I’m glad you found this page helpful. The question you ask is really something only your teacher can answer. I wouldn’t presume to know exactly what your teacher is looking for. A literature prof will be looking for evidence you can engage intellectually and creatively with a challenging topic, so showing boredom or going through the motions and answering prompts haphazardly will not give you much opportunity to shine. I usually ask my students to brainstorm — spending 10 solid minutes writing down every possible thing you could possibly write about, no matter how crazy or dry, and then sorting the list into “no,” “maybe” and “looks good.” You might be pleasantly surprised at what you can do, if you put your mind to it.

  11. Hi thanks so much for the help on the formatting! I have a question please help! I'm supposed to write a 2 pg essay on a character from the book Farewell to Manzanar, and the teacher wants us to show HOW and WHY the writer portrayed this character that way, the thing is i feel like just writing about the character is so boring, how can i make it interesting? can i just write abt the character and just answer the questions through out the paper? thanks in advance and sorry for the long question!

  12. Thanks for this site, I wish I would have found it before today, I am taking my final exam and have already handed in my papers, but it is helping for the studying part for the final and some of the questions the instructor has asked us to know for the final exam. Great Work. I did book mark your site for future classes.

  13. Why are the settings for MLA format different for word processer, MS word windows, and MS word mac?

    • MLA style is the same no matter what word processor you use, but the default settings of various word processors differ from what MLA style expects. So you have to make slightly different adjustments to get from the default settings to the MLA settings.

  14. Very nice article. Informative, well-written and simple to read. I’ve just started taking college classes again after a 20 year break – this has helped me get back into the groove. Thank you!

  15. Thank you so much for this. You have no idea how long I searched for the option to insert the page numbers in the header.

  16. What if you don’t use particular quotes from your sources should those still be included inside the body saying where the general info came from? Very confused. If I read a couple of books and used a couple of websites as guidelines but wrote the item myself with no direct quotes can I not do MLA style?

    • Yes, even when you are paraphrasing rather than using the exact words, in MLA style we still cite the source. If there’s the slightest chance that it will look like you are taking credit for someone else’s ideas (opinions, observations, ways of looking at something), it’s better to cite too much than cite too little.

      If the information is common knowledge, like the formula for finding the area of a circle, you don’t need to cite it.

  17. Just wanted to say kudos on your cite. It’s simple yet very informative. I wish I would have had this in high school. But one thing that would be helpful to add would be how to set the indention size. I had a teacher that was picky and wanted it to be exactly .5 inches from the margin. I just started using MS Word 2007 so I also have no idea how to do that, help? :)

    • Thanks — I’m glad to know it was helpful. For questions about using a particular piece of software, try the “Help” function within your software, or try searching for an online user group.

  18. Hi I am new at APA style. How do I do a header and start 1st page as 2 page title page is page #1

    • This page covers MLA style, not APA style, and MLA style does not call for a cover page. The answer to your question would depend on what software you are using. Your best bet would be to look up page or header in your word pocessor’s help function.

  19. My professor has stated we are to use the MLA format for our papers, which includes setting the tabs for 5 spaces. When I went to check my default tab stops, it reads “0.5”. Is this the same? Because, it seems the tab stop at its current setting is more than a literal 5 spaces.
    Thank you in advance,
    MKing

    • Your prof may have learned how to type papers back in the days before word processors, when most typewriters were set up so that five spaces were indeed exactly one inch. The official MLA guidelines say one half inch, without making any reference to the number of spaces.

  20. hey,
    your site is really helpful.Especially since i had no idea how to go about it.But now my question is,does MLA work on a draft with track changes?or do i first go through the changes,then continue with the same draft?
    thanks.

    • If you’re worried, you might try turning off “Track Changes” while you make the MLA formatting changes, then turn it back on; but really, I don’t think it will matter.

  21. How to you quote something that is 2 paragraphs long? Do I write out the whole thing? Or is there a way to shorten it?

  22. I have a question, on Macbook pro I have the document ‘pages’ that I use to write my papers, the only thing I have trouble with is when i’m typing my paper, if a word is too long, it cuts the word in half like this; as I am typing the word it sends ha-
    lf of it to the next line, just like I did. I have no clue how to set it to where it doesn’t do that. Could you help me out?

  23. I’m in a group of 7 with a paper due this Thur which must be in MLA. We seem to disagree on the 1st page. Since MLA calls for no title page do we list all 7 names on the left? Or in this case do you create a title page? Or we have a group number, do we just use that instead of names? HELP!

  24. Thanks for the great formatting tips. I need to know what the whole paper should be if it’s here I missed it. Should it be left right centered or justified. I have word 2007.

  25. I’m writing two papers- one on MLA and one on APA. Your website was a big help in writing the first one and i was wondering if you know where I should go for info for the APA one.

  26. Dennis:
    How do you write a Expository Essay? what is the format? How is it different from a Narrative Essay? Thank you in advance for you help and reply.

    • Expository means explaining something, like how the US Government is organized, or why birds fly south. Narrative tells a story, like what happened when you visited Washington DC for the first time, or what how the grumpy old coot found an injured bird and learned a lesson about the fragility of life while nursing the bird back to health… during a zombie uprising.

      There is no one format for these essays. Your instructors will expect you to do slightly different things, based on the level of the course and the function of this particular assignment.

      I’m flattered that people find these pages helpful, but only your instructor knows what he or she wants you to do, so your instructor really is the best source of such information.

  27. Thank you very much for the information. I looked all through my school books and could not find a discription of what was needed for MLA format.
    Thanks again!!

  28. so there are no spaces between the date and title? My teacher said to press enter twice after the date, do now idk which one to use.

    • Your teacher will give you your grade, not me, so follow your teacher’s guidelines. You might politely point out that this page shows a model that conflicts with your assignment instructions.

      If it were up to me, I would say titles should be in bold font, but that is not what the Modern Language Association (MLA) says.

  29. As a high school teacher, I find your website to be very helpful. I will be referring my students to this link tomorrow for any help they might need when not in class with me. All of the information you’ve given is accurate which is rare to find on a random website.

  30. how do I put referance my work cites in the paragraph where it belongs for web pages? I know books is done with aurthor name and page number but what about web pages?

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