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

Jerz > Writing > Academic > [ Titles | Thesis Statements | Blueprinting | Quoting | Citing | MLA Format ]

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. how to cite the Japanese name in order in the Bibliog (MLA). for Japanese family name comes first then given name in normal order unlike Indians and Westerners. e g Sodo Mori & Toshiichi Endo. Sodo & Toshiichi r 2 family names. should i write them in the same as they appear or do i have put comma after the family name or do i have reverse them?
    waiting for your help eagerly dear Dennis.

    • The reason we reverse Western names is to put the family name first, so we can alphabetize by that family name. I would assume that you should just keep the family name first, rather than reverse it and end up obscuring the family name. Let me ask one of my foreign language colleagues.

      • While I didn’t hear specifically from a Japanese teacher, a faculty member who is familiar with Chinese and a native of Hungary both backed up my advice. (Chinese and Hungarian also present the family name first.) But no matter what I say, your instructor is the right person to ask.

        • I spoke to a visiting Chinese scholar, who recommended that Western scholars go ahead and insert the comma, so that readers will recognize the name as properly alphabetized.

  2. Hello, Thankyou for this amazing page. I was wondering do we need to indent for each paragraph and is the quote optional or is it a must??

    • Yes, in MLA style, we indent every paragraph. You should talk to your instructor about whether quotes are required. I have assigned personal essays or how-to papers that still need to be presented in MLA style, but that don’t need to include any quotes.

  3. I have a group paper with four of us writing it. In the “Title Block”, would I list all four of our names on seperate, double spaced lines?

  4. This page has been a LIFE SAVER for me in my American Lit class this semester. Thank you SO, SO much for the step by step guidance with this formatting style!! This is being saved as a favorite and I will definitely recommend this page to others as a resource.

  5. Jessica, Caitlin, Jamees, Usame, Ashley, Chrsti, and everyone else — I’m very glad you found my page helpful, and I really appreciate your taking the time to tell me. I don’t respond to every “thank you” people post on my web site, mostly because I don’t really know what to say but “you’re welcome,” but I really do appreciate the encouragement that I get from your kind words.

  6. Dear Dennis G. Jerz. Let me first say that you are a beast for putting out this website. It is freaking amazing and that is even an understatement. I got a A on all my writing because of this. thank you nuff’ said. Taker easy bro and have a good one.
    -big mike

  7. as far as citations go, what if your source is a pamphlet/handbook type guide with no page numbers only paragraph numbers, no known author except for the Dept. of Defence agency it comes from and has a few quotes with the respective name of the person? if it’s from a person’s quote then put their name down and just the paragraph number? how would it be for citations from the booklet literature itself?

    • That brochure does not sound like the best source. If you have in front of you a brochure that quotes a few lines from a presidential speech or a congressional report, the brochure itself is not as credible as whatever source it is quoting from. If the brochure does not say where the quotes come from, how do you know the quotes are accurate? If you decide to use the brochure anyway, use the government agency as the author. If the brochure has page numbers, use them. MLA style does not use paragraph numbers.

  8. … also in regards to the comment above. on the works cited list, would we organize it in alphabetical order entirely or do the actual people come first and then the dept. who published the booklet?

  9. My teacher wants me to add a footnote after the first sentence in the second paragraph, I would be cool with that except she says, ” Remember to format the footnote as a double- space with a first line indent.” What does that mean and how do I do so?

    • The specific answer depends on your word processor, but “use double spacing, and indent the first line” sounds pretty clear to me. You can search your word processor’s help file for “spacing” and “indent” for how, exactly, to do that; or you could just ask your teacher to show you on a school computer.

  10. THANK YOU!! Trying to all night a paper for class due tomorrow. Your website helped a lot, just thought I would thank you for your amazing help. Your a life saver! :)

  11. Thank you very much for the pointers. With out it my first college paper would have been a complete mess.

  12. I am using Word 2010, and i am trying to edit a citation in the bibliographical source to display the pages at the end of the citation. Do you know how i can edit to reflect that? Thanks in advance.

  13. Wow, I’m so glad you put this up and keep it updated. This is so helpful. Might I suggest putting instructions for tools, i.e. page numbering, for Open Office as well? It’s a free program that substitutes MS-Word. I don’t know how popular it is, but I would believe it to be quite helpful. Thanks. And Again thank-you for the great info, I pull this website up for every essay I do to make sure it comes out right. :)

  14. is there a MLA acceptable way to highlight names in an essay? Should they be bold or in italics? I have searched but can’t really find an answer

  15. My teacher is referred to as “HITLER” and we have this huge “medical” disease table that we have to fill out and cite the works used … fair enough … however, when he reviewed our tables today, he stated that every line needed to be cited and we have no clue how to do this … could you please help me get started … I am completely at a loss … your site is amazing and precise … it is more geared towards a paper of paragraphs and not one of bulleted statements … thank you :)

    • This page is devoted to the Modern Language Association (MLA) citation method. Other disciplines use different methods. I’m sure your syllabus, the assignment description, or a textbook mentions what method you are expected to use.

      • we have been instructed to use the MLA citation method … we were trying to figure out if we are able to cite multiple bulleted sentences into one cited source or if each line has to be cited separately … thank you

        • I have never used the Modern Language Association style to cite data in the way you describe, and I find it odd that a medical prof would require a literary citation style. Your professor will grade your papers, not I, so your question should really go to your prof. Could he mean Medical Library Association? It’s better to ask than risk losing points.

  16. thank you very much sir … your response has been noted, and I will check with our college to see if what he is asking from us is legitimate, since when you are writing down information about diseases, there is not a whole lot available other than what is in a reputable type medical source … i appreciate your site and your quick responses … you rock …

  17. This is a very helpful website I’m really happy i found it but I have a question. My professor keeps saying my spaceing is off and shes not giving me a clear answer as to why all she is saying is quad but i only have double space can you tell me what I’m doing wrong? thanks

  18. Hi! Your website is very useful, but I have a question.

    If I am using quotations to cite a book in a sentence, then write another original sentence, then use quotations again to cite the SAME page of that book, do i need to use the parenthetical citation both times?

    ex: “Blah blah blah” (Blahmer 3). Blah blah blah blah la de dah, blah blah. “Blah de blah blah” (Blahmer 3).

    vs. “Blah blah blah”. Blah blah blah blah la de dah, blah blah. “Blah de blah blah” (Blahmer 3).

    which one is right?

    • You need to specify the translation you are using, after which cite the book, chapter and verse. Page numbers are unimportant because the text is already divided up into convenient sections.

      (Revised Standard Version, Jn 3.16)

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    • Here is where I sigh and look at the camera, while the “sad trombone” sound effect plays.

      Seriously, though… I have created a page that lets you fill in the blanks, but you still have to look up the information.

      MLA style is designed to work with hundreds of different kinds of sources, and there is no one-citation-fits-all method. For instance, there’s no one way to cite a movie, because you may want to cite a movie in oder to talk about a particular actor’s performance, or the use of a particular special effect, or to compare the dialogue in the film to the same passage from the movie version. The same goes for hundreds of other sources. There isn’t just one way to cite a source. However, this page can help you make those decisions one at a time, lightening the load just a little.

      http://jerz.setonhill.edu/writing/academic1/bibbuilder/

    • If you put the information (like authors name, ect.) into citationmachine.net, it will give you what you need on the works cited page and in text citation.

  20. Thank You :) This is a big help! If your research paper is on how a theme runs through a novel, does the title and author of the novel have to be in the title of your paper?

    • MLA style doesn’t dictate the contents of a title; you should check with your instructor, who will be doing the grading. I tell my students to mention the titles and authors of the works most central to the claim, to identify the topic, and to identify the opinion you have on the topic.

      As a college freshman, I once wrote a good paper with the terrible title “Hamlet and Macbeth: Similarities and Differences.”

  21. I’m sorry if I missed this in the comments or elsewhere on the page, but I am writing a paper that is a group project using MLA. Is there a particular order in which all our names should be written at the top of the paper? As for the header, would I just use the page # or would I put everyone or just one person’s last name and then the page #? Thanks! This page is great!

    • What did your instructor suggest? In the professional world, you would start with the author who contributed the most; if you’re the one actually drafting the paper, I’d say go ahead and order the names according to how you think they deserve credit, and put “Brown, Smith and Jones 1” in the header.

  22. The work cited format confuses me. Are you supposed to double-space throughout..or just double space each entry? I have had professors require it conform to MLA 7th edition but in reference i see it done both ways. Otherwise, this site is amazing!

  23. Thank you for the clarification. It helps a lot.
    I also want to give a shout-out to Chad(?) I too am a non-traditional student and i commend you on going back to school after so long of an abscence. I hope you enjoy your college experience.

  24. how can i begin my first paragraph of my research after finish my thesis statement …….please help me

  25. My teacher in my Computer Repair and Networking class wants each student to write a 15 page research paper on a computer-related topic. We each submitted a list of possible topics and he chose from them what we would be doing. His only real guidelines are that it has to follow the MLA guidelines and that we cannot use Wikipedia for our research because he says it isn’t reliable. I think he’s wrong about that since Wikipedia has been scientifically proven to be more accurate than any print encyclopedia, but he won’t change his mind. Thanks for this site. Now half of my worries are gone. Now to figure out how to do research without Wikipedia. -_-

    • The question does not simply involve counting the number of errors. Wikipedia is supposed to be written from a neutral point of view, and Wikipedia policies also exclude original research. That goes for any encyclopedia, print or online. If you think of getting an education as finding the right factual answers to spit back for points on a quiz, Wikipedia may seem to be an attractive time-saver. If you want to learn how to think for yourself, then instead of ending your intellectual inquiry once you have found the right Wikipedia page, at least click on the links listed as sources at the bottom of the article, and read those articles for yourself. You may disagree with the way the Wikipedia article was phrased.

        • Dana, MLA Style does not officially include a cover page, so this page does not cover that subject.

          Your instructor may very well ask for something that differs from MLA Style, in which case you should follow whatever instructions or models your instructor provides, and ask him or her for clarification when necessary.

  26. I am so glad I found your site. I’m having to do a research paper in MLA form. I’m really stressed over it b/c I’ve been out of school for over 20 yrs. You really explain things well. Thanks so much for taking time to post this for others.

    Blessing!

  27. Man this website rocks! I am in my first year of college and my teacher just gave us an essay to do in MLA format. I was clueless untill I came to this page. Keep up the good work and thanks for taking the time to put up this information.

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  29. Thanks for this site, Dennis.

    How do you indent every other line in Work Cited List from MS Word 2007?

    Thanks!

  30. this website is extremely helpful, thank you. just one question, is there a way to do parenthetical citation for 1 page articles?

  31. I am a student here in texas at a college called temple college I am taking an english class we are doing essays I have never taken english not even in highshcool I was in special ed classes so I am not doing good in my english class we were to do two essays two hundered words for both of them and do it in mla format so if you can help me with showing me how to do that that would be awsome thanks so much.

    • Good luck with your assignments. This page features instructions on formatting a paper in MLA style, but elsewhere on my site I have pages on writing personal essays and research papers; there are many different kinds of MLA essays, so your instructor is really the best source you can consult.

  32. When writing a paper in MLA format in Word 2010, although the formatting in both Word and printer properties is for a one-inch margin, when the paper prints it has more than one inch, so it’s not actually in MLA format. It’s as if it’s trying to end the page at the end of a paragraph. Do you know why this is happening and what to do about it? I can’t find an answer on Microsoft. Word never used to do this.

    Thanks for your help.

  33. I just wanted to say THANK YOU! for this–I’m a college-level writing instructor, and these are just the kinds of things that my students need to know, but that I haven’t had the time to write up and screenshot for them (I teach online, so I can’t just show them). Bless you for your patience and thorough work on this!

  34. I NEED HELP ON WHAT A TITLE PARAGRAPH AND AND THEISIS PARAGRAPH IS FOR A RESEARCH PAPER. MY WHOLE REPORT IS DONE BUT THE FIRST AND LAST PARAGRAPH.. UGHH

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