Each academic discipline has its own conventions for documenting research and formatting manuscripts. These conventions are usually agreed upon and published by a professional organization such as the Modern Language Association (MLA). The MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers, now in its 8th edition, establishes guidelines for research writing in the fields of English language and literature, composition, rhetoric, and the study of modern languages. The basics of MLA style are included in the St. Martin’s Handbook.
In addition to firm guidelines for citing research in student writing, MLA Style dictates certain manuscript conventions, which are illustrated in this handout. I’ll highlight a few things here:
- The entire manuscript should be double-spaced, but do not skip extra spaces between paragraphs, or leave extra space before or after the title.
- Some versions of Microsoft Word (inc. Office 2013) have default margins of 1.25” for the left and right margins. Go to the “Page Layout” menu and look for margins in the Page Setup section of the toolbar, and if necessary, change the settings to one-inch margins top, bottom, left, and right.
- All your text should be aligned left. Do not “justify” the text.
- Check the Paragraph settings and make sure there’s a check mark in the box labeled “Don’t add space between paragraphs of the same style.”
- Block quotations are indented one full inch from the margin and double-spaced, just like the rest of the paper. Indent them: don’t type extra spaces!
- Your last name and the page number should be included as a header, 1/2″ below the top of the paper and flush with the right margin (have your word processor insert the page number automatically instead of typing the number in manually,or that same number will appear at the top of every page)..
A few notes about typography, which come from Professor Tatu rather than the MLA. The practice of underlining titles of longer works (e.g., books, magazine titles, movies, etc.) comes from the days of typewriters, on which italics were not really an option. On a PC or Mac, italics are every bit as easy to use as underlining. While a few professors still prefer that you underline titles, the MLA now makes clear that italics are preferred.
Always give your writing a title, but don’t give it any special formatting (bold, italics, underlining, etc.) and should be in the same size font as the rest of the paper.
Another holdout from the days of typewriters is the practice of typing two spaces after a period. Typists did that because all the keys on a typewriter produced the same sized characters. An extra space after a period was necessary so the reader could tell visually where a sentence ended, and to help distinguish a period from a comma. This practice is not necessary on a PC or a Mac because computers and printers use proportional type face. In other words, the computer automatically inserts a little extra space after a period; a gap of two spaces is overkill and really doesn’t look right. The same goes for extra spaces after a paragraph. They are not necessary, and they may even make it look like you’re trying to “pad” the essay by inserting extra white space.
Finally, use only a 12-point font in your papers. Smaller fonts are hard to read (especially for your poor professor, who may have thirty five or forty papers to grade at any given time), and larger fonts can cause your readers to suspect you’re trying to stretch out your page count and make the paper look longer than it really is.
If you have questions about any of these manuscript conventions, please feel free to ask. I’ll even be happy to sit down at a computer with you and show you how to do the formatting in Microsoft Word. Alternatively, you can download a copy of this this file and use it as a template for your own papers. Simply save the file under a different name and replace my text with your own.