MLA Essay Format Guide

The MLA style is one of the most widespread citation formats used in both academic and professional settings. The abbreviation stands for Modern Language Association. As the name of the organization suggests, the format is meant mostly for writing papers in literature and linguistics. However, it is also common for professors in history, philosophy, and humanities in general to expect their students to write MLA papers. That is why, it is virtually impossible for a modern student to avoid learning how to format a paper according to MLA guidelines.

Throughout the years, Modern Language Association has issued several formatting handbooks. The most recent one is the 8th edition released in April 2016. This version of the format is considered to be the standard in most instances, yet, you may encounter the requirement to format your paper according to earlier editions on the handbook (the 7th one in most cases). It is not a big deal, however, since the basic principles of writing remain the same, and the Association makes small adjustments on technicalities to make the requirements clear and easy to follow.

This guide is meant to help you navigate through the basic principles and requirements of MLA format. Therefore, we will briefly touch upon the following topics:

  • MLA heading and title page
  • General layout
  • Paper structure
  • Use of italics and quotation marks
  • Paraphrasing and in-text citations
  • Integrating direct quotes in your paper
  • Works Cited page

MLA Heading and Title Page

As follows from the title of this section, you may opt for either a heading containing all the necessary information about your paper, or a separate title page. There are no set instructions about what a title page in an MLA paper should look like. Therefore, you need to use your own judgment on this matter. It is also a good idea to consult your instructors on how they would prefer it to be organized. In fact, the reason why MLA guidelines do not focus on title pages is that the style has clear and strict instructions on the heading which is preferable to a separate page. The heading must contain the following elements:

  • Your full name
  • Name of the instructor
  • The name of the course/class for which the paper has been written
  • The due date of the assignment

These fields should be placed in the left corner of the first page of your paper as shown in the example below.

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The most important thing to note about the layout is that the sections of the header are flush left with one inch margin. The order of the sections must be exactly as shown above. The title of the paper is placed one double space below the header. It has to be centered and written in the title case which means that the first letters of all nouns, adjectives, verbs, adverbs, and pronouns in the title should be capitalized. The first word of the title should start with the capital letter as well, obviously, regardless of which part of speech it is.

General Layout

To start with, MLA papers should contain a running head on each page. The running head consists of the student’s last name followed by one space and the page number. The section must be flush right and placed on the top of the page.

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The margins shown on the illustration above are the standard ones applied throughout the paper. It means that there is no special formatting for creating the running head.

The next section is the header written and formatted as outlined in the previous section of this guide.

In most cases, MLA papers are double spaced. However, it is possible that your instructor may request you to write a single spaced MLA document. Regardless of the spacing, the tet is always flush left, and the first line of each paragraph has to be indented.

Paper Structure

When writing a paper in MLA, you should keep in mind the common essay structure which means that you need to create an introduction with the thesis statement at the end of it, body paragraphs (at least three, usually), and conclusion which recapitulates the thesis and the key points used to support the thesis. To ensure the cohesion of body paragraphs, each one of them must start with the topic sentence that clarifies the paragraph’s relation to the thesis statement and end with the closing sentence that wraps up the subtopic and prepares the reader to move forward with the discussion. 

It is often reasonable to include headings into comparatively long essays to structure the narrative and make it easier for the readers to orient in the sections of your paper. There are two options available to students when it comes to formatting headings:

  • Numbered sections which means an Arabic number followed by the full stop and the section heading written in the title case. This formatting method allows dividing the text into the subsections by creating layered numbered lists (1. … 1.1 … etc.).
  • You can create not numbered headings and subsections to them by applying differential formatting.

If you opt for not numbering the sections of your paper, you can apply five levels of headings to structure your writing. They are formatted as follows:

  1. Level one headings are to be written in bold and left justified. Apply title case to them.
  2. Level two headings are also flush left and written in the title case. However, unlike the previous level, these headings are to be written in italics.
  3. Level three headings are to be centered and written in bold.
  4. Level four headings are centered and italicized.
  5. Level five headings are to be flush left and underlined.

The list presented above may appear confusing and even a bit scary. The good news, however, is that there is rarely a paper in which you will need to go beyond level three headings. While dividing your writing into sections and subsections is a reasonable idea, there are several rules you need to follow not to abuse this opportunity.

  • It is usually unnecessary to divide short (1-2 pages) papers into sections since it is clear that the first and the last paragraphs are the introduction and conclusions respectively, and you are not likely to have enough space in the body of the paper to cover several subtopics in significant depth.
  • It is also unadvisable to use a single level one heading for the whole paper. Again, it is clear without saying that introduction and conclusion are always present in a proper academic paper, and the topic of the body is already covered in its title.
  • Also, when you have several level one sections, do not try and divide them into smaller subsections at all costs. Remember that a paragraph is a subsection in and of its own, and there is no need to give a subtitle for each paragraph.

As you see, using headings is a tricky business as you must have a clear picture of whether you need to apply them in the first place. If you decide for them, you still need that their quantity and quality is appropriate for the needs of your project.

Use of Italics and Quotation Marks

Academic writing presupposes referring to the works of others in your papers. It is especially true bearing in mind that MLA format is associated with writing in humanities which means that you are likely to refer to books, other writings, or works of art in your papers. Therefore, it is important to format the names of those artifacts properly. The two options available for this purpose are to use either italicized text or quotation marks for the respective titles. The decision which method to apply in each particular case is to be based on a simple rule of thumb which goes as follows:

  • Put the titles of shorter works (a short story from an anthology or a chapter from a book, a song from an album, an episode from a TV show and so on) in quotation marks.
  • Write the titles of large works (the book or anthology, the musical album, the whole TV show etc.) in italics.

As you can see, the principle is not difficult to follow. All you need is a bit of attention towards the content of your paper not to confuse which formatting approach to take.

Paraphrasing and In-Text Citations

Plagiarism is taboo for any academic endeavor and writing an MLA paper is not an exception from this rule. The most common way to avoid plagiarism is to paraphrase the information you borrow from your sources. However, to make this trick work, you must cite those sources properly. MLA format follows author-page style of citation which means that you should mention the last name of the author(s) and the page on which you have discovered the information you have paraphrased. There are two ways in which you can cite a source in the text:

  • Introduce the author of the paraphrased idea within the sentence. For example, “According to Jones, … (25).” Note that the page number in parentheses must be placed in the end of the whole sentence rather than immediately after the author’s name.
  • You may mention both the author and the page number in parentheses at the end of the paraphrased sentence (“… (Jones 25)”).

MLA style also allows using footnotes and endnotes, but in-text citations are much more common. Therefore, we find it necessary to draw your attention to several important details about parenthetical citations in MLA:

  • No comma is required between the name(s) of the author(s) and the page number.
  • The number in the parentheses is the page number. You do not need to use “p.” or any other shortening of the word “page.”
  • The full stop signifying the end of the sentence must be placed after the citation.
  • If a source has two authors, mention both their last names in parentheses.
  • If a source has more than two authors, mention the last name of the first one and continue with et al. (pay attention to the full stop after “al” but not after “et”).
  • For online sources without any pagination, mention only the author(s) using the principles outlined above.
  • WHen citing a video clip or a film, mention the timestamp instead of the page.

Direct Quotes

First and foremost, MLA guidelines discourage you from relying on direct quotes fro your sources too heavily. However, there are instances in which quoting the source material directly is necessary for giving the reader clear context of the discussion. The most clear example of such a situation is writing a literary analysis paper. The formatting rules depend on the length of your quotes. The ones shorter than four lines of prose and three lines of verse should be formatted in the same manner as paraphrased passages and supported with in-text citation as discussed in the section above.

Things are different when it comes to longer quotes. They must be written in a separate block without quotation mark\ks and followed by a parenthetical citation of the source. Every line of the block must be half an inch indented. It will look as on the following picture:

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Again, you should bear in mind that direct quotations must not comprise no more than 10% of your paper which means that block quotes are appropriate only for large research projects.

Works Cited Page

Your paper must end with the Works Cited page on which all the sources used are referenced properly. The first line of each entry must be flush left while the consequent lines are to have ½ inch indentation. Apply double spacing consequently. The sources should be mentioned in alphabetical order. While the details for citing different types of sources differ slightly, the information must be presented in the following order:

  1. The author or author (Last Name, First Name for a single author; Last Name, First Name and First Name Last Name for two authors; Last Name, First Name et al. for more than two authors).
  2. Title of the source in quotation marks.
  3. Title of the container (the thing that holds the source; for example, if you are citing a journal article, the journal is the container, and a website is the container for an online article) in italics.
  4. Any other contributors (editors or translators of a book etc.).
  5. Source version (edition of the book, volume and issue of the journal etc.).
  6. Date of the publication. 
  7. Page numbers if any.
  8. URL or doi for journal articles accessed online.

Following this simple scheme will help you format your Works Cited list properly as show in the example below

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