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MLA Style Made Easy

When your teacher assigns a paper topic, you not only have to worry about what you're going to write about, where you're going to find your sources, but you also have to look up how the paper should be formatted and what your citations should look like both in the text and in your works cited.

As a student of writing it's highly likely that you will be assigned to research and write a paper in MLA style. MLA style, or Modern Language Association style, is commonly used for English literature, foreign language, literary criticism, comparative literature, and cultural studies papers. Luckily, many find this paper style to be one of the simplest to learn and write in (especially when compared to footnote-heavy Chicago Manual of Style or rule-heavy American Psychological Association Style).

Let's take a deeper dive into what MLA style is, why it's used, specific formatting advice, and examples you can use to guide you when writing your MLA formatted research paper.

What is MLA Style?

MLA style, as we mentioned earlier, is most commonly used for research papers in the humanities and liberal arts. The MLA style guide dictates how research papers should be formatted and how sources should be cited. The MLA Handbook contains information on everything you need to know about writing a research paper in this style and will be available to you in a library for your reference.

Though the MLA Handbook has very thorough guidelines on how to write an MLA research paper, it's still important to read the directions from your teacher or professor carefully on your specific assignment. The handbook may not necessarily have all of the exact answers you may need, so if you need help it's best to ask for the assistance of a teacher or a librarian to cover all your bases.

Why do we use it?

Right now you may be thinking to yourself, "Why do these papers need to be in such specific formats?" The answer is simple: to provide uniformity to papers so that they are readable. If research papers are written in a uniform way with citations to match then the reader can focus less on what the paper structure looks like and then the ideas from the paper can get more easily translated. Style guides also provide such specific formatting for citations because it's important that when a writer has a claim to make that she can back it up with evidence to prove it, and also to make sure that she isn't plagiarizing.

Though it may be difficult to see the reasoning while you're carefully making sure that each citation has a period at the end of the title and that the name of the journal is italicized, conforming to the style is crucial so that you gain credibility with your reader.

How should my paper look when I write according to MLA style guidelines?

Unless your professor or teacher has specific guidelines otherwise, your MLA style paper should be double spaced with 12-point font. Most papers use a standard font, such as Times New Roman, but you can use any easily readable font as long as the italicized characters are distinguishable from its regular characters. MLA also requires that you use only one space after the end of a sentence.

In addition to double spaces and fonts, MLA has outlined that your paper should be set up to have 1-inch margins on all sides (top, bottom, left, and right) so that your words aren't running off the page. These settings can all be adjusted in your Microsoft Word® tools at any time during the writing process. You should also have a header with your last name and a running page number in the upper right hand corner of the page. Some teachers may not want you to put a page number on the first page, so be sure to ask if there aren't specific instructions on this matter.

On the left hand side of the paper, you should have your name, instructor's name, course, and date above your centered title (see image below for example). Every word in your paper title should be capitalized except for articles that aren't at the beginning of the title (such as "a," "an," and "the"), coordinating conjunctions (such as "and," "but," and "or") and infinitives (for example: "How to Write"). If you ever have a question on which words shouldn't be capitalized in your title there are tools to help you make any adjustments, such as Though this tool is handy and quick, be sure to know the rules enough to spot any errors that the tool may give out.

MLA heading
Here is an example of a MLA heading.

Once you have your paper's margins and headers sorted out, there are a few things to remember when you begin writing the body of the text. First, to continue the readability throughout the paper, MLA dictates that the first line of each paragraph is indented a 1/2 inch from the left margin. All you need to do to accomplish this is just to press the tab button, which gives you a cleaner and more exact result than pressing the space bar several times. Another thing to remember when writing in MLA style is to italicize titles of works, which is why it's important to pick a font that distinguishes italics from regular text.

Quotations and paraphrases should be attributed to the author by last name within the text with a page number (or line number if you're dealing with poetry) at the end in parentheses. Direct quotations that are longer than four lines should be set off in a block quotation that is 1/2 inch from the left margin. Note that block quotations do not need quotation marks to distinguish them. If the block quote spans several paragraphs in your source document, then indent the first line an additional 1/4 inch.

Direct quotes from the author that are shorter than four lines can simply be written in the paragraph and can be set off by quotation marks. If you are adding any words to the quotation for explanatory reasons, use brackets ("[]") to offset your words from the source's. If you are eliminating extraneous words from the direct quotation, use ellipses to indicate that the words are missing. To do this, simply type three periods in a row ("…") and the word program will automatically put in the correct amount of space needed. See the images below for more information on how to handle quotations.

In-text direct quote
This is a sample MLA in-text direct quote.
Block quote
This is a sample MLA block quote.

Does MLA use endnotes or footnotes?

Endnotes or footnotes are very common in other styles, such as Chicago, but are not typically seen in MLA because it is thought that they can clutter up a page or distract the reader. The MLA guidelines restrict the usage of footnotes when they are referring to other works that may be useful for the reader to learn more on the subject. Occasionally you will also see explanatory notes, which give more details about a subject that don't necessarily fit with the theme of the paper.

Though these are allowed, MLA format discourages their overuse, so use sparingly if you must. If you decide to put in these endnotes or footnotes, indicate them with a superscript number that goes after the period.

How should my works cited look according to MLA style guidelines?

The works cited page is one of the most important pieces of your research paper, as it lists all of the research you have cited throughout the paragraphs and lays them out for the reader to verify your facts. The works cited page is also one of the most labor-intensive parts of a research paper, and it's crucial to know what goes into it while you're researching so you don't have to retrace your steps later on.

There have been some updates with the newest edition of the MLA Handbook to keep up with the modern era of research. Before the eighth edition, each kind of citation had a particular way of being written up, but now that has all changed. According to the MLA website: Previous editions of the MLA Handbook provided separate instructions for each format, and new formats required additional instructions. In this groundbreaking new edition of its best-selling handbook, the MLA recommends instead one universal set of guidelines, which writers can apply to any type of source.

Luckily for us, this new edition means that there's been a lot of simplification in the citation process. Still, you need to ensure that you are gathering all of the right ingredients for your citation.

To begin putting together your works cited, you will need to start with a separate page in your document. The page should have a centered title that says, "Works Cited," with no underlining, italics, or bold applied. Like the other pages in the paper, be sure to double space your works cited page.

The individual citations should have a hanging indent, which means that the first line of the citation is flush with the margin and the subsequent lines are indented 1/2 inch. This makes the citation easier for the reader to comb through. When it comes to capitalization of titles within a citation, use title caps for every word in a title except for articles, prepositions, or conjunctions (unless of course it's the first word of a title). If the title is for a short work, such as a newspaper article or a poem then use quotation marks. If the title is for a longer work, such as a book, use italics.

Here is an example:

MLA citation
An MLA citation should be as follows: Author. Title. Title of container (this could be an anthology, book, magazine, journal, newspaper), Other contributors to the work, Version, Number, Publisher, Publication Date, Location (this doesn't mean a literal location, but instead page numbers, URL, or DOI).

Be sure that you are consulting your MLA Handbook for more specific instructions on citation guidelines, as this is just a loose example of what to expect.

In previous versions of the MLA Handbook, the location was literally naming the city in which the book was published. Because many things are now published electronically, MLA has decided to drop that requirement in its eighth edition.

When you are organizing your citations, they are to go in alphabetical order by author's last name. If your source has an unknown author, then the title comes first in the citation. Lastly, when citing an online source, a DOI (or a digital object identifier) is always preferred over a URL, if available.

What else do I need to know about writing an MLA research paper?

In addition to specific formatting issues, the MLA Handbook gives great advice on writing and grammar that are important for students to learn. Like any other kind of research paper, it's crucial to check your spelling and to make sure that your facts are correct. Ensuring that your paper is adhering to MLA standards will give you credibility, and help you organize your research in a more efficient way.

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