What You Need to Know When Using the MLA Format in a Paper

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Originally published Feb 12, 2021, updated May 19, 2021
What You Need to Know When Using the MLA Format in a Paper

Imagine this: you are tasked with a college essay for the first time. As excited as you are about the topic, you come across the paper's guidelines which require you use the MLA format. What's the MLA format? Our guide is here to answer that question and anything else you need to know to produce an outstanding MLA-style essay.

The Basics

MLA style or format sets a standard method of written communication. These guidelines make it easy for readers to orient themselves when going through your paper and understand a text through familiar patterns and structure. The writing style also provides you with a certain level of credibility, demonstrating that you have a wealth of knowledge on the topic through the various references you insert throughout the text.

The MLA format was created by the Modern Language Association for liberal arts students to cite their sources and style their articles. Students of various humanities disciplines like English and Foreign Language Studies, Comparative Literature and Criticism, and multiple fields that dive into Cultural Studies use this format.

 MLA is one of the commonly used writing styles and has unique rules. Here are some basic requirements to keep in mind through your writing process.

General Guidelines

Note: This guide goes through rules that are covered in the most recent handbook (9th edition). Guides to the 8th edition and earlier versions can also be found on their site, along with an interactive practice template in the MLA Style Center. In addition to style guides, you can also view sample papers. 

Layout

Your essay needs to be typed and double-spaced on standard paper (8.5" x 11") with 1-inch margins on all four sides. Your line spacing remains the same throughout the document. You can choose any font you like provided it's legible (e.g., Calibri, Times New Roman), and the font size is 12pt. Your font of choice will also need to differentiate between regular and italicize styles clearly.

When beginning a new paragraph, indent the first line 0.5" from the left. You can use the "Tab" key to create this instead of pressing the space bar many times to ensure you keep the same distance each time.

Each page will also require a running head that numbers all your pages in consecutive order. You can note the page number in the upper right-hand corner of the document, 0.5" from the top of the page and flush to the right margin. If you use Microsoft Word to type out your essay, you can use the in-built guide to format your pages. 

The running head may also have other information about the essay. Your instructor may request a shortened version of the paper's title in the running head, only your last name, or omit this section altogether – be sure to ask them if it's not in their guidelines.

Title Page

Unlike other writing styles that require you to create a title page, you do not need to make one when following the MLA formatting unless you are specifically instructed to do so. Instead, you will have a title block.

The title block is all the information the reader needs to know about you and the course this essay is for. This section should include:

  • Your full name
  • Your instructor's name
  • The course number
  • Essay due date

The title block will be in the upper left-hand corner of the first page, with each piece of information on its own line.

In the following line, type out your title in Title Case (or standard capitalization) and center it. You do not need to bolden, italicize, underline, or place your title within quotation marks. However, you can place titles you cite within your text in quotes or italicized, but more on that later.

One the following line, you can begin noting down your thoughts on the main topic.

Headings

MLA 9th edition recommends that if you divide your essay into various sections, you number the sections, follow it with a period, and then the section title. For example:

1.     Early Writings

1.1  Traveling the Continent

2.     The London Years

As this is a recommendation, you are free to leave the sections unnumbered, though MLA recommends the following to distinguish each header:

  • Level 1 Heading: bold, flush left
  • Level 2 Heading: italics, flush left
  • Level 3 Heading: centered, bold
  • Level 4 Heading: centered, italics
  • Level 5 Heading: underlined, flush left

Level 1 is the highest or main header level, with Level 2 as a subheading of Level 1, Level 3 as a subheading of Level 2, and so on.

Main Body

Citations

While writing your essay, you will come across several ideas that you have read about before but will need to provide a reference to back up your statement.

The simplest way to include a reference within your text is in parenthesis at the end of the sentence but just before the period. The MLA style follows the author-page method for more in-text citations, so all you need is the author's last name and the page number that your MLA citation refers to. Depending on whether you directly quote the author's work or paraphrase it, you can break up the source into whatever makes sense for your sentence. 

For example:

  • Wordsworth stated that Romantic poems are marked by a "spontaneous overflow of deep feelings" (263).
  • Romantic poems are characterized by the "spontaneous overflow of deep feelings" (Wordsworth 263).
  • Wordsworth extensively explored the role of emotion in the creative process (263).

All of the examples above tell the reader the information they need can be found on page 263 of a work by an author named Wordsworth. The complete form of this citation will be listed on the MLA Works Cited page, which we cover below.

Quotations

The above rules play nicely with short quotes where you refer to a few words that the author stated. If you would like to quote a larger chunk of prose, you can indent the entire quote 1” from the left margin. The parenthetical citation will come at the end of the quote. For example:

Nelly Dean dehumanizes Heathcliff throughout her narration:

They entirely refused to have it in bed with them, or even in their room, and I had no more sense, so, I put it on the landing of the stairs, hoping it would be gone on the morrow. (Bronte 78)

Perhaps the quote you want to use needs a little update. As long as you cite the original text, it’s alright to paraphrase a quote. If you want to update the text, place brackets around the new words. For example:

  • Jan Harold Brunvand, in an article on mythical legends, states, "some individuals [who retell mythical legends] make a point of thoroughly learning every rumor or tale" (78).

If you want to omit parts of the quotation, you can indicate the deleted phrases by using ellipses “…”. For example:

  • In an essay on mythical legends, Jan Harold Brunvand notes that "some individuals make a point of thoroughly learning every rumor or tale . . . and in due time, a lively exchange of details occurs" (78).

Paraphrasing

Speaking of paraphrasing, there are a few rules to perfectly implement it into your text without accidentally committing plagiarism.

Read the text

To accurately capture what the author is trying to say without quoting their words, you will need to understand the entire piece, not only the phrase that you want to cite. Pay attention to the words and the meaning between the lines.

Think about what it means

Set the original text aside and take some time to understand what you just read. How would you explain that sentence or phrase to someone who has not read it before?

Rewrite it

Show off what you understand about that sentence and rewrite it in your own words. Maybe start from scratch instead of substituting with synonyms.

Cite

Be sure to include an in-text reference to the original work.

Abbreviations

The MLA handbook covers many abbreviation styles. They recommend spelling out the entire word or name and avoid abbreviations whenever possible, but there are instances where there is no other alternative. If that's the case, only use the acronym if you know the reader will understand it.

Once you are sure the abbreviation will enrich your text, here are some other rules to keep in mind. You do not need to include periods at the end of capital letters unless you refer to a person's first and middle initials. For example, USA vs MLK vs C. S. Lewis.

It's the lowercase abbreviations that require a period at the end like "e.g." and "a.m." unless you refer to a short mathematical form such as "rpm" and "lb".

You can choose to shorten month names that are longer than four letters; just remember to use that format throughout the rest of the paper.

Numbers

Depending on the field you are in, your essay may be populated with many numbers. Numerical values peppered throughout the text are common when explaining statistical data or quoting a scientific research paper. 

Here are some tips for dealing with numbers:

  • Have the numbers precede the measurements (300 milligrams, 34 miles per second), but after a divider (page 10 of the book, Jan. 4th).
  • Try to spell out the entire number (three out of five apples) unless you are dealing with large numbers or decimals (10,000 or 0.004).

Avoid beginning a sentence with a number. You can rewrite the sentence to place the number elsewhere.

Tables and Lists

One way to organize your findings is in a summary table. The table can contain whatever information you need; it's the table's legend that's important. The legend will include the table's number and title flush left above the table. Underneath the table, you can provide the source or other additional helpful details like how you collected the data in the table.

If you are not too keen on a table, you can choose to explain your data in a list. You can keep all the information within one sentence and a number of unique data points. For example:

Several British actors have played Americans: (1) Hugh Laurie, as Dr. House; (2) Daniel Day-Lewis, as Daniel Plainview; (3) Gary Oldman, as Lee Harvey Oswald.

You may instead list each point under one another in a block format. For example: 

Several British actors have played Americans:

  1. Hugh Laurie, as Dr. House
  2. Daniel Day-Lewis, as Daniel Plainview
  3. Gary Oldman, as Lee Harvey Oswald

Visuals

Adding images to your essay can immediately attract the reader's attention and get your point across without taking up your word count. Your pictures should be striking, easily identifiable, and placed with care throughout your paper to be an appropriate part of the content.

You will need to include a label that explains the image or data. You can write "Fig." (short for figure) and then assign it a numeral depending on where you place the image in the text. You can then provide a caption that briefly explains the picture.

Works Cited

One of the most important pages your essay will have is a Works Cited list on a separate page at the end of the paper. Each source listed on this page must correspond to a citation in your main text.

You need to label the Works Cited page (without underlining, italicizing, or placing the words within quotation marks) and have it centered on its own line. Beneath this line, you can begin listing all the references you used flush left. If your reference does not fit on one line, you can create a hanging indent where the second and subsequent lines are indented a half inch from the left.

The general MLA formatting you use to create citations is by providing information about the author and the content they published (title, published date, publisher details).

Printed Material

When listing the author's name, you will need to spell out their full last name followed by their full first name. You will then list the book's title in italics, the publishing company, and the publication date.

A basic book citation template may look like this:

  • Henley, Patricia. The Hummingbird House. MacMurray, 1999.

If you have two authors, you can list both their full names separated by a comma and an “and” between the names. The second author’s name will also appear in the traditional “first name, last name” format:

  • Henley, Patricia, and Paula Gillespie. The Hummingbird House. MacMurray, 1999.

If you have three or more authors, only list the first author and add the phrase “et al.” which is Latin for “and others”:

  • Henley, Patricia, et al. The Hummingbird House. MacMurray, 1999.

Audiovisual

If you would like to cite an artistic research project or artwork, you can replace the author's details with the artist’s details and where the piece is currently housed. For example:

  • Goya, Francisco. The Family of Charles IV. 1800, Museo del Prado, Madrid.

Perhaps you want to reference a song; what's the best way to do so? There are many ways to cite music, and the best method depends on how you accessed the music. For example, if you are referring to a physical copy:

  • Nirvana. "Smells Like Teen Spirit." Nevermind, Geffen, 1991.

Compared to an online album:

  • Beyoncé. “Pray You Catch Me.” Lemonade, Parkwood Entertainment, 2016, www.beyonce.com/album/lemonade-visual-album/.

Versus a streaming platform like Spotify:

  • Rae Morris. “Skin.” Cold, Atlantic Records, 2014. Spotify, open.spotify.com/track/0OPES3Tw5r86O6fudK8gx.

Citing films have a similar structure, but you will instead reference the director and studio. For example:

  • Lucas, George, director. Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope. Twentieth Century Fox, 1977.

Some of the above examples have a link to the website that the material references. If the link is too long, you can sometimes include a Digital Object Identifier (DOI) code instead.

Final Checklist

Say you wrote down all your ideas, created a Works Cited page, and are excited to submit your essay. Let's go over a few things to look through before sending the paper to your instructor:

Grammar

Whether English is your first or fourth language, your essay could still have a few spelling or grammatical errors. This is also a great time to go through punctuation marks to make sure they are all correct. Addressing them before submitting will ensure your final paper is extra professional.

Format

The MLA guidelines are comprehensive and cover various aspects of a paper. Going through each of them after you finish writing will make sure you do not lose points over something that is easy to fix.

Content

One of the most essential things to proofread is the content of your paper, just to ensure your ideas flow into one another well.

You are now ready to submit an outstanding MLA format essay.

Max Malak
Academic and Business Consultant

You can find me reading Hemingway in the far south of Spain. Fueled by caffeine.