The following checklist addresses all of the important aspects of formatting that you should consider before submitting your essay. While the recommendations here reflect the expectations of most professors, some may prefer that you follow their own essay guidelines. Consult with your professor if you have any questions about the formatting of your paper.
Your essays should always be neat and easy to read. When you use a word processor, use left justification and choose a standard font (e.g., Times New Roman 12 pt.). If you use a typewriter, make sure that it produces dark, clear letters. Print or type on plain white 8 1/2" X 11" paper.
While professors have the authority to require that you submit a printed copy of your essays, some professors will accept handwritten work. Consult your professor if you have questions about what is acceptable in his/her course. If you handwrite your essay, write neatly (in blue or black ink) on lined paper, and space, number, and format your pages according to the following guidelines.
Whether you word process, type, or handwrite your paper, you should always double-space the text of your essay, including indented quotations, the works cited list, and any endnotes or footnotes.
Number your pages in the upper right-hand corner, starting with the first page of your text. (Do not include title pages or outlines in the numbering). The page number is usually 1/2" from the top of the page or two lines above the top line of your text. Most word processing programs have a tool which inserts page numbers for you.
Do not put an abbreviation (e.g., p.14) before your page numbers. You may, however, type your last name before the page number to prevent confusion or loss (e.g., Johnson 14).
Underlining or Italics
Underline or italicize titles of books, plays, films, long poems, magazines, CD-ROMs and any work usually published by itself. The main exceptions are the titles of sacred books (e.g., the books of the Bible, the Koran), titles of series (e.g., the Loeb Classical Library), and political documents (e.g., The Treaty of Versailles).
Do not underline or italicize the title of a work if it occurs within an underlined title (e.g., the title of a book about another book). For example, Maxine Hong Kingston's The Woman Warrior is not underlined or italicized in the title of Shirley Geok-lin Lim's Approaches to teaching Kingston's The Woman Warrior.
While underlining and italics represent the same thing, the MLA Handbook recommends that students underline in their papers because italic type is less distinctive (Gibaldi 75). Some professors, however, accept (or prefer) italics. Whether you choose to underline or italicize, you should always be consistent throughout your paper. In this guide, we use italics.
Put quotation marks around titles of short works--such as poems, short stories, and essays--which are normally published only as part of a collection with a separate title. Note that when an anthology includes large works (e.g., novels, plays), you should still underline or italicize their titles. Hamlet does not become "Hamlet" in even the biggest anthology.
You should underline or italicize foreign words and phrases or words and phrases that need emphasis.
In contrast, use quotation marks around words deliberately misused or used in a special sense, words referred to as words, or parenthetical translations or definitions. Do not use quotation marks or bolding for emphasis.
Unless your instructor requires a separate title page, put the following on your first page, double-spaced, starting at the top left corner:
Start the text of your essay four spaces under the last line of your title. Indent each paragraph a single tab (equivalent to five spaces), but do not put extra space between paragraphs.
Sequence of Parts
- title page (only if your instructor requires it)
- an outline (only if your instructor requires it)
- the text of your essay
- notes (if any)
- a list of works cited or a list of works you consulted while preparing your essay
Fasten the pages of your paper with a paper clip. Do not staple them or fasten them in a folder of any kind.
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It can be confusing to know which titles get italicized and which get quotation marks when citing them in your writing. An easy rule to remember is that short titles and sections of work, such as a chapter title in a book or an episode in a TV show, get quotation marks while larger titles or works, such as a book title or an album, are italicized. However, which one you use may depend on the style and format of writing you are following.
Why Use Italics and Quotation Marks in Titles?
Italics and quotation marks are generally used to set a composition title apart from the text surrounding it. For example, if you were writing the sentence "I read The Cat in the Hat," it wouldn't necessarily be clear what the title was, or even that there was a title at all.
So, italics and quotation marks make the title stand out. A sentence such as "I read The Cat in the Hat" or "I read "The Cat in the Hat" today" is a lot clearer.
Should you set off a title with italics or should you set it off with quotation marks? Well, there are rules for that.
Rules for Using Italics and Quotation Marks in Titles
There are several different writing style guides: The Modern Language Association (MLA) is the style generally used in arts and humanities papers; the American Psychological Association (APA) is used for social sciences; the Associated Press Stylebook (AP) is commonly used in magazines, newspapers and the internet; and the Chicago Manual of Style (Chicago), one of the most well-known formats, is followed in a wide variety of disciplines from publishing to science.
Each of the style guides have their own rules when it comes to formatting titles. AP style is one of the simpler styles to remember, as it does not use italics in composition titles at all.
All formats except AP recommend the following titles should be in italics:
- Ballets, Operas, Symphonies
- Comic strips
- Exhibitions at a museum
- Aircraft and spacecraft
All formats except APA recommend that the following titles should be in quotation marks:
- Book chapters
- Names of video games
- Single episodes of TV and radio shows
- Unpublished writing such as manuscripts or lectures
- Album tracks or singles
- Podcast episodes
- Short stories and poems
APA differs from other formats in that it does not use either quotation marks or italics for titles of shorter works, such as essays that are in collections, lectures or journal articles. These shorter works are formatted in regular type.
MLA and Chicago, while agreeing on most citation styles, diverge on some points. In MLA the titles of online databases should be italicized; Chicago style says to set those in regular type. MLA says that all websites should be italicized while Chicago style says they should be in regular type.
When Not to Use Italics or Quotation Marks
There are certain titles of things that should not be in italics or quotation marks. The following titles should always be set in regular type:
- Scriptures of major religions
- Constitutional documents
- Legal documents
- Traditional games (such as football, hopscotch or blackjack)
- Commercial products (such as Cocoa Puffs)
- Political documents
- Names of artifacts
- Names of buildings
Print and Online Style Differences
Italicizing is easy to do on the computer, but not practical when you are hand writing something. In such cases, underlining is still used and is the same as writing a title in italics.
When formatting titles for the web, be aware that you should go with whatever style is most visually appealing. Online formats tend to be less formal in style compared to print materials. Styling for the web is about attracting visitors to the site so make the title stand out without looking clunky in order to get more attention.
Determine What to Use
By practicing the above rules for using italics and quotation marks you will find that it will become easier to determine what you should use. If you are uncertain about what to use, ask yourself if the title of a work appears inside a larger body of work or if it can stand alone. If the title belongs inside a larger body of work, use quotation marks. If the title is for a body of work that stands alone, it should be in italics. And remember that consistency is key, whichever style you choose.
To learn about which words should be capitalized in a title read YourDictionary's article on Rules for Capitalization in Titles.