Skip to content

Standard Essay Margins

OVERVIEW

This guide explains how to format your documents in Microsoft Word so that they follow the standard rules for formatting academic papers as described in most MLA and APA style books for undergraduate writing. These rules apply to most of the papers you will submit in your college classes, but in some cases your professors will want you to follow specific guidelines that may differ from those below. Always clarify with your professor which set of guidelines he or she wants you to follow before you submit a paper.

Using standard formatting for academic papers shows that you understand the customs of the university community and therefore helps to boost your own credibility. Using unusual or highly distinctive formatting, on the other hand, suggests that your previous schooling did not adequately prepare you for university work. Consider the impact of unusual formatting: not only does it call attention to your paper in a way that might not be positive, professors might also see it as a sign that you’re trying to artificially inflate page length.

Note: These instructions apply to all versions of Word for Mac and for the 2003 version of Word for Windows. I haven’t yet updated them to include instructions for the 2007 version of Word for Windows, but the tools should nevertheless be easy to find if you look around on the toolbar at the top.

Contents

DOCUMENT MARGINS

Rule: Papers submitted for review or grading should have 1” margins all around. This should be the default for Word, but if your default setting is to have left and right margins of 1.25”, change your default. Page length requirements are based on 1” margins.

Instructions: Go to the Format menu, drag down to Document, change the margins, and the click on the Default button and accept the change to the Normal template. Make sure you leave the gutter set to 0” or you’ll mess up your document formatting.

INDENTATION

Rule: The first line of each paragraph should be automatically indented.

Instructions: This should be the default for Word, but if not, you might want to change your Normal style, as described above. To change the indentation format for a document, choose Select All from the Edit menu. Then go to the Format menu, drag down to Paragraph, look under the “Special” drop-down menu in the Indentation section, and select “First Line.” This setting automatically indents the first line of a new paragraph so that you don’t have to do it manually.

FONT

Rule: College papers should be in a standard academic font: either Times New Roman or Cambria, in 12pt size. (If you submit a paper in another font, I will change it on the file I download.)

Instructions: Times New Roman or Cambria 12pt should be the default for Word, but if yours is different then change your default. Go to the Format menu, drag down to Style, make sure “Normal” is selected from the list of styles, and click “modify.” Choose the correct font and size from the Formatting menu. Click “OK” to make the change to your default settings.

ALIGNMENT

Rule: The text of your paper should be left aligned, NOT justified, as justified text is hard to read if it hasn’t been professionally typeset. The default in Word is left alignment, so don’t change it.

FIRST PAGE FORMAT

Heading

Rule: In the upper left corner of the first page of your document, type your name, the date, the course number and section (or topic), and the version of the paper (such as Paper 1 Second Draft), each on a separate line. Be sure to change the date and paper version when you submit revisions and final versions. See the sample below.

DO NOT use the “headers” feature from the header/footer menu to create this full heading as that will make it appear on every page, which is not customary in academic writing. Also do NOT use a title page unless the assignment specifically asks for one.

Title

Rule: Skip a line after the heading and center an original title that conveys the topic of your paper. Do not use underlining or italics in the heading (unless you’re referring to the title of a book or periodical). Do not use bold text or ALL CAPS.

Sample First Page

PAGE NUMBERS

Rule: All papers should have automatically inserted page numbers that show in the upper right corner on all pages except the first. Do not insert these page numbers by hand. Instead, use Word’s Header/Footer tool.

For documents following MLA format, put your last name and page number in the upper right corner. For documents following APA format, put a short version of your title (instead of your last name) and the page number in the upper right corner.

Instructions: Go to the View menu and choose “Header and Footer.” You’ll see a header box appear at the top and a footer box at the bottom. Click in the header box, type your last name (or title), make it align to the right, and then select Page Numbers from the Insert menu.

When you’re finished, click on the “Close” tab under the Header view. Each page of your document should now display a page number at the upper right that updates automatically when you make changes to the document. It will appear as grayed out text unless you active the Header and Footer tool to make changes.

To change the setting so that page numbers do not display on the first page, go to the Format men, drag down to Document, and click on the Layout button. Then check the box next to “Different First Page.” Click OK. If necessary, remove the header that appears on the first page and insert a header on the second page, which will automatically appear on all subsequent pages as well.

SPACING

Document Spacing

Rule: The entire paper should be double-spaced, including the heading and bibliography.

Instructions: Choose “Select All” from the Edit menu, go to the Format menu and drag down to Paragraph, and choose “double” from the “line spacing” menu in the Spacing section. Or you can use these keyboard shortcuts. On a Mac, use Cmd-A to select all and Cmd-2 to double-space. On a PC, use Ctrl-A to select all and Ctrl-2 to double space.

Paragraph Spacing

Rule: Papers should have no extra spacing after paragraphs. This should be the default for Word, but if your default setting is to have 10pt spacing after paragraphs, change your default.

Instructions: Go to the Format menu, drag down to Style, make sure “Normal” is selected from the list of styles, and click “modify.” In the lower left corner, select the dropdown menu that starts with “Format” and drag down to Paragraph. In the paragraph settings menu that pops up, change the settings for Spacing After to 0pt.

CREATE NEW PAGE

Instead of using a lot of returns before starting your bibliography, create a new page for it following these instructions.

Go to the Insert menu, drag down to Break, and then drag over to Page Break.

BLOCKED QUOTATIONS

Rule: If a quotation will exceed four lines within a paragraph, you should separate it out by blocking and indenting it. As with any quotation, a blocked quotation should be clearly introduced by the sentence that leads up to it and it should also be properly cited, but the rules for blocked quotations are somewhat different. The blocking take the place of quotation marks, and unlike in a regular in-paragraph quotation, the parenthetical citation goes outside of the final period instead of inside of it (given that the blocked quote might contain several sentences.)

Instructions: Type the quotation in its own paragraph, without quotation marks, and remove the indent from the first line. Type the source in parentheses after the last period of the last sentence. With your cursor, select the quotation, from the first word to the end of the parenthetical citation, and click the Increase Indent button from the Paragraph Formatting menu.

RESOURCES

Setting Up the MLA Paper Format

View Worksheet

When writing an assignment in MLA style, you must follow the MLA paper format. This means following guidelines for everything from margins and spacing or font type and size to using a header that shows up on every page. This format also dictates putting endnotes and your Works Cited page in a certain place within your paper and other formatting guidelines.

The goal of these MLA paper format guidelines is to create a consistent page setup and to foster readability within a paper or written text. Unless you are directed by an instructor to break from the formatting guidelines below, use the information to set up your MLA paper format.

Paper size and type

Use standard white computer paper that measure 8.5 x 11 inches. Avoid using thicker, card-stock type paper.

Margins and spacing for MLA paper format

The MLA paper format for margins and spacing is easy to set up in any word processor, so make sure to follow these guidelines when formatting your paper.

  • Use 1-inch margins on the top, bottom and both sides.
  • Indent the first sentence of each paragraph 1 inch from the left margin of your paper. The default setup of the “Tab” key is set to 1 inch, and the MLA paper format suggests using the Tab key instead of entering five spaces using the space bar.
  • Use standard double spacing throughout the entire text of your paper.
  • Avoid entering a double space between paragraphs by hitting the “Enter” key twice. There is already a space, and the 1-inch indentations notes the start of a new paragraph.
  • Use single spaces between sentences after the sentence-ending punctuation. This is the modern convention for spacing, so use single spacing unless assignment instructions specify otherwise.
  • Avoid increasing the margins or spacing to stretch the length of your paper.

Font size and type for MLA paper format

The purpose of using a particular font size and type in your MLA paper format is to make your text easy to read. While some assignment instructions may specify which font type or size to use, not all do. When you are not given specific instructions, use the following guidelines in your MLA paper format:

  • Choose a legible font by selecting one where the regular type and the italic type are different enough to make the use of either clear. “Times Roman Numeral” is always a great choice, but “Arial,” “Lucina,” “Modern,” and “Palermo” are also okay.
  • Avoid scripted fonts. While these fonts might appeal to you, they often make your content harder to read.
  • Use 12-pt. font as recommended by the MLA paper format. Sometimes, it is permitted to use 10- or 11-pt. font, but make sure this is okay under your instructions.
  • Never increase your font size to stretch the length of your paper.

The first page of MLA paper format

The first page of the MLA paper format differs from subsequent pages. It contains more heading information, your paper title and, if it applies, an epigraph. The first page is the only page that includes the whole heading and your paper title.

  • List your full name, your instructor’s full name or preferred title, the name of your course or class and the date you are turning in the paper, each on a separate line. Double space between each line.
  • Make sure to use a double space between the date and your paper title.
  • Center your title, and use title case for capitalization. Do not use underlining or italicizing within your title, and avoid using quotation marks unless the title of something else is within your title. Do not put your title in all capital letters.
  • Double space between the title and the start of the first paragraph.

Epigraph formatting for MLA paper format

Using an epigraph (a quotation that precedes the body of your paper) is common, but there is no official MLA guideline. If you choose to include an epigraph, use the formatting guidelines for a block quote by indenting 1 inch inside your paper margins. If the epigraph consists of multiple lines of short text, center the lines below your title, and follow these MLA paper format guidelines:

  • Use double spacing below and above the epigraph.
  • Use single spacing within an epigraph consisting of multiple lines.
  • Include the author’s name immediately below the epigraph, single-spaced from the previous line. The author’s name should appear on the right side of the text, and a corresponding entry in your Works Cited page is necessary.

Header and page numbers for MLA paper format

In addition to the extended heading information that is included on the first page, a header with page numbers is required on every page of the MLA paper format unless assignment instructions specify it is okay to omit the page number header on page one of your paper. Format your header using the following MLA paper format guidelines:

  • Create a header that uses consecutive page numbers in the right-hand top corner of your paper.
  • Set the header a ½ inch from the top edge of your paper while making sure the text is right aligned.
  • Include your last name three character spaces to the left of the page number.
  • Ensure this header appears on every page, including an endnotes or Works Cited page.

Section headings in MLA paper format

Section headings are not required in MLA paper format. However, you may opt to use them to increase the readability of your paper. You can use one or more levels of section headings and subheadings. If you choose to use section headings, keep the following MLA paper format guidelines in mind:

  • If you divide your essay into sections, number the sections with Arabic numbers and a period. Enter a space, and type the section heading.
  • When you are using only one level of section headings, maintain parallelism by making sure the headings are grammatically similar. If you use full-sentence section headings, make sure every section heading is a full sentence, for example. Likewise, if you use a short noun phrase, make all section headings a short noun phrase.
  • Should you use section headings, there are no set formatting guidelines. You can use bold, italics or underlining within the headings, and you can place the text use left alignment or center positioning. The important thing is to stay consistent throughout all your section headings by using the same formatting.
  • When using multiple levels of subheadings, you should create a key to the formatting for your instructor to avoid problems with grading on format.

Endnotes and Works Cited for MLA paper format

For endnotes and the Works Cited page, MLA paper format dictates that these are both placed on separate pages from one another and from the body of your research paper. The creation and use of endnotes and the Works Cited page are covered in another section of the MLA guide, but remember that both are separate documents that attach to your paper and use consecutive numbering in relation to your paper’s page numbers.

Title page for MLA paper format

A title page is not required under the MLA paper format. However, you might be asked in assignment instructions to provide one. If the format for the title page is identified within those instructions, use the details provided in formatting the title page. If not, follow the below guide for making a title page:

  • Do not put a page number on your title page. The first numbered page in MLA paper format is the first page with your paper text.
  • On the title page, create a 2-inch top margin.
  • Details to include in your title page should be included in the assignment instructions when a title page is asked for, so incorporate any additional information asked for within them. Following any formatting guidelines outlined in the instructions as well.

Following the MLA paper format helps increase the readability of your paper and helps your grade. Whenever you are unsure of the correct formatting, check the MLA guide to determine which, if any, MLA paper format rules applies. In addition, parenthetical citations (in-text citations) should be documented properly with all your sources cited correctly. When you follow these guidelines, your paper is a stronger one that has easy readability.