There are dozens of books on how to format an essay according to APA, MLA, or Chicago Manual style. Cramming that much information into a single post is impossible. Looking at endless essay format examples won’t help you either. Instead, we want to talk about the logic of formatting. By the end of the post, you will understand why the requirements are as they are. This will help you format papers quick and easy without consulting the formatting guide every 30 seconds. Give it a try; it will change your writing forever!
What Is Essay Format?
Formatting deals with the way your essay looks, not the content itself. A consistent format makes your paper polished, professional and earns you brownie points for trying, even if you did not have enough time to research and put together a strong argument. When you think of formatting styles, references and citations come to mind first. However, they also include:
- Line spacing;
- Page margins;
- Text font and size;
- Text justification;
- Title page;
- and so much more.
Why can’t you just fire up Word and type without paying so much attention to formatting? You can, but don’t expect your professor to be pleased with the way your essay looks. Read on to learn why the format is a good thing that helps you develop valuable soft skills to put on the resume.
Why Do I Need to Learn Formatting?
Same as broccoli, formatting is good for you, even if you hate it. Applying appropriate style to your paper comes with many benefits you often overlook, such as:
- Formatting makes your writing easy to read and check. For example, a single-spaced text is hard on the eyes and leaves no room to the professor to write notes and suggest improvements. These are two of the primary reasons why double spaced writing is standard in academia.
- Formatting secures a wonderful first impression. While you are taught since childhood not to judge books by their covers, everyone does that, and your professor is not an exception to this rule. You would not wear a swimming suit to a job interview unless you want to become a lifeguard or a swimmer. Following the same logic, you should not leave your paper a mess before you turn it in.
- Formatting teaches you to follow instructions. Creativity and ingenuity are great, but when you try to put together an IKEA bookshelf, you will be glad college taught you how to follow an obscure set of instructions. The same is true for any job you secure out of school. When you are a newbie, you have to read and assimilate a massive stack of corporate guidelines and follow them to avoid trouble.
- Formatting helps you become a member of an exclusive club in your field. Using the right style is like wearing a uniform of your favorite team. It enables you to blend in with the crowd and be accepted. Most scientific journals rely on industry-standard formatting rules, and you will need all the practice you can get if you want to advance your future teaching or research career.
Next time you wonder why the professors keep torturing you with formatting requirements, remember these four reasons. They won’t make you love formatting and citations, but you will better understand your teachers, and therefore, pay more attention to the things you willfully ignored in the past. With that in mind, let’s talk business, or rather, practical formatting guidelines and how to make sense of them.
How to Format an Essay. General Advice
We’ll talk particulars later, but whichever formatting style you use, universal rules apply. Think of them as default writing settings. They should be set as a default in your word processor software for academic writing. Once you start using this trick, your formatting time will be down by half.
Balance Text with White Space
Think of words as buildings, and white space as the roads, walkways, and parks between them. There should be enough white space to let the eyes rest and make the paper look clean and uncluttered. A few formatting rules help keep up the balance:
- Line spacing. Double-space is standard; it is easy on the eyes and leaves enough room for corrections. Don’t think of it as a waste of paper, but a way to make every word count. When the lines are bunched together, the eye can jump from one to the next, and the hard-won wording and subtext are lost.
- Margins. One-inch is the accepted norm, all around the page. This neat wall of white keeps your words within and protects them from smudging the freshly printed ink by careless fingers. Standard margins also leave enough space for stapling the pages together. DO NOT try to make your paper seem longer by increasing the margins. Professors have keen eyes, and an extra 0.5 inch added to the margin will stick out like a sore thumb.
- Paragraph indents. 0.5-inch indent is a classic that you can achieve with 5-7 spaces or a single TAB. However, in recent years the Internet has trained us to separate passages with extra space. It is not an acceptable choice for most formats. You can use it if your professor allows it. DO NOT combine paragraph indents with empty lines between paragraphs; this will leave too much white space in the paper.
- Text alignment. Left alignment is preferred, as text moves flush with the left margin and leaves the right side free. Some journals will ask you to justify the paper before submission to make the right and left edges neat and vertical. However, this makes for awkward spaces between words, making the text harder to read. Therefore, left align your papers unless expressly told to justify.
Enhance Readability with the Right Font
The balance of white space and text makes your paper look good at first glance, but professors tend to read your submissions, not just browse them. You don’t want your instructor to reach for glasses cursing your unintelligible paper; therefore you should pick:
- A serif or non-serif font that is easy to read on screen and paper. Try formatting a book using Lobster or Pinyon Script and read a dozen of pages, and you will understand why professors get frustrated with students choosing original fonts. Helvetica, Arial, Times New Roman are all safe bets. You can select another readable font, but DO NOT try to mask mediocre content with frilly scripts.
- Reasonable font size of 12pt or above. Using larger sizes is sometimes acceptable, but not if you are trying to make the paper seem longer than it is. Smaller font sizes are possible if you submit the digital copy of the document for revision, but printed copies make it hard to read and generally annoy professors.
How to Write an Essay in MLA Format
If you have followed the general guidelines above, your MLA format essay is already half-done. There are a few finishing touches to add:
- Include a header with your last name and page number, right aligned.
- Avoid adding a title page, instead, list your name and the professors, include the discipline and due date. This information should be in the top left corner of the first page with the title directly below it.
- Put the paper title on the next line after the basic information using the same font type and size as the rest of the text, center aligned.
- A reference list is called “Work Cited” and should be the final section of the paper, formatted according to the latest edition of the guidelines.
How to Write an Essay in APA Format
Most of the general recommendations for MLA apply to the APA essay format as well. However, there are differences:
- The header includes your paper’s shortened title (up to 50 characters, left aligned) and page number (right aligned). However, the title page header has an additional phrase “Running head:” before the title.
- The title page includes the title, your name, and your college or university, one-third of the page down, center aligned.
- APA structure requires an abstract to be a single paragraph between 150 and 250 words long, typed without an indent. Keywords can also be present. Type “Keywords” (in italics) with an indent and list your words after a colon.
- The final part of the paper is called “References” and includes the list of sources you used formatted according to the current edition of the APA guidelines.
Automated Citation Tips to Make Your Life Easier
In the days of old, academics had to waste days and weeks hunting citations and formatting them. You are a lucky student, as there are multiple citation machines online that can do the work for you and provide a list for you to paste to your reference page. However, citation machine results are only as good as the information you input. To make the most of the technological marvel, use our tips:
- Submit correct information if you rely on manual input. Double-check the author’s name and reference title before you generate a list.
- Choose the right source type if using automatic citation search. Hardcover and paperback books have a different number of pages, and the same is true for different editions of the book. If you select the source from a list, ensure you pick the one you used, not the one that seems close enough.
- Check the references before pasting them to your paper. Ensure the names and titles are correct. Pay attention to automatic capitalization corrections and ensure there are no generic placeholders in place of the missing pieces of information.
- Do not use automatically generated in-text citations blindly. The exact rules may differ for MLA and APA, but there is no need to add the author’s name in parentheses if you have already mentioned it within the sentence. Page intervals are also not the best option for in-text citations.
Using credible sources is a blanket requirement and recommendation irrelevant of the citation method you choose. Your references should be unbiased, objective, reputable, and primary. If you rely on information from a commercially sponsored source or the one that uses emotionally charged language, your arguments will be weak, even if your citation style is on point.
Still Don’t Get It? Our Format Squad Is a Click Away!
It took us years to understand why formatting is so important and to let all the guidelines settle in our minds and start making sense. You don’t have the luxury of time to go through the same process we did. However, you have an option of hiring a professional to take your writing to the next level with immaculate formatting. It might not be necessary for an everyday essay, but your research and term papers, scholarship and admission essays deserve the extra attention.
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