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21.5: Applying MLA Style in Your Own Papers

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    The way you use words and place text on a page influence the audience’s ability to comprehend information. Much the way the shape of a stop sign indicates the same meaning as “STOP” to a driver, readers understand information in part through its placement and format. As a result, there is consistency among the papers submitted within writing classroom and established journals in an academic field. This consistency allows readers to become accustomed to certain conventions and increases readability. When a professor reviews multiple papers formatted in the same way, for example, she can easily find the author’s name and class section on all of the papers. Likewise, students in an English class will be able to find a source from the information given in an academic journal because they can understand in-text citation and bibliographic reference.

    MLA-formatted papers for a class rarely include graphic elements, like illustrations or tables. In fact, MLA style limits the use of design in formatting to ensure that the focus remains on the text. Settings specified by MLA incorporate the design principles reviewed above. The remainder of the chapter discusses MLA formatting of academic papers, like the research papers you’ll develop in your writing classes, as opposed to writing for publication, such as professional journals.

    The primary use of repetition in MLA format is to indicate that text formatted in the same way throughout a paper signifies a similar use. Contrast is important in separating distinct sections of a paper from one another. Alignment in MLA increases readability by providing a common starting point for the reader. Proximity helps readers follow related ideas. For example, section headers are located directly over the text they introduce, allowing readers to quickly find information.


    Margins are the distance from the edge of the paper to where the text starts. They define the amount of white space around the text on the page. They are important because they emphasize the text through contrast (black text on a white page) and increase readability through consistent alignment (headings and text line up to the left margin). Margins also contribute to readability by providing a place for the reader’s eyes to rest: they ensure appropriate white space to prevent a page from becoming too dense with text.

    The MLA style guide requires specific margins of one inch (1”) on all four sides of a page (see Fig. 4).

    See section 4.1 of the MLA Handbook for information on margins.

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    Fig. 4. The first page of a paper formatted according to MLA style.


    Typeface and Spacing

    Appropriate typeface usage involves all design elements. The repetition of a single font throughout a document shows the reader that each section of the paper is part of a single whole. The strong visual color contrast of black text on a white background increases readability. Black text, for example, is easier to read than gray text, a difference you may notice when your printer is low on ink. Alignment indicates a separation of ideas or the introduction of a new concept. The title of the paper centered over the left- ligned text shows the beginning of the paper’s content. The placement of section titles illustrates proximity. Each one is adjacent to its respective text directly above the first
    paragraph of a section.

    MLA requires a serif font (like Times New Roman) in 12-point type. A serif font is one that has edges or “feet” on the ends of letters. A sans-serif font (like Arial) is straighter, without edges or flares as part of its shape. Serif fonts are traditionally easier to read, though this distinction has decreased as desktop publishing programs and font qualities have improved.

    MLA requires a serif font (like Times New Roman) in 12-point type. A serif font is one that has edges or “feet” on the ends of letters. A sans-serif font (like Arial) is straighter, without edges or flares as part of its shape. Serif fonts are traditionally easier to read, though this distinction has decreased as desktop publishing programs and font qualities have improved.

    See section 4.2 of the MLA Handbook for information on typeface and spacing.

    Title and Headings

    A title and internal headings help to separate the body of the paper into smaller, more specific, sections. They break text into shorter, more readable sections, or chunk information in the paper into reasonable portions. In addition, headings allow the reader to quickly skim through a document in search of specific ideas. Headings are described in levels, meaning their hierarchal structure in the paper. A second level heading must follow a first level heading. For example, after reading this entire chapter, you can easily find information on a specific element by looking for the appropriate heading.

    Within MLA style, the title refers to the entire paper, while headings refer to individual sections within the paper. The contrast in MLA titles and headings comes mainly from alignment. Both students writing in the classroom and professionals writing for publication use MLA style. Limiting the amount of formatting—like adding italics or bold for emphasis—and focusing on alignment helps ensure that headings remain consistent when different fonts are used. The title is centered over the main text; headings are left justified over body text that is indented (see Fig. 5).

    See section 4.3 of the MLA Handbook for information on titles and headings.

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    Fig. 5. A page formatted in MLA style showing double-spacing and a section heading.

    Headers and Page Numbers

    Headers are a user service, providing information to readers regarding their location in the text. The header includes the author’s last name and the page number (see Fig. 4). Because the header information is formatted consistently and placed in the exact location on each page, this use of repetition helps readers easily find and identify document information.

    On the initial page of a research paper, the header also includes the author’s name, the date of submission, course instructor’s name and course designation, usually left justified (see Fig. 4). This information, but not its placement, may vary depending on your course. Always check with your professor or refer to handouts provided in class for specifics.

    Subsequent pages of the paper require that the author’s last name and page number be placed in the upper, right-hand corner of the page, one-half inch (0.5”) from the top edge of the page and one inch (1”) from the right edge of the paper.

    See section 4.4 of the MLA Handbook for information on page numbers.


    Illustrations, including photographs, line drawings, maps, or graphs, help your readers better understand the information you are communicating. Sometimes illustrations support the function of the text. For example, we use the illustrations in this chapter to help you better understand the concepts we are writing about. Understanding the importance of graphics would be much harder with no illustrations as support. In other instances, the illustrations themselves are the primary pieces of information. For instance, a simple graph can be far more dramatic and comprehensible than a long paragraph full of numbers and percentages.

    With MLA style, illustrations should be labeled Figure (usually abbreviated as Fig.), numbered consecutively, and given a brief caption following the label. As we have done with the illustrations in this chapter, the caption should readily identify the key feature of the illustration. Place the illustration as close as possible to the text where you first reference it to help readers understand why you included it.

    Writers frequently use illustrations created by others to supplement their writing. If you find an image on a website, you cannot use it without permission. And while some websites explicitly give permission to use their images, you must still cite the source in your own work.

    While you can use others’ properly attributed illustrations, sometimes you will create the illustrations yourself. For example, you may want to capture an image of your computer’s desktop to add to a document about computer systems. To copy a screen shot of your computer to the clipboard, press <Ctrl-Shift-Command> (Apple)-3 on Mac OS X or <Print Screen> on Windows. Once on the clipboard, the image will be available for you to manipulate with an image editing software or paste unaltered into almost any type of graphics program.

    While some images may already be exactly the way you need them, most of the time you will need to make changes to images before you can use them. Two free image editing software packages are GIMP—the GNU Image Manipulation Program—for Mac OS X and Windows systems (available at <>) and Paint.NET for use only on Windows systems (available at <>).

    Other things to remember when using illustrations:

    Always use visuals of good quality. A bad illustration can distract
    your reader and lessen the credibility of your argument.

    Don’t distort the image. Keep the image in proportion by holding
    the <Shift> key as you are adjusting the image in your
    word processor.

    • Make sure the image is of the right quality and resolution. An
    image that looks great on a website may not look as good when
    printed. Check the resolution of the image before enlarging it
    so there is no loss of quality.

    Crop images to remove extraneous material. Keep the focus on
    the important part of the illustration, just like you do with
    text. For example, if including a web browser screenshot of a
    web page in a paper, readers do not need to see the browser
    window frame or your favorites/bookmarks menu in the visual
    used in the document.

    • See section 4.5 of the MLA Handbook for information on
    working with illustrations.

    21.5: Applying MLA Style in Your Own Papers is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by LibreTexts.

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