One of the reasons why professors assign writing essays is to teach students to format the paper according to the formatting style requirements. Therefore, formatting mistakes are not less important than structure or language ones. In addition, formatting is something, which depends not on students’ prior knowledge or intelligence, but on their efforts. Thus, following the styles’ guidelines will show your professor either that you take learning seriously or that you are a careless and undedicated student.
The requirements are so much detailed that there are separate manuals and websites dedicated to them. Here, I will try to create a comprehensible guide you can use for APA and MLA formatting of your paper (most common and my favorite styles), pointing out to the details students tend to overlook.
General Layout Demands Applicable to Both Styles
There are the unified requirements to the layout of the academic papers in APA and MLA formatting styles, which ease the reading.
These demands are:
1-inch margins at all sides;
readable font (Times New Roman 12 is preferred);
double spacing between all the lines;
no extra spaces should appear between the paragraphs or after the headings, which is a common mistake;
Longer quotations, over 40 words (APA)/ longer than 4 lines (MLA) should be presented as a block quotation.
The block begins on the new line, all lines indented ½ inch. No quotation marks are needed. Double spacing and font remains. The parenthetical citation is put after the closing punctuation mark. Mind that block quotations are appropriate only for longer works. For shorter essays, avoid including quotations, which are 40 words or longer!
Each page should have a number starting with 1 on the title page.
On the first page, your header should look like this:
Running head: TITLE OF THE PAPER 1
On all other pages, it looks like this:
TITLE OF THE PAPER 2
It is better to type the header next to the page number. To make the first header differ, set “different for the first page” in the page number formatting and add a page and a header for the first page again.
If your title is long, use the shorted version of the title for the headers (up to 50 characters).
Three lines, centered:
Full Title of the Paper Capitalized
The manual of APA suggests all papers formatted in this style should have an Abstract, but professors rarely demands it. Actually, you have to write and abstract only when this demand is clearly stated in the requirements to the paper.
If you have to, place it on a separate page following the title page and type the word ‘Abstract’, centered, before the text.
Subheadings are required for all longer works. Here is how they should look like in APA style:
[Level 1] Bold Standard Capitalization Centered
[Level 2] Bold Standard Capitalization Flush Left
[Level 3] Bold Standard Capitalization. Put in the beginning of the paragraph.
Do not confuse this with references or information you give in parenthetical citations! This is when you indicate what books or articles some author has authored or what the title of the film based on the book is.
Titles of longer works such as books, edited collections, movies, television series, documentaries, or albums should be capitalized and italicized:
Nicolas Carr, the author of the books The Glass Cage: How Our Computers Are Changing Us and The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, argues ….
Shorter works (articles, television series episodes, and song titles should be capitalized and put in quotation marks:
In the article “Is Google Making Us Stupid?”, Nicolas Carr (2008) argues…
1. General format
To show, where the information comes from, APA uses an author-date format.
If the author or authors are mentioned in the signal phrase (sentence), just indicate a date of the source in the parentheses next to the names. If these are not mentioned, include a name/names and a date in the parentheses at the end of the sentence before the punctuation mark.
Good news! You do not have to indicate the page unless you give a direct quotation from the source.
According to Jones (1998), APA style is a difficult citation format for first-time learners.
APA style is a difficult citation format for first-time learners (Jones, 1998).
The researcher of the use of the style states that, “Students often had difficulty using APA style, especially when it was their first time citing sources” (Jones, 1998, p. 199).
Sometimes, the authors cited in the signal phase and in the parentheses may differ. This happens when you are citing indirect sources. You have to indicate this adding “as cited in” before the citation:
Jones argued that…(as cited in Smith, 2003).
2. Two and more authors
Use “and” to introduce the last author in the sentence and the sign “&” to do this in parentheses:
If the paper is authored by 3-5 authors, indicate all of them when citing the paper in the text for the first time. Then, only use the first author’s name followed by “et al.”. If the paper is authored by 6 or more authors, only use the first author’s name followed by “et al.”
Kernis, Cornell, Sun, Berry, and Harlow (1993) studied …
The study demonstrated that … (Kernis, Cornell, Sun, Berry, & Harlow, 1993). Furthermore, the researchers have revealed that … (Kernis et al., 1993).
If the fact/concussion you cite has been mentioned in several sources, just indicate them all in the patentees, separating the citations with “;”
The link between the two concepts has been established in several reputable studies (Markes et al., 2001; Tailor & Smith, 2010; Harlow, 2012).
3. Author or date information is missing
If there is no author mentioned in the source you use, use the title of the organization/ governmental agency that authored the text. If this does not apply, cite the source by its title (Note, it is given in quotation marks and not capitalized, comma goes before the quotation marks are closed).
Use full forms when citing the source for the first time and shorter forms for all subsequence in-text citations:
According to the Administration for Children and Families (ACF) (2017), children …
Children … (Administration for Children and Families [ACF], 2017). This situation is further complicated by … (ACF, 2017).
Users’ disclosure depends on… (“Computer-mediated communication effects on disclosure, impressions, and interpersonal evaluations,” 2005). In addition, it promotes … (“Computer-mediated communication,” 2005).
If the source does not have date of publication, include “n.d.” = no date instead of the year in the parentheses.
4. Same surnames or same years for one author
If you have two different authors with same surnames, use first initials before surnames:
… (E. Johnson, 2001; L. Johnson, 1998).
If you cite two or more different papers by the same author written in the same year, use a, b, c with a year to differentiate between the sources:
Research by Berndt (1981a) illustrated that…
Reference list page should begin from a new page with a centered word “References”. All new entries should begin from a new line. No extra spaces on the page! All lines but for the first one should be intended 1/5 inch.
NB: Only the sources, you have cited in the text may appear in the reference list!
Formatting of works and indication of names in the Reference list differs from that for the in-text citations, so be attentive!
I will give formulas for the most commonly cited sources and then will point to some differences you might overlook
Author, A. A. (Year). Title of work: Capital letter for a subtitle (ed.). Location, postal abbreviation: Publisher.
Helfer, M. E., Kempe, R. S., & Krugman, R. D. (1997). The battered child (5th ed.). Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
A chapter in an edited book:
Author, A. A., & Author, B. B. (Year of publication). Title of chapter. In A. A. Editor & B. B. Editor (Eds.), Title of book (pages of chapter). Location: Publisher.
O’Neil, J. M., & Egan, J. (1992). Men’s and women’s gender role journeys: A metaphor for healing, transition, and transformation. In B. R. Wainrib (Ed.), Gender issues across the life cycle (pp. 107-123). New York, NY: Springer.
An article in a scholarly journal:
Author, A. A., Author, B. B., & Author, C. C. (Year). Title of article. Title of Periodical, volume number(issue number), pages.
Harlow, H. F. (1983). Fundamentals for preparing psychology journal articles. Journal of Comparative and Physiological Psychology, 55(2), 893-896.
An article from the Internet:
Author, A. A., & Author, B. B. (Date). Title of article. Title of Online Periodical, volume number(issue number) – if available. Retrieved from
Cave, S. (2016). There’s no such thing as free will: But we’re better off believing in it anyway. The Atlantic. Retrieved from https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2016/06/theres-no-such-thing-as-free-will/480750/.
Pay attention to:
Unlike in the in-text citations, no works are placed in quotation marks. Only the first words after and the first words after a hyphen or semicolon should be capitalized.
BUT: For journal titles and newspaper titles, all major words are capitalized.
If you have up to 7 authors – mention all of them. Always use “&” to introduce the last name.
Wegener, D. T., Berndt, T. J., & Petty, R. E.
For more than 7 authors, name first 6, put “…”, then, the name of the last author:
Miller, F. H., Choi, M. J., Angeli, L. L., Harland, A. A., Stamos, J. A., Thomas, S. T., . . . Rubin, L. H.
For the unknown authors, use the full title of the organization that authored the source or the source’s title – the ones you have actually used for the in-text citations.