Nail the MLA Format Today with These Effective Tips

1 Star2 Stars3 Stars4 Stars5 Stars ( votes: 6 )

Have you ever been completely overwhelmed by the MLA format?  You know the feeling.  It’s that one you get when you have been given an assignment and you look it over and think, “This is a piece of cake,” only to have your instructor tell you to use MLA format citation in your work.

It’s okay, you’re not alone!  Lots of people are intimidated by the thought of writing an MLA style research paper, but not writers.

Let’s take a closer look at MLA style:

The MLA style seems complicated. First, MLA stands for Modern Language Association. There are two official MLA citation style publications that are very big and very intimidating.  These publications, both written by Joseph Gibaldi, who is the Director of Book Acquisitions and Development for the MLA, are:

  • The MLA Style Manual and Guide to Scholarly Publishing, second edition (ISBN 0-87352-699-6). This edition is aimed at advanced-level writers of scholarly books and articles.
  • The MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers, sixth edition (ISBN 0-87352-986-3), is custom-written for the needs of high school and undergraduate students

Who wouldn’t be afraid of these cumbersome volumes?

But there is hope:

The MLA format isn’t as scary as it seems.  You simply need to learn the basics of MLA format and you will be able to write a super paper.

Read on to find you how you can format your paper and cite your references the MLA way!

general requirements for mla formatting

General requirements for MLA formatting

What does MLA format look like?  Your general paper format will have to conform to the MLS style formatting requirements, which are generally used when writing papers in the humanities and liberal arts.  These requirements are the MLA format basic rules that are used when formatting a paper and citing references.  Many journals and magazines also require the MLA style.

Mla page format guidelines

The general formatting requirements are outlined in detail in this Owl Purdue MLA formatting guide and involve the following guidelines:

  • Use a page size of 8.5x11 inches.
  • Leave a 1-inch margin on all sides.
  • Double-spacing and a clear, readable font must be used.
  • Indent the first line of each paragraph half an inch from the document’s left margin.
  • Follow the period and any other punctuation mark with one space.
  • A header is to be used and will include consecutive numbering for each page, located in the document’s upper right-hand corner. The page number must be one half of an inch from the top margin and flush against the right margin.
  • If endnotes are used, the page will be given the title “Notes” and must be presented on a separate page after the body of the paper and before the Works Cited page.

This all looks pretty straightforward, right?  But what about the MLA format title page?

formatting the first page

Formatting the first page

The first page of your paper offers the first impression your instructor will have of your paper, so you want to get it right.

That means following the MLA format for the first page.  However, it is important to know that there is no formal title page in MLA style.  An exception to this is if your instructor specifically requests one.  What does this mean for you?

Here’s the bottom line:

format the first page to introduce yourself and the title of your paper

You need to format the first page to introduce yourself and the title of your paper.  You do this as follows:

  • Include a header that displays the page number 1 in Arabic numerals, preceded by your surname in the upper right corner of your paper.
  • In the top left corner of your paper, type your name, your professor’s name, your course, and the due date (each on a separate line; left aligned).
  • Type the title of your paper and ensure it is centered on the page.
  • If you are referring to other works (books, movies, plays, articles, etc.) in the title, use the appropriate quotation marks and/or italics to identify it.
  • Use headings and subheadings for the different parts of your paper.
  • Do not use extra spaces between the elements of the first page or additional pages (just the regular double-spacing is required).

You can find an MLA format template in MS Word.  Read this easy tutorial that will show you an MLA format free template created using the Microsoft Word 2003 (and Microsoft Word 2007).

Now that you have your first page set up and your title in place, it’s time to start writing.  But you have to organize your paper in the appropriate way.  MLA style has specific requirements for section headings that you need to use.  Check it out!

section headings

Section headings

Your paper will be split up into different sections that focus on different subtopics of the main topic about which you are writing.  There are two formats for section headings, depending on whether the section headings are numbered or not.

Numbered section headings are formatted as follows:

  1. Cats
    • Breeds
    • Feeding
      • Type of food
      • Schedule
    • General care
  2. Dogs
    • Breeds
    • Feeding
      • Type of food
      • Schedule
    • General care

You get the idea.

If you choose to use unnumbered section headings, then you will organize them in the following way:

Level 1: bold, flush left

Level 2: italics, flush left

Level 3: bold, centered

Level 4: italics, centered

Level 5: underlined, flush left

Rutgers Graduate School provides a great explanation and example of the basic formatting for MLA style.

in-text citations

In-text citation

This is where MLA formatting can get confusing.  There are a lot of ways to cite references in the main body of the paper.  It all depends on the source, whether the author is known or unknown, and whether there are page numbers as to how the MLA in text format citation is used.


The general mla format for in-text citations is the author-page format

TThe general MLA format for in-text citations is the author-page format.  The author’s surname and the page number will be placed in parentheses immediately after the quotation, paraphrase, or other reference to the work.

Alternatively, the author’s name will appear right in the text, but the page number will still be placed in parentheses at the end of the reference.  Here are some MLA citation examples:

Humans have three brains that develop in-utero (Pearce 27).

Pearce argues that the three brains of a human develop in-utero (27).

If you are using a source without pages, then you use the author’s surname and title of the source.

(Smith 24) – source with page numbers.

(Smith, “Global Warming”) – source without page numbers.

But there’s more:

Sources cited in-text are required to correspond to what is recorded on the Works Cited page.  This means that however you cite the author in the in-text citation must match how the author’s name appears in the citation on the Works Cited page.

basic rules in-text citing

These are the basic rules on in-text citing.

Owl Purdue provides an extensive explanation of the variations that are required depending on whether:

  • The author is known or unknown
  • There are multiple authors
  • The authors have identical last names
  • There are multiple editions
  • It is a corporate author
  • The source is in a format other than print, such as electronic or the Internet
  • The source is indirect

But there’s more:

guidelines for citting sources in text

Here are a few more general guidelines to follow when citing sources in-text:

  • If the work you referred to was published separately, underline its title.
  • If the works are parts of other editions, use “” around the title.
  • Distinguish the title and the subtitle of the work with the use of a colon.
  • Insert short quotations (not longer than 4 typed lines) into the sentence with “” marks.
  • For long quotations use some introductory words, then double-space and type the quotation indented one inch from the left margin.
  • Try to quote exactly what was in the original text. In case of any changes enclose them in square brackets. If something is omitted show it with . .

But here’s the kicker:

You also have to provide a list of your sources at the end of your paper.  This is the Works Cited page and it comes with its own unique rules and formatting.

works cited page

Works cited page

The MLA format Works Cited page comes at the end of your paper and has its own separate page.  Here you will list all of sources you cited throughout your paper in the basic MLA works cited format.  Here are a number of guidelines to follow when creating your MLA format bibliography:

  • Capitalize all important words in titles of books and journal articles (it makes MLA different from other citation styles).
  • Italicize titles of books and journals (do not underline the titles as required by previous, outdated MLA guidelines).
  • Use quotation marks for titles of articles and web sites.
  • Use indentation for the second and each subsequent line of each entry.
  • Put all entries in alphabetical order.
  • Always write the type of medium for your sources. Use “Print.” for printed sources and “Web.” for online sources.

examples of the formatting the work cited page

Got it?  Owl Purdue also has a detailed description of the Works Cited page.  It can be difficult to conceptualize, so here are some examples of how to properly format the Works Cited page:

Kingston, Maxine Hong. Tripmaster Monkey: His Fake Book. New York: Vintage Books, 1990.


Powers, Richard. Galatea 2.2. Berkeley, CA: Atlantic Books Limited, 2010. Print.

Sugiyama, Naoko. “From the Woman Warrior to Veterans of Peace: Maxine Hong Kingston’s

Pacifist Textual Strategies”. The Japanese Journal of American Studies 20 (2009): 131-147. Web. 1 Dec. 2011.

the owl purdue citation

And here is the Owl Purdue citation.

The Purdue OWL. Purdue U Writing Lab, 2010. Web. May 18, 2016.

Are you thinking this all still seems overwhelming?  Well, it’s not as bad as it appears.  Really, it isn’t.

Here’s the deal:

You simply need to take this one step at a time.  To start the process, just set up the formatting for your page.  Nothing else has to happen until that is completed, after which you can move on to creating your first page and getting your title set.  Then all you have to do is write.  It’s so much less overwhelming when you break it up into smaller pieces.

A final piece of advice:

Include your in-text citations as you go because trying to go back and fill them in later is difficult.  It is also wise to keep a rough list of them on the Works Cited page.  You can always go back to it after you are finished the paper and properly write and format these citations.

In the end:

take the time to get your paper formatted

You have to take the time to get your paper formatted and your references properly cited the MLA format.  That is really what it takes – time.  If you cannot or don’t want to do it on your own, there are plenty of resources to which you can turn, including:

  • Free services, such as Citation Machine and EasyBib, which will generate your citation list for you (beware there can be problems with accuracy)
  • The referencing tool provided by Griffith University
  • Professional writing companies that can format your paper in MLA style and produce your Works Cited page

If you need more information about the MLA format, check out this step-by-step tutorial on basic MLS formatting.

You can also find solid advice on how to format your work in other citation formats.  Just check out these great blog posts: APA, Chicago, and Harvard.