Tips on Writing an Essay in MLA Style: Format and Guidelines

, Staff Editor
Updated April 12, 2022
Student in college library
    Student in college library
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    Used under Getty Images license

MLA (Modern Language Association) style is one that many college students need to learn for writing papers. Since the guidebook for this formatting style is about 400 pages long, we’ve compiled a few quick tips to get you started.

Know the General Guidelines of MLA Style

The MLA essay format is most often used in language arts and the humanities. The style is fairly flexible, but there are a few hard-and-fast rules to know. The ninth edition of the style guide was published in 2021.

When in Doubt, Use General Formatting

In general, any type of document in MLA format will adhere to these five formatting rules: 

  • Set your default font as Times New Roman, 12 point.
  • Set the margins of your paper to one inch on each side.
  • Only use one space after periods.
  • Indent the first lines of each of your paragraphs one half-inch from the edge of the left margin. (For indents, use the tab key instead of using the spacebar.)
  • Double-space throughout your essay.

Correct Titles, Citations and Page Numbers Do Matter

From cover pages to headers, it’s important you get this information right to help with the readability of your paper. Including ample and accurate information also protects you against accusations of plagiarism. 

  • You don’t need to make a cover page unless your professor requests it.
  • Italicize longer titles within the paper.
  • On the first page of your essay, type your name in the upper-left corner of the page.
  • On the line directly below your name, type in your professor’s name. Below that you should type the name of the course. Finally, below that you should write the date.
  • In the upper-right corner, insert your page numbers. Make sure your last name is on the left side of the page numbers (Jones 1). This should be a running header on all pages of your paper. 
  • Center the title of your essay on the line below the date.
  • If you have sections, then you should use numbered headings to divide them. For example, if you had three sections that you were going to discuss within your essay you would number them like so, “1. Section One, 2. Section Two, 3. Section 3” and so forth. 
  • In-text citations are generally formatted as the author’s name and page number in parentheses. 
  • If you reference the same source more than once in the same paragraph, with no other citation in that section, you can just put the citation at the end of the paragraph. 
  • Endnotes should be listed on a separate page, directly before your Works Cited page. This page should be titled “Notes.”

Understand What a Works Cited Page Is

MLA style uses a Works Cited page rather than a Bibliography or References page. MLA 9 uses a container system that allows flexibility by creating nine core elements within a container. 

Use this basic works cited format:

Last Name, First Name. Source Title. Container Title, Other Contributors, Version, Number, Publisher, Publication Date, Location. 

Each source listed should be something you consulted and is cited within your paper. 

  • If you don’t have one or more of the elements listed above, simply leave it out. 
  • Book titles, website names, periodical names, TV shows, and album names should be italicized.
  • Online articles, periodical articles, TV episodes, and song titles should be in quotation marks. 
  • List sources in alphabetical order by author’s last name. 
  • If you’re including sources with no known author, use the title as the first element of the entry, and alphabetize using that. 
  • Optional elements you can add to a Works Cited entry include: date of original publication, city of publication, date of access, URL, and DOI. 

Get to Know MLA

While it may seem like no big deal, learning the basics of MLA style can save you a ton of time and frustration when writing papers in college. The more you see and use these guidelines, the more they’ll become ingrained in your brain.