Should I Justify My Essay

There are nearly as many different possible formats for writing a paper as there are instructors. The only way to know that your papers are going to conform exactly with what your instructors are looking for is to ask what they want! Ask to look at a sample paper. If all instructors could agree on one simple format, that would be nice, and that style would probably be something easy to remember, like the style recommended by the Modern Language Association. The college's Guide to Writing Research Papers contains a section on formatting papers, MLA-style, that should be helpful.

Here are some generic suggestions for formatting your paper, attempted answers to the inevitable question: "What's this paper supposed to look like?" But remember, if you have any doubts or questions, ask your instructor!

  1. Word-processing is not just a good thing, a clever technological device to make your writing look good; it makes the composing and editing processes much easier and (some people claim) even fun; it is technology that you ignore to your peril!
  2. Double-space all typing in all documents. A serif typing font should be used, something like Times, Times Roman, or Times New Roman in a 12-point font size. Don't use anything fancy and avoid the non-serif fonts (except for headlines, if you have any), as they can become difficult to read after a while; cursive scripts are forbidden. Never mix font styles.

    Use one-inch margins (or a bit more, never less), all the way around the edge of your text. Do not use justified margins (even right margins), even though your word-processor makes that look really nifty. Justified margins tend to create some word-divisions and spacing that are not appropriate.

    Use plain black printing off a good laser or bubble-jet printer. Dot-matrix printing is acceptable if the copy is strong and dark; otherwise, bring your floppy disc into a computer lab where you can print your paper using a better printer. Use plain, white, 20-lb., 8 1/2- by 11-inch paper. If you use tractor-fed paper, use only laser-cut paper and carefully remove the fringes. (But it is definitely time for a new printer!)
  3. Spacing: With modern word-processors, it is a good idea to get into the habit of using only one space after a period, question mark, semicolon, colon, etc. Word-processors will allow for the appropriate spacing. A double-space can actually do weird things, especially if your margin is justified (which is probably not a good idea). If you have any questions about this, ask your instructor (some of whom learned to space their typing on ancient typewriters and still use double-spacing after periods).

    Spacing around quotation marks and parentheses can raise questions. Click HERE for help with quotation marks; click HERE for help with parentheses. The most important rule you must remember about quotation marks is that in the United States, periods and commas go inside quotation marks regardless of logic. (When marking papers written by students who have grown up in areas influenced by British education, instructors would be kind to remember that this is not the rule outside the United States.)
  4. Titles can be important. If you can't think of a good title, it might mean that your paper has no real focus. Capitalize the first, last, and important words of your title. A title can end in a question mark or exclamation mark, but it cannot end in a period. (This is different from usage in other languages.) You might use quotation marks in a title if it refers to someone else's title (of a poem, say), but do not put quotation marks around your own title (e.g., Robert Frost's "Design" could be your title, but not "Robert Frost's 'Design'.").

    A title page is probably unnecessary, but you should ask your instructor about that. Fancy graphics or bold or italic printing on your title page, if you use one, is not necessary and probably should be avoided.
  5. Place your name, date, and course number at the top of the first page. Your instructor may ask you to put your name on each sheet of paper.
  6. Never use the back of a sheet of paper; staple additional sheets at the upper left-hand corner. This professor's prejudice dictates that students not use plastic binders; they're cumbersome and a waste of money. What your instructors usually want is a nice, flat stack of papers they can cram into an attache case or backpack, and those plastic folders just get in the way when it's time to grade the papers.
  7. Depending on your instructor and the level at which you are writing, evidence of careful re-reading and editing here and there (a last-minute correction done neatly with pen) is permissible; sloppiness is not. Last-minute corrections can be accomplished on a word-processor, and your paper ought to be nearly perfect when you hand it in.

CAUTION:Do not wait until the very last minute to print out your paper! Evil, fun-loving gremlins reside in every printer ever made, just waiting to detect a last-minute paper so they can jam up, eat paper, create havoc, and make your life miserable. Your instructor has filed the excuse of the demonic printer along with the plague that strikes down millions of grandmothers (sometimes grandmothers who died the previous semester) near the end of every term.

The following guidelines are taken from the MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers, 7th ed.

Your teachers expect to receive papers that are properly formatted and laid out. Use the following guidelines when setting up your paper. It is easiest if you use the correct settings from the beginning; otherwise you will have to go back and reformat your paper.

Overall page layout

  • One inch margins on sides, top and bottom.
  • Use Times or Times New Roman 12 pt font.
  • Double-space the text of the paper.
  • Use left-justified text, which will have a ragged right edge. Do not use fully (newspaper-style) justified text.
  • Indent the first word of each paragraph 1/2".
  • Indent block quotes 1".
  • In Works Cited lists, use a 1/2" indent for all lines after the first line of each source ("hanging indent").
  • Number the pages in the top right corner of the paper's header area, beginning with the first page of text. Type your last name before each page number. Number straight through from the first text page to the final bibliography page but do not count any pages after the end of the text as part of your page count.
  • Ask your teacher if it is ok to print two-sided.

Heading and title

  • An MLA-style research paper does not include a cover page, unless your teacher specifically asks for it.
  • In the upper left corner of the first page (but not in the header space) type the following information: your name, the teacher's name, the course title and block, the date. Use a separate double-spaced line for each piece of information (four lines).
  • Double space again, and center the title. Do not try to make your title decorative by using bold, underline, or creative fonts.
  • Double space again before beginning the text of your paper.

Names and numbers

  • Use full names of people and agencies/legislation the first time you use them. For agencies, include the acronym in parentheses after the full name when first used, for example, Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA).
  • After the first time you can refer to people by their last name or agencies by their acronyms for the rest of the paper.
  • Spell out numbers written in one or two words (two, forty-five, fifteen hundred) and use numbers for all others (2 1/2, 161). You should never begin a sentence with a number however.

Parenthetical references

  • In-text citation should be placed at the end of the sentence and inside the final punctuation.
  • If a work is alphabetized by title in the Works Cited (i.e. it has no author), it is ok to shorten the title (MLA Handbook 214).
  • If the author is mentioned in the sentence, the parenthetical reference will only contain the page number.

Works Cited

  • Your Works Cited should go on a separate page, with the words Works Cited centered at the top of the page in Times/Times New Roman 12 pt font.Do not use bold or large size font for the heading.
  • Be sure to use proper formatting - double-space and alphabetize properly.
  • Use a "hanging indent" - the first line of the citation begins at the margin, subsequent lines are indented.
  • If your source has no author, alphabetize by title within the authors - don't make a separate list.

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