Master MLA Formatting and Style

Beyond learning how to write quality content, students need to learn how to structure their writing based on the conventions used in different disciplines. The Modern Language Association (MLA) format is helpful for students of any major because of its easy process for organizing and documenting sources.

There are several different documentation style guides across the academic disciplines. MLA style is widely used in the humanities as well as scholarly journals, newsletters and magazines. The folks at the MLA say their guide is generally more simple and concise than other styles such as American Psychology Association (APA) and the Chicago Manual of Style.

MLA allows writers to briefly cite references in their work through a parenthetical reference or citation. The writer lists in parenthesis the specific page numbers from the book, magazine or other source where the quote or facts were taken from. The benefit, according to the College of San Mateo Library, is that a parenthetical reference allows the writer to provide extra information without breaking up the development of the paper.

The in-text citation corresponds with an alphabetical bibliography at the end of the document that provides the comprehensive source information. Style guides are important for a number of reasons.

The Purdue Online Writing Lab (OWL) encourages readers to use a style guide such as MLA so that readers are able to navigate texts and recognize when a writer is borrowing information from other sources. As a writer, referencing other sources gives your document more credibility and authority, according to UCLA writing guidelines. It also protects writers from being accused of plagiarizing, or copying content without permission either intentionally or unintentionally. Understanding and properly using MLA style will sharpen your ability to present information, which is critical to both landing a job and excelling at one.

Mastering MLA style is easy. This guide will give you a short overview of the basics, provide examples of MLA at work and point you to some of the best sources on the web for mastering this style guide.


Basic Formatting

Papers in MLA format will be double spaced, Times New Roman 12 pt font on standard 8.5 x 11 inch paper. The margins on all four sides of the document should be set to one inch, and there should be one space after each period. The first line of each paragraph should be indented one half-inch from the left margin. The style guide recommends using the tab bar.

The first page flush to the left margin should include your name, course number, professors name and the date. A header with page number and last name should begin on the first page and continue throughout the paper. Here is an example.

Remember to use a solid thesis as the foundation of your work. The thesis statement will be placed at the end of the introductory paragraph. A good thesis is a critical part of MLA style and will help you focus your work on one central idea that you will continue to develop and support throughout your work.



Mastering citations is critical to MLA style, and your readers will depend on you to follow the guidelines. A properly cited source will appear twice in the document; once in the text of the document, and the second in the works cited list at the end.

Depending on whether the source is from a book, academic journal, magazine or other source the parenthetical reference may be slightly different. Pay close attention to those differences to make sure you are connecting the right source with the right style.

A reader must be able to easily connect the in-text reference to the works cited list. By using the same word or phrase in-text the reader can find the source easier in the works cited list. Here is an example:

Wordsworth claims that “for all good poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings” (435).

The page number and William Wordsworth’s last name properly source credit for the quote and tell the reader the page number where it can be found. The reader can then go back to the work cited list for more information. The same sentence could look like this:

“For all good poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings” (Wordsworth 435).

Since the author of the document didn’t reference the last name in the sentence, the parenthetical reference needed to include more information. For both in-text citations the citation in the works cited will look like this:

Wordsworth, William. Preface to the Second Edition of the Lyrical Ballads. 2nd ed. N.p.: Harcourt, 1995. Print.


Additional Sources

One of the most widely used sources for MLA style on the web is the Purdue Online Writing Lab (OWL). With examples for every type of source, and detailed explanations it is a great source for perfecting your understanding of MLA style guidelines.

The writing center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison has a great online MLA documentation guide with more examples and explanations.

Free websites such as DocsCite from Arizona State University and EasyBib are citation generators that can help provide a framework for MLA documentation. Remember that these will generate a citation based on the information you input. It won’t correct any errors you make when you input the information!

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