Even though the core principles of academic writing remain the same, minor changes are introduced to a variety of formats, and MLA is not an exception here. If you are assigned to write an MLA style research paper, a literature essay, or any other academic assignment, your professors will probably refer you to the 8th edition of MLA formatting guidelines.
And that’s where the trouble begins — one of the takeaways from this edition is to take MLA principles as flexible guidelines rather than a set of specific rules. Now, what on Earth does that mean? Which of these guidelines are flexible and which are not? What do your professors expect from you?
The easiest way to answer all of these questions is to search for an MLA style paper example — it will give you a lot of insight on the subject. In the long run, though, it is always better to try and grasp the logic behind this format. This way, any MLA style paper you are assigned to write in the future will no longer remain a challenge. So, let’s take a closer look at MLA paper style and try to see which of these rules are flexible and which — not so much.
Just in case you have never written MLA style paper before, let’s start with rules that apply to all editions — from the first to the latest one. They go as follows:
So far, this set of rules managed to survive all MLA style paper format editions, and you can safely stick to those no matter what. Now, let’s look at some of those aspects in greater detail — even though these ‘inflexible’ guidelines seem pretty simple, a lot of first-year students still make some minor formatting errors.
Remember that part with your last name in the header, next to the page number? Well, it should be Times New Roman, double-spaced, too. In practice, many students forget to check fonts in the running head and lose points on their MLA style paper formatting. So, avoid this little mistake — adjust font and spacing, not only in the body of your paper but also in its header.
Typically, an MLA style paper does not presuppose a separate title page, which saves you some time on formatting. You can include your information on the first line of your page 1. Here’s what you’re going to need:
All of this information is left-aligned! The next line of your MLA style paper is the title of your work. The title is centered and capitalized.
Note: any articles, particles, or prepositions you may have in your title start with a lower case. For example:
Exploring the Shift from Renaissance Traditions to the Baroque Style in Painting.
Even when you are working on a short essay (as opposed to say, a complex MLA style research paper), you will probably be giving references in your work. As in any other academic format, all direct citations presuppose giving reference to the original author’s name. And, in case of an MLA style paper, you are also supposed to indicate page number for the quote (this, of course only concerns printed sources). If you are quoting from a digital source that does not have a page number, you mention the author's name only and call it done.
Note: do not separate the author’s name and the page number with any punctuation marks. An MLA citation usually looks like this:
Your own text, followed by citation: “that goes here” (Author 4), and if you need to continue the sentence, include all necessary punctuation marks after giving reference to the original source.
If the article has two authors, their names will be separated by commas, though: (First, Second 8).
One more exception is a block quotation. When you need to quote a considerable amount of text, start the citation on a new line and indent the whole piece. In practice, it will look like a separate, fully indented paragraph. Block citations DO NOT require quotation marks.
However, remember that stuffing your text with too many quotations (block ones, especially) is not such a good idea. First, you are supposed to present your own writing on the subject, not someone else’s. Next, absolutely all academic papers are scanned for plagiarism, so do not think your professor will not notice just how much you’ve borrowed.
Even though in-text citations are a must for MLA style paper, the total amount of them should not exceed 10% of the entire work (preferably, even less than that). You can always double-check yourself with free online plagiarism checking tools — just to be on the safe side.
Differently from the majority of other formats, recognized in the academe, MLA bibliography section is called ‘Works Cited.' What does it mean, though — in practice? Do you include only the sources you quoted? Or the sources you paraphrased, too?
Of course, the name presupposes only directly cited articles/books. However, when writing for the academy, you do not always give a direct quote from every resource you refer to. In case of an MLA style paper, this little aspect often leads to confusion. The surest way to avoid it is to simply include a short, even if a couple of words, quote from every resource. But, you can also give in-text reference to the author and still mention the article in your Works Cited section — this is acceptable.
Another question many students ask when working on MLA style paper is how many sources they are supposed to quote from. Ideally, you should consult your professor on that — most of the time, they will tell you exactly how many external references they expect. If you can’t do that (for whatever reason), consider having one resource for every page of your essay. So, a five-page paper will normally have five sources on the Works Cited page. But once again, this is an example of a flexible guideline, not a general rule.
Now that you understand the logic behind which sources to use in a paper, let’s get down to the actual formatting. Here are the rigid rules:
Every reference contains the following information:
And here are some real-life MLA style paper examples when it comes to referencing.
Collins, J. Modern History in Pictures. New York. 2015.
If you were to quote a single chapter from the same book, the reference would look like this: Collins, J. “Shift from Renaissance to Baroque Style”. Modern History in Pictures. New York.
Alternatively, you could indicate the page number for this chapter, like this: Collins, J. “Shift from Renaissance to Baroque Style”. Modern History in Pictures. New York.