How to Format an Essay in MLA Style

Contributor: Melissa Kowalski. Lesson ID: 12019

Is writing just putting some clever words on paper, expressing your finest thoughts and research? Not quite! Proper formatting is essential and is often required. Practice the professional MLA style!



English / Language Arts
learning style
personality style
Grade Level
Middle School (6-8), High School (9-12)
Lesson Type
Dig Deeper

Lesson Plan - Get It!


You may have heard of a "double-header" in baseball, but in writing, what is a "header"?

If you were thinking about sports, a header would be hitting a soccer ball with one's head.

However, in writing, a header is something much different. A header is the space at the top of a page above the margin. For example, if you type a Word document, the words don't start at the very top of the page. Instead, there is a blank space of approximately one inch at the top of the page. This is called the "header".

The same space is located at the bottom of a page. If the space at the top of a page is called a header, what do you think the space at the bottom of the page is called? The space at the bottom of the page is called a footer.

In MLA (Modern Language Association) style, all papers have a standardized format. This helps a writer organize the material in a clear manner and makes it easier for readers to navigate the paper while reading. In MLA, all papers have a header.

  • In the header, the writer's last name and the page number are right-justified flush to the right-hand margin.
  • The header is used on every page AFTER the first page of the essay; there is NO header on the first page.

The entire essay should be written in Times New Roman 12pt. font and the essay should be double-spaced. "Normal" margins should be used if you are using a word processing program, or, if you are handwriting the essay, use margins of one inch around the entire essay.

At the top left-hand side of the first page, you should write the following information on consecutive lines: your full name, followed by the course instructor's name, the name of the course, and the date of the assignment. This information is all double-spaced and is called a "heading."

After the essay information, the title of the paper is written centered on the next line. The title is centered and written in Times New Roman 12pt. font. The introductory paragraph starts on the next line after the title and is indented by one tab if typing the paper or one half-inch if handwriting the paper. There are no additional spaces between paragraphs.

If the essay is complex, headings may be used within the body of the essay to separate text. A complex essay is normally required only in higher-level or collegiate courses.

  • The headings are left-justified to the left-hand margin.
  • The first level of heading, known as B-level, is written in a different style font than the paper title, such as all capital letters in a smaller font.
  • The paragraph then starts on the next line after the B-level heading flush to the margin.
  • If there is a subheading below the B-level, known as a C-level heading, then it is written in a different style from either the paper title or the B-level heading, such as italics. The paragraph then begins immediately on the same line as the C-level heading.

If you cited outside research in your paper, a Works Cited page is added to the essay. The Works Cited page starts on the first full page after the end of the essay. To learn more about formatting a Works Cited page, see the Elephango lesson found under Additional Resources in the right-hand sidebar.

To see a paper written in correct MLA style, view the following PDF file, MLA Sample Paper, courtesy of the Online Writing Lab and Purdue University. The paper explains MLA formatting guidelines for each part of the essay. Print out the PDF to save as a reference for formatting essays in the future. Then write down on a separate sheet of paper, the information to include in a header and how the header gets set up, what type of spacing and font are used for an essay, and what a B-level heading looks like.

Once you have studied the MLA sample paper and feel comfortable with the formatting guidelines, move on to the Got It? section to see formatting in action and test your knowledge.

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