This guide explains how to format your documents in Microsoft Word so that they follow the standard rules for formatting academic papers as described in most MLA and APA style books for undergraduate writing. These rules apply to most of the papers you will submit in your college classes, but in some cases your professors will want you to follow specific guidelines that may differ from those below. Always clarify with your professor which set of guidelines he or she wants you to follow before you submit a paper.
Using standard formatting for academic papers shows that you understand the customs of the university community and therefore helps to boost your own credibility. Using unusual or highly distinctive formatting, on the other hand, suggests that your previous schooling did not adequately prepare you for university work. Consider the impact of unusual formatting: not only does it call attention to your paper in a way that might not be positive, professors might also see it as a sign that you’re trying to artificially inflate page length.
Note: These instructions apply to all versions of Word for Mac and for the 2003 version of Word for Windows. I haven’t yet updated them to include instructions for the 2007 version of Word for Windows, but the tools should nevertheless be easy to find if you look around on the toolbar at the top.
Rule: Papers submitted for review or grading should have 1” margins all around. This should be the default for Word, but if your default setting is to have left and right margins of 1.25”, change your default. Page length requirements are based on 1” margins.
Instructions: Go to the Format menu, drag down to Document, change the margins, and the click on the Default button and accept the change to the Normal template. Make sure you leave the gutter set to 0” or you’ll mess up your document formatting.
Rule: The first line of each paragraph should be automatically indented.
Instructions: This should be the default for Word, but if not, you might want to change your Normal style, as described above. To change the indentation format for a document, choose Select All from the Edit menu. Then go to the Format menu, drag down to Paragraph, look under the “Special” drop-down menu in the Indentation section, and select “First Line.” This setting automatically indents the first line of a new paragraph so that you don’t have to do it manually.
Rule: College papers should be in a standard academic font: either Times New Roman or Cambria, in 12pt size. (If you submit a paper in another font, I will change it on the file I download.)
Instructions: Times New Roman or Cambria 12pt should be the default for Word, but if yours is different then change your default. Go to the Format menu, drag down to Style, make sure “Normal” is selected from the list of styles, and click “modify.” Choose the correct font and size from the Formatting menu. Click “OK” to make the change to your default settings.
Rule: The text of your paper should be left aligned, NOT justified, as justified text is hard to read if it hasn’t been professionally typeset. The default in Word is left alignment, so don’t change it.
FIRST PAGE FORMAT
Rule: In the upper left corner of the first page of your document, type your name, the date, the course number and section (or topic), and the version of the paper (such as Paper 1 Second Draft), each on a separate line. Be sure to change the date and paper version when you submit revisions and final versions. See the sample below.
DO NOT use the “headers” feature from the header/footer menu to create this full heading as that will make it appear on every page, which is not customary in academic writing. Also do NOT use a title page unless the assignment specifically asks for one.
Rule: Skip a line after the heading and center an original title that conveys the topic of your paper. Do not use underlining or italics in the heading (unless you’re referring to the title of a book or periodical). Do not use bold text or ALL CAPS.
Sample First Page
Rule: All papers should have automatically inserted page numbers that show in the upper right corner on all pages except the first. Do not insert these page numbers by hand. Instead, use Word’s Header/Footer tool.
For documents following MLA format, put your last name and page number in the upper right corner. For documents following APA format, put a short version of your title (instead of your last name) and the page number in the upper right corner.
Instructions: Go to the View menu and choose “Header and Footer.” You’ll see a header box appear at the top and a footer box at the bottom. Click in the header box, type your last name (or title), make it align to the right, and then select Page Numbers from the Insert menu.
When you’re finished, click on the “Close” tab under the Header view. Each page of your document should now display a page number at the upper right that updates automatically when you make changes to the document. It will appear as grayed out text unless you active the Header and Footer tool to make changes.
To change the setting so that page numbers do not display on the first page, go to the Format men, drag down to Document, and click on the Layout button. Then check the box next to “Different First Page.” Click OK. If necessary, remove the header that appears on the first page and insert a header on the second page, which will automatically appear on all subsequent pages as well.
Rule: The entire paper should be double-spaced, including the heading and bibliography.
Instructions: Choose “Select All” from the Edit menu, go to the Format menu and drag down to Paragraph, and choose “double” from the “line spacing” menu in the Spacing section. Or you can use these keyboard shortcuts. On a Mac, use Cmd-A to select all and Cmd-2 to double-space. On a PC, use Ctrl-A to select all and Ctrl-2 to double space.
Rule: Papers should have no extra spacing after paragraphs. This should be the default for Word, but if your default setting is to have 10pt spacing after paragraphs, change your default.
Instructions: Go to the Format menu, drag down to Style, make sure “Normal” is selected from the list of styles, and click “modify.” In the lower left corner, select the dropdown menu that starts with “Format” and drag down to Paragraph. In the paragraph settings menu that pops up, change the settings for Spacing After to 0pt.
CREATE NEW PAGE
Instead of using a lot of returns before starting your bibliography, create a new page for it following these instructions.
Go to the Insert menu, drag down to Break, and then drag over to Page Break.
Rule: If a quotation will exceed four lines within a paragraph, you should separate it out by blocking and indenting it. As with any quotation, a blocked quotation should be clearly introduced by the sentence that leads up to it and it should also be properly cited, but the rules for blocked quotations are somewhat different. The blocking take the place of quotation marks, and unlike in a regular in-paragraph quotation, the parenthetical citation goes outside of the final period instead of inside of it (given that the blocked quote might contain several sentences.)
Instructions: Type the quotation in its own paragraph, without quotation marks, and remove the indent from the first line. Type the source in parentheses after the last period of the last sentence. With your cursor, select the quotation, from the first word to the end of the parenthetical citation, and click the Increase Indent button from the Paragraph Formatting menu.
- Have you ever borrowed some books to start your research and realised you did not know where to begin?
- Have you ever spent time reading a great deal of information that in the end was irrelevant to the essay or assignment you were working on?
- Have you ever started to write your essay and realised you had too much information on one topic, and not enough information on another topic?
If you write the first draft of your essay plan before you begin your research, you will be organised and prepared, and you will save time.
You must write the first draft of your essay plan before you start your research. This will give your research direction and ultimately make it easier for you to write your essay. Having a plan will let you know what you need to research and how much research you need on each topic or subject that you will be writing about.
You will base this first draft of your essay plan on your essay question, and your current knowledge of your subject. You will not often be asked to write an essay on a topic you know nothing about, since you will already be studying the subject and will normally have had one or more lectures or tutorials on the topic.
It is acceptable if your essay plan is rough or vague at this point, or if you do not have a great deal of detail. You will develop your essay plan (expanding it and including more detail) and possibly even change it as you go through the research process.
What does a first draft of an essay plan look like?
The first draft of your essay plan will show you what main topics you will discuss in your essay, how the essay will be structured, and roughly how many words you will spend on each part.
If your essay question was 'Is Critical Thinking relevant to the role of a Registered Nurse?' and you had to write 1,500 words, then your essay plan might look like this:
(Please note that this sample essay plan is intended only to serve as a guide for how to develop and write an essay plan, and should not be used as an essay plan by students writing an essay on this topic.)
Introductions and conclusions
As you can see from the example essay plan above, an introduction and a conclusion will normally be approximately ten per cent of the word count of the entire essay. (This is a general guide and does not apply to essays longer than 5,000 words).
In order to be considered a true introduction, your first paragraph must do two things:
- Answer the essay question in a clear statement (this is called your thesis statement)
- Introduce the main points your essay will make to support your argument
Essay question: 'Is Critical Thinking relevant to the role of a Registered Nurse?'
Essay length: 1,500 words
Introduction (150 words)
- Thesis statement: Through an examination of the evidence, it is clear that Critical Thinking is highly relevant to the role of a Registered Nurse for a number of reasons.
- Introduce main points or topics to be discussed: accuracy of diagnoses, patient outcomes, prevent and solve problems, communication
Topic 1: Accuracy of diagnoses (300 words)
Topic 2: Patient outcomes (300 words)
Topic 3: Prevent and solve problems (300 words)
Topic 4: Communication (300 words)
Conclusion (150 words)
- Concluding statement: Thus, it can be seen that the concept of Critical Thinking is invaluable and highly relevant to Registered Nurses.
- Sum up main points or topics that have been discussed: accuracy of diagnoses, patient outcomes, prevent and solve problems, communication
You cannot discuss any major points or topics in your essay if you have not introduced them in your introduction. In addition, you must discuss all your main points or topics in the order that you introduce them in your introduction. This helps to maintain the flow and structure of your essay.
Similarly, in order to be considered a true conclusion, your last paragraph must do two things:
- Restate the answer to the essay question (i.e. restate your thesis statement)
- Sum up the main points your essay has made to support your argument
Remember, a conclusion cannot contain any new information.
Body of the essay and topic sentences
You can find out how many words you will write in the body of your essay by taking away the number you will spend on your introduction and conclusion from the total amount. How you divide the number of words in the body of your essay between your main topics will depend on how important each topic is to your argument. How long you spend writing about each topic should reflect the importance of each topic. If all of your topics were of equal importance, you would write roughly the same amount of words on each. If one topic were more important, you would write about it first and spend longer discussing it. If one topic were less important, you would write about it last and write fewer words on it.
Using topic sentences at the beginning of each new paragraph is essential to ensure that your essay is well organised and well structured. It also ensures that the essay flows logically and reads well. (This is something that your essay editor can check for you when you submit your document for editing.) A topic sentence must do two things:
- Introduce the new topic about to be discussed
- Show how this new topic helps to answer the essay question or support your argument in answering the essay question
If your essay question were 'Is Critical Thinking relevant to the role of a Registered Nurse?' and you were about to discuss the topic 'accuracy of diagnoses', then your topic sentence might sound like this: 'Another way in which Critical Thinking is highly relevant to the role of a Registered Nurse is in ensuring accuracy of diagnoses'. This sentence clearly demonstrates to the reader that you are about to discuss 'accuracy of diagnoses' and you are doing so because it is another way that Critical Thinking is relevant to Registered Nurses, which is what your essay is arguing.
The information in this article is relevant to the second step of writing an academic essay. However, there are five other steps. Please ensure you read all of the articles in the series How to Write Distinction Essays Every Time. When you have completed following the steps and have written your essay, remember to submit it to one of our academic editors for professional editing. Academic essay editing and proofreading helps students to improve their grades.
Other parts in this series;
Step 1: Analyse the Question
Step 2: Draft the Essay Plan
Step 3: Conduct the Research
Step 4: Finalise the Essay Plan
Step 5: Write the First Draft of the Essay
Step 6: Professional Academic Editing
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