Recommendations here are based on the MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers. It is important to note, however, that individual instructors and institutions or departments may vary from these recommendations somewhat and that it is always wise to consult with your instructor before formatting and submitting your work.
Paper: Use white, twenty-pound, 81/2- by 11-inch paper. Erasable paper tends to smudge and should be avoided for a final draft. If you prefer to use erasable paper in the preparation of your paper, submit a good photocopy to your instructor.
Margins: Except for page numbers (see below), leave one-inch margins all around the text of your paper – left side, right side, and top and bottom. Paragraphs should be indented half an inch; set-off quotations should be indented an inch from the left margin (five spaces and ten spaces, respectively, on standard typewriters).
Spacing: The MLA Guide says "the research paper must be double-spaced," including quotations, notes, and the list of works cited.
Heading and Title: Your research paper does not need a title page. At the top of the first page, at the left-hand margin, type your name, your instructor’s name, the course name and number, and the date – all on separate, double-spaced lines. Then double-space again and center the title above your text. (If your title requires more than one line, double-space between the lines.) Double-space again before beginning your text. The title should be neither underlined nor written in all capital letters. Capitalize only the first, last, and principal words of the title. Titles might end with a question mark or an exclamation mark if that is appropriate, but not in a period. Titles written in other languages are capitalized and punctuated according to different rules, and writers should consult the MLA Guide or their instructors.
Page Numbers: Number your pages consecutively throughout the manuscript (including the first page) in the upper right-hand corner of each page, one-half inch from the top. Type your last name before the page number. Most word processing programs provide for a "running head," which you can set up as you create the format for the paper, at the same time you are establishing things like the one-inch margins and the double-spacing. This feature makes the appearance and consistency of the page numbering a great convenience. Make sure the page-number is always an inch from the right-hand edge of the paper (flush with the right-hand margin of your text) and that there is a double-space between the page number and the top line of text. Do not use the abbreviation p. or any other mark before the page number.
Tables and Figures: Tables should be labeled "Table," given an Arabic numeral, and captioned (with those words flush to the left-hand margin). Other material such as photographs, images, charts, and line drawings should be labeled "Figure" and be properly numbered and captioned.
Binders: Generally, the simpler the better. Why spend money on gimmicky, unwieldy binders, when instructors prefer nice, flat stacks of papers they can stuff into their briefcases and backpacks? A simple staple in the upper left-hand corner of your paper should suffice, although the MLA Guide suggests that a paper clip can be removed and this facilitates reading. Your instructors or their departments may have their own rules about binders, and you should consult with them about this matter.
Preparing & using Outlines: Using an outline can help you organize your material and can also help you discover connections between pieces of information that you weren’t aware of when you first conceived the plan of your paper. It can also make you aware of material that is not really relevant to the purposes of your paper or material that you have covered before and should therefore be removed.
A Working Outline might be only an informal list of topics and subtopics which you are thinking of covering in your paper. Sometimes, however, an instructor might require that a working outline be submitted at the beginning of your work; then your instructor might suggest ways in which the work needs to be further developed or cut back. Your instructor might also see that you’re trying to accomplish too much or too little for the scope of the assignment he or she has in mind. The working outline can be revised as you discover new material and get new ideas that ought to go into your paper. Most word processing programs have outlining features with automatic formatting that make it easy to create and revise outlines. It is a good idea to keep copies of old outlines in a computer folder in case new versions of the outline lead you in false directions that you will later have to abandon.
A Final Outline should enhance the organization and coherence of your research paper. Instructors sometimes require that a final outline be submitted along with the final version of your paper. Material that is not relevant to the purpose of your paper as revealed in your outline should be excised from the paper; if portions of your outline seem weak in comparison to others, more research may be required to create a sense of balance in your argument and presentation.
Outlines can be organized according to your purposes. Are you attempting to show the chronology of some historical development, the cause-and-effect relationship between one phenomenon and another, the process by which something is accomplished, or the logic of some position? Are you defining or analyzing something? Comparing or contrasting one thing to another? Presenting an argument (one side or both)?
In any case, try to bring related material together under general headings and arrange sections so they relate logically to each other. An effective introduction will map out the journey your reader is about to take, and a satisfactory conclusion will wrap up the sequence of ideas in a nice package.
A final outline can be written as a topic outline, in which you use only short phrases to suggest ideas, or as a sentence outline, in which you use full sentences (even very brief paragraphs) to show the development of ideas more fully. If your instructor requires an outline, follow consistently whichever plan he or she prefers.
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