Formatting Papers in Accepted Academic Style

Introduction

This useful guide provides tips for formatting documents using MS (Microsoft) Word. These tips were developed in line with accepted standards for formatting an academic paper and in accordance with the manner prescribed in most APA and MLA style guides or rule books. The rules set out here can be applied to the majority of college papers. However, some professors will at times set out their own specific requirements and these may be slightly different from the rules described below. The important thing is to always check your tutor or professors’ requirements.     

When you use accepted formatting standards in an academic paper it shows you understands the customary practices of the academic community. This is, therefore, a great way of boosting your own academic credentials and credibility. By contrast, if you use an unusual, distinctive or non-standard formatting style, it suggests you were not properly tutored by your previous school for college or university-level coursework. Think about the impact non-standard formatting can have. It does not just draw what may prove to be non-positive attention to your work, but your professors might get the impression you are attempting to make a paper look longer. 

The Margins of Your Documents

Standard rule: You should allow a one-inch margin on all sides of the page in any paper you submit for grading or review. You should make this your default setting in MS Word, but if one-and-a-quarter inch margins are required, you will need to alter your default settings. Generally speaking, the requirements when determining page length assume margins of one inch. 

How to Set Margins:

  • From the ‘Format’ menu, choose ‘Document,’ and then set the margins to your required dimensions.
  • Now click the ‘Default’ option, and accept your changes.
  • Be careful that the gutter is left set at ‘0’ or the formatting in your document will get messed up.

Indenting Paragraphs

Standard rule: For each new paragraph, it is necessary to automatically indent the first text line.

How to set indentation: You should ensure this is the default setting in MS Word. However, if this is not the case, it is recommended you use the instructions above to change whatever style is your ‘normal.’ The following are the instructions for changing the indentation in a document.

  • From the ‘Edit’ menu, click ‘Select All.’
  • Then from the ‘Format’ menu, go to the ‘Paragraph’ option,
  • Now look for the ‘Indentation’ tab where you will find a drop-down menu labelled ‘Special.’ Choose ‘First Line.’

This will automatically indent the first lines of all new paragraphs, which means you won’t have to keep doing this in manual fashion.

Choosing or Setting Font Size and Style

Standard rule: Virtually every college paper is expected to be typed in a standard academic-style and size font. These fonts are usually 12pt Cambria or Times New Roman. If the paper you submit is in a different font, it may be rejected by your tutor or they may change it when they download it.

How to set or change fonts: A 12pt Cambria or Times New Roman font should be the default setting in MS Word. However, if it is not, then the default can be changed as follows:

  • From the ‘Format’ menu, choose the ‘Style’ option.
  • From the styles list, select ‘Normal’ and then click on ‘Modify.’
  • In the ‘Formatting’ menu, select the required font style and size.
  • Lastly, click on ‘OK’ to make this your default setting.

The Alignment of Text

Standard rule: In an academic paper, text should be aligned to the left margin and left unjustified. The reason for this is that it is more difficult to read text when it is justified and not typeset in a professional manner. In MS Word, text is left-aligned by default so there is no need to make any changes.

Formatting of First Pages

First Page Heading

Standard rule: The writer should type their name, date, course title, number and section, paper version (e.g. Paper 2 First draft) on separate lines in the top left-hand corner of the first essay or document page. Make sure you modify dates and versions as you keep submitting revised and final paper versions. 

It is advisable not to use the ‘headers’ option in MS Word’s ‘Header/Footer’ menu for this step. This is because it causes this first heading to show on every subsequent page and this is not common practice when writing academic papers. Additionally, you should not include a title or cover page unless you are specifically asked to do so for a particular assignment.   

Adding the Title or Name of Your Paper

Standard rule: Leave a blank line following your heading and write an original name or title that reflects your paper’s topic. Place this title in the center. Avoid using italics or underling for your heading unless it is a reference to the title of an article, book, etc. Neither should you put the title in all capital letters or use bold typeface.  

Adding Page Numbering

Standard rule: Academic papers should have page numbers. These should appear in the top right-hand corner of every page apart from the first page. Try not to insert page numbers manually. It is best to use the ‘Header/Footer’ feature in MS Word to have them automatically generated.  

If your paper is being written in the MLA style, add your surname and the number of the page to the top right-hand corner. If you are using the APA style, add a shortened version of the title (in place of your surname) and the number of the page to the top right-hand corner. 

How to add page numbers:

  • Select the ‘Header and Footer’ option from the ‘View’ menu. You should now see a header dialog box and a footer dialog box at the top and bottom respectively.
  • Click the header option, enter your surname or paper’s title and align it to the right-hand side.
  • Now, from the ‘Insert’ menu, choose ‘Page Numbers.’
  • Click ‘Close’ when you are done.

These steps should cause a page number to be automatically generated in the top right-hand side, even when changes are made. The header and footer option will remain greyed out and will need to be activated when changes are needed.

If you do not want page numbers displayed on the first page:

  • From the ‘Format’ menu, go to ‘Document’ and click on the button labelled ‘Layout.’
  • You should see an option called ‘Different First Page.’ Click this.
  • Now click on ‘OK.’

If needs be, remove the first page header and insert one on the next (second) page. This should now appear automatically on subsequent document pages.

Line Spacing

Standard rule: Double-space your full paper. This rule includes headings and bibliographies.

How to set or change line spacing:

  • Find the ‘Edit’ menu and choose the option ‘Select All.’
  • From the ‘Format’ menu, go to the ‘Paragraph’ option.
  • Look for ‘Line Spacing’ and select ‘Double.’

Alternatively, any of the following keyboard shortcuts can be used to create double-spacing: Ctrl-A and Ctrl-2 (PC users) or Cmd-A and Cmd-2 (Mac users) to select all and create double-spacing.  

How Spacing Applies to Paragraphs

Standard rule: There should not be any extra spaces between paragraphs. This setting should be the default in MS Word. However, if you have set your system for 10point spaces between paragraphs, this should be changed.

How to set paragraph spacing:

  • From the ‘Format’ menu, go to ‘Styles.’ From the styles list, check that ‘Normal’ is chosen. Click the ‘Modify’ option.
  • Find the ‘Format’ drop-down menu in the bottom left-hand corner, and go to ‘Paragraph.’

When the settings menu appears, change the ‘Spacing’ settings to 0point.

Creating New Pages

To start a new page for, say, a bibliography, follow the instructions below rather than hitting the ‘return’ key lots of times:

  • From the ‘Insert’ menu, go to ‘Break,’ and then to ‘Page Break.’

Block or Blocked Quotes

Standard rule: Generally, where a quotation exceeds 4 lines, it should be separated from the rest of the text by indenting and ‘blocking’ it. As applies to all quotations, you should clearly indicate the blocked variety with an introductory sentence. Furthermore, it should be correctly cited but the rules in this case are slightly different. The concept of ‘blocking’ replaces quotation marks and the parenthesized citation, which may be several sentences long, differs from normal in-paragraph citation in that it is placed outside instead of inside the last period in the sentence. 

How to create a blocked quotation:

  • First, write your quotation in a paragraph of its own – without any quotation marks or first line indentation.
  • After the last full-stop (period) of the final sentence, add the source in parentheses.
  • With the cursor, select the quoted matter from its very first word to the last character of the parenthesized citation.
  • From the ‘Paragraph Formatting’ menu, click on the ‘Increase Indent’ option.  
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