Editing a Research Paper, MLA Style

Editing a Research Paper: MLA Style

The Modern Language Association (MLA) is a professional organization for teachers, scholars, and students of language and literature. They run a number of prestigious peer-reviewed journals as well as an annual conference, but for most students they are best known as the publishers of the MLA Manual of Style. This book, along with its companion, The MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers, are used as style guides for research papers in a wide variety of fields, particularly in the humanities.
The MLA Manual of Style covers every aspect of research paper writing, from capitalization to formatting tables to in-text citations. It can be a daunting task to comb through the hundreds of pages in a style guide to find what you need for your paper, so to help you get your research paper in shape, we've put together this short guide to editing MLA style. All information is taken from the 7th Edition of the MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers, published in 2009.

The Basics

Formatting a research paper may not seem like a big deal, but to the teachers, professors, and publishers who read dozens or even hundreds of student papers, issues like spacing and margins can be very important. Correctly formatting your paper makes it easy to read and shows whoever is reading your work that you care enough to spend the time it takes to get it right.
  • Margins. Use 1" margins on all four sides of the page.
  • Indentation. Indent the start of a paragraph 1/2 inch from the left margin; indent set-off quotations one inch.
  • Font. Choose a common and easy-to-read font like Times New Roman or Arial.
  • Size. Use 12 point font.
  • Page numbers. Number pages consecutively in the upper right-hand corner. If your paper has a title page it should not be included in the page numbering.
  • Spacing. Double space the entire paper, including quotations and the works cited page.
  • Title page. MLA style does not require a title page. Instead, include on the first page of the paper your name, class information, and date in the upper left-hand corner. The title of the paper should be centered with a double space between the title and first paragraph.

Common Spelling, Grammar, and Punctuation Issues

The MLA style guide includes sections on everything from comma use to hyphen advice, but you likely won't need to consult the guide unless you have a specific question. In general, if you follow common guidelines for spelling, grammar, and punctuation your paper will fit within MLA standards. Below you'll find a list of common formatting issues addressed by the MLA.
  • Hyphens. Do not divide words at the end of a line; you may need to turn off your word processor's automatic hyphenation option.
  • Foreign words. In general, foreign words that are not commonly used in English should be italicized. For example: "The woman said, sotto voce, that she did not want to leave." Foreign words that have been adopted for use in English do not need to be italicized - words like vice versa, hors d'oeuvre, and per diem. If a common English dictionary like Merriam-Webster includes the word, it does not need to be italicized.
  • Names. The first time a person is referred to in a paper use his or her complete name; all following references can use the last name only.
  • Numbers.
    • Spell out only numbers that are one or two words long. For example: seven, thirty-two, three thousand, 159, 4016.
    • Use numerals for numbers that include a unit of measurement. For example, 5 inches.
    • Always use numerals for addresses and page numbers.
    • Never start a sentence with a numeral. For example: "Two thousand ten was the year it all began."
  • Dates. The MLA allows for both day-month-year and month-day-year for writing dates, just remember to be consistent throughout the paper.
  • Spacing. The MLA allow for either one or two spaces after a sentence as long as spacing is consistent throughout the paper.
  • Capitalization. For titles and headings, capitalize all words except prepositions, articles, conjunctions, and the infinitive to. For example: Princes, Idiots, and Thieves: a Guide to the Characters of Shakespeare.
And remember, no matter what style guide you're using for your paper, always check for errors in spelling and grammar.

Tables and Figures

Tables and figures should be placed in the text as close as possible to where they are referenced. The number and title of the table should be flush left above the table, and the source and notes should be located below the table. Figures, which includes pictures, maps, and graphs, should be numbered separately from tables. The number and a brief description should be included beneath the figure.

Citing Other Works

Citing other works correctly is often the most time-consuming part of editing an MLA research paper. But while the formatting requirements for cited works might seem tedious, with a little bit of practice it's easy to make your paper accurate and professional.

What to cite

Any well-written research paper will be building on the work of others - that's what puts the "research" in research paper. Because your paper is likely to be a blend of your own ideas along with the ideas and opinions of others, providing credit to original authors is an absolute must when writing. Not only is it the ethical choice, but it will also keep you from getting in trouble for plagiarism. When doing research for a paper, though, it can sometimes be difficult to draw the line between your own work and the thoughts and ideas you uncover in your reading. The MLA offers a few easy-to-follow guidelines to help you decide when to cite works:
  • Anything taken word-for-word from another document should be put in quotes and appropriately attributed.
  • Any ideas, opinions, or facts that are paraphrased from another document should cite the original source.
  • Commonly accepted information that will be recognized by readers does not need to be cited.
  • When it doubt, always cite the work in question.

In-text citations

Direct quotes and paraphrasing should be followed by an acknowledgement in parenthesis at the end of the sentence of the author being cited and the location of the quote (usually a page number). For example: The ideas of Galileo were "heatedly debated and ultimately rejected" by contemporary religious leaders (Weston 57).
Following this guideline will generally be all you need to worry about, but there are a few special cases to keep in mind.
  • If the author is named in the sentence, then only a page number needs to be cited. For example: Lopez and Hale claim that the decision to include Virginia Woolf on the list was "ridiculous" (118).
  • If you are citing work from two authors with the same last name, include the initials of their first names. For example: (J. Huston 10), (F. Huston 65).
  • When using two quotes in the same sentence, it is acceptable to use one set of parenthesis for the citation as long as the source is clear. For example: The girls found themselves "in a strange, otherworldly place" and "almost immediately regretted their decision to stray so far from home" (Atherton 15, 17).
  • When citing an entire work, it is often not necessary to use a parenthetical reference. For example: The opening scene in Shakespeare's Hamlet is considered one of his best.

Works cited page

All the works you directly cite in your paper should be collected at the end of your paper into a single list under the title Works Cited. Documents you used in the course of your research but did not directly cite in the body of your paper do not need to be included. Entries should be sorted alphabetically by the author's last name. The first line of each entry should begin at the left margin with subsequent lines indented 1/2 inch.
The MLA guide includes directions for how to write entries for a wide variety of sources. Below are three commonly used sources.
  • Journal articles. Last name, first name. "Article title." Journal Title Volume.Issue (year): pages. Medium. Date of access (if online).
Poulson, Nicholas D, and Lechler, Terry. "Robust control of mitotic spindle orientation in the developing epidermis." Journal of Cell Biology 191.5 (2010): 915-922. Web. 15 Aug. 2011.
  • Books. Last name, first name. Title. City of publication: Publisher, year. Medium.
Sullivan, John Jeremiah. Pulphead: Essays. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011. Print.
  • Website articles. Last name, first name. Title. Title of website. Date of publication. Medium. Date of access.
Luhrman, Tanya Maria. Beyond the Brain. The Wilson Quarterly. Summer 2012. Web. 18 Sept. 2012
The MLA does not require the inclusion of URLs or links in the Works Cited page.
Of course this list can't cover everything when it comes to editing your research paper, so if you have a specific question or need more information on MLA formatting, refer to either The MLA Manual of Style or The MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers.

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