The aim of this guide is to explain the standard format of an academic paper and to show you how to set up these standards in MS Word. The advice provided here adheres to that set out in the APA and MLA style guides for academic writing. The advice in this guide should be applicable to most of the papers you will be required to submit during your academic career. However, there are times when different tutors and professors may provide specific instructions that differ slightly from those provided here. Therefore, it is best to always consult your tutor if you need clarification on what rules to follow.
The use of a standard style of formatting in academic writing is a way of showing you understand how university life works. In turn, this can help improve your credibility as a student. If, by contrast, you use an unusual or non-standard formatting style, it can suggest you are not sufficiently prepared for university-level writing. Think what impact non-standard formatting can have. As well as the possibility of drawing negative attention to your written work, it could lead your professor to thinking you are attempting to “bulk up” the length of a paper.
Standard rule: The usual font size and style for college-level papers is a 12-point Times New Roman font. Your tutor may change the font style and size if you use any other type.
How to set or change font size and style: In MS Word, 12-point Times New Roman font is usually the default option. However, if this is not the case, you can change it by choosing the ‘Style’ option in the ‘Format’ menu. From the styles list, ‘Normal’ should be selected. Click the ‘Modify’ option. Choose your desired font style and size and select ‘OK’ to make these the default settings.
Standard rule: Any paper being submitted for evaluation or to be graded should have a one-inch margin on all sides. This is usually the default setting in MS Word. However, if you need one-and-a-quarter inch margins on the left and right-hand sides, you can change the default settings. Generally, requirements in terms of page length assume one-inch margins.
How to set margins:Choose the ‘Document’ option from the ‘Format’ menu, and change the margin size as required. Find the ‘Default’ button, click it, and ‘Accept’ your changes. To avoid disrupting your document’s formatting, the gutter should be left at 0 inches.
Standard rule: Your paper’s text should not be fully justified but it should be aligned to the left-hand margin. Text can be difficult to read when it is fully justified and not typeset in a professional manner. In MS Word, the default is left margin alignment so you should not change this.
Standard rule: Each paragraph’s first line of text should be indented automatically.
How to set or change indentations: Standard indentations should already be set as the default in MS Word. However, if this is not the case, change your word processor’s ‘Normal’ settings as suggested above. To set or change document indentation, look for the ‘Select All’ option in the ‘Edit’ menu. Now go to the ‘Paragraph’ option in the ‘Format’ menu. In the ‘Indentation’ section, you will see a drop-down menu labelled ‘Special.’ From here, choose ‘First Line.’ This will automatically indent the first lines of all paragraphs, which saves you doing it in manual fashion.
Standard rule: Place your name, date, course reference number, topic or faculty, and paper version (e.g., Paper 2 Third Draft), on separate lines in the top left-hand corner of your document’s first page. Remember to alter the assignment date and version number when you hand in revised and/or final versions.
NB: Remember not to use MS Word’s “headers” option (which you will find in the ‘Header/Footer’ menu) because this will cause the header to be displayed on each page and this is not usual practice in academic assignments. Additionally, a title or cover page should not be used unless you are specifically asked to provide one.
Standard rule: Leave a blank line under the header and then type your title in the centre of the page. Try to devise a unique title that reflects your paper’s topic. You should not underline your header or use an italics font unless it is a reference to a book title or another work’s title. Neither should this be in a bold font or fully capitalized.
Standard rule: A page number should be automatically entered on every page of an academic paper. Apart from the first page, numbers should be displayed in the top right-hand corner of every page. Rather than entering these numbers manually, you should use the ‘Header/Footer’ feature in MS Word.
If you are using the MLA formatting style, your surname and essay page number should appear in the top right-hand corner. If you are using the APA formatting style, use a shortened version of your paper’s title (in place of your surname) as well as the page number, also in the top right-hand corner.
How to set or change page numbering: Select the ‘Header and Footer’ option from the ‘View’ menu. A header dialog box should be displayed on top and a footer dialogue box at the end. Click somewhere in the header option, enter your surname or paper title and align this text to the right-hand side. Now, from the ‘Insert’ menu choose ‘Page Numbers.’
When you are done, click the “Close” option in the ‘Header’ box. A page number should now appear in the top right-hand corner of every page and this should automatically update as changes occur. The header will be greyed out until the ‘Header and Footer’ feature is activated.
If you want to alter the page number settings so that a number is not displayed on your first page, go to the ‘Document’ option in the ‘Format’ menu and look for ‘Layout.’ Click this and checkmark the box beside the “Different First Page” option. Choose OK. Remove the first page header if needs be and enter your header on the second text page. This will cause page numbers to be automatically generated on all the following pages.
Standard rule: The standard format for academic papers is double-spacing throughout, including headers and bibliographies.
How to set or alter line spacing: From MS Word’s ‘Edit’ menu, click the ‘Select All’ option. Now go to the ‘Paragraph’ option in the ‘Format’ menu where you will see a “Line Spacing’ option in the section labelled ‘Spacing.’ Here, you should select ‘double.’ Alternatively, you can use the following shortcuts on your keyboard:
Standard rule: Academic papers do not need an extra line space between paragraphs. In MS Word, this is usually the default. However, you can change the default if you want 10 point line spacing at the end of paragraphs.
How to set or change line spacing for paragraphs: Choose ‘Style’ from the ‘Format’ menu. Select ‘Normal’ from the styles list. Click the ‘Modify’ option. You will see a pull-down menu starting with ‘Format’ in the bottom left-hand corner. From here, go to the ‘Paragraph’ option and change the ‘Spacing After’ option to 0 points in the pop-up menu.
To create a fresh page for, say, a bibliography, choose ‘Break,’ and then the ‘Page Break’ option, which you will find in the ‘Insert’ drop-down menu. This saves entering several returns to create a new page.
Standard rule: Where a quote within any paragraph exceeds four lines, it should be separated by indenting and blocking it. As is the case with all quotations, blocked quotes need to be introduced in the sentences preceding them and they should be correctly cited. However, there are some different rules for block quotes. For instance, the blocking effect replaces quotation marks, and contrary to standard in-text quotations, the parenthesised quotes are placed outside and not inside the last full-stop e.g. on the basis that the block quote might be made up of multiple sentences.
How to create a blocked quotation: Insert the quote (with no quotation marks or first-line indentation) in a paragraph of its own. The source should be inserted in parenthesis after the final full stop of the last-written sentence. Using your cursor, select the quote from its first word to the end. From the ‘Paragraph Formatting’ menu, click the ‘Increase Indent’ option to block it.