5 wise practices: MLA format

MLA format. Most students are startled when their college professors start throwing this phrase around like it’s a household name. MLA format doesn’t have to be foreign, confusing, or the cause for failing your next essay. Read these five wise practices for MLA format, and you’ll get the hang of it in no time.

1. Focus on content first.

  • Too many students let the daunting task of using an unfamiliar format paralyze them. They decide not to start their essay or the next paragraph until they can get the header or line spacing set up just right.
  • Format is important, but without content, you have nothing to “form.” Write your essay following the structure of an easy model/graphic organizer and then  fine tune the format afterwards. Remember: if you do choose this route, keep your sources handy for later.
Hit the books! Or crawl on them.

Hit the books! Or crawl on them.

2. Use MLA format for English courses only.

  • Unless for some strange reason your professor instructs otherwise, you should stick to MLA format for all English courses – whether you’re in English 101 or Literary Theory. It is the standard format for English essays, updated every now and then and published in the MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers.
  • On the other hand, if you’re taking a social science or history course, then you will likely have to learn APA and Turabian, respectively. This can get super confusing, but it might prove helpful to understand why MLA format has its particular traits. For example, in-text citations in MLA use just the author’s last name (or work, in some cases) and a page number. As opposed to APA, you do not need to list a year in the in-text citation because in analyzing literature, it is not so important when the text was written. Literature, unlike scientific research and studies and findings, doesn’t grow outdated.

3. Refer to the Owl at Purdue website. . . often. 

  • This website is one of the easiest go-to reference materials for MLA format. The thorough guide, which includes ample examples of every facet of MLA format, is much more user-friendly than the actual print handbook. Save yourself the confusion, and refer to this site frequently. Very frequently.
Image credit: Wikimedia Commons user Russavia

Go to the Owl.
(Image credit: Wikimedia Commons user Russavia)

4. Try a dependable citation builder and double check its accuracy.

  • Be warned: not every citation builder on the web is up-to-date. The most recent edition of the MLA Handbook (at the time of this post) is the 7th edition, published in 2009. Any resource based on an earlier version of the handbook is useless to you
  • EasyBib.com and CitationMachine.net both seem to be reliable citation builders. Make sure to double check the citations that they create by comparing them to the Owl at Purdue website or the handbook.

5. Visit an MLA master.

  • Most college campuses have a writing center and/or tutoring services. Consider visiting one of these locations to have a well-educated English major, grad or even professor help you check over your essay for MLA errors.
  • Do NOT simply skip to this step and walk into your session with a blank piece of paper or one flimsy paragraph. The more work you have attempted on your own, the more productive your session will be.
  • Likewise, don’t expect your tutor to make all the corrections and hand you back your paper in tip top shape. Be prepared to make (sometimes significant) changes to your format. Learn from this experience so that, next time, you won’t have to make quite as many changes.
Patience, grasshopper.

Patience, grasshopper.

Don’t give up or get frustrated as you tackle MLA. You’re learning something new, and as is always the case, you’ll probably make a lot of mistakes during the learning process. Eventually, you WILL get the hang of MLA after all.


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