There are nearly as many different possible formats for writing a paper as there are instructors. The only way to know that your papers are going to conform exactly with what your instructors are looking for is to ask what they want! Ask to look at a sample paper. If all instructors could agree on one simple format, that would be nice, and that style would probably be something easy to remember, like the style recommended by the Modern Language Association. The college's Guide to Writing Research Papers contains a section on formatting papers, MLA-style, that should be helpful.

Here are some generic suggestions for formatting your paper, attempted answers to the inevitable question: "What's this paper supposed to look like?" But remember, if you have any doubts or questions, ask your instructor!

  1. Word-processing is not just a good thing, a clever technological device to make your writing look good; it makes the composing and editing processes much easier and (some people claim) even fun; it is technology that you ignore to your peril!
  2. Double-space all typing in all documents. A serif typing font should be used, something like Times, Times Roman, or Times New Roman in a 12-point font size. Don't use anything fancy and avoid the non-serif fonts (except for headlines, if you have any), as they can become difficult to read after a while; cursive scripts are forbidden. Never mix font styles.

    Use one-inch margins (or a bit more, never less), all the way around the edge of your text. Do not use justified margins (even right margins), even though your word-processor makes that look really nifty. Justified margins tend to create some word-divisions and spacing that are not appropriate.

    Use plain black printing off a good laser or bubble-jet printer. Dot-matrix printing is acceptable if the copy is strong and dark; otherwise, bring your floppy disc into a computer lab where you can print your paper using a better printer. Use plain, white, 20-lb., 8 1/2- by 11-inch paper. If you use tractor-fed paper, use only laser-cut paper and carefully remove the fringes. (But it is definitely time for a new printer!)
  3. Spacing: With modern word-processors, it is a good idea to get into the habit of using only one space after a period, question mark, semicolon, colon, etc. Word-processors will allow for the appropriate spacing. A double-space can actually do weird things, especially if your margin is justified (which is probably not a good idea). If you have any questions about this, ask your instructor (some of whom learned to space their typing on ancient typewriters and still use double-spacing after periods).

    Spacing around quotation marks and parentheses can raise questions. Click HERE for help with quotation marks; click HERE for help with parentheses. The most important rule you must remember about quotation marks is that in the United States, periods and commas go inside quotation marks regardless of logic. (When marking papers written by students who have grown up in areas influenced by British education, instructors would be kind to remember that this is not the rule outside the United States.)
  4. Titles can be important. If you can't think of a good title, it might mean that your paper has no real focus. Capitalize the first, last, and important words of your title. A title can end in a question mark or exclamation mark, but it cannot end in a period. (This is different from usage in other languages.) You might use quotation marks in a title if it refers to someone else's title (of a poem, say), but do not put quotation marks around your own title (e.g., Robert Frost's "Design" could be your title, but not "Robert Frost's 'Design'.").

    A title page is probably unnecessary, but you should ask your instructor about that. Fancy graphics or bold or italic printing on your title page, if you use one, is not necessary and probably should be avoided.
  5. Place your name, date, and course number at the top of the first page. Your instructor may ask you to put your name on each sheet of paper.
  6. Never use the back of a sheet of paper; staple additional sheets at the upper left-hand corner. This professor's prejudice dictates that students not use plastic binders; they're cumbersome and a waste of money. What your instructors usually want is a nice, flat stack of papers they can cram into an attache case or backpack, and those plastic folders just get in the way when it's time to grade the papers.
  7. Depending on your instructor and the level at which you are writing, evidence of careful re-reading and editing here and there (a last-minute correction done neatly with pen) is permissible; sloppiness is not. Last-minute corrections can be accomplished on a word-processor, and your paper ought to be nearly perfect when you hand it in.

CAUTION: Do not wait until the very last minute to print out your paper! Evil, fun-loving gremlins reside in every printer ever made, just waiting to detect a last-minute paper so they can jam up, eat paper, create havoc, and make your life miserable. Your instructor has filed the excuse of the demonic printer along with the plague that strikes down millions of grandmothers (sometimes grandmothers who died the previous semester) near the end of every term.