Formatting Your Paper

I often get a lot of student questions about formatting when I assign a writing project. From the tone of the emails (often slightly desperate), I get the feeling that a lot of students have been given bad grades for formatting issues alone. In my experience, college teachers are far more interested in content than form, but in this post I’ll run through some general considerations when you are formatting your college papers.

Why Do We Care About Formatting?

As I said above, most college professors are more concerned with what you say in your paper, not how it looks. However, there are formatting conventions that make your paper far easier on the eye. You may also find that your discipline has expectations for how professional reports are supposed to work, and your college studies are preparation for that work. If you learn the style that is expected, you will look good. Don’t, and you won’t.

Like citations, formatting varies by style used – things like whether or not a cover page is expected, where and how to number pages, line spacing, and so on can vary by style. Often, professors have a specific format they expect, like putting your name, course, and semester in the upper left corner of the first page.

Check out Before You Begin, and How to read an assignment sheet and rubric for more on how to figure out what your teacher wants.

Typical Expectations

Margins – usually 1″ or 1.5″ all around (top, bottom, left, and right). If you intend to bind a report, you may want to use a 1.5″ or 2″ margin on the left to account for the binding.

Tip: DO NOT try to adjust the margins to make your paper longer. Teachers are aware of this trick and it’s more visible than you think it is. 

Fonts – usually 10 or 12 pt font is expected, and in one of the common styles. Times New Roman, Helvetica, Arial, Courier, etc are all generally acceptable. Do not give in to the urge to use handwriting, comic sans, and the other speciality fonts. They are much harder to read, are not professional, and will not help your grade (unless your assignment calls for them in some way).

Tip: Make sure your paper is as readable as possible, but don’t go overboard. Fourteen point font is not acceptable unless it’s a headline – and even then it’s subject to style expectations.

Line Spacing – typically double-spaced, but as little as 1.5 or triple-spaced can be appropriate. There are some exceptions: if you are required to provide an abstract, it is often single-spaced, and in many styles, block quotes are also single-spaced. Some types of reports are also expected to be single-spaced, but with most college papers, you can’t go wrong with double-spacing.

Tip: as with choosing your margins and font size, do not try to manipulate your line spacing to make your paper look longer than it is. Your instructors read a lot. They know what 1.5 or double line spacing looks like. Trying to fool them just means they’re going to read your paper even more carefully.

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