There are many style guides in the world that are useful for different purposes. These guides are usually maintained by associations of interested people, and if they are to be applicable in many situations, they're probably somewhat complex. One interesting example is the Wikipedia manual of style, which governs how articles should look and sound across the whole of the English language Wikipedia.
In college writing classes, the most commonly used style guide for printed papers is called MLA. The Modern Language Association is a professional organization dedicated to "modern" languages — pretty much every human language presently spoken, including English. With about thirty thousand members in a hundred countries, the association engages in professional advocacy and research, and also organizes a yearly convention and maintains a style guide. This page introduces the basics, but consult the MLA Style Center, MLA's own online help site, for coverage of more in-depth issues.
Papers should be stapled in the upper left corner, and not placed in any special kind of binder. There should be no title page. MLA formatted papers for my classes will employ double spaced 11-point type in a readable font such as Times New Roman or Garamond. They will have 1 inch margins on all sides. Page numbers, and the author's last name, will appear in a right-justified header 1/2 inch from the top of each page after the first. The first page will contain the author's name, the instructor's name, and the title of the class at the top left, and the title of the paper centered.
My Excellent Paper
Paragraphs are indented by 1/2 inch, with no extra space between paragraphs. Many people want to put extra space between paragraphs for some reason, perhaps because it's a convenient way to make a paper look longer. But don't do this. It isn't part of MLA style. Also, please note that nothing here is italicized, boldfaced, underlined, or in quotation marks.
This new paragraph is an example of how a paragraph break should look. All subsequent paragraphs should be indented like this. There is no extra space, just an indentation to mark the beginning of your new thought. Keep in mind that these indentation rules are for print papers. Style rules are generally different online. This website, for instance, does not indent paragraphs except to illustrate how something should appear when printed.
The purpose of a research paper is to study what has been done and then innovate new ideas. Part of every research paper, therefore, is spent in describing previous research. This is called attribution. There are two benefits to it:
- Your sources are given the credit they're due.
- Your readers are empowered to follow your path — to read the research that you used. This trail is an important part of research in any field.
It's imperative that you perform attributions conscientiously. Failure to do so is plagiarism — one of the worst betrayals of academic ethics a student can commit. I'll work with you if it seems the plagiarism was committed accidentally (which is usually the case). However, if you plagiarize as a way to earn a passing grade by using someone else's work as your own, you will fail the assignment, with no opportunity to revise.
MLA style uses citations to acknowledge scholarly borrowings. These citations occur in two places: the works cited list, and inline.
Works Cited List
This is an alphabetical list of all of the sources you used in your paper. It's presented as the final section, beginning on a new page. In a class like this, you'll mostly consult books or periodicals in the library, or using internet resources.
MLA published the 8th edition of their style guide in 2016. A dramatic simplification from earlier versions, it focuses on three pieces of information almost always available: author, title, and container. Let's take a look at the examples from the MLA Style Center to get a sense of how these elements are presented in a paper.
Regarding EasyBib &c
Some web apps offer to format your works cited items for you. In my experience they produce middling results at best, so I encourage you to just do it yourself. I'll help you make any needed corrections.
In the body of the paper, other information must be made available. Generally speaking, provide the casual reader enough information to satisfy their curiosity about your source. Then, if they really want to know more, they can flip to the end of the paper to read the full citation.
If, for example, you used some information from Ta-Nehisi Coates' book Between the World and Me, you might put this in the body of your paper:
Journalist and Baltimore native Ta-Nehisi Coates felt that he didn't enjoy the kinds of safety in his childhood that could have helped him, as an adult, feel his own child is safe (45).
Here I've told the reader a little about my source — that he's a journalist from Baltimore, and a father. This will establish Coates' credibility enough for most readers. The number in parentheses is the page number I consulted in the book I used to find this fact. If my reader looks up Coates in my works cited list and then finds the book I list there, they can turn to page 45 to find the sentiment I referred to.