Although formatting your writing correctly may seem unessential to the content of your manuscript, it is important in the presentation and credibility of your written work.
If the formatting of your paper or article of writing is incorrect or inconsistent, a reader will be able to recognize that fact in an instant and, whether it’s consciously or unconsciously, will feel more doubtful and skeptical about your work.
Formatting differs across different writing or citation styles, so if you are writing for a company, class, publisher, or any other organization, make sure you check which writing style you should use. Also, make sure to check whether you should be using American English, British English, or any other accepted variation of English.
If no writing style is specified, the most common styles in the US are the APA and MLA styles, and the most common style in the UK is the Harvard referencing style.
The most common formatting mistakes by non-native English writers are as follows:
- Incorrect title centering, size, or capitalization
- Unconventional fonts or line spacing
- Inconsistent paragraph formatting (block formatting vs. first line indent)
- Inconsistent citation (mixing up APA, MLA, Harvard, etc.)
- Mixing up italicization, underlining, bolding, and quotations
- Leaving two spaces after a period or full stop
Title Centering, Size, and Capitalization
The title is the first line that catches a reader’s eye when he, she, or they look at a piece of writing. If the formatting of the title is unconventional, the reader may feel skeptical about the content of the writing.
Because title capitalization, centering, and size differ across different writing styles, we will use APA style for this example.
Suppose you wanted to title your essay How to Write About Formatting. You would go to the official APA style site page on title formatting to check how to properly format your title. In some other formats, you would put the title at the top of the page above your writing, but in the APA format, you would have a separate title page for the title that includes the page number, title, your name, and any affiliations. In a professional paper, you would include a running head and author notes if necessary, and in a student paper, you would include the course, instructor name, and due date. As for centering, everything would be centered except the page number, running title, and the content of the author notes. You would not increase the font size of the title but instead put it in bold.
For APA title capitalization, you capitalize the first word, nouns, verbs, phrasal verbs, adjectives, adverbs, and all other words that are four letters of more. This would mean the two-letter preposition to in the title would be lowercase. Note that for the Chicago Manual of Style, you lowercase all prepositions regardless of length, so you would lowercase about. For APA, however, even though about is a preposition, you would capitalize it because it is a word that is four letters or more in length.
Remember that some writing styles require you to write your title at the top of the first page of the body of your text rather than have a separate title page, so be sure to check the guidelines of the writing style you will be using.
Fonts and Line Spacing
If you are wondering which font you should be using, the most common writing styles (APA, MLA, Harvard, AP Stylebook, Chicago Manual of Style, Oxford, MHRA) all accept font size 12 Times New Roman, so it is a safe font choice across all common styles. Arial is also a commonly accepted font, but different styles accept different font sizes of Arial; APA accepts size 11 Arial, while Harvard recommends size 12 Arial. Therefore, size 12 Times New Roman would be the safest choice if you’re not sure what font to go with.
As for line spacing, the most common writing styles (APA, MLA, and Harvard) require double spacing for the body of your paper. If you are using any other writing style, refer to their official site to check which line spacing to use.
Another mistake English learners make is having inconsistent paragraph formatting. For example, having first line indents for some paragraphs (TAB key) and using block format for others with an extra blank between paragraphs.
Make sure to confirm what type of writing you are planning to write and which writing style you are going to use. The APA style requires a first line indent for each paragraph, while the AP Stylebook instructs to press the Enter key twice after each paragraph instead of indenting them. Academic papers typically favor writing styles that require first line indents, while news articles and magazines tend to prefer writing styles that use block format. Business letters and cover letters for job applications also use block formatting. Justification of the body text also can differ across different writing styles. Most writing styles for require left-justified text and advise against full justification.
Citation, or referencing, is one of the main reasons different writing styles formed. The most important rule to follow is to choose a writing style and stay consistent with it. Check on the writing style’s official site whether its citations involve in-text parentheses or superscript numbers with footnotes. APA, AP Stylebook, and Harvard referencing use in-text parenthetical citation, while Oxford, MHRA, and the Chicago Manual of Style use superscript numbers and footnotes. The MLA citation method uses in-text parentheses most of the time but allows footnotes for lengthy sources.
You should also check if the writing style you are planning to use requires endnotes at the end of your paper. Some writing styles, such as the AP Stylebook which is commonly used by news publications and magazines, require citations for images as well (Publication/Photographer), so be sure to check what type of content needs to be credited in your article of writing.
There are some special exceptions for some writing styles, so be sure to check the guidelines carefully. The APA style typically does not use endnotes but allows them on certain occasions to provide copyright attributions or clarify confusing content.
If you are having trouble getting the citation formatting correct, there are many citation generating websites where you can input the needed information (author name, page number, etc.) and the generator will provide the correct format according to the writing style you choose.
Italicization, Underlining, Bolding, and Quotations
Different writing styles have different uses for italics, underling, bolding, and quotations in the body of text. Before writing your piece of writing, be sure to check the rules for typographical emphasis under the writing style you are using.
Although rare, some writing styles make changes to their rules over time. For example, in the past, you were required to underline the titles of books under the MLA Style Manual, but now, you are to italicize titles of books rather than underline them. It is best to check the latest version of the writing style to be aware of these updates.
We collected the general rules for APA, MLA, Harvard referencing, and AP Stylebook so you can compare across some of the most common writing styles.
- Italics: titles of books, journals, periodicals, webpages, films, and videos; key terms or phrases when providing definitions; scientific names of species; do not use italics for Latin phrases (et al.) or chemical terms
- Underline: APA does not require underlining
- Bold: Title of an academic paper (on the title page)
- “Quotations”: Direct quotations; titles of articles, chapters, shorter works of writing, sections of longer works of writing; linguistic examples (not key terms)
- Italics: longer works like books, plays, films, databases, websites
- Underline: MLA no longer requires underlining (In the past, titles of books were underlined but are now italicized)
- Bold: typically not used in MLA
- “Quotations”: titles of articles, essays, chapters, poems, webpages, songs, speeches
- Italics: typically, the titles of books, movies, long plays, TV shows, journals, newspapers, magazines, and websites are italicized in the body of text
- Underline: when citing, the title of a source is either underlined or italicized but not both; just make sure to maintain consistency
- Bold: Harvard referencing discourages the excessive use of boldface
- ‘Quotations’: use single quotation marks for websites, articles, newspapers, or chapter names
- Italics: AP Style typically does not use italics and uses quotations instead
- Underline: typically not used in AP Style
- Bold: typically not used in the body of text in AP Style
- “Quotations”: title of books, movies, operas, plays, poems, albums, songs, TV programs, lectures, speeches, works of art
Note that there is a small possibility that these rules may change, so be sure to check the latest version of the writing style you are using.
Space After Sentences
Although uncommon in the modern day, putting two spaces after a sentence was the norm during the typewriter times. If you are an English learner and your instructor is of the typewriter generation, you may have been taught to put two spaces after a sentence instead of one. In modern times, however, putting two spaces after a sentence is considered incorrect.
This is not as common of a mistake as article (a, an, the) or preposition mistakes, but it still occurs among some writers. The simple rule is to just put one space after a sentence.