Would you ever dream of presenting a gift in a crumpled grocery bag? How about serving a five-course meal on paper plates? Would you don your finest flannel jammies for a job interview?
Of course not! You weren’t raised in a barn, after all. (If you answered “yes” to any of the above, then, well, essay formatting might not be your biggest problem).
But if you’re turning in essays typed in Comic Sans or don’t know a style guide from an issue of Vogue or GQ, then you could probably use this primer on why essay formatting matters and some tips on improving your game when it comes to essay presentation.
So What Is Considered “Formatting,” Anyway?
Essay formatting is anything that has to do with the appearance, layout or even structure of your essay. Considerations that fall under the concept of formatting include
- line spacing
- margin width
- paragraph indentation
- text justification
…and much, much more.
Ugh, you might say. Can’t I just open Word and start typing?
You can, of course. But if you want your essay to show up to the grading party (or beauty pageant, in the case of scholarship essays or other competitive endeavors) in its finest duds, then you need to pay a little attention to how you format and present your ideas.
Why Does Essay Formatting Matter?
Proper essay formatting is an essential part of essay writing. At its heart, an essay is an attempt to convince, inform, or move someone, and good formatting makes your audience more receptive to your message.
Here are four good reasons that you should care what your essay looks like:
-Proper essay formatting enhances readability.Your readers — whether that’s your instructor, your classmates, an admission committee, or your Kibin editors — will be able to evaluate and absorb your content much more readily if your essay has a consistent format and a tidy appearance.
I swoon when I edit an essay that’s been formatted well, because I can focus on the content rather than being distracted by poor spacing or other formatting errors that make documents difficult to read and follow.
-It demonstrates that you can follow instructions. Do you ever get the feeling that extensive essay formatting requirements are a test to see if you’ll jump through the hoops? Well, in some cases, they are. After all, it doesn’t affect your content if you indent four spaces at the beginning of a paragraph instead of ½ inch.
But if you want to pass that test, then it’s important that you demonstrate your ability to follow instructions. (I hate to tell you this, but this is one of those skills that you’ll need later in life when you’re building your first piece of IKEA furniture or trying to decipher line 45 of IRS form 584750B.)
-You practice being a member of a specific discipline. Formatting your essay according to a certain style guide or set of standards is not unlike playing dress-up. For example, if you write an essay for a psychology class, your instructor will likely request that you use the format prescribed by the American Psychological Association (APA), even if you’re nowhere near being an actual psychologist yourself.
When you do find yourself sitting in your own office under that framed diploma drafting an article for the Made-Up Journal of Unlikely Neuroses, though, you’ll be glad that you’ve had some practice with formatting your writing in your discipline’s preferred style.
-It enhances your credibility. First impressions matter. Just as a potential employer would make all kinds of (negative, I’m sorry to say) assumptions about you if you showed up to a job interview in jammies — even if you were, on paper, the perfect candidate — your readers will do the same if you turn in a sloppy essay with no attempt at formatting — even if your content is knock-your-socks-off awesome.
In other words, proper essay formatting gives your audience the impression that you are competent and serious about your work, and it helps you practice skills that you’ll need later on in your personal and professional life.
If your essay is your product, then your formatting is the advertising that screams, “Take me seriously!”
Now are you convinced that essay formatting matters? Great! Now, let’s look at some ways you can pull it off.
Essay Formatting Tips — The Dos and Don’ts
The following section will walk you through some of the most essential essay formatting considerations and provide guidance for executing them appropriately. I’ve included guidance from some of the most commonly prescribed style guides, including APA, MLA and the Chicago Manual of Style, as well as general advice that you can use when no style guide is specified.
The font, or typeface, of your essay, is one of the most important elements of its overall presentation. Fonts are either serifed, meaning the characters have little ‘feet,’ or sans-serif, meaning they lack these feet.
Do: Pick a clean font that is easy to read both on the screen and on the printed page. The Modern Language Association, the Chicago Manual of Style and the American Psychological Association all recommend Times New Roman — 12 pt, please and thank you — because it is simple, readable and non-distracting. Georgia and Palatino are lovely serif fonts, too. If you want a sans-serif alternative, try Arial, Calibri, or Helvetica.
The margins of your essay are the blank spaces that surround the text on all sides. You can think of the margin as a happy little fence that keeps your word-animals from straying. (No? Just me?)
Don’t: Think your professor won’t notice if you increase the margins in an attempt to lengthen the page count of your essay. (No, really — they’re on to you.) It actually doesn’t make a big difference in the long run, and your essay will stick out in a bad way if it has a four-lane highway running down each side of it.
Line spacing refers to the amount of space between individual lines of text. Single-spacing means that there is no space between lines of text, while double-spacing leaves one full space between lines of text.
There are two possible ways to show paragraph breaks in essays. You can either indent the first line of the paragraph, or you can left-justify all of your text and leave a space between paragraphs. The rise of the Internet has made the latter more common, but most of the style guides used in the humanities and social sciences still prefer indented paragraphs.
Justification refers to how your text aligns with the margins. Left-aligned text means that it is all aligned with the left margin, and right-aligned text means that it is flush with the right margin. Justified text means that the text is flush along both margins.
You might assume that fully justified text — the style preferred by newspapers and magazines — creates the tidiest-looking page, but this isn’t always the case. It can leave unnatural and unsightly gaps between words as they s t r e t c h to fill the space.
Bonus Essay Formatting Tip
Only use one space after a period (or exclamation mark, question mark, etc.) rather than two. Using two spaces was standard when documents were typed on typewriters, which left far more space between letters than digital fonts.
To help you remember and digest all of these essay formatting rules and suggestions, I’ve created a handy-dandy infographic for your viewing pleasure and future reference. You have my permission to frame it and hang it above your desk, in the bathroom…wherever you like to do your reading. I’m not judging.
By now, you should have a pretty good idea of how to make your essay, well, pretty. It may seem superficial when it’s your ideas, man, that really matter, but proper essay formatting is like the bow on top of a gift, the real dishes you break out for guests, and the swanky suit that says “I mean business.” With these tips, you can ensure that your essay has the visual appeal to pull your reader in so they notice that fantastic hook or your clever commentary.
If you’re still not sure that you’re on the right track with your essay formatting, scope out some essay examples to see how other students have handled essays of the same type or within your discipline.
And if you need specific help with formatting in accordance with one of the major style guides, check with your university library, which likely has a complete style guide (or a subscription to the online version). You can also visit the FAQ section of the MLA Style Guide website, the APA Style Blog, or the Chicago Manual of Style Q & A page for free essay formatting tips without a subscription.
The best way to ensure that your essay puts its best foot forward, formatting-wise, is to let someone else see it. Whether you use a trusted advisor, a friend or a Kibin editor, another set of eyes will help you ensure that your essay steps out in style.