How to format an academic paper

1. Why is style important?

Name of Student
Name of Instructor
Name of Course

How to Format a Paper for GCS Classes

When we are with friends, we have a conversational style. When we give a speech or sermon, we are more formal. Many of us have been in formal speech clubs. Although the formality seemed artificial and seemingly unnecessary in the club, it helped us learn to conduct ourselves well when a formal situation did arise. Style is actually part of the message: it communicates an attitude toward the topic and toward the audience.

Just as a public speech is different than an informal conversation, an academic paper is different than an email. Although the same ideas might be communicated with either format, it is important for graduate students to learn to work in the more formal writing style of academic papers. Although content is much more important than style, an academic style indicates that you are approaching the subject with a certain level of expertise and discipline.[1] Writing style is an important part of a graduate education, and stylistic matters affect your grade.

Different schools and different instructors have slightly different preferences on style. Most of what we describe here is acceptable in a wide variety of graduate academic settings.

An academic paper has one-inch margins all around, and uses font Times New Roman 12. The main body of the paper is double spaced. The first line of each paragraph is indented ½ inch, and there is no extra space between paragraphs. At the top of the page is a “header” containing the page number. To get all these formatting details correct in Microsoft Word, we suggest that you use the Academic Paper Template on the Student Information section of our website: Also on that page are instructions on how to use Microsoft Word’s features.[2]

We begin the paper in the upper-left corner of page 1 with a brief description of the occasion: student, instructor, course and date. In a thesis, we should put that information on a more formal “title page.” But for most class papers, a separate title page is not necessary. After the details of occasion, we give the title of the paper, which is boldfaced and centered. Then comes the main body of the paper.


In a one-page paper, subheads are not needed. In a longer paper, they can help a writer organize the ideas, and can help readers follow the sequence of thought. Here, we have a blank line above the subhead, and our subhead touches the left-hand margin (In Word’s paragraph menu, it’s “alignment left” and “special, none”) and is boldfaced.

Occasional paragraph breaks also help the reader see how you have grouped your thoughts. If you have a paragraph that is one page long, divide it into two or three paragraphs to group similar topics together. Avoid colloquialisms, and write in complete sentences. Each sentence should have a subject and a verb. On the other hand, don’t be overly formal or pedantic – don’t use words just to make it sound more formal.

[1] Using the wrong style is like showing up at a church wedding in your beach clothes. Proper style conveys the message, “I know what I am doing, so there’s a good chance that this paper is worth your time.”

[2] Other word processing programs will be different; we have given instructions for Word because it is the most widely used program. Several good free programs are also available: Google Docs, LibreOffice, and Kingsoft.