Formatting an essay

I’ve seen a lot of advice out there on formatting an essay. Some say just use Arial font and double space; other’s discuss margins; and some look at headers and footers. But what’s the best way to do it?

This post is here to help you figure out the best formatting for what you need to do. It’s not going to tell you what to do, but it’ll give you the theory and reasons, so you can decide what’s the best look for your essay.

Good formatting is about making it look sexy and appealing to the reader - the person marking it! Click To Tweet

Why care about what my essay looks like? It’s about the content, right?

You have a point, the content is the most important bit. The thing with good design, is you don’t notice it! It somehow flows. Everything makes sense. You don’t even think about why it does, it just does. The art of writing is not confined to just fictional writing; writing is always an art, even in academia. Anyway, let’s look at an example of a page that has bad formatting:

So what’s wrong? Let’s have a look.


There are two main font types: Serif and Sans-Serif. If you’re know a tad of Latin or French you might have guessed that the latter is missing it’s ‘serifs’. So what’s the difference?

Well those tails sticking out of the T are called serifs. They’re there to guide your eye to the next letter creating a sense of flow. Serif fonts are traditionally used for print formats, so books, newspapers etc. As universities and academics deal a lot with writing, it should come as no surprise that most academic journals and texts use serif fonts.

Sans-serifs then, don’t have the tails. They are more modern and minimalist. Sans-serifs get used a lot on blogs (like this one) to create a clean, sleek feel. They work better than serifs in digital formats as the pixelation of screens isn’t near the quality we print at; and thus the serifs don’t look as good on screen.

Great. So which one should I use?

Well this really is down to personal taste. I really like reading serif fonts, it is just easier. Also, after reading texts dominated by serifs during research, I find it a bit too much of a contrast to write in a sans-serif. I feel serif just generally looks better as well.

However! I don’t just use serifs.

I use a combination of serif and sans to create a really appealing look. Due to the contrast you can create between serif and sans-serif fonts a really effective and common technique is to use them against each other. Here you can use them for their strengths: serifs are easier to read, and sans-serifs are easier for skimming. So:

Use Sans-Serif fonts for headings, tables and figures.

Use Serif fonts for the main body of your text.

For a more detailed look at fonts and pick them, take a look at our So Why Should I Care about Fonts? post [coming soon!].

Underlining the Title

DON’T DO IT! Underlining is a carryover from typewriters which didn’t have bold or italic styling. It was the only way to emphasise writing. None of you are writing on typewriters (even though it feels like it sometimes in a library computer that takes forever to load!). If you’re writing for online usage, underlining is generally reserved for hyperlinks; and, using the review function in a word processor will generally underline edited sections [post on that soon too].

Here’s some suggestions on what to do to create emphasis:

Use ALL CAPS, or Title Case, maybe Title Case and Bold? Alternatively, increase the point size – I tend to have my main body on 11 or 12 and the headings depend on the level of heading or subheading. Have a play and find you’re way of emphasising your point.


One of the best tips I’ve had for formatting an essay, is to justify the text. This ensures that all the text aligns with the edges of the allotted space. It does this by adding extra gaps between the words of the paragraph to bulk out the lines. It is generally used in formal pieces of work, so an essay is a pretty good place to use it!!

The picture above is an example of justified text. What you won’t see in that, is the hyphenation that you should also turn on if you’re using justification. See this article for how to turn on hyphenation. Hyphenation means you won’t get the irregular gaps between words in some of the lines. For an example, look at the difference in gaps between the 3rd and 4th lines in the above image. Justification is a must, and should be a feature on any good word processing software, include Google Docs.


You’ll probably remember this from school; paragraphs are important. Make sure you use them. And use them properly: a new paragraph is needed every time you change theme. This allows the ideas you’re discussing to hold their own and make sense within the overall piece of work.

If you’re quoting someone and it is longer than 40 words, this warrants its own paragraph (see the example below). This is normally indented and not put in quotation marks; but this depends on the citation system you’re using. For further information, check out our Citation articles [coming soon!] or your university’s handbook/citation guidelines. Each discipline may have it’s own specific citation rules as well.


Add spacing between the lines. Even though you’re probably not handing in physical papers anymore, spacing makes it easier to read. Your university might have it’s own guidelines on what the spacing should be. Check them out, it’ll be in your university handbook.

If you’re not told a certain spacing, my suggestion is 1.5. It’s that little bit more than 1.15, but not as exaggerated Double spacing. But, the decision is ultimately yours.


Like spacing, there will probably be guidelines or suggestions on what these should be in your university handbook. Make sure you have a look. My general rule of thumb when using 12 point font is around 2.54 points top and bottom, and 3.17 points for the left and right.

It is said that the advised character length of a line should be around the 66 mark (including spaces). But a 2005 study concluded that university students were more efficient at around 95 characters per line.

Remember your reader: the academic who’s got loads of essays to read. They’ll have plenty of experience reading papers and will want to get through them fast. So if you can aid that with a bit of clever design whilst formatting your essay, they’ll breeze through your work without getting annoyed it’s taking them too long!

Headers & Footers

I’m not going to go too much into this, as there’s not much to debate. So here’s my 2 cents’ worth.

Headers: put your student number, and the module name and/or code. You shouldn’t put your name as your work is supposed to be marked anonymously (though this depends on the university’s rules).

Footers: page numbers – I tend to put them on the bottom right hand corner, but I have seen suggestions for the middle, though never the left corner.

Good example:

So that was a long post and we haven’t even looked at a well formatted example! So here’s what the first page of an essay could look like. This example is the same essay as the first one we saw, but formatted better. It received 75%.

Heading font: Franklin Gothic Book (26pt)

Sub-Heading font: Franklin Gothic Book (14pt)

Body font: Garamond (12pt)


After taking the time to write an awesome essay, you want it to look just as awesome! Take the time to feel what it’s like to read. Noticing if you’re struggling to read your paper will tell you something about what you should change. Try to not over think it, but, allow the ease with which you can read to guide you.

Make sure you are within the guidelines of your university. You should not be getting marked down for bad formatting. And, yes, presentation is in the marking criteria.

My final piece of advise is, do the formatting at the beginning! I’ve created a template in Microsoft Word and just open that every time I start a piece of work. It means, I know, that I don’t have to think about formatting, and will just have a quick brush up at the end.

If you’ve got any questions, be sure to write in the comments below or Tweet us @_SimpleStudent

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