How To Write And Format A Research Paper: APA, MLA, Chicago

Diving into the world of academic writing can often feel like navigating a maze. With diverse styles like APA, MLA, and Chicago dictating the presentation of research papers, understanding the nuances becomes essential.

From the specific requirements of title pages, the subtleties of headers, to the intricacies of citation styles, this comprehensive guide sheds light on formatting your research paper impeccably.

Whether you’re a seasoned researcher or just beginning your academic journey, mastering these formatting styles not only enhances your paper’s credibility but also elevates its professional presentation.

FeatureAPA FormatMLA FormatChicago Format
Title PageRequired with title, author’s name, institutional affiliation.Not required. Info included on the first page.Required with centered title and capital letters for every main word.
Page Header/Running HeadRunning head on the title page. From the second page, only title.Last name and page number on every page.Last name and page number on subsequent pages.
FontTimes New Roman, 12-pointTimes New Roman, 12-pointTimes New Roman recommended.
Title Case in HeadingsUsedUsedUsed, with capital letters for every main word.
HeadingsFive levels with specific formatting for each.Standard formatting system for headings.Centered, bold or italicized, capital main words, no underline.
Footnotes/EndnotesNot typically used in basic APA style.Not typically used in basic MLA style.Used for citations, with details at the bottom of the page.
In-text CitationsAuthor-year method.Author’s last name and page number.Superscript number referencing footnotes.
End of Paper ReferenceTitled “References”.Titled “Works Cited”.Titled “Bibliography”.
Special FeaturesRunning head is a distinct feature.Emphasis on header with the last name and page number.Footnotes for in-text citations.
Page Numbering on Title PageIncluded in the upper right-hand corner.Not applicable (no title page).Title page stands alone without a page number.

Formatting an APA paper

If you’re embarking on writing a research paper, it’s crucial to familiarise yourself with the specifics of the APA format.

This formatting style, developed by the American Psychological Association, is commonly used in the social sciences.

Title page

Unlike the MLA style by the Modern Language Association, APA has some unique title page requirements. The title page should include:

  • The paper’s title
  • The author’s name, and
  • The institutional affiliation.

All text should be centred and double-spaced. The paper title should be in title case, which means that most words are capitalised, but words such as “and” or “the” are not unless they’re the first word.

Font choices are essential; Times New Roman in 12-point is the most commonly accepted. The title page should also include the page number, typically located in the upper right-hand corner.

Running head

Within the realm of APA research paper format, the “running head” is a standout feature that researchers should master. Acting as a concise version of the paper’s title, the running head is presented in capital letters and is uniquely positioned in the header.

For those adopting the APA style, take note: this title fragment graces the top-left corner of every page, while the page number elegantly sits opposite on the top-right.

The title page gets special treatment — it introduces the running head with “Running head:”, e.g., “Running head: EFFECTS OF LIGHT ON SLEEP”.

But as you delve deeper, from the second page onwards, only the title, like “EFFECTS OF LIGHT ON SLEEP”, remains.  It’s these subtle intricacies that elevate a good research paper to an exemplar of APA formatting precision.


APA employs five levels of headings. A tip many don’t often share: these aren’t just about size or boldness, but about indicating the hierarchy of your content.

Level 1Centred, Bold, Title Case HeadingMethods
Level 2Left-Aligned, Bold, Title Case HeadingSurvey Procedure
Level 3Indented, Bold, Title Case Heading, Ending with a PeriodSampling method.
Level 4Indented, Bold, Italicised, Title Case Heading, Ending with a PeriodSampling Details.
Level 5Indented, Italicised, Title Case Heading, Ending with a PeriodData Sources.

Reference page

One of the main differences between APA and other styles like MLA or Turabian is not only in-citation style but also in specific format requirements for components of a research paper. For instance, a reference page (APA) is analogous to a bibliography (MLA).

For those diving deeper into writing and formatting their papers, Purdue University offers a comprehensive style guide. This resource offers insights on everything from the research process to in-text citations and formatting rules.

One last juicy tidbit: always ensure that your thesis statement is clear and concise, as this guides the entire research paper.

It’s always advisable to check specific guidelines for formatting a research paper in APA format, ensuring all details, down to the period at the end of your in-text quotations, are impeccable.

Formatting an MLA paper

Unlike the APA style from the American Psychological Association, MLA style from the Modern Language Association lacks a title page but insists on a header with the last name and page number on every page.

Begin with your paper’s title in title case, centre, and in Times New Roman. The general format includes a thesis statement, body of the paper, and a bibliography page at the end. 

First page

On your first page, MLA omits the traditional title page. Instead, start at the top left-hand side by typing:

  • Your name
  • The instructor’s name
  • Course number
  • Course name
  • Course date

Write  each detail on a new line. Following this, centre the paper’s title using title case—ensure it’s devoid of bolds, underlines, or quotation marks.

As you delve into the body of the paper, maintain a consistent header on every page, which incorporates the author’s last name and the page number in the upper right-hand corner.

For optimum readability, adjust your word processor to Times New Roman, size 12pt. 

Page header

A particularly salient aspect of an MLA research paper is its header. Unlike the APA format which uses a running head, MLA format necessitates a simpler approach.

Commence with your word processor set to:

  • Times New Roman, 12pt.
  • On the first page and every page thereafter, the header should feature the author’s last name followed by the page number, situated in the upper right-hand corner. 

This ensures continuity throughout the paper. Remember, there’s no title page in MLA format, so this header starts from the very first page.

Contrary to some other formatting styles like Turabian, there’s no need for elaborate details such as the paper’s title or abbreviations.

While it might seem trifling, proper header formatting, along with consistent in-text citations and a correctly formatted bibliography, are key components of a research paper, accentuating its credibility.

Works Cited page

When it comes to the nuances of the Modern Language Association’s (MLA) style, a pivotal component is the “Works Cited” page, differentiating it from APA’s “Reference Page” or Turabian’s bibliography. Positioned at the end of the paper, this section meticulously lists research sources.

Kickstart with a new page, titling it “Works Cited” in title case, without quotation marks, ensuring the title is centred.

Maintain the Times New Roman 12pt font, consistent with the body of the paper. Unlike the APA format, there’s no need for a running head on this page.

Entries are double-spaced, with a hanging indent for every subsequent line after the first line of each source. The author’s last name comes first, followed by the first name. The title of works should be in title case, with quotation marks for article titles and italics for book titles.

Each entry’s general format includes the:

  • Author
  • Title
  • Publisher, and
  • Year of publication.

Consistency is crucial. Remember, in-text citations in the paper should correspond to the entries on the Works Cited page. Focusing on these details ensures the credibility of your research paper, portraying it as a meticulously crafted piece in MLA format.

Formatting a Chicago paper

While many are familiar with the APA style from the American Psychological Association or the MLA style from the Modern Language Association, the intricacies of the Chicago formatting style might be less known.

So, here’s a dive into the specific format of a Chicago-style title page. Following these guidelines for formatting ensures your research paper may stand out, not just for the content but also for its professional presentation.

Title page

First, unlike the general format of APA where a running head is present on every page, the Chicago-style paper’s title page stands alone without a page number.

The paper should also include a centred title, and contrary to the title case seen in sample research papers in MLA format, Chicago dictates capital letters for every main word.

Beneath the paper’s title, you’ll need to include the author’s full name, followed by other details such as class information. Also, it’s recommended to use the classic Times New Roman as your font choice for a polished look.

Your last name is essential too! In the header of subsequent pages, incorporate your last name alongside the page number. 


In Chicago style, whenever you cite a source within the text, a superscript number directs readers to the relevant footnote at the bottom of the page.

Each footnote starts with the same superscript number, followed by a period. The specific format of the footnote varies based on the type of source, but general guidelines are:

  1. Begin with the author’s first name, then last name.
  2. The title, either in quotation marks (for articles, book chapters) or italicised (for books), follows.
  3. Include publication details like the publisher’s name, year of publication, and the page number or numbers you’re referencing.

For instance, a footnote citing a book might look like this: ^1. Jane Doe, Sample Research: Chicago Formatting and Its Implications (Modern Language Association, 2023), 45-46.

Times New Roman is the recommended font, and the entirety of the footnote should be in regular size, not superscript. 

Bibliography or reference list

While many writers might have mastered the APA format from the American Psychological Association or the MLA style from the Modern Language Association, the specifics of the Chicago style often leave researchers scratching their heads.

For a Chicago-style paper, the bibliography is typically found on a new page at the end of the paper.

Unlike the general format seen in APA style with a running head on every page, the Chicago bibliography starts with a simple centred heading: “Bibliography.”

Entries should be alphabetised by the last name of the author, and unlike the in-text citations, the bibliography provides complete details of research sources.

Each entry should use a hanging indent, with the first line of the entry aligned to the left and subsequent lines indented. For a consistent look, adopt Times New Roman as your font choice.

Also, while writing a paper, always remember to cite every primary research source in your bibliography to maintain the integrity of your work.

Extra tips for writing and formatting research papers

Ensuring your research paper is free from copied content is paramount in academia. Even when you write a research paper, inadvertent plagiarism can creep in, making citation crucial. For those navigating APA format or MLA style, citation rules can be intricate.

Check for plagiarism

There are many ways you may end up committing plagiarism, even if unintentional. Here’s how you ensure originality, and prevent plagiarism in your work. 

  1. Keep Track of Sources: As you dive deep into your research process, jot down every source. This not only assists in the proper format of in-text citations but also in creating a comprehensive bibliography at the end of the paper. Many use word processor features to help manage sources.
  2. Quote and Paraphrase: When referencing a specific passage, use quotation marks and cite. APA style and MLA format have particular guidelines for citing. When putting information in your own words, paraphrase it, but don’t forget to cite. Purdue University’s style guide is a great resource for this.
  3. Use Plagiarism Checkers: Before submitting, run your paper through a plagiarism checker. Universities often use tools like Turnitin, but platforms like Scribbr can be just as effective. Beware of free checkers; they might not cover all research sources or might even save your work.

Remember, the key is not just to format a research paper but to maintain integrity throughout the paper. So, always give credit where it’s due.

Proofread your work

When embarking on the task of writing a research paper, it’s essential to not only focus on the research question and the body of the paper but also on its presentation. Proofreading for correct formatting is vital.

Refer To Style Guide: refer to a style guide relevant to your formatting style, be it APA (American Psychological Association), MLA (Modern Language Association), or Turabian.

For example, the APA format requires a title page with a running head, whereas the MLA format places emphasis on the author’s last name and page number in the upper right-hand corner of every page.

Check Your In-Text Citations: APA uses the author-year of publication method, while MLA style incorporates the author’s last name and the page number. Always ensure quotations are surrounded by quotation marks and that paraphrased information is correctly cited.

Examine Your Paper’s Title: ensure it adheres to title case for APA and that it is centered for both APA and MLA. The general format of a research paper may vary, but there are specifics to look for.

For instance, the APA research paper outline uses level 1 headings, which should be in title case and bolded, whereas the MLA format employs a standard formatting system for headings.

References & Bibliography: The end of the paper should always include a reference page or bibliography. In APA, it’s titled “References”, whereas in MLA it’s “Works Cited”. Formatting an APA reference page requires hanging indents, and in MLA, entries are alphabetized by the author’s last name.

Font: Lastly, ensure font choices align with format guidelines; typically, Times New Roman is a safe bet.

Your research paper may contain extensive details, but without adhering to specific guidelines for formatting, its credibility could be undermined. Don’t undermine your hard work—proofread for proper format.

Write A Research Paper In Correct Format – Not Rocket Science!

When embarking on writing a research paper, understanding and adhering to the proper format is paramount. The blog dissects the intricacies of three primary research paper formatting styles: APA, MLA, and Chicago.

Each format has its unique specifications, from the title page layout to citation techniques.

While APA is widely recognised in the social sciences and emphasises a title page and running head, MLA forgoes the title page and stresses the importance of the “Works Cited” section. In contrast, the Chicago format is distinguished by its use of footnotes for citations.

To ensure a paper’s credibility, always meticulously follow the specific guidelines of their chosen format, check for plagiarism, and proofread for both content and formatting precision. 

The Author

Dr Andrew Stapleton has a Masters and PhD in Chemistry from the UK and Australia. He has many years of research experience and has worked as a Postdoctoral Fellow and Associate at a number of Universities. Although having secured funding for his own research, he left academia to help others with his YouTube channel all about the inner workings of academia and how to make it work for you.