Introduction

Given the variety of courses that I’m lucky to teach, it’s nearly impossible for me to lay down a set of rules for document formatting that would apply to all assignments in all courses.

However, I do have some strong (and, I believe, sound) preferences that I’ve turned into rules for how I want you to format print documents for me–at least most print documents, most of the time (e.g., essays, reading responses, annotated bibliographies). So, you can consider these the rules for any print document (or print-like document, such as an essay submitted electronically) I ask you to turn in. You may rely on them, unless I tell you otherwise. If I want something different, the burden’s on me to tell you. 

These rules differ somewhat from the typical MLA-ish essay format.

Rationale

I have come to view the typical “double-spaced, Times New Roman 12 pt font, 1 inch margins” paper assignment (including my own in the past–cough, cough) as a near-perfect example of asking students for poor document design. I usually give suggested lengths for assignments in words, not pages, so there is no need to have everyone produce a paper that looks exactly like this, nor is there a need for finished work to always look like a draft that just rolled out of the carriage of a typewriter.

The standard “school paper” design persists largely because of tradition and inertia, not because of any rationale for it as good design. In my view, the typical “school paper” design is not particularly readable, easy to use, or likely to teach students anything about good document design and layout. It does end up teaching a form of document design–a poor one. We can do better.

I’m trying to save my eyesight and teach you a little about your options as a user of the scarce resources of the page. That said, of course, you should be aware that my rules are not mainstream–always format documents the way your particular professors want you to. My guidelines are non-standard.

Example PDFs

Rules for Print Documents for Dr. Loewe

1. Serif font–something elegant (e.g., Baskerville, Goudy Old Style, Georgia, Garamond, Hoefler Text, Times New Roman*). No Bodoni. No condensed or extra-wide fonts.

    • If you don’t know the difference between a serif font and a sans-serif font, that’s OK. The Purdue Online Writing Lab offers a good introduction.
    • Caveat: Times New Roman has been used to death. There’s nothing particularly bad about it, but its ubiquity does carry does the risk of making your document look generic.

2. 1.0-inch top and bottom margins; 1.5-1.8 inch left and right margins to achieve proper line length; left-justified text.

    • Overly-long line lengths plague the typical school paper. Aim for a line length of about 2.5 lowercase alphabets (~65-75  characters) of your chosen font.

3. No extra lines after paragraphs.

4. No double-spacing. In my view, double-spacing makes reading tedious and disrupts cohesion. Your line spac­ing should be between 120% and 145% of your font’s point size.

    • For example, if you use an 11 point font, use 13-16 points of line spacing; you judge what looks best for your document.

5. One space between sentences.

6. I love headings. I often require them. Make them a bit larger than body text and bold. No other emphasis is necessary. Align headings with paragraphs (i.e., no centering).

7. No underlining, no ALL CAPS.

8. Paragraphs indented.

Please feel free to ask me questions about any of this.

Hat tip for line-spacing percentages: Matthew Butterick