One key reason that the Modern Language Association (MLA) style guidelines for research papers and other types of formal writing exist is to standardize formats for formal writing. Other formats exist including the American Psychological Association (APA) and the Chicago Manual of Style. The key aspect of MLA style with which to take great care is referencing works and ideas that are not the author’s own throughout the paper and at the end for a bibliography or works cited page. Simple technical points, such as where to place punctuation and indents, are crucial to MLA style. This is because in theory, any scholar in a range from advanced (PhD level) to beginning can develop publishable writing for a peer-reviewed journal. As such, learning proper formatting early in one’s educational life and putting it into practice often is preparation for publication and for ongoing scholarly work in academia or in the professions.
That said, the first step is to find the most recent information on MLA guidelines, either through the website for the organization or in the most recent edition of the MLA Handbook. MLA guidelines change and adapt to all types of sources that can be referenced in a paper, in part due to changes in technology and ever evolving digital sources of information and research.
The second step is to find a personal way to keep track of the different references and the formatting in the paper. A spreadsheet or a word processing template is useful for this purpose. In so doing, one can avoid mistakes by making sure that sources are properly formatted and referenced in the paper.
The third step is to remember to draft and to revise the paper, often more than once or twice. Whether or not the assignment requires submitting a draft before the final work is due, it is helpful to have someone who is very familiar with MLA style review the paper. Sometimes, teachers are more than happy to review and to comment on papers as works in progress. Knowing ahead of time, for example, that one makes consistent mistakes on italicizing vs. using quotation marks, contributes invaluably toward the learning process.