Academic and nonfiction writers need to concentrate first on the quality of their arguments and the relationship between evidence and conclusions, rather than tiny matters of manuscript preparation.
But the style and format of an article, book, thesis, or dissertation are essential elements too. They provide the scaffolding that identifies your work as part of a wider scholarly community that uses accepted conventions.
And those conventions not only can be complex, but can change from one year (or edition of the MLA Handbook) to the next. An experienced editor can help ensure that your work is not discounted because of an incorrect citation or quotation format.
Not only will an experienced editor make sure that your Works Cited entries are indented correctly, for example, but also can make sure that your document is set up correctly—in this case, the “hanging indent” function in Word—so that further changes or edits will reflow correctly.
We can think of MLA conventions as falling into two broad categories:
Style and Format
Modern Language Association (MLA) Style
In one sense, anything having to do with MLA is “MLA Style.” But here I will confine its meaning to advice on particular constructions in the body of a text. The MLA Handbook isn’t a complete style manual on the order, say, of the Chicago Manual of Style (CMS), a book that provides deeper stylistic and grammatical advice.
Nonetheless, one big style difference between MLA and other styles such as APA (American Psychological Association) is the default use of present tense. If Pat Jones is quoted from a decade ago, we would write, “In Reverberations, Pat Jones claims that….” Even the long-dead receive the same treatment: “Aristotle suggests that….”
Using present tense in this way conveys a sense of immediacy: Arguments are pulled into the present rather than existing in a dusty past. MLA suggests that past tense can be used in those cases where we actually describe something that happened in the past, but the focus should be on tense consistency, with present tense usually winning out.
In a different style, we might be required to write, “Jones claimed…” (and that’s another difference in MLA from many other styles: We use the full name on the first citation). I personally like the sense of present-tense immediacy, but by hiring an MLA editor, you skip past any sense of preference. The important goal is to just accept the conventions and practice them as smoothly and efficiently as possible.
MLA Format and the Digital Age
It is in the various ways of citing and quoting that authors run into particular snags with academic formats. MLA clearly came out of an earlier print culture and was slow to adapt to digital sources. With the current (8th) edition, this has changed explicitly. Here is how MLA (https://style.mla.org/whats-new) explains the situation:
In the new model, the work’s publication format is not considered. Instead of asking, “How do I cite a book [or DVD or Web page]?” the writer creates an entry by consulting the MLA’s list of core elements—facts common to most works—which are assembled in a specific order.
Originally, MLA dealt mostly with printed works; non-print sources were modeled on the print ones as closely as possible. Then with the explosion of new media, writers used different models (for example, a web page), and for anything that fell outside of those models, they were enjoined to choose the clearest form possible. Now, however, it isn’t the source per se that determines how an entry is created. Instead, we provide certain information irrespective of the source. According to MLA, this is in keeping with a digital culture.
Tiny Details and Big Effects
It’s difficult to defend recent changes to MLA format—or the previous format requirements, for that matter. We just need to adhere to them. An MLA editor would know, for instance, that brief quotations from poetry separate lines with a slash: “Today is the beginning / and tomorrow is another.” But as explained in the 8th edition of the Handbook, a double slash (//) represents a break between stanzas and not just lines, so if I replaced the single slash above with a double one, a reader will know that “and tomorrow…” begins a completely separate stanza.
All publication styles and formats have rules for acceptable abbreviations. In the case of MLA previously, the Works Cited used abbreviations for common terms such as “editor” (ed.) and “translator” (trans.). No more. Now the preference is to spell out these terms (but there may be abbreviations in an in-text citation, curiously enough).
A host of other changes, all small in themselves, add up to what constitutes a correctly formatted document. For example, “et al.” is now used when there are three or more authors (previously four), “http://” is dropped from URLs (another acknowledgement of a widespread digital culture), “n.d.” (“no date”) no longer is used for unknown information (digital culture again, I suspect), and publishers’ names are spelled out in full, though abbreviations such as “UP” (for “University Press”) are retained. Getting the tiny details right ultimately won’t win over your readers, but getting them wrong might very well harm your authority as a writer or scholar.
Automated MLA Style Checkers
Maybe the day will arrive when an automated MLA style generator or checker will work flawlessly, but so far I haven’t found any that accomplished much beyond creating even more work for the author and editor. Microsoft Word comes with a function under the References tab that supposedly will generate citations and Works Cited entries. Even if the edition was correct (the current Word uses the 7th edition of the Handbook), the results always require additional copyediting and correction.
When we think about issues of proper quotations, spacing, tense, and so on, the style checkers become a burden on our writing and editing.
That’s not to say that we shouldn’t employ labor-saving functions where appropriate. For example, if your MLA-style document requires a table of contents, then using Word’s table of contents (TOC) generator correctly will save you a lot of trouble later when any changes need to be made to the text. This is just one area that MLA doesn’t cover since it doesn’t specify a preferred TOC format.
Other Word functions can help with editing for consistency, which definitely is part of MLA style. We can set Word’s options to highlight a number of spaces after sentence end punctuation. Originally, MLA preferred two spaces after a period; now, the preference is for a single space. So we set Word to highlight any place that has two spaces so that we can change it to just one.
However, there is a caveat: If your institution or publisher prefers two spaces, then that’s what an editor will assume. An experienced MLA editor will inquire about all style and format requirements, not just the official, current MLA guidelines. A scholarly article for a journal or a dissertation for an institution will be guided by additional conventions associated with that journal or institution.
Your project’s editing requirements will vary widely depending on the stage you are at as well as how many MLA conventions already have been employed. Sometimes an editor may need to edit virtually every sentence for tense as well as correct MLA citation form, or adjust every quotation and Works Cited entry. But editors routinely look over prospective projects and, in consultation with authors, determine what level of copyediting is needed. (This isn’t to discount other levels of editing: Past clients of mine have sometimes asked me to be alert also for clarity of the arguments and other potential developmental editing concerns. Another advantage of a live editor is that you can ask him or her about these potential issues.)
The following is list of potential troublesome MLA issues. The list doesn’t exhaust every MLA requirement, but the items have been part of many writing and editing challenges.
1. Indenting and spacing
Your particular project may have specific requirements but, in general, MLA still prefers double-spaced text with a standard font in a standard size (12-point, usually). Paragraph first lines and long quotations are indented one-half inch, while the Works Cited using hanging indent, and so on.
Long quotations are formatted differently from short ones. (A detail: In long, multi-paragraph quotations, the first line does not receive an additional indent, even if it was indented in the original. Again, whether that makes any larger sense or not, we just adhere to the requirement.)
3. Tables and figures
While less detailed than the requirements in, say, APA style, there still are definite requirements that can be messed up accidentally, especially in a program such as Word. Microsoft Word is a standard program, but it isn’t a true document “layout” program. Moving text can easily affect the alignment of any visual elements. Also, usually the tables and figures need to be cross-referenced in appropriate lists in the “front matter.”
4. Past tense to present tense
If already written in present tense, this element of style may not present much of a problem. When converting from a text written primarily in past tense, it can create a lot of headaches.
This is a big one and is essential for maintaining the core strength of academic and nonfiction writing. In-text citations are handled very differently in MLA than APA, for example, with potentially more information appearing initially in the text part of the sentence, though the parenthetical citation part has to be correct, too. A deeper copyedit might include making sure that every claim is tied to some citation or set of citations in a very obvious way.
6. Works Cited
There are two levels here.
The first is correctness: Are the Works Cited entries correct both in form and content? Sometimes there is too much information, and sometimes there is missing information.
Another deeper level of editing would require that every citation match a Works Cited entry and every Works Cited entry match at least one citation. The citations and Works Cited provide much of that scaffolding I mentioned at the beginning. (Here is yet another change for those of us who have been following MLA: In most cases, we no longer include the city of publication. Another casualty of digital culture?)
7. What is and isn’t MLA but may be important?
I’ve been asked by clients about important issues that are not formally part of MLA. For example, how should an author handle notes, whether footnotes or endnotes? Though MLA is compatible with some form of notes, there is no specified MLA format for them. And the point of MLA citation and style generally is to do away with the standalone note wherever possible. Still, an experienced MLA editor can help you adapt the particular needs of your project to the requirements of MLA.
An MLA editor can help relieve some of the anxiety of producing an effective article, book, thesis, or dissertations by helping the project move past the goal posts set by academic and professional gatekeepers. I have come to think of this process as a generally positive one since a manuscript that has been edited to such exacting standards provides readers with confidence in the author’s authority. An MLA editor helps you build and maintain that authority.
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