The Modern Language Association (MLA) provides explicit, specific recommendations for the margins and spacing of academic papers. (See: Document Format.) But their advice on font selection is less precise: “Always choose an easily readable typeface (e.g. Times New Roman) in which the regular style contrasts clearly with the italic, and set it to a standard size (e.g. 12 point)” (MLA Handbook, 7th ed., §4.2).
So which fonts are “easily readable” and have “clearly” contrasting italics? And what exactly is a “standard” size?
For academic papers, an “easily readable typeface” means a serif font, and a “standard” type size is between 10 and 12 point.
Use A Serif Font
Serifs are the tiny strokes at the end of a letter’s main strokes. Serif fonts have these extra strokes; sans serif fonts do not. (Sans is French for “without.”) Serif fonts also vary the thickness of the letter strokes more than sans serifs, which have more uniform lines.
Books, newspapers, and magazines typically set their main text in a serif font because they make paragraphs and long stretches of text easier to read. Sans serifs (Arial, Calibri, Helvetica, Gill Sans, Verdana, and so on) work well for single lines of text, like headings or titles, but they rarely make a good choice for body text.
Moreover, most sans serifs don’t have a true italic style. Their “italics” are really just “obliques,” where the letters slant slightly to the right but keep the same shape and spacing. Most serifs, on the other hand, do have a true italic style, with distinctive letter forms and more compact spacing.
Since they’re more readable for long passages and have sharper contrast in their italics, you should always use a serif font for the text of an academic paper.
Use A Readable Type Size
The standard unit for measuring type size is the point. A point is 1⁄72 of an inch, roughly one pixel on a computer screen. The point size of a font tells you the size of the “em square” in which your computer displays each letter of the typeface. How tall or wide any given letter is depends on how the type designer drew it within the em square, thus a font’s height and width can vary greatly depending on the design of the typeface. That’s why if you set two fonts at the same point size, one usually looks bigger than the other.
Compare the following paragraphs, both set at 12 point but in different fonts:
For body text in academic papers, type sizes below 10 point are usually too small to read easily, while type sizes above 12 point tend to look oversized and bulky. So keep the text of your paper between 10 and 12 point.
Some teachers may require you to set your whole text at 12 point. Yet virtually every book, magazine, or newspaper ever printed for visually unimpaired grown-ups sets its body type smaller than 12 point. Newspapers use even smaller type sizes. The New York Times, for example, sets its body text in a perfectly legible 8.7 point font. So with proper spacing and margins, type sizes of 11 or 10 point can be quite comfortable to read.
I usually ask my students to use Century Schoolbook or Palatino for their papers. If your teacher requires you to submit your papers in a particular font, do so. (Unless they require you to use Arial, in which case drop the class.)
One thing to consider when choosing a font is how you submit your essay. When you submit a hard copy or a PDF, your reader will see the text in whatever typeface you use. Most electronic submission formats, on the other hand, can only use the fonts available on the reader’s computer. So if you submit the paper electronically, be sure to use a font your instructor has.
What follows is a list of some widely available, highly legible serif fonts well-suited for academic papers. I’ve divided them into three categories: Microsoft Word Fonts, Mac OS Fonts, and Universal Fonts.
Microsoft Word Fonts
Microsoft Word comes with lots of fonts of varying quality. If your teacher asks you to submit your paper in Word format, you can safely assume they have Word and all the fonts that go with it.
Morris Fuller Benton designed Century Schoolbook in 1923 for elementary-school textbooks, so it’s a highly readable font. It’s one of the best fonts available with Microsoft Word. Because it’s so legible, U. S. Supreme Court Rule 33.1.b madates that all legal documents submitted to the Court be set in Century Schoolbook or a similar Century-style font.
Hermann Zapf designed Palatino in 1948 for titles and headings, but its elegant proportions make it a good font for body text. Named for Renaissance calligrapher Giambattista Palatino, this font has the beauty, harmony, and grace of fine handwriting. Palatino Linotype is the name of the font included with Microsoft Word; Mac OS includes a version of the same typeface called simply Palatino.
Microsoft Word includes several other fonts that can work well for academic essays: Bell MT, Californian FB, Calisto MT, Cambria, Garamond, and Goudy Old Style.
Mac OS Fonts
Apple has a well-deserved reputation for design excellence which extends to its font library. But you can’t count on any of these Mac OS fonts being on a computer that runs Windows.
Finding his inspiration in the typography of Pierre Simon Fournier, Matthew Carter designed Charter in 1987 to look good even on crappy mid-80s fax machines and printers. Its ability to hold up even in low resolution makes Charter work superbly well on screen. Bitstream released Charter under an open license, so you can add it to your font arsenal for free. You can download Charter here.
In 1991 Apple commissioned Jonathan Hoefler to design a font that could show off the Mac’s ability to handle complex typography. The result was Hoefler Text, included with every Mac since then. The bold weight of Hoefler Text on the Mac is excessively heavy, but otherwise it’s a remarkable font: compact without being cramped, formal without being stuffy, and distinctive without being obtrusive. If you have a Mac, start using it.
Iowan Old Style, designed by Iowan sign painter John Downer, emulates 15th century Venetian typefaces by Nicolas Jenson and Francesco Griffo, but it blends these designs with more modern features that make it ideal for extended, immersive reading. Like Charter, Iowan Old Style comes with the iBooks app in OS X Mavericks (released in 2013). If you’re running an older version of Mac OS, you won’t have these fonts.
Other Mac OS fonts you might consider are Athelas (another iBooks font), Baskerville, and Palatino.
Anyone you send your document to will have these fonts because they’re built in to both Windows and Mac OS.
Matthew Carter designed Georgia in 1993 for maximum legibility on computer screens. Georgia looks very nice on web sites, but in print it can look a bit clunky, especially when set at 12 point. Like Times New Roman, it’s on every computer and is quite easy to read. The name “Georgia” comes from a tabloid headline: “Alien Heads Found in Georgia.”
Times New Roman is, for better or worse, the standard font for academic manuscripts. Many teachers require it because it’s a solid, legible, and universally available font. Stanley Morison designed it in 1931 for The Times newspaper of London, so it’s a very efficient font and legible even at very small sizes. Times New Roman is always a safe choice. But unless your instructor requires it, you should probably use something a bit less overworked.
Page Last Updated: 23 October 2017
How to Make an Essay Look Longer
It’s somewhat difficult to make demands on essays for students – demanding that they have 500 words, for example, leads to really, really, very, extremely superfluous lists of adjectives and describing words like this sentence to up the word count. Other teachers use the page count as a metric of completion. But what happens when you have 4 and a half pages done of your five page essay? There are plenty of writing techniques to flesh ideas out and make it longer, but I’m assuming that your essay is perfect as it is and you want a more technological answer. Here are a few techniques that have served me well. I use them all the time.
Note: This tutorial is for Microsoft Word as a part of Office 2007, although many of the same techniques can be used in previous or subsequent versions of Word.
Font Choice and Font Size
First, font or font size is a fairly easy way to make an essay longer. Some teachers demand that Times New Roman size 12 be used. However, when they forget to add that to the rules, you can change it to whatever you want (assuming there’s no blanket statement about it on the syllabus). You want to choose a font that maximizes height. Obviously you don’t want to choose a font that’s too difficult to read, as it may annoy the person grading it. Below is a picture of the word “Hello” printed four times, each at size 12. The fonts, from left to right, are “Angsana New”, “Calibri”, “Times New Roman”, and “Algerian”.
Font size can also make a big impact on your paper. Going with a size 72 font will undoubtedly make your paper surpass the required page count, but isn’t the best idea. Just changing the font size from 12 to 13 can add a few lines to your paper. Below is a picture of identical text in two columns, both in Times New Roman, but size 12 on the left and size 13 on the right.
Even if your teacher demands size 12 Times New Roman, you might be tempted to change it anyway. Slight changes are fairly hard to measure in a printout, however, it is possible. For instance, if a teacher were to print out the word “the” in Times New Roman size 12 on a piece of transparency paper, they could then hold it over a word “the” in your essay and confirm whether or not it’s identical. Probably not going to happen, but it actually has happened to me before.
Space Between lines
The spacing between lines is very difficult to measure because although in most fonts the top and bottom edges vary significantly. In some fonts, there is a common edge except for letters that hang above or below the line, but in fonts that are meant to look more like handwriting, there is not. In any case, even with common edges, it’s not likely that your teacher will whip out a ruler and measure. Too large a gap may arouse suspicion, but changing an essay from double spaced to 2.1 spacing may actually make a large difference. The thing to remember is that the longer the base essay, the more they amplify the length. So for instance, if your essay is 10 lines with double spacing, and you change the spacing to 2.1, you get an extra 0.1 of a line for every line you’ve written, and 0.1×10 = 1. So, for every ten lines you actually write, you get the effect of having written eleven instead. For an essay that’s 4.5 pages, this tiny change can easily bring you over the 5 page mark and is virtually undetectable. Below is two paragraphs, the left with single spacing and the right is 1.1 spacing. This really demonstrates the potential of the small change.
To change the spacing between lines, you’ll need to access the “Paragraph” menu (I believe that in older versions of Word this could be done by going to Format -> Paragraph). In Word 2007, it can be accessed by going to the “Page Layout” tab of the ribbon and clicking on the pop-out button of the Paragraph rectangle.
From there, under Line Spacing, choose “Multiple”, and under At, choose a number close to something normal, like 1.1 or 2.1. You can increase this difference at the risk of the teacher noticing.
Changing the margins of a page is another great way to change the length of your paper. By decreasing the amount of space the words can take up per page, you increase the number of pages required to fit your existing content. Changing the left margin is a bit risky since most papers are left-justified, meaning that the left edge will be relatively the same for all papers. The right margin, however, can be changed to your heart’s content, since the length of words, number of letters, and number of spaces greatly affect each line’s right edge. You can also increase the amount of space taken up by the header and footer of a document.
Lengthen Header Content
One final way you can make a paper appear longer is by adding more lines to the header of your document. If you make it too long, be sure to have it on only the first page and not every page, as this would be incredibly obvious.
If your teacher demands that an essay be 5 pages long and no longer, but your paper is slightly longer, you can use these same techniques in reverse to make your paper look shorter. For instance, you can change double spacing to 1.9 spacing, or increase the margins.