Simon James's Essay Presentation Clinic

External appearances do matter.

Sad but true! Just as you would dress up for an interview, so you need to pay attention to the layout and appearance of documents you want people to read. The first thing they notice is presentation. It affects the attitude they bring to what you have to say. Take a few minutes out to get some tips on this important area. (NB This is mostly about word-processing, but many of these comments apply to handwritten documents too.)

This document introduces you to:

What is the AIM??

What are essays for?

Essays, and other pieces of written work you are asked to present during your course, are intended to do several things.

  • Of course they are supposed to show how much you have learned, and how well you can think about it.
  • They are also about how well you can communicate your knowledge and ideas.

Written communication itself consists of two components:

  1. Content and writing style. What follows is not about these aspects, which you should be discussing with your tutors. They are not so amenable to simple guidelines!
  2. Presentation skills which everyone needs in the ‘Real World’.

What is the aim of presentation?

In document presentation, there are two main aims:

  1. Ease of use. The document must be simple to find your way around, and easy to read.
  2. Attractive appearance. You must match the style to circumstances. With essays, this is easy enough. You are aiming at a clean, perhaps elegant appearance, definitely without frills*.

(*Of course, if you are writing other kinds of documents for other audiences, such as brochures for commercial companies or exhibition panels for school-children, you would do things differently. But that’s another story...)

Always remember the KISS rule: Keep It Simple, Stoopid!’



Basics of document layout

You have to make a number of basic choices affecting the appearance of your document. here we will look at:


Types of type

You need to select a 'font'. Basically, a font consists of a ‘typeface’ (a style of lettering) reproduced at a particular size, called the ‘point size’.

(NB There are other considerations in defining the appearance of type, notably ‘leading’ (pronounced ‘ledding’), which you will come across in Word Processor option menus. Named after the metal in which type was once cast, ‘leading’ refers to the depth of white space on which the letters are placed, but don’t worry about such details unless you develop a particular interest in document design. )

Choosing a ‘font’

Computers allow you to choose from many different types of lettering, so it seems a waste to use ‘typewriter’ fonts such as Courier. Read the sample texts.
Don’t be tempted to use exotic fonts! If you look at books and magazines, while all sorts of typefaces are used for headings, for the main text (‘body text’) most will use fairly plain ‘serifed’ fonts, that is, typefaces with the tiny expansions at the ends of the letter strokes. (Trendy magazines use all sorts of weird fonts and graphic effects to catch your attention, and can look really cool. But can you read them easily?)

Designers reckon that for ‘body text’, the densest part of a page, serifed fonts are generally easier to read. So it is best to stick to ‘classic’-looking fonts for your main text, e.g. Times, New Century, Garamond, Plantin, etc. ...

...However, unserifed fonts can be very good for headings and subheadings. In addition to Arial, several other plain unserifed fonts are widely available, notably ‘Helvetica’ and ‘Univers’.

Warning! Don’t use more than 2 fonts in a document. Avoid the ‘ransom note effect’!  



Size is everything!

For your main text, you need to choose the size of the lettering as well as the typeface. This is usually measured in ‘points’, and is called the ‘point size’. For legibility, 10 point is pretty small, especially for those with imperfect eyesight (like many venerable academics). 12.5 is pretty big. For body text, around 11 or 11.5 point is usually best, and the default setting on your Word Processor will probably be about this size. (NB Of course you need to print it out: apparent size on the computer screen can be misleading.)

The typing space: margins

There should be a margin at least an inch (25mm) wide down both sides, partly to allow space for marking, but also because excessively long lines are hard to read.

It is best to have a rather deeper margin at the bottom of the page. For some reason, the text on pages with margins equal all around appears to  be ‘sliding down the page’.

NB If you decide to use headers and footers, you will need to allow extra space for them.

To justify or not to justify? ‘Text alignment’

There are several ways of arranging main text (‘body text’). These include:
  • Aligned left (‘ranged left’, ‘ragged right edge’) Is plain and simple to read.
  • Justified text means that both the right and left edges of the text are straight, as in standard printed books.
  • Centred text Never use this for body text! Fairly obviously, the irregular starting points of each line make it all but impossible to read. Centring can be used for short headings (see below).
Tip: It is a matter of taste, but justification is not always best. When they start using a Word Processor most people use justification, largely because, for the first time, they can! Justified text can actually be hard to read, as in this example. Ugly, isn’t it? ‘Ragged right edge’ is often best - but not compulsory!

Line spacing







Most departments demand, or at least prefer, text to be double-spaced so that there is room to annotate the script. (You might get away with ‘one-and-a-half’ spacing.)

Tip: When writing on screen, you will probably prefer single line-spacing to see as much as possible in one ‘screenful’. You can then double-space the text just before final print-out, or perhaps earlier, so that you can edit and annotate your draft by hand before completing it for final print-out. You can put a reminder to double-space into a ‘to do’ list




Paragraphs, which should usually be kept reasonably short, help you to structure your argument, and again help the reader.

They can break up large blocks of dull, grey text (left) so that, subliminally, starting to read a new page feels less of a chore (right). Compare these examples.

Indented first lines are one way of marking off paragraphs. However, an actual space between them also has advantages; some white space on the page is always a good idea. Things like a line space after each paragraph rest the reader’s eye a little.



Emphasising text: Using capitals, bold, Italic, or underline

You want headings and ‘navigational aids’ like subheads to stand out on the page. It is also standard to emphasise certain words within body-text, e.g. foreign words and technical terms, such as biological species names (e.g. Ascaris lumbricoides), and also titles of books. When writing by hand, use of capitals or underlining are easy ways to emphasise particular words. However, Word Processors allow better alternatives:
  • CAPITALS should generally be avoided, since they do not stand out very well, and are actually difficult to read, especially if used for more than a few words.
  • Bold text is the strongest way to make words stand out. In essays it should only be used for headings and subheadings (unlike here where it is designed to help you pick out key points quickly! But this is a handbook, not an essay...)
  • Italic text is used in professional printing for emphasis within body text. It should not be used in essays just to emphasise things you think are really important - like that! Keep it for foreign words and titles of books.
  • Just using larger letters does not work well, and neither does s p a c i n g  o u t.
  • Underlined text. If you have produced an elegant ‘looks-like-it’s-really-printed’ page style, underlining looks out of place (you rarely see it in books or magazines.). It can also be counterproductive, especially if used with capitals and/or bold. Underlined text can be quite hard to read.


Titles, headings and subheadings

Titles & headings

Heading alignments

Just as it is not always wise to justify text, so it is not always a good idea to ‘centre’ headings, especially long ones. Multiple lines which don’t all start at the same point on the left are particularly hard to read. See the second example below.

Using capitals in headings

It is not good to use all capitals for titles, especially long ones, and particularly for titles consisting of essay questions! Use ordinary ‘lower case’ text like this. And don’t capitalise every word, just the first letter of the sentence and proper nouns.

Some examples

Imagine the examples below are the tops of A4 pages.

Short titles

For a short title, you might use a slightly larger point-size (but not too big! Essays aren’t posters). In the example below, centring works well. Note also judicious use of a little white space to avoid a cramped look.


Long titles

For long titles, keep it simple. Which of these two below would you rather have to look at, at the top of an essay? (Read through the heading of each.)



Subheads can be very useful for making an essay easier to navigate round by clarifying its structure and, like paragraph spaces, can break up ‘walls’ of text. Compare the examples on this page.

Tip Don’t use more than one level of subheadings, without a very good reason. Sub-subheads, and sub-sub-subheads can confuse rather than clarify...

Warning! Teachers may have their own opinions on how appropriate it is to use subheads.


References and bibliography

All works cited or quoted must be properly referenced in the text, and listed in a bibliography at the end of the essay - remember, plagiarism is a hanging offence! In any case, routine inclusion of references and preparation of a bibliography are useful habits to develop in your approach to writing.

1. Bibliography

Each reference will usually be in one of the following forms:

For books:  

Cunliffe, B.W., 1984, Excavations at Verylargebury, Megatome Press, Oxbridge

Blackadder, E., 1588, The Cunning Plans of my Servant, Baldrick, Nonsuch Press, London

(NB there are variations on this.

For articles in journals:

Khan, K., 1277, ‘Stately pleasure-domes I have known’, The Xanadu Archaeological Journal, Vol. CXIII, pp. 1-299.

For a paper in an edited volume:

Stalin, J., 1992, ‘They wouldn’t have got away with it in my day’, in: Engels, F., Lenin, V.I., Marx, K. and Trotsky, L. (eds.), It seemed a good Idea at the Time, Winter Palace Press, St. Petersburg, pp. 123-456.

2. References

Within the text of your essay, the ‘Harvard system’ is now more or less standard as a way of referring to published information on which the statements in your essay are based. (Footnotes should usually be avoided, even though these are now pretty easy to do with advanced word processors).

The standard form of such a reference, for material referred to or (sparingly!) quoted verbatim is:

‘The hillfort proved to contain thousands of pits (Cunliffe 1984, p.123).’

There are variations to note.

‘Cunliffe reported that the hillfort contained thousands of pits (1984, p.123)’ is another way of expressing the point above, and makes for a little variety.

Two authors/editors would be referred to as ‘...(Baldrick and Blackadder 1588, p.567).’

If there are more than two authors/editors the reference is usually presented as ‘...(Engels et al. 1992, p.789).’ where ‘et al.’ is abbreviated Latin et alii, et alia, etc. meaning ‘and others’. (See the full bibliographical reference to this fictional volume above.)

Tip: Have a look at how authors use the system in published works. You will find there are minor variations in usage, but you will soon get the hang of it.

Finishing touches, and tricks of the trade

Here are some ways of finishing off your document attractively, plus some time- and grief-saving tips

Make sure you have the necessary information on the document printout. Some details are obvious enough:

...should all be at the top of the document and/or on the cover sheet

Others are highly desirable:

Tip: Headers and footers You could put a lot of this information in the 'header and footer' space of each page. This is the strip at top and bottom where wordprocessors put the page numbers, and so on. I normally put the page number, my name and the document title in small characters in the 'header', and the complete filename and date in even smaller characters in the 'footer'. This way, even if I find a loose sheet kicking around on the floor, I immediately know where it comes from.

Cover sheet

Even where the department does not demand a proforma stapled on the front of work, a cover sheet on a document can be both attractive and useful. It should include the project title (or precise wording of the essay question) and all relevant details. It is especially good for extra copies of assessed essays you present, for return with comments. They give the marker plenty of room to provide these...

While writing the essay you can use the space for a temporary ‘to do’ checklist, to be erased and left blank when printing out.

Some general tips, to save you time and grief...

Tip: Use a checklist when writing your essay. I find it useful to keep a temporary list of things to do actually within the document file, at the top, just under the title. Here you can put short reminders of remaining tasks, especially the easy-to-forget last things before printout, like word-count, final spell-check, and double-spacing body text. Once you have finished everything, you just have to remember to erase the checklist...!

Tip: Make yourself a document template. Don't keep 'reinventing the wheel' by having to set up the document parameters and layout afresh every time you start a new assignment! To save yourself work, if you get fairly experienced with a more advanced word-processor such as Word 2000, you could make a standard master document or template for essays, which you can keep on allocated hard-disk space, and/or on floppy disk (as a back-up). It can have everything all ready to go, including pagination, line-spacing and paragraph layouts, heading and subheading settings, along with your candidate number, date/time and filename fields all in place.  Just open a copy, modify as needed, save under a new filename, and off you go. You can then spend more time concentrating on the essay content...

Tip: Keep copies, both of final printouts, and the computer files. If you don't do so already, after every substantial session of work, make a back-up of your word-processed documents and keep it in a safe place, in another building. This may seem obvious, but most of us have a disaster from forgetting this sooner or later!

And finally: Before you do the definitive word-count and print your document out, run a last spellcheck!


Further reading : MHRA style book                   

More formal advice and information on many of these issues may be found in:

A copy is available in the Library.

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Last updated: 16 August 2000
Simon James
The views expressed in this document are those of the document owner.