How to Write a Book Title in an Essay (MLA, APA etc.)

Formatting your essay correctly ensures that you get full recognition for the hard work you put into it. Wondering what to do? There are two scenarios that lead you to the question of "how to write a book title in an essay":

  • You have not been required to use a particular style guide, in which case consistency remains important.
  • You have been instructed to use a particular style guide. You now simply need to ensure that you are familiar with its rules.

Regardless of which of these scenarios holds true for you, this guide is here to help.

How to Write a Book Title in an Essay

Many style manuals call on writers use title case and italics to format a book title. Title case rules vary slightly from one style guide to the next, but generally capitalize all important words — nouns, pronouns, verbs, and adverbs. Conjunctions and prepositions are not capitalized unless they are very long (generally more than four letters) or they appear at the beginning or end of a book title.

Writers who are not required to work with a specific style manual can't go wrong if they stick to this style. Some examples would be:

  • To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
  • The Gift of Fear and Other Survival Signals That Protect us From Violence by Gavin de Becker
  • The Cat With a Feathery Tail and Other Stories by Enid Blyton

If, on the other hand, you're required to use a style guide, it will likely be one of these:

  • MLA, commonly used in disciplines relating to literature and social sciences.
  • APA, commonly used in psychology and other sciences.
  • Chicago, often used in the publishing industry.
  • Harvard style, commonly used in philosophy and social sciences.

These are certainly not the only "big players" in the style guide world, but they're ones it's good to be familiar with. There is overlap between these styles, but there are also major differences — so knowing one definitely does not mean you know the others, too.

Guidelines for Writing a Book Title in an Essay

Looking for a short and sharp answer, so you can get on with the rest of your essay? This is it.

Writing Style / Format General Rules of Writing a Book Title
MLA Italicize the full title of a book and place it in title case (Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness). Place the name of a single chapter in quote marks, instead ("The Great Towns" from Condition of the Working Class in England by Friedrich Engels).
APA Italicize the book title. Capitalize the first letter, the first letter of a subtitle, and proper nouns. Example: Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.) Chapters are placed in title case, but neither italicized nor placed in quote marks.
Chicago Italicize the full title and use title case: A Modest Proposal by Jonathan Swift. Book chapters are placed in quote marks, and use title case, as with MLA.
Harvard The book title is italicized and placed in title case: To kill A mockingbird by Harper Lee. Chapters are placed in single quote marks: 'Rat' from Ender's Game.

This quick guide will help you reference the book title of your choosing in the body of your essay, but what about your Works Cited pages? Each style guide offers different rules, and we'll use the same book as an example to illustrate the differences.

  • MLA uses the following format: Author Last Name, First Name. Title of Book. City of Publication, Publisher, Publication Year. Example: Card, Orson Scott. Ender's Game. Tor Books, 1985. (You only have to detail the city of publication if the book was published before 1900, the publisher has offices in many localities, or the publisher is not known in the US.)
  • APA uses the following format: Author Last Name, First Name. (Year of Publication). Title of book. Example: Card, Orson Scott. (1985). Ender's game.
  • Chicago style uses the following format: Author Last Name, First Name. Book Title: Subtitle. Place of publication: Publisher, Year. Example: Card, Orson Scott. Ender's Game. Tor Books, 1985.
  • Harvard uses the following format: Author Last Name, First Initial. (Publication Year). Title. ed. City: Publisher. Example: Card, O. (1985). Ender's Game. Tor Books.

If, after researching, you cannot find relevant information about publication years, publishers, or the city in which a book was published, you may omit it. For a full guide, it is always best to have a physical copy of the latest edition of the style manual you are using. You can, however, get by without this if you need to.

Should you still not know what to do, it will be helpful for you to know that you can "generate" citations for a particular style manual with the help of online tools like Cite Me. These are not always accurate, so if you decide to use one, always check the citation manually.

Why Is Proper Formatting Important?

All of the well-known style manuals ultimately serve the very same set of purposes, although they were each developed for a particular niche. The goals of these style manuals are both explicit and implicit:

  • Following a style guide ensures consistency throughout a document, in this case an essay.
  • Consistency ensures that reader's understand precisely what the writer is talking about, without exerting any effort on figuring that out. Clarity is especially important in academic writing.
  • By using a style guide within a certain discipline, you show that you understand the rules within that discipline. This adds credibility to your voice as a writer. You have done your homework, have ideally bought the style manual, and are part of the "in group".
  • Sticking to a certain style guide makes it easier for relevant parties to check your references, which they can then use to perform further research.

Students are increasingly asked to refer to style guides at all levels, including in high school. In this case, formatting your essay correctly, in accordance with the right style manual, serves two additional purposes:

  • You'll lose points if you don't do it right, offering you an additional reason to do your research.
  • Getting used to these formats prepares you for further education. If you are in high school, it prepares you for college-level writing. If you are an undergraduate student, it prepares you for academic work at the graduate and post-graduate levels.


Can you start an essay with a book title?

Yes, you can start an essay with a book title. This is a valid stylistic choice, but you will always want to consider your introduction carefully.

How do you write a book title in handwriting?

Students sometimes ask whether it is acceptable to underline book titles instead of italicizing them. This practice indeed stems from a time in which most students wrote their essays by hand. Although it has largely fallen out of practice now, you can still underline a book title if you are handwriting your essay.

How do you write a book title and chapter in an essay?

You should mention the chapter title first: "Rat" from Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card. Consult the relevant style manual to ensure you get the formatting right.

Can you shorten a book title in an essay?

Yes, you can. Reference the full title the first time you mention it (for example: Furiously Happy: A Funny Book About Horrible Things). The next time you mention the book, you may simply refer to Furiously Happy.

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