How You Should Not Format Your Bibliographies

The Student Supplement for The SBL Handbook of Style has some specific requirements for your essay’s bibliography.1

You can get the words on the page in your bibliography to look like the Student Supplement requires in a few different ways.

Unfortunately, some common approaches to formatting your bibliography have undesirable side effects.

What the Student Supplement Requires

Before I get into that, though, it’s helpful to review what the Student Supplement requires.

In sum, from the beginning of the bibliography, this is,

  1. A new page with a two-inch top margin.
  2. The word “BIBLIOGRAPHY” center-aligned and uppercased.
  3. Two blank lines.
  4. Your first bibliography entry, single-spaced with a hanging indentation of 0.5 inches.2
  5. If you have more than one bibliography entry, you’ll add a blank line. Then, you’ll add your next entry, also single-spaced with a hanging indentation of 0.5 inches. And you’ll continue repeating this format until you’ve included all the bibliography entries you need.
  6. On the bibliography’s first page, you’ll have a page number consecutive with the rest of the essay and centered in the bottom margin.
  7. If you have more than one page to your bibliography, you’ll then have a page number right-justified in the top margin.3

How Not to Format Your Bibliography

For several of these features of the bibliography, there’s a pretty obvious way to get the text on the page to display like you need.

Unfortunately, these sometimes more obvious methods also have significant downsides. In particular, they can lead to a mess at the end of your essay.

So, they’ll end up costing you additional time, effort, and attention to manipulate the formatting of your bibliography.

For example, you might

  • Press “Enter” repeatedly to get from the last line of your essay body to a new page. Then you might press “Enter” about four more times to get what looks like roughly a two-inch top margin. But then, if your essay body lengthens or shortens as you edit, you need to re-manipulate this spacing.
  • Press “Enter” twice to get roughly two blank lines between the title “BIBLIOGRAPHY” and your first entry. But you’ll need then to remember or recheck the Student Supplement to confirm that that spacing is correct.
  • Type out the first line of your first bibliography entry. Then you might press enter and tab over to type a second (or third) line for that same entry that looks like it’s spaced in from the left margin. Or you might format that second (or third) line with a first-line indent like most new paragraphs. In either of these cases, if you have to edit the bibliography entry, you might change where the lines need to wrap. And you’ll have to manually manipulate the formatting to produce the correct indentation. Or if your margin size changes from one project to another (e.g., from an essay with 1-inch margins to a dissertation with a 1.5-inch left-hand margin), copying and pasting the same bibliography entry will also mean that you need to manually adjust where the line breaks fall.
  • Press “Enter” to create a blank line between each bibliography entry. But if you do this, the blank line might actually appear at the top of a page and so look like an enlarged top margin. In that case, you’d need to manually manipulate the spacing to insert or take out a blank line as appropriate.


In all of these scenarios, you have two choices. You can have an essay with a poorly formatted bibliography. Or you can spend unnecessary time and attention proofing and massaging your bibliography’s formatting to ensure you get things just right.

Obviously, neither of these alternatives is that good. You want a clean bibliography. And you want to spend your time and attention actually improving your essay’s content—not just manipulating its jots and tittles.

Fortunately, you’ve got some much better options for each step in creating a clean bibliography.

Tired of fighting with Word? Want to be done with frustrated hours fussing over how to get the formatting you need?

My new guide shows you how to bypass all of this so you can let Word work for you while you focus on your research.

For students in any graduate program, mastering the full range of available research tools is crucial for efficient and consistent productivity. Dr. Stark has mastered these tools—the most important of which is Microsoft Word…. Students eager to take their work to the next level would do well to follow Dr. Stark’s in-depth guidance.

  1. Header image provided by Freestocks

  2. A “first-line” indentation is the kind of indentation you might be most used to seeing at the beginning of a new paragraph. The first line is indented from the left margin by a certain amount (e.g., 0.5 inches). The remaining lines in that paragraph then start flush with the left margin. A “hanging indentation” is just the opposite. The first line starts flush with the left margin. All subsequent lines are indented from that margin by a certain amount (e.g., 0.5 inches). 

  3. Melanie Greer Nogalski et al., Student Supplement for The SBL Handbook of Style, Second Edition, ed. Joel M. LeMon and Brennan W. Breed, rev. ed. (Atlanta: SBL, 2015), §§2.3, 2.11, 3.5. 

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