Filename Protocols (General Advice)

In a series of pages about formatting standards, this one, technically, is not a formatting rule from any style guide I know. Rather, this is a really good habit to get into in the increasingly digital classroom--where the professor is much more likely to work with your actual file.


(too long; didn't read)

  • Don't be clever when naming your files.
  • Give every file a simple name that identifies 1) the author and 2) the assignment
  • This is because you want your professor to be able to find your paper quickly if they need to (or if you need them to)
  • Here's the format I suggest to my students: "Lastname (CRN) Assignment.docx"
    • Foreman (12345) Misconception Paper.docx
    • Tyler (24601) Midterm.docx
    • Smith Sarah Jane (54321) Assignment 3 Draft.docx
  • I am not kidding. Begin with your last name.
  • Begin with your last name.



This is not something you'll see mentioned in The MLA Handbook, but it's very useful advice. This is something that all modern students need to know, especially in an online classroom, but which is not often taught.


How to Name Your Files

I'm not talking about what title you give your essay. That's going to be inside the file. I'm talking about the name of the file--the thing you see when you look in your computer directory, and which your professors sees when you email them an attachment. It wasn't too long ago that your professor would never know what you named your files. You could have named your paper dr_v_is_a_big_poopyhead.doc and I would never know.

But the modern reality is that more often than not, that professor will see the file name: Say there are problems with the course website and you have to email a file to your professor. Or maybe that professor doesn't grade online--they download all the files that were submitted to Canvas, read them on their computer, then post the grades in Gradebook.

So now we have to start thinking about what we name our files.

Odds are, somewhere on your computer you have a file that you've been working on for my class. And 7/10 times, that file is named something like English Paper.docx.

The thing is, that might be a really useful file name for you while that file is on your computer--because on your computer, it's the only English paper you need to keep track of. But for an English professor, eveyr paper in their downloads folder is an English paper! They have no idea which one is yours, and which assignment is which. This can delay the reporting of your grade and, in worst-case scenarios, could lead to an assignment being marked as "never received."

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I'll often have several hundred papers I'm keeping track of. The same is true for your Geography professor. And your Statistics professor. And so on. So let's say after a hectic weekend of grading, they post their grades and yours are missing. "Did you get my paper?" you ask them in an email. And they open up the file folder where they keep all the student papers and all they see is

  • english.docx
  • English paper.doc
  • Eng.docx
  • Document 31.docx
  • final FInal FINAL I MEAN IT THIS TIME.docx
  • Bunnies.docx

And all they can say is... "I don't know."

You quite innocently named your file something that made sense to you. But it doesn't make sense to your professor. So it's going to delay or prevent your paper getting graded.

You don't want that.

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The above was a totally innocent situation. But there are more malicious things that can happen. I'm talking about malware. Universities are frequently targeted by malware attacks that send generically-named files from emails that look like they might belong to a student.

So a lot of your professors are going to be wary about opening that English.docx they just received from MyEmailIsAnInsideJokeThatMyFriendsThinkIsHilariousButWhichDoesn'tIdentifyMeAtAll@....

You want your professor to actually download, read, and grade your paper.

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File-Naming Two-Step

You want to name your file in a way that two things are perfectly clear to your professor, without even opening the file.

  1. Whose file this is (yours)
  2. What this file is (the assignment you are submitting)

To that end, there are two pieces of information that you absolutely must put into your file names.


1. Your Last Name

The very first word in your file name must be your last name as it appears on the class roster. It's not enough to have your last name somewhere in the file name. It needs to be the first word.


Because the class roster is organized by last name.

File directories on computers are organizable by the first word of every file. So if your professor needs to look in their downloads and see if they have your paper, you want your name to stand out immediately.

So if Tegan Jovanka writes a paper for Assignment 2, it should look like this:

Jovanka Assignment 2.docx

Now, if you have a really common last name, you can add your first name to the file name--but your last name should still be at the beginning. So if Sarah Jane Smith submits a draft for Assignment 6:

Smith Sarah Jane A6 Draft.docx

The first word in the file name must be your last name. I mean it.


2. A Brief Description of the Assignment

You'll notice that after the last name in the above files, I just said the name of the assignment. That's all you need to do. That's all you should do.

Once again: we are not talking about your paper's title! I'm sure you have a wonderful, clever title in your paper. But I don't need to know that right now. All I need to know is which assignment this is.

So let's say Susan Foreman is in a history class, and for her midterm paper assignment, she makes a compelling argument about John Love's Geodaesia, the book George Washington used to learn surveying. She's very proud of her title, which is

Looking for Love in All the Right Places

So she names her file Looking for Love.docx and sends it in.

If you got that in an email, would you assume that that was a midterm? Even Foreman Looking for Love.docx isn't much better.

The file name fails to identify the assignment.

A good file name would be

Foreman Midterm.docx

Sure, it may be joyless, but it lets her professor know exactly what this is. And when he opens up the file, her witty title will be waiting right in there as a surprise.


Bonus: CRN

Every course at HCC has a CRN (Course Record Number). The CRN is a five-digit number that positively identifies that one specific class from all other classes of that type at HCC's various campuses.

For instance, let's say Barbara Wright and Ian Chesterton are both taking Intro to Humanities (HUMA 1301). Barbara is taking an evening class at Central, and Ian is taking a morning class at Northline.

Both of these classes are referred to by the same code (HUMA 1301). But each has a specific CRN that lets professors and administrators tell the classes apart at a glance.

As you will see on the next page, I advise students to put the CRN in their NRH.

I do not require you to put the CRN in your file name, but it can be helpful.

If you decide to do this, the best place to put it would be after your name but before the descriptor:

Chesteron (24601) Art Critique 3.docx

(We'll assume Ian's class did a series of art critique assignments.)

Trust me--if you practice good naming protocols, you are going to save yourself a lot of grief down the line!

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