The APA Advantage—Elevate Your Writing

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Danielle McLeod

Danielle McLeod is a highly qualified secondary English Language Arts Instructor who brings a diverse educational background to her classroom. With degrees in science, English, and literacy, she has worked to create cross-curricular materials to bridge learning gaps and help students focus on effective writing and speech techniques. Currently working as a dual credit technical writing instructor at a Career and Technical Education Center, her curriculum development surrounds student focus on effective communication for future career choices.

The APA style guide is a form of academic writing used by the American Psychology Association for documentation purposes. Its main focus pertains to citation guidelines, but it also offers basic formatting rules. 

The guide originated in the 1920s as a set of procedures to simplify scientific writing for more accessible reading comprehension. It came about to help readers focus on the ideas within the material rather than on unfamiliar formatting. Today, it is widely accepted in the scientific community and, like other similar style guides, helps build credibility through its use. 

In this article, we’ll uncover what APA is, when to wield it, and how to master in-text citations and references like a pro. Plus, we’ve got real-life examples to show you how it all clicks. So, ditch the stress, grab your cup of tea (or coffee, no judgment!), and let’s conquer APA together!

What Is APA Style?

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APA style, short for the American Psychological Association style, is a set of guidelines commonly used in academic writing, particularly in the social sciences. It provides rules and conventions for formatting, citing sources, and constructing references in scholarly papers.

APA style began in 1929 when psychologists, anthropologists, and business managers came together to create rules for scientific writing and documentation. They released the first APA Publication Manual in the same year, offering guidance for writers, editors, and publishers in social and behavioral sciences. 

The current edition of the APA Publication Manual is the 7th edition, published in 2019.

What Is the Purpose of the APA Style Guide?

The purpose of the APA style guide is to provide a set of guidelines for authors, editors, and publishers. It focuses on the social and behavioral sciences to ensure consistency and accuracy in scholarly writing. The guide serves several purposes:

  • Standardization: It provides rules and conventions for formatting, citing sources, constructing references, and organizing content.
  • Credibility and transparency: By following the APA guidelines, authors can ensure that their work is transparent, credible, and easily understood by readers. 
  • Accessibility: By using a common style, researchers can easily locate and understand the information they need, regardless of the specific publication or discipline.
  • Communication and collaboration: The guidelines facilitate effective communication and collaboration among researchers. 
  • Ethical considerations: It promotes responsible research practices and academic integrity by incorporating ethical considerations to avoid plagiarism and respect intellectual property rights. 
  • Professionalism: It signals to readers, editors, and reviewers that the author has followed established conventions to present their work in a scholarly manner.

What Are the General Formatting Rules of APA?

APA style is focused on academic research, journals, and publications in the social sciences, psychology, education, and related fields. The style guide’s general formatting relates to how a paper looks and how the information is presented. These can be summed up with the following points:

  • Title page: Includes the title of the paper, the author’s name and affiliation, and the institutional affiliation.
  • In-text (parenthetical) citations: When referencing sources within the text, APA style uses an author-date citation format. 
  • Reference list: At the end of the paper, a reference list provides complete details of all the sources cited in the text. The reference list is organized alphabetically by the author’s last name.
  • Formatting: APA style specifies guidelines for font size (usually 12-point Times New Roman), margins (1-inch on all sides), and line spacing (double-spaced throughout the document).
  • Headings: APA style uses a hierarchical system of headings to organize the content. There are five levels of headings, each with specific formatting requirements.
  • Inclusion of DOI or URL: For online sources, APA style recommends including either the digital object identifier (DOI) or the URL of the source in the reference list.
  • Quotations: APA style provides guidelines for incorporating direct quotations and paraphrases, including how to format and cite them correctly.
  • Tables and figures: APA style outlines specific rules for formatting tables and figures, including titles, captions, and notes.
  • Writing style: APA style emphasizes clear and concise writing, avoiding biased language and promoting objectivity in scholarly communication.
  • Reference types: APA style covers various source types, including books, journal articles, websites, reports, and more. Each type has its own specific formatting guidelines.

What Are the Changes and Updates in the 7th Edition?

The 7th edition of the APA Publication Manual, published in October 2019, introduced several significant changes and updates compared to the previous edition:

  • Digital object identifier (DOI): In the 7th edition, DOIs are now presented as clickable hyperlinks, whereas in the 6th edition, they were preceded by the label “doi:”.
  • Reference list: It provides updated guidelines for creating reference entries, including changes in the formatting and order of elements. 
  • In-text citations: This edition introduced changes in the formatting of in-text citations. It now includes using et al. for three or more authors in all citations rather than just the first citation.
  • Electronic sources: The guide expanded its coverage of electronic sources, including guidelines for citing online articles, websites, social media posts, and online videos. 
  • Student papers: The 7th edition introduced simplified guidelines for formatting student papers, making it easier for students to follow the APA style. It provides guidance on title pages, section headings, font and spacing, and other formatting elements specific to student papers.

Parenthetical Citations in APA Style

The specific formatting of parenthetical citations (also known as in-text citations) may vary based on the number of authors, the presence of page numbers, and whether the source is a direct quotation or paraphrase. Always consult the manual for specific examples and further guidance, but these tips can help you get started.

Definition and Purpose of Parenthetical Citations

Parenthetical citations are used to indicate the source of information directly within the text of a document. They typically include the author’s last name, year of publication, and page numbers when available; they are enclosed in parentheses. These in-text citations refer directly to the reference list of sources at the paper’s end. 

How to Format Parenthetical Citations

When citing a direct quotation:

  • According to Smith (2019), “Direct quotations should be cited with the author’s last name and the publication year” (p. 23).

When citing information that is paraphrased or summarized:

  • Several studies have shown a strong correlation between exercise and mental well-being (Johnson, 2018; Thompson et al., 2020).

When citing a source with multiple authors:

  • (Robinson et al., 2017).

When citing a source with no author:

  • (“Title of Article,” 2021).

When citing a source with page numbers:

  • (Brown, 2016, p. 45).

Sample Paper in APA Style

The 7th edition of the manual specifies different formatting conventions between student and professional papers. Most of the differences are in the title page and running head, and citation practices do not differ between the two.

Reference List vs. Bibliography

One may have learned to include a bibliography in their research early in their education. While this is an excellent practice, in APA style, one will include a reference list instead of a bibliography. Both include information related to the primary sources found within the document and refer back to parenthetical citations. However, there are some marked differences between the two:

Reference list: A reference list is an essential component of an APA-style paper. It is a detailed list of all the sources cited in the text of the document. 

  • Purpose: The aim is to offer thorough and precise details about each source, enabling readers to find and confirm the sources cited in the paper. 
  • Inclusion: The reference list comprises entries that adhere to specific formatting rules for various source types, like books, journal articles, and websites. Each entry includes the author’s name, publication year, title of the work, and other pertinent details. 
  • Location: It is located at the end of the document, on a separate page.

Bibliography: In APA style, a bibliography is not typically used. However, some disciplines or specific assignments may require the inclusion of a bibliography. 

  • Purpose: A broader list of sources that include those cited in the text and those consulted or considered during the research process, even if they were not directly referenced in the paper. 
  • Inclusion: It includes sources such as background reading, additional resources, or relevant works that provide context to the topic. Unlike the reference list, a bibliography may include sources that are not cited in the text. If a bibliography is included, it follows formatting guidelines similar to those of the reference list.
  • Location: It is placed at the end of the document, on a separate page.

Practical Tips and Common Mistakes

When writing in APA style, there are several practical tips and common mistakes to avoid. By adhering to these suggestions, one can ensure that their writing in APA style is clear, concise, and properly formatted, meeting the standards expected in academic and professional writing.

Practical Tips

  • Familiarize yourself with APA guidelines: Before starting to write, familiarize yourself with the latest edition of the APA Publication Manual or relevant APA style guides to understand the formatting and citation requirements.
  • Use APA formatting consistently: Ensure consistency in formatting throughout your paper, including font style and size, margins, line spacing, and heading styles.
  • Properly format citations and references: Follow APA guidelines for citing sources within the text and formatting the reference list. 
  • Provide clear and concise writing: Write clearly and objectively, avoiding unnecessary or overly complex language. Present your ideas logically and coherently.
  • Use headings to organize content: Use APA heading levels to organize the structure of your paper, making it easier for readers to follow the flow of your arguments and ideas.
  • Edit carefully: Edit your paper carefully to catch any structural errors, grammatical problems, typos, or inconsistencies in formatting. Consider using tools like spell checkers and grammar checkers to assist you.
  • Avoid plagiarism: Ensure that all sources are properly cited and referenced to avoid plagiarism. Use quotation marks for direct quotes and paraphrase information accurately, giving credit to the original source.
  • Stay updated: Stay informed about any updates or changes to APA style guidelines. APA style evolves over time, so using the most current standards for your writing is essential.

Common Mistakes to Avoid

  • Incorrect citation format: Ensure all in-text citations and references follow APA format accurately. Common mistakes include missing information, incorrect punctuation, and improper formatting.
  • Inconsistent formatting: Avoid inconsistencies in formatting, such as using different font styles or sizes within the same paper, inconsistent indentation, or spacing errors.
  • Overreliance on direct quotes: While direct quotes can be useful, avoid overusing them. Instead, paraphrase information whenever possible and reserve direct quotes for particularly impactful or unique language.
  • Inaccurate or missing page numbers: Ensure that page numbers are provided for direct quotes or specific references within the text. 
  • Copying and pasting text: Only copy and past text directly from sources with proper citation.
  • Overlooking formatting details: Pay attention to formatting details such as italicizing book titles, capitalizing proper nouns and titles, and using headings.


To get started with APA style, you need to:

  • Familiarize yourself with the basic guidelines outlined in the APA Publication Manual or reliable APA style guides.
  • Use a word processor with APA style templates or formatting options, or format your document manually according to APA guidelines.
  • Learn how to format in-text citations and create a reference list for your sources.
  • Practice writing in APA style by applying the guidelines to your academic papers or assignments.
  • For additional guidance and support, utilize online resources, such as APA-style websites and tutorials.
  • Seek instructor, peer, or writing center feedback to improve your APA style proficiency.
  • Stay updated on any revisions or updates to APA style guidelines to ensure accuracy in your writing.

Several APA Style products are available to assist writers in adhering to APA formatting and citation guidelines:

  • APA Publication Manual: The official guide, published by the American Psychological Association, provides comprehensive instructions on APA style formatting, citation, and writing conventions.
  • APA Style Website: An online resource offering free tutorials, FAQs, and style tips for using APA format in academic writing.
  • APA Style Blog: A blog maintained by APA experts featuring articles, Q&A sessions, and updates on APA style rules and best practices.
  • APA Style Central: An online platform offering tools and resources for writing, citing, and publishing in APA style, including templates, tutorials, and citation management software.
  • APA Style Templates: Pre-formatted templates are available in word processors like Microsoft Word and are designed to help users create documents in compliance with APA style guidelines.
  • APA Style Guidebooks: Various guidebooks and manuals authored by APA style experts or academic publishers offer practical tips and examples for using APA format correctly.
  • APA Citation Generators: Online tools and software that generate citations and reference lists according to APA style rules can save time and ensure accuracy in citation formatting.
  • APA Style Workshops: Workshops and webinars offered by universities, libraries, and professional organizations provide training and guidance on APA style usage and citation practices.

Forming an abstract in APA style involves summarizing the main points of your paper concisely and accurately. Here’s a simple guide to creating an abstract in APA format:

  • Understand the purpose: The abstract serves as a summary of your paper, highlighting its key points, objectives, methods, results, and conclusions. It should provide readers with a clear overview of your study.
  • Write after completing the paper: It’s best to write the abstract after completing your paper to accurately capture the main ideas and findings.
  • Keep it concise: The abstract should typically be between 150 and 250 words, depending on the journal or publication requirements. 
  • Begin with a heading: Center the word Abstract at the top of the page in bold without any formatting.
  • Avoid citations: Do not include citations or references in the abstract. It should be a self-contained summary of your paper without relying on external sources.
  • Include keywords (if required): These are words or phrases that represent your paper’s main topics or themes and help readers find your work in databases and search engines.

To get started with APA style, you need to:

  • Familiarize yourself with the basic guidelines outlined in the APA Publication Manual or reliable APA style guides.
  • Use a word processor with APA style templates or formatting options, or format your document manually according to APA guidelines.
  • Learn how to format in-text citations and create a reference list for your sources.
  • Practice writing in APA style by applying the guidelines to your academic papers or assignments.
  • For additional guidance and support, utilize online resources, such as APA-style websites and tutorials.
  • Seek instructor, peer, or writing center feedback to improve your APA style proficiency.
  • Stay updated on any revisions or updates to APA style guidelines to ensure accuracy in your writing.

Reducing bias and labels in APA-style writing is crucial for maintaining objectivity in your work. Here’s how you can achieve this:

  • Use inclusive language: Use language that is inclusive and respectful of all individuals, regardless of their characteristics, such as gender, race, ethnicity, age, or ability. 
  • Be aware of cultural sensitivity: Be sensitive to cultural differences and avoid making assumptions based on cultural backgrounds. 
  • Use person-first language: When referring to individuals with disabilities or medical conditions, use person-first language to emphasize their humanity over their condition. For example, say “a person with a disability” instead of “a disabled person.”
  • Avoid stereotypes and stigmatizing language: Refrain from using language perpetuating stereotypes or stigmatizing certain groups. 
  • Be specific and descriptive: When describing individuals or groups, provide specific and descriptive language rather than relying on broad generalizations or labels. Avoid using terms that oversimplify or stereotype complex identities.


The American Psychological Association (APA) style provides guidelines specific to standardized scientific writing and documentation. It is commonly utilized in social sciences, business, and educational purposes to create clear, concise, and understandable materials for general use. 

Originally established in 1929, the guidelines surrounding its use have been updated multiple times—most recently in 2019 with the 7th edition. Its use supports standardization, credibility, accessibility, collaboration, and ethical consideration. 

While this article offers only a brief overview of APA usage and examples of its application, it can be a starting point for accessing the latest manual edition and sample papers. It is highly suggested that you utilize various APA guideline sources to fully understand its use for your own applications.