Academic Writing AdviceAcademic, Writing, Advice
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APA Style Made Easy


So, you’re getting ready to write a scholarly research paper, dissertation or journal article and have been told that APA style must be used. Who is this APA and why must you suddenly follow their rules?

APA stands for the American Psychological Association and the group’s type of publication style began in the 1920s as a writing style used in scientific and psychological journals. Over the years, the style expanded from there and has quickly become the most commonly used style for dissertation writing in a wide array of scientific disciplines.

If you’re readying to write a paper of any advanced length in APA style, my first advice is to get the most recent APA Style Guide. It’s an investment well worth the price for the mere ability to look up any minutia you need to while typing away at your computer at 3 a.m. And in the meantime, I’ve compiled a list below of some of the most common basics of APA style that I find myself editing for regularly.

One space between sentences

First and foremost, APA style requires that only one space appears between the end of one sentence and the beginning of another. This may or may not be a style you have used in previous written work – if not, the easiest way to remedy this is to do a find in Word at the end of writing and replace every two spaces with one.

Spacing, margins and font preferences

Double spacing is the preferred choice for APA, with (of course) exceptions for longer quotations that require special formatting and/or indentations. Preferred APA style margins are one inch for the top, bottom, left and right of the paper (and sometimes are altered by college departments or publications to leave one and a quarter inches on the left for additional space for binding purposes). Font choice for APA style leans toward the standard Times New Roman or Arial that most word processing programs are defaulted to, or that professors typically request their students write papers in. Font size is also the standard 12 point.

Commas in list

While most basic English writing styles require that in lists of three or more a comma not be used after the second item and the word “and” or “or”, APA style is an exception to that rule. In fact, APA requires that commas do appear between a second item in a list and the “and” or “or” at all times. Proper APA style would be, for instance, “She likes tomatoes, cucumbers, and carrots.”

Punctuation with quotation use

Another APA style quirk is its contradicting use of punctuation outside of quotation marks. While typical English style directs all punctuation be contained inside quotation marks, APA style calls for punctuation to be left outside of quotation marks for incomplete thoughts or sentences. An example would be, for instance:

He said he’d “never seen monkeys eat so many bananas”.

If a sentence or thought is completed within quotation marks in an APA style writing, however, the punctuation does stay within the quotation marks then, however. An example would be:

“Studies identified two types of bananas as most commonly eaten by monkeys.”

In-text citations versus naming authors within the text

The format of an in-text citation within parentheses versus naming authors within the text is one that I see commonly confused when editing APA style writing. In particular, there is a distinction between when you should use an & sign and when the word “and” should be used between author last names. For instance, naming authors within the text should use “and,” such as:

Johnson and Smith (1999) studied the tendency of monkeys to like bananas.

Conversely, an in-text citation should use the & sign between last names of authors, such as:

It was found that many monkeys preferred unripe bananas over ripe ones (Johnson & Smith, 1999).

Numbers and percentages

Like many other writing styles, APA style dictates that numbers 10 or above be written in Arabic numerals. Numbers below that, such as one through nine, should be written out. However, when percentages come into play, regardless of the number, it should be written as an Arabic numeral and directly followed by the percent sign, like so: “8%”.

Also, as with so many writing rules, there is an exception. If more than one number is being listed and one of those is below 10, the numbers should all be written as Arabic when presented together in a group or list. An example would be, “She said 5 to 15 monkeys came to the tree each day.”

Heading systems

And finally, one of the least embraced rules of APA style is perhaps one of the easiest to learn (or bookmark at the very least). It appears on page 113 of the APA Publication Manual, Fifth Edition. The five levels of APA headings are detailed there, but most writers typically use only the first three, and sometimes the fourth. The fifth heading is used mainly for scholarly paper title pages and rarely, if at all, in journal articles.

In sum, APA style has lots of little ins and outs, but these basics above should help you get on your way to getting the big differences taken care of. As with everything, of course, it’s always good to check your own college, department or journal’s style handbook as well, which can even further deviate from typical APA style with its own set of writing rules.
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