APA Format: 12 Basic Rules

A Guide to APA Format and Style

Student working on an APA format paper
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Are you writing a paper for a psychology class? Then you will need to use APA format to organize your paper and list the references you used. If you’ve never used this format before, you may find that it is quite a bit different from some of the writing styles and guidelines you have used in the past.

While it might take a while to get used to, learning how to write an APA paper is a useful skill that will serve you well whether you are a psychology major or just taking your first social science class.

What Is APA Format?

APA format is the official style of the American Psychological Association (APA) and is commonly used to cite sources in psychology, education, and the social sciences. The APA style originated in a 1929 article published in Psychological Bulletin that laid out the basic guidelines. These guidelines were eventually expanded into the APA Publication Manual.

So why is APA format so important in psychology and other social sciences? By using APA style, researchers and students writing about psychology are able to communicate information about their ideas and experiments in a consistent format. Sticking to a consistent style allows readers to know what to look for as they read journal articles and other forms of psychological writing.

If you have never taken a psychology or social science class before, then you are probably accustomed to using a different style guide such as MLA or Chicago style.

New college students are often surprised to find that after spending years having another formatting style drilled into their heads, many university-level classes instead require APA style. It can be a difficult transition, especially if you have to bounce back and forth between different styles for different classes.

Getting a solid grasp of the basics and bookmarking a few key resources can make learning this new format a bit easier.

The 4 Major Sections of Your Paper

In most cases, your paper should include four main sections: the title page, abstract, main section, and references list.

1. Title Page

Your title page should contain a running head, title, author name, and school affiliation. The purpose of your title page is to let the reader quickly know what your paper is about and who it was written by. Learn more about writing an APA format title page.

2. Abstract

An abstract is a brief summary of your paper that immediately follows your title page. According to APA format, your abstract should be no more than 150 to 250 words although this can vary depending upon the specific publication or instructor requirements. Learn more about writing an APA format abstract.

3. The Main Body

For something like an essay, the main body of your paper will include the actual essay itself. If you are writing a lab report, then your main body will be broken down into further sections. The four main components of a lab report include an introduction, method, results, and discussion sections.

4. References

The reference section of your paper will include a list of all of the sources that you used in your paper.

If you cited any piece of information anywhere in you paper, it needs to be properly referenced in this section. One handy rule of thumb to remember is that any source cited in your paper needs to be included in your reference section, and any source listed in your reference section must also be mentioned somewhere in your paper.

How to Handle In-Text Citations in APA Format

As you are writing your paper, it is important to include citations in your text identifying where you found the information you use. Such notations are called in-text citations, and APA format dictates that when citing in APA format in the text of your paper, use the author's name followed by the date of publication.

For example, if you were to cite Sigmund Freud's book The Interpretation of Dreams, you would use the following format: (Freud, 1900). The extended information on the source should then appear in your reference section.

Important Tips for APA Style Reference Pages

  • Your references should begin on a new page. Title the new page "References" and center the title text at the top of the page.
  • All entries should be in alphabetical order.
  • The first line of a reference should be flush with the left margin. Each additional line should be indented (usually accomplished by using the TAB key.)
  • While earlier versions of APA format required only one space after each sentence, the new sixth edition of the style manual now recommends two spaces.
  • The reference section should be double-spaced.
  • All sources cited should appear both in-text and on the reference page. Any reference that appears in the text of your report or article must be cited on the reference page, and any item appearing on your reference page must be also included somewhere in the body of your text.
  • Titles of books, journals, magazines, and newspapers should appear in italics.
  • The exact format of each individual reference may vary somewhat depending on whether you are referencing an author or authors, a book or journal article, or an electronic source. It pays to spend some time looking at the specific requirements for each type of reference before formatting your source list.

A Few More Helpful Resources

If you are struggling with APA format or are looking for a good way to collect and organize your references as you work on your research, consider using a free APA citation machine. These online tools can help generate an APA style referenced, but always remember to double-check each one for accuracy.

Purchasing your own copy of the official Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association is a great way to learn more about APA format and have a handy resource to check your own work against. Looking at examples of APA format can also be very helpful.

While APA format may seem complex, it will become easier once you familiarize yourself with the rules and format. The overall format may be similar for many papers, but your instructor might have specific requirements that vary depending on whether you are writing an essay or a research paper. In addition to your reference page, your instructor may also require you to maintain and turn in an APA format bibliography.

Source:

American Psychological Association. Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association (6th ed.). Washington DC: The American Psychological Association; 2010.

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