APA is a set of stylistic guidelines for standardizing and clarifying scholarly and scientific papers. If you understand the purpose and rules of the APA style, then you know the structure of any APA paper. Originally created in 1929, the APA style has been updated multiple times in the ensuing decades, most recently with its 7th edition in 2019*.
APA is used across the social sciences and sees common use in nursing, business, economics, and some engineering fields. APA is designed for scholarship: it expects most papers to be serious, peer-reviewed work in a particular field drawing material from other peer-reviewed articles in turn. Student papers are designed to imitate these expectations to prepare student writers for the norms of the fields they may one day be publishing in.
*(Because the new edition is recent, not every database or source is up to date. That means you can’t rely on a source’s embedded citation being up to date, or the rules you learned even only a few years still being accurate. That makes it all the more important to be careful with our sources, and to not rely on online citation generators too much.)
Differences Between APA 6 and 7
|APA 6 (Old)||APA 7 (New)|
|In-Text Citations||In-text citations with 3-5 authors list all authors on the first citation.||Any in-text citation with 3 or more authors automatically uses ([first author name] et al.)|
|Direct Quotes||No guidelines on direct quotes from audiovisual work.||Direct quotes from audiovisual work include author name, publication date, and timestamp of the quote’s beginning.|
|Singular Pronouns||No rules on singular “they” pronoun.||Singular “they” pronoun encouraged for persons who use “they” as their preferred pronoun, or persons for whom gender is unknown or irrelevant.|
|Gendered Pronouns||No guidance on gendered noun/pronoun usage.||Always use individuals’ preferred names and pronouns, even if they differ from those used on official documents or at the time of publication.|
|Highlighting Linguistic Examples||Italics used to highlight linguistic examples.||Quotation marks used to highlight linguistic examples.|
|Font Choice||Times New Roman 12-point font preferred typeface.||Accepts a variety of serif and sans serif fonts, with emphasis on accessibility to the reader.|
You want fonts that are legible, widely available, and include uncommon characters like math symbols or Greek letters (this guarantees that formulas and calculations show up). Most of the common fonts such as Arial, Calibri, Georgia, and Times New Roman all serve this purpose. The goal is to make the writing easy to access and easy to read. You’ll also want to keep the font size to the font’s most common form: usually 10-12 point.
(Special types of text sometimes have their own rules: text within figure images should be sans serif type fonts to maximize readability on screens and sized 8-14; computer code should be a monospace type font; footnotes should be in the primary font, but are allowed to be smaller in size or have different spacing.)
For most student papers, the page number in the upper right corner is all you need to include in the header. However, professional papers also require a running head in the upper left corner—an all caps, short (50 characters or less) version of the title.
Double spacing with no extra spaces between lines is the rule for APA papers. Title pages have extra spaces between the title and byline, or before the author note (when it has an author note). Footnotes, tables, figures, and displaced equations also have spacing exceptions.
Title page: insert a double-spaced blank between the title and byline. If this is a professional paper, add another double-spaced blank line above the author note.
Words within figures or tables may be single, one-and-a-half, or double spaced, depending on what works best for the layout. Figure/Table number, title, and notes are double-spaced as normal.
Equations are allowed to have triple or quadruple spacing before or after a displayed equation.
1-inch margins. Real simple there.
Text should be aligned along the left margin and not justified. The first line of a paragraph should be indented .5 inch from the margin—use the tab button, not space bar for this.
(There are some exceptions, such as for title pages, headings, block quotations, tables and figures, and appendices. The biggest ones to remember are for Abstracts, which have no indentation on the first line, and Reference Lists, that have a .5 inch hanging indent—that is, the first line of each reference isn’t indented, but the other lines are.)
The Title Page is an introductory page that includes details such as the title of the paper and author’s name. There are some extra details as well, depending on if this is a professional or student paper. Student papers should also include course number and name, instructor name, and assignment due date. Professional papers should also include an author note.
Title Page Examples
The Abstract is a concise summary of the paper, a single paragraph and no more than 250 words. Make sure to include key details such as paper topic, research questions, methods, results, and conclusions. It may also include a secondary, italicized paragraph that lists keywords you want to identify your paper for research databases.
The Main Body contains the main material of the paper and is formatted in the usual formatting. Many APA Style papers include additional subsections. Common subsections include an Introduction, which presents a topic and issue, as well as any hypothesis the paper is testing; a Method section that describes in detail the process of the study or experiment; a Results section that shows the quantitative data resulting from the study, and a Discussion section that discusses meaning and possible importance of the results. Not all APA papers follow this breakdown for the Main Body. Many APA papers use heading structures unique to their subject, course, or purpose.
Be careful not to mix up similar sections! The Abstract is an overall summary to explain the trajectory of your paper in brief, while the Introduction is a properly detailed explanation of your topic and purpose for people reading the paper in full. Similarly, the Results section only shows the raw data of your findings, while Discussion interprets and draws conclusions from them.
The Reference List is a full list of sources you used to create your paper. This includes resources you quoted or cited, but also any sources that provided direct information to your piece, even if you did not directly cite them. This is a simple, alphabetical list, formatted with a hanging indent. Check the References section for more details on how to construct references and to see examples.
As a general rule, writing in APA strives to be understandable, consistent, and specific. What rules there are for writing and presentation exist to either ensure as many readers as possible easily understand you, or that writing conventions are specific across academic papers, journals, and other discourse. APA writing also strives to be objective and bias-free in its language, both to present more factually and to avoid excluding or discriminating against any reader or group. Most APA style conventions are just good writing practices, but there are some specific conventions to follow.
Voice & Tense
Unless unavoidable or specifically emphasizing the subject, use of active voice (x does y) rather than passive voice (y happened) in APA. Note the examples:
We conducted the experiment in Dr. Smith’s lab.
The experiment was conducted in Dr. Smith’s lab.
APA also recommends using the past tense when referring to actions that took place at a specific time in the past. This includes referring to other scholars’ research or your own research and results.
Goodson (2012) developed a similar methodology.
Goodson (2012) presents a similar methodology.
As a general rule, write out zero through nine as numbers, and numerals for numbers 10 and above. Exceptions exist for both, as listed below—
Times you should always write a number as words:
- numbers that begin a sentence, title, or heading;
- common fractions (one half, two-thirds, seven eighths);
- universally accepted phrases (Twelve Apostles).
Times you should always write a number as a numeral:
- numbers preceding a unit of measure (3 cm, 5-mg dose);
- uncommon fractions or decimals (1.5, 2.27);
- numbers serving a mathematical function (multiplied by 2, divided by 8);
- percentages (4%, 10%-25%);
- ratios (2:1 ratio);
- times and dates (3 min, 10 years, 12:30 a.m.);
- age (5 years old);
- points and scales on a scale (3-point scale);
- precise sums of money ($4, $200);
- numerals as numbers (numeral 8 on a keyboard).
Use commas between groups of three digits for numbers 1,000 or more.
Citing a source in APA uses a parenthetical, where the reference is listed in parenthesis afterwards. As the baseline, a parenthetical needs to include the author’s last name and the date of the source’s publication (ex. Smith, 2021). If you’re already mentioning the author in the text, the parenthetical only needs to include the date. Ex. These trends were also supported in the findings of Smith (2021), who found similar results in their own studies of the subject.
Most citations will be for paraphrases, where you draw on a source’s findings or ideas but put it into your own words. Direct quotes, while generally discouraged for APA (in most situations you should be interested in incorporating a source’s information, not borrowing its phrasing), should have an additional level of detail to help people find the specific quotation. For text sources, this includes a page number at the end of the parenthetical (García Márquez, 1967, p. 331-332). For audiovisual sources like videos, add the timestamp of the beginning of the quote onto the end (Astley, 1987, 0:43).
Block Quotes in APA
For those times when you have to quote a large amount of text (anything over 40 words or 4 lines of quotation), quotes take on a special formatting. You lead into the quote with a colon, then indent a half inch from the left margin. Starting with a new line, you’ll write without the quotation marks, with the parenthetical coming after the final punctuation.
Yet the issue of “diversity” in German and British cooking remains complex:
However, the French influence on haute cuisine is no longer the only one in the two countries. What then does the above noted diversity consist of and how strongly is it developed? Diversity, overall, is still quite modest. Borrowing from other culinary cultures consists mainly of blending individual foreign ingredients, particularly spices or flavourings from Indian, Chinese, Thai and Japanese cuisines, into European dishes, prepared in the European (particularly French) way. (Lane, 2011, p. 705)
For sources with two authors, include both names with an ampersand.
Child neglect cases spiked during phases where the supply of crack and crystal meth increased (Jack & Ang, 2006)
For sources with three or more authors, include the primary author’s name plus the term et al. (basically an old Latin way to say & co.).
Mann et al. (2007) found that patients respond well to hydrotherapy.
For sources with an unknown author, use the title of the source or (if the title is particularly long), the first words of the title. It the title is a book, make sure to italicize it, and put the title of short works in quotation marks.
The Pew Survey found that just 20% of Americans think federal government programs are run well (“Beyond Distrust”, 2015).
In the example above, the article’s full title is “Beyond Distrust: How Americans View Their Government.”
If you're citing multiple sources in a single parenthetical, order them alphabetically and separate them with a semicolon. If the author is the same, chronologically separate the dates via commas: (Lee 1992, 2002).
Several studies (Algood, 2004; Sullivan & Lowe, 2003) indicated that severe dehydration, prior to the event, worsened outcomes for stroke victims.
While you want to find the primary source (the original source) whenever possible, there are some special rules if you’re citing a secondary source. For this, you’ll cite the original source and date first, with an “as cited in” of the secondary source you found the primary source in.
This connotation has been well documented in earlier studies of the field as well (Jones, 1971, as cited in Smith et al., 2020).
The reference list shows a complete list of material you directly drew your material from, arranged to make it as clear as possible where you are getting your information and where someone who wanted to double check your sources can do so.
The reference list is alphabetically listed (by first author’s last name, or if no author is known, by title or organization name), and formatted with a .5 inch hanging indent. Authors are listed by last name, first initial, with up to 20 being listed out on the reference. If listing more than one reference by the same primary author, list by publication date, with the earliest publication first.
- If you are unable to verify a publication date, use (n.d.) after the author’s name.
- If the source is online and has a DOI (Digital Object Identifier), include that at the end as a URL (https://doi.org/###).
- If a source is online, has no DOI, and is outside of an online database or other obstacle (i.e. a normal website outside any paywalls), include the URL at the end of the reference.
- For online articles without page numbers, don’t include page numbers. Remember that online versions of books and journal articles often retain their page numbers on their .pdf version, so check there rather than the .html version alone before foregoing page numbers.
References are structured according to the type of source they are. Below are some common types:
Film or Video
Director D.D. (Year, Month Day). Title of film. Production company.
Reitman, I.. (1984, June 8). Ghostbusters. Columbia-Delphi Productions.
Executive Producer, E.P.. (Date of Publication). Title of podcast episode (Episode #) [Audio podcast episode]. In Podcast title. Production company.
Cranor, J., & Fink, J. (2012, July 15). Station Management (No. 3) [Audio podcast episode]. In Welcome to Night
Vale. Night Vale Presents.
Author A.A.. (Year, Month Day). Title of talk [Video]. TED. URL
Urban, T. (2016, February). Inside the mind of a master procrastinator [Video]. TED.
Uploader. (Year, Month Day). Title of video [Video]. YouTube. URL
Robcantor. (2014, October 21). “Shia Labeaouf” Live – Rob Cantor [Video]. YouTube.
Author A.A.. (Copyright Year). Title of the book (ed./vol #). Publisher.
Swales, J. M., & Feak, C. B. (2004). Academic writing for graduate students: Essential tasks and skills. University of
Author A.A.. (Copyright Year). Title of the book chapter. In A.A. Editor (Ed.), Title of book/anthology (ed/vol #, pg.-pg.). Publisher.
Cullington, M. (2015). Does texting affect writing? In G. Graff, C. Birkenstein, & R. Durst (Eds.), They say, I say, (3rd
ed., pp. 373-91). W. W. Norton.
Author A.A., & Author, B.B. (Year). Title of the article. Name of the journal, volume # (issue #), pg.-pg.
Devet, B. (2010). Unpacking faculty’s questions and comments about the writing center: Advice for new writing
center directors. Writing Lab Newsletter, 34(4-5), 10-12.
Author A.A.. (Year, Month Day). Title of article. Newspaper Title, pg.#-pg.#.
DeMoss, N. (2009, May 29). Buying back books: UA students decide where to sell used textbooks for best price.
The Arkansas Traveler, p. A1.
Unpublished Dissertation or Thesis
Author A.A.. (Year). Title of dissertation/thesis [Unpublished dissertation/thesis]. Name of Institution Awarding the Degree.
Gutierrez, A. (2017). Warm sky or cool hide: Behavioral choices under shifting refuge thermal value in Northern
Watersnakes (Nerodia sipedon). [Unpublished thesis]. Indiana University-Purdue University at Fort Wayne.
Online Article with No Author
If there is a group responsible for the page, use the group name instead.
Group Name (Year, Month Date). Article/Page Name. URL
Walden University (2020, July 14). APA 6 & 7 Comparison Tables.
If you don’t have a group name either, use the article or page name alone.
Article/Page Name. (Year, Month Date). URL
Beyond distrust: How Americans view their Government. (2015, November 23). http://www.people-press.org/
Title of article. (Year, Month Day). In Wikipedia. URL of archived version.
Philosophy. (2010, October 19). In Wikipedia.
Frequently Asked Questions
Make sure that any idea or finding you draw from another paper cites, either in text or in parentheticals, the author’s name and date of publication. This could all be in the parenthesis (Smith, 2021), or if you already mention the author, split between the text and the parenthesis – according to the findings of Smith (2021). For more details on citing, check out the citation section of this guide.
As a broad rule, keep direct quotes to a minimum in APA – we're interested in the content itself and how it pertains to your work, not the specific wording. In other words, most the time it’ll be in your interest to fit the data into your own words, contextualize it to your needs and purpose.
When you do use a direct citation, you’ll need to use an expanded parenthetical, making sure to include not only the author's name and publication date, but the page you’re referencing (Smith, 2021, p. 435). For more details on quotes, and how to use quotes of 40 words or more, check out the block quote section of this guide.
If possible, try to find the original source, so you can simply cite or quote that directly. If you’re unable to find the original, you’ll need to use a special parenthetical citation that lists both the original and the intermediary source – (Jones, 1971, as cited in Smith et al., 2020). For more details, check out the unusual citations section of this guide.
There are! As of APA 7, you won’t need an author note on your title page, or a running head at the top of your pages. You’ll also want to include some institutional information (your school, your professor, your course) in your title page’s byline. For more details on what that looks like, check out the student title page download from this guide.
Page Reference List
American Psychological Association. (2019, October). About APA Style. https://apastyle.apa.org/about-apa-style
American Psychological Association. (2020). Publication manual of the American Psychological Association (7th ed.).
CHOICE Media Channel. (2020, September 11). A Step By Step Guide for APA Style Student Papers [Video]. YouTube.
Purdue University Online Writing Lab (n.d.). APA Style Introduction.
Walden University. (2020, July 14). APA 6 & 7 Comparison Tables.