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What is APA Format? - Style & Definition

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Instructor
Allena Tapia
Expert Contributor
Lesley Chapel

Lesley has taught American and World History at the university level for the past seven years. She has a Master's degree in History.

The APA format is a writing style guide and format produced by the American Psychological Association, often used for publications in the social sciences. Learn the definition and the basic format of the APA style, explore how to make citations and references according to this style, see how you should write your headings according to their specific level, and see why all social science publications should follow the same rules. Updated: 08/19/2021

APA Style Defined

Have you ever written for one teacher or professor who preferred your work to be formatted in a specific way, and then had to learn an entirely new format for a different teacher? Has your English teacher asked you to cite sources in one way, while your sociology teacher calls for a different format? These specifications regarding things like formatting, punctuation choices, structure of papers, spacing requests, and word use are all a kind of style preference.

APA format is one of several different writing formats used for publications, papers, essays, and books today. This particular style is established by the American Psychological Association, and used by professionals in psychology and many other sciences. So, what does this have to do with you? APA style is also one of the most common styles taught at and used by colleges and high schools.

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  • 0:57 Basics of APA Style
  • 4:05 Citations & References
  • 6:20 Section Headngs
  • 7:32 From One Lesson to 300 Pages
  • 8:05 Why Do We Need APA?
  • 8:50 Lesson Summary
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The Basics of APA Style

The following is a brief introduction to the main points of APA style. The entire style manual is available as a book, and the APA also makes much of this information available for free on their website:

  • General Structure: An APA-style publication should begin with a title page followed by an abstract, the main body, references, footnotes, graphics, then appendices.
  • Title Page: Your title page counts as page one. It should have the title at the very center, followed on the next line by your name, and then with your school or organization name under that. After this basic information, you may want to include an optional author note, which is any important note about the project or author, such as 'Funded by the National Institute of Arts' or 'Written as a candidate for the doctorate in sociology at Michigan State University.' At the top of this title page, you'll include a running head.
  • Running Head: APA style uses a running head. This is a smaller version of the title of your paper, and it runs throughout your paper at the top of each page. It should be less than 50 spaces, and starts on the top left side of every page. However, on your title page, you should also include the label 'Running Head' directly before it. For example, if your paper title is 'An Analytic Look at the Differences Between Public and Private Schools,' your running head might be 'Differences Between Public and Private Schools,' and your title page running head will be 'Running Head: Differences Between Public and Private Schools' with no punctuation or period after it.
  • Abstract: Your abstract is page two. Center the word 'Abstract' below your running head, and then compose a summary of about 150 to 250 words that describes the most important points of your research and paper, such as hypothesis of your research, methodology, and possible conclusions. The abstract should not have paragraph indentations.
  • Main Body Structure: The beginning of your body is page three. Format your paper with one-inch margins all the way around. The left-side margin should be flush, except for the beginning of each paragraph, which should be indented five to seven spaces. Type in a 12-pt. type with a common font, such as Times New Roman. Every part of your paper should be double-spaced. Page numbers should appear at the top right. The full title of your paper should appear again at the beginning of the main body.
  • References: References generally come immediately after the main body of the work.
  • Footnotes: If you use footnotes to compose explanations or asides, these should be listed after the References page. They begin a new page, with the title 'Footnotes' centered at the top. The footnotes are arranged by number and each new footnote number is indented on a new line.
  • Graphics: Graphics and other supporting documentation come next, with separate, new pages for each: tables, figures, and appendices (in that order). The pages should be labeled and centered at the top.

Citation and References

Citations are necessary parts of APA style, as they show readers where your ideas and research came from. Let's take a look. Within the main body of your paper, you will need to refer to any other publications you used in composing your argument or conducting your research with a citation. You will note these citations using an author-date-page method, in which you list the author's last name, the year of the publication, and the page number of the information you're referencing. These are all separated by commas, and are placed within parenthesis following your text. The page number is preceded by lower case 'p' with a period after it.

If you state the author's name in your text, you only have to include the year of publication and the page number. There are special cases that may cause this format to change slightly, such as if there are several different authors of one work, or if the author is unknown. For these special cases, be sure to access the APA website or purchase the guide.

The second component of this system is your reference list. Your reference list is a summary of all the publications that you referred to in your paper. It begins a new page after your main body, and is titled 'References' at the top of the page. This list is alphabetical by the author's last name. Each reference gets its own new line. These lines are arranged in hanging indentations, where the first line is all the way flush to the left, but subsequent lines are indented about five spaces.

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Additional Activities

What is APA Format? - Writing Prompts

Essay Prompt 1:

Write an essay that explains what APA format is, what types of fields it is used in, and why it is used.

Example: Begin by explaining that APA format is a writing and citation format devised by the American Psychological Association and is used for papers, essays, articles, and books. Next, explain that it is used in fields like psychology, sociology, and other humanities. Finally, explain that APA style was designed to help readers' keep their focus on the content of publications and was created to avoid bias and encourage the cultivation of respect when writing about people.

Essay Prompt 2:

Write an essay in which you explain how to include citations and references in an APA-formatted paper. Make sure you understand the difference between citations and references, and be sure to include an example of what a citation would look like according to the APA format.

Example: When citing an author whose work is used in one of your paragraphs, an APA citation would look like this: (Johnson, 2005, p. 48).

List Prompt 1:

Make a list of all of the components of the Main Body Structure in an APA-style paper. Tip: Pay attention to specific elements like font and margin sizes, spacing, and page numbers.

List Prompt 2:

Make a list of the other components of the APA framework.

Example: These include Title, Abstract, Running Head, References, and Graphics.

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