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Academic Writing Style Guide: How to Format an APA Paper

Academic Writing Style Guide: How to Format an APA Paper
Table of Contents

What is “Referencing Style” and Why You Need It?

Good academic writing involves proper formatting and citing of the works and thoughts of other reputable authors and researchers. In order to do that, a specific style of referencing is assigned that should be followed consistently throughout the whole academic paper. This style then defines the format for other components of the text. Every student knows that proper academic referencing is the key to obtaining a high grade for a paper or an essay.

APA style format was developed by the American Psychological Association and it is one of the academic referencing styles — along with MLA, Vancouver, and Chicago/Turabian styles. It is also known as the “author-date” system, meaning that the APA format guide requires a brief reference to the author and the date of publication to be included in the main body of the text, and also the full reference list at the end.

This article contains a wide array of information and tips that answer the question “What is APA format?”. However, as a student, you should always follow the requirements provided by the school/professor and not hesitate to ask for specific citing instructions before starting to write your essay.

Everything You Need to Know About APA Format

First of all, APA writing format is not something that has been set in stone for ages – it is a current referencing style that is being constantly updated by the American Psychological Association. The most recent requirements can be found in the 6th edition of the APA's Publication Manual.

The requirement of what referencing style to use is often attributed by a specific discipline. APA paper format is commonly used for subjects such as Psychology, Social Sciences, Education, Economics, and Business studies.

Another question every student keeps asking while struggling to come to terms with his or her APA format essay is: why do people use referencing styles at all? There are at least three reasons why your professors require you to use the APA referencing guide:

1. To make your work more presentable.
Can you sense how all the articles you read for class have a professional and serious tone when they cite all their references and give credit to ideas published by previous authors? That’s exactly the kind of professionalism your essay will acquire when you engage with literature and use a defined referencing style.

2. To speak the same language as your reader.
APA citation format allows you to save your word count and communicate what sources you used for the essay by using special formats for journals, books, or online articles.

3. To avoid being penalized for plagiarism.
When a student cites an author or uses ideas that were developed by another scholar, he or she must give credit to that person. Otherwise, those essay parts will be marked as plagiarism and the grade will be substantially reduced. Some school penalties for plagiarism go as far as reducing the grade by 50%, or even failing you from the course — thus, giving you no credit.

As you can see, avoiding plagiarism penalties and supporting essay arguments with references to credible sources are the key benefits a student will get once he or she learns how to write a paper in APA format.

General APA Format Rules: From Formatting to Making Proper References

The basics of APA formatting include giving the paper a proper look so that your professor is impressed at first sight. After reading hundreds of papers throughout their careers, professors can recognize it when the APA format is not followed properly. That’s why it is of crucial importance to make sure you follow the requirements for line spacing, page margins, font sizes, and APA format headings.

First of all, the text should be typed double-spaced with sufficient margins on each side of the page (at least 1 inch or more). Wide margins are important for professors to make notes and leave feedback while reading the paper. The preferred font is Times New Roman in size 12.

The APA outline format, or, in other words, the structure of any academic paper, should include these main parts:

  1. The cover page or title page
  2. Abstract, introduction, or outline
  3. Main body, analysis, or main arguments
  4. Conclusions, recommendations, or discussions
  5. Reference list

The topics and individual university requirements will affect what sections should be present in the essay or paper. The sections will also be affected by the arguments that a student wants to make in the essay and how these are developed in the main body of the text. But, not a single APA format essay can be written without these five crucial components. We will now examine the requirements for each of these parts in more detail.

Cover Page for an APA Style Essay

The cover page is the “face” of an essay or a paper and it is the first thing that the examiner or reader will see. It has to be impeccable. Some universities or colleges will have their own sample title page (or cover page) that should be added to each essay submission. Make sure to clarify this with your department before submitting your essay.

Normally, an APA format cover page is expected to include a running head, title of the essay or paper, name of the person who submitted the work, institution to which the work was submitted, and a page number.

apa-title-page

APA format cover page

What is the Running Head and Where Should It Be Included in an APA Style Essay?

Very often, colleges or universities require each page to have a running head (or page header) which includes certain information. The running head contains the title of the paper, and is also supposed to be present on the title page — a mistake many beginner students make all too often is omitting it.

Just like with everything in academic writing, knowing how to make the text shorter is a golden talent. The same applies to the APA format running head: it should not exceed 50 characters (including spaces). That’s why authors often take their time to come up with shortened versions of their titles specifically for their page headers.


Do you need some help with formatting your APA paper? Count on the support of our professional writers and editors.


Different Levels of APA Headings and Subheadings

The APA heading format requires a clear division of the text into logical parts that are separated among each other with headings. Normally, there are 5 format types for headings, whereas the author uses the same heading styles to paragraphs with equal importance.

The subheadings help the writer to logically divide one section into subsections. For example, in a section about the possible consequences of performance-based management, subsections can present the benefits and costs of such an approach.

Tips for Using Heading Levels When Writing an APA Essay

Heading levels are the navigation signs that help guide the reader through the text. They denote when an important chapter begins and when an additional idea is added to the same argument that was announced in the previous heading. The general rule is that there are no requirements to use all five styles of headings. The author should only use headings for the sections present in his or her text. Here is how the different levels of headings and their formats look like.

Heading level

Heading Style

Heading level 1

Also Known as the Title Case: Each Word Is Written in Uppercase and Lowercase letters, and the Text Is Centered and Written in Bold


Begin the text with a new paragraph.

Heading level 2

Title Case (Upper and Lowercase Letters), the Text Written in Bold, but NOT Centered, and Aligned to the Left


Begin the text with a new paragraph.

Heading level 3

Everything Is the Same as a Level 2 Heading (Title Case and Bold) but NOT Aligned to the Left, instead Indented and the Text Ends with a Period.
End the heading with a period and begin the text in the next line.

Heading level 4

Title Case (Upper and Lowercase Letters), Text Written in Bold, Indented (NOT Aligned to the Left),and Italicized. Begin writing the text in the same line, separating the heading and the text with a period. 

Heading level 5

Everything is the Same as the Level 4 Heading (Title Case, Italicized, and Indented as Opposed to Aligned to the Left) but the Text should NOT Be Written in Bold. Begin writing the text on the same line, separating the heading and the text with a period. 

Some Examples for APA Headings

Assuming this article is an academic text for the principles of APA usage in colleges and universities, here is what APA format headings would look like in this context.

Title of the text

The Advantages and Disadvantages of Using APA Format in Academic Essays

NB! Notice that the essay title is not a heading and should not be formatted like one!

Heading level 1

What is APA and How to Use it


APA is a referencing style developed by the American Psychological Association….

This text is bold, centered, and capitalized.


The main body of the text begins in a new paragraph.

Heading level 2 

(2 examples)

History of APA


APA referencing style was first developed in….


Latest Edition of APA


Currently, the most up-to-date edition of the APA style guide is…



Headings 2 are bold, capitalized, and aligned to the left. 


The main body of the text begins in a new paragraph. 

Heading level 1

How to Format Citations in APA


Citations are an integral part of any academic writing. They serve the purpose of...

The next section begins again with heading 1 because it introduces an idea that is equally important as the previous one. 

Heading level 2

In-text Citations


In-text citations are used when there is a need to refer to the author that developed the original idea the student is citing…


The first idea introduced is marked with a level 2 heading. The following additional ideas are formatted in a level 3 heading (bold, indented,  and capitalized). The main text after heading 3 begins in the same line. 

Heading level 3

  In-text Citations for Journals. When you want to cite a journal, you should…


  In-text Citations for Archives. When you want to cite an archive material, you should…


  In-text Citations for News Articles. When you want to cite a news article, you should…


Heading level 4

   In-text Citations for Online News Articles. When you want to cite a news article that came from an online source, you should…


   In-text Citations for Print News Articles. When you want to cite a news article that came from print media, you should…


If text under the section that was introduced with heading level 3 requires additional separation or classification, heading level 4 is used – it’s the same as heading 3, but italicized.

Heading level 5

   In-text Citations for Print News Articles without an Author. If you aren’t able to identify the author, editor, or news piece…

Preparing a Proper APA Outline

The outline is a short structure of the text that serves two purposes:

  1. Preparatory purpose. Writing an outline helps the writer organize his or her thoughts and estimate the workload/research needed to complete the text.
  2. Explanatory purpose. Having an outline helps the reader get a better idea of what to expect from the text, and what parts and concepts are covered by the author.

Writing outlines is a life-saving skill for beginner writers – they help keep thoughts organized and guide the mind through a defined roadmap, decreasing the chance of becoming lost in one’s thoughts or endless research. So, if we were to prepare an outline for this article, it would look like this.

  1. What is APA: who developed it, who uses it and why?
  2. General rules for using APA format:
    1. Cover/title page
    2. Headings
    3. Citations
  3. Main components of a good APA paper:
    1. Outline
    2. Abstract
    3. Main body
    4. Introduction and conclusions
    5. References
  4. Some examples and practical tips on APA style usage

After developing the outline, it becomes clear what the author has to cover in the readings, or preparatory materials, for writing the article. Once the text is ready, the outline then serves as a guide for the reader to show which sections the text will cover.

What Is a Good Abstract in APA format?

The abstract is a very condensed and informative paragraph that contains the main information the reader should know about the text before even reading it. Writing abstracts is an art on its own. In a short abstract that is just 200 words (or more if the text is longer — usually it's about 10% of the essay word count), a writer should clearly state the main idea of the text, its objectives, research question, methods, and key conclusions.

In terms of formatting, the abstract is formatted as a separate part of the text that stands out both contextually and visually from the rest of the main text. Usually, it is written in plain text, with no formatting and a simple "Abstract" title on the top. In the end, many scholars like to put a couple of keywords that identify the essence of the paper’s content.

Writing the Main Section of the Text in APA Format

The main section is the juice of the article. It contains all the thoughts, ideas, and arguments of the writer. It follows right after the abstract page, and has a running head on top with a shortened title written in capital letters. Each page should be numbered, with the abstract page being page 2 (the title page is counted as page 1, but the number doesn’t appear there).

The main body is broken down into a couple of sections. The main ones are the introduction, methods, arguments/discussions, and conclusions. Depending on the department or subject requirements, the arguments also have specific sections – always remember to check with the professor about what should be covered in the main body of the text. For example, for a policy report, the arguments should include a framework review, an analysis of the organization or policy challenges, and recommendations based on the academic literature.

Each section (methods, conclusions, and discussions) should begin with a new paragraph and have a title. It can be something as simple as “Methodology”, or something more elaborative like “Results of Analysis How Sanitation Affects Literacy”. Discussions or arguments should be the largest part of the text, that is why the main body is often divided into subsections – to present and elaborate on results in a structured manner.

Depending on the area and specific requirements put forth by the course, here are two APA main body examples in terms of what sections they should cover.

APA main body example 1: quantitative discipline/research results

Introduction: higher contraceptive prevalence is known to reduce HIV
Methods: regression analysis of HIV and contraception prevalence in lower middle-income countries
Results: statistically significant negative effect of contraception on HIV
Discussion:

  • Why contraception lowers HIV
  • In what conditions it works better/worse
  • Case study
    Conclusion: use of contraception can reduce HIV in countries where current contraceptive prevalence is lower than 20%
  • APA main body example 2: political science policy report

    Introduction: high alcohol consumption is a threat to public health
    Framework for analysis: a review of different country policies to lower alcohol consumption
    Application of framework:

  • Which policy can work best for country X and why
  • Context of country X
  • Benefits of using approaches A, B, C
  • Costs of using approaches A, B, C
    Recommendations: given country’s X political situation and national economic status, it can employ approach A to reduce alcohol consumption
    Conclusion: country X should consider doing A and expect the following results within 5 years
  • Detailed Video Guide

    If you percept visual information better, watch the detailed video guide on APA formatting and citation below:


    Examples of Essays in APA Style

    Below are real examples of some essays formatted according to APA style requirements that can serve as a good basis for you to start writing your own essay. These samples were written by our "write my essay" service according to the specific requirements provided by their corresponding professors or universities and can differ in some ways from what is required from you. So, don’t forget to check with the department or course convener for specific details for the paper that you are expected to produce.

    APA Format Example: Prevalence of Domestic Violence in the Twenty-First Century and Measures to Stop It

    Need Help with APA Formatting?

    This article outlines all the key principles of APA style for academic writing. However, writing is a practical skill that doesn’t improve solely by reading about it – it only improves with practice. If you don’t feel like a pro in essay writing yet and the deadline is fast approaching, have no worries. Our reliable essay writing service will make sure that the results meet all the stylistic requirements.

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