Julia Scherba de Valenzuela, Ph.D.
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Julia’s Quick and Dirty Guide to APA

What is "APA"?

The American Psychological Association (APA) has produced a publication manual that includes all of the rules that you need to know to produce a manuscript that conforms to their standards. This manual, now in the 5th edition, has been accepted as the gold standard by many academic disciples. Other common academic style manuals include The Chicago Manual of Style and The Modern Language Association Style Manual, (also known as "Chicago" and "MLA"). If you are a graduate student, it is a really good idea to purchase the style manual accepted by the majority of the faculty in your department. In Special Education at UNM, you should purchase the APA manual. It is available to the campus bookstore. Make sure you get the most recent (5th) edition.

Actually, these manuals have a real reason for being, other than driving students crazy. By providing a uniform way of presenting information, these style guides assist the writer in preparing their papers in a manner that will be understood by most readers. For example, because the information needed for a reference to be complete is specified, readers are assured that they can obtain a copy of a particular cited work themselves, if they are interested. Without ALL of the parts of a citation, references can be near impossible to track down.

What’s really important?

Each style manual has many, many rules, most of which the vast majority of students do not need to learn in detail. There are, however, a few major areas that you should pay attention to:

In addition, style manuals are terrific sources of general information about writing, including the content and organization of an academic paper and the appropriate expression of ideas in written academic discourse. For students using lots of statistics or tables and graphs, the APA Manual also has clearly written directions for including these components in a manuscript.

Just the Facts, Ma’am

The following are just a FEW of the most important rules. For more information, check out the manual (make sure you get the 5th edition) and/or go to the APA website.

Format: All papers should be double-spaced throughout, (including the reference section) with one inch margins all around. Do not add extra lines between paragraphs or sections. The font should be 12 pt and you need to use a "serif" type style (with the hooks and curly-cues), such as Times or Courier. All paragraphs should be indented half an inch, NOT five spaces. Only one space should be added between the period at the end of a sentence and the first letter of the next.

Headings: These tell the reader how your text is organized -- they are VERY important. You need to decide how many levels of headings you will need, before you can figure out what they look like. For example, many college papers will have at least two levels. The first level includes the major categories, such as the introduction, whatever you name the body of your paper, and the conclusion or discussion (or both). You may then also want several sub-categories in the body of your text. For example, if you are writing about theories of second language development, you would use a sub heading for each of the major theories you discuss. If you then break any of these categories into smaller groups, you would need at least one additional level.

If you are using only two levels, the first level of heading (i.e. introduction) should be centered in upper and lower case letters. The next level should be flush to the left margin (NOT indented), italicized, in upper and lower case letters. If you use a third level, that heading should be indented, italicized, with only the first letter of the first word in upper case AND it should be followed with a period, after which you write your first sentence, without using a paragraph return. If you use more than three levels of headings, you need to check the APA manual for the correct format.

Quotations and citations are extremely important. These rules help you to clearly identify where you got your information. The reader needs to know whether you obtained the information from some source or whether that provided is your own interpretation. If you do not make this clear, you could run into concerns about plagiarism. To avoid this, you absolutely need to indicate WHO said WHAT, WHEN and WHERE.

When you include information from an outside source, you will typically either 1) paraphrase the original author’s words or 2) use a direct quote, writing down EXACTLY what was written in the original text. To avoid plagiarizing when you paraphrase, you need to change both the content AND form of the information you read -- it is not enough to shuffle the words around (from passive to active voice, for example) or substitute synonyms within the same sentence structure. If you are having difficulty paraphrasing something without falling into this trap, you should consider including direct quotes, (which you indicate with quotations marks), from the material in question.

With direct quotes you MUST include the page number(s) of the original source, along with the author(s) last name(s) and the year of the publication. The full reference then must be included in the reference section. If you are able to paraphrase the information, or you just want to refer to a work in general, you only need to include the author(s) last name(s) and the year of publication (and then, of course, include the full citation in the reference section too). There are several ways you can do in-text citations, such as in the following examples:

Reference list: The reference list includes only and all of the sources you actually cited in the text of your paper. This is different from a bibliography, which refers to all of the sources which you consulted to write a paper, regardless of whether you actually cited them in the text of your paper. For most academic papers, you should include a reference list, not a bibliography.

Formatting your references: Your reference list starts on a new page and should have the word 'References' centered at the top of the page (not bold, not underlined, and only the first letter capitalized). All references must be double spaced. Do not add an extra line in between references. The new (5th) edition of the APA manual has gone back to the old style of using "hanging indents," which means that the first line of each reference goes all the way to the left margin, with the following lines of each reference indented. You can set this up on your computer by using the ruler at the top of your screen. Drag the bottom triangle to the right by 1/2 an inch, leaving the top triangle all the way to the left (the opposite of how you set your paragraph indents). That should make all of your author names stick out to the left, while indenting the rest of each reference.

Where do I put the periods and commas? The APA manual provides the format for each kind of citation you might use, such as journal articles, web sites, conference presentations, etc. You need to look up the correct format in the manual. It is really important for students taking graduate level classes to own a current copy of the APA manual. For an example of a reference section formatted in APA that includes journal articles, chapters from edited books, and authored books, click here* For up-to-date information about citating electronic sources (i.e. web pages) follow this link: http://www.apastyle.org/elecref.html. This does not, however, replace the need to own your own copy of the APA manual.

Additional resources can be found at the Purdue Online Writing Lab (see this specific page on using APA format).

** To view PDF documents you must have Adobe Acrobat Reader. Click here to download a free copy of Adobe Acrobat Reader


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Last updated: Jqnuary 9, 2006