APA Essay Writing

APA Formating Guide

APA Basic Format

One of your learning outcomes in university or college is correct academic writing. That means you should be learning how to properly follow APA style. Your marks for essays probably include a component for APA. However, your instructor likely does not spend precious time in class explaining the details of APA. That's what I hope to present here in this guide to APA essay writing.

When you are assigned to write an essay in APA format, the instructor generally means two things: 1. That you use the (author, date) system for referencing, and 2. The reference page(s) is set up according to APA style. This article will explain how to set up the basic format for APA and give you a few tips about the writing. It may be helpful for you to directly ask your instructor, "Do you want us to follow APA strictly, or just use APA citations?" That way you know whether you need a cover page and strictly following the rules for headings. Note that APA7 Student does not require running heads or an abstract; however, instructors may assign these for advanced courses to prepare you to write a thesis.

Click here to see how to format many of the common reference types in APA.

How to write an APA essay

The APA style was designed for thesis-level documents and professional publications. As an undergraduate, you are using a simplified version. There is no need for an abstract (unless required by your professor).

In an APA essay, choose your sources wisely

Writing in APA style means you are letting the reader know where you got your facts from. You cite your textbook the same as any other book. Never refer to "our text" or "the course text" in a formal essay. Assume your reader is entirely independent of the class. There are specific rules for courseware and class lectures as well as anything that is not accessible to the general public. Since you are being asked to do research, you should be looking for reputable sources. That means don't choose the first thing that pops up on Google. Whatever the topic, someone has done some deep research and published reliable information on it. Look for information in peer-reviewed journal articles. If you were writing on World War 2, you could find scholarly articles on almost any topic, but you would only use the New York Times if you were citing an article from 1942.

Really, for academic research you shouldn't even begin with Google. Although Google Scholar is a database of academic research, to learn how to research properly, you should log into your school library account and search the academic databases provided there. Remember, anyone can put anything on a web page, but published academic articles are expert-level knowledge that is peer-reviewed. Don't settle for less. You will lose marks if your sources are not reliable. That doesn't mean you can't use Wikipedia for the population of Mozambique or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for the latest COVID-19 protocols, but some random counsellor's website is not the place to find the definition of Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy.

Remember, when you put in your citation in brackets, the citation is part of the sentence, so the period comes after the citation. However, any quotation marks for quoted material comes before the citation. Like this: "...blah, blah, blah" (source, year, p. xx).

APA Paragraph Formats

All academic styles require you to write using double spaced lines with an indent at the beginning of each paragraph. APA style requires double spaced throughout the essay with no extra spaces between lines. In APA essays, double spacing is consistent for headings, references, and indented quotes. Use the paragraph dialogue box to set up your basic paragraph format.

paragraph dialog
1. Get the Paragraph Dialog from the Edit menu.
paragraph settings
2. Set the paragraph format to left and right margins at 0 and first line indented 1/2 inch. Set space before and after to 0 and line spacing to double.

Why not just indent each paragraph as you write it?

Since the default tab stops are at 1/2 inch, putting a tab at the beginning of each paragraph also works. But you will need to format paragraphs to indent long quotes, so it's just easier to set up the paragraphs that way. What's worse is using a bunch of spaces to indent the first line. Since spaces vary depending on what font they are (even though they are invisible characters) the actual indent can vary. And if you do six or four spaces, the indents will vary. They will make your paper just look a little off, and who wants that?

Include quotes in quotation marks, followed by the citation. Direct quotes must include the page number that the quote is taken from. Notice that the closing punctuation comes after the citation (which means the citation is part of the sentence it refers to) except for long quotes, when it is set after the closing punctuation (and without another period).

Quotes and paraphrasing in APA writing

A paraphrase is any time you refer to an idea from another author's work. In an undergrad research paper, you are basically just talking about other people's work, so every paragraph should have one or more ideas paraphrased with a citation. To vary the writing, you might mix quotes and paraphrasing, but the majority of citations should be paraphrases. Only use a direct quote if the author uses specific wording that is either brilliant or perfectly succinct. For example, according to Smith,"left-handedness indicates superior intelligence" (2013, p. 15). That's a pretty strong statement, so you would want to make sure the reader knows it's Smith's opinion, not your interpretation of Smith's work. You don't want to quote words that simply provide data: Smith studied his two children "n=2, with a convenience sampling method" (2013, p. 12).

APA longer quotes

If you use a quote that's longer than 40 words, it should be set as a separate paragraph block indented 1/2 inch for every line. (No extra indent on the first line.) Use the paragraph dialog as above, but set left margin to 0.5 (if your measuring system is in inches). Even in Canada, that's usually the default. If you are in the metric system, set it to 1.25 cm.

body text example
Indent longer quotes 1/2 inch and do not use quotation marks.

APA In-text Citations

The purpose of a citation is to let the reader know that there is a source for some information, which could include a fact or an opinion. Your in-text citation gives a little information so the reader can go to the reference section and see the full source. If they want, they can find the original based on the reference list information. So the citation in the body of the text (the "in-text" citation) is just a pointer telling the reader enough information to find the full citation in the reference section.

All APA in-text citations take the form of (author, year). Other citation systems use other kinds of in-text citations, which is one of the key ways citation systems differ from each other. Very rarely, a title may be substituted for the author's name.

There are two types of in-text citations: narrative citations and parenthetical citations. You may call parentheses "brackets," so parenthetical citations are the ones that look like the following (Smith, 2022). Narrative citations are ones where the authors' names appear in the text outside parentheses. In these citations, you usually put the year in parentheses. For example: "In a study by Smith and Smith (2020), it was shown that students who study APA score higher on their essays." Remember that parentheses are used for extra information added to a sentence that is not required for the sentence to make sense (like this). The sentence must make grammatical sense without the elements in parentheses. It doesn't make sense to write "In a study by (Smith & Smith, 2020), it was found..." Notice that we use an ampersand (&) for parenthetical citations but the word "and" for narrative citations.

Varying your writing with these two types of citations makes the writing more interesting to read, so try to avoid repeating the same sentence structure over and over.

APA Reference Section

In APA essays, the references are listed at the end of the essay beginning on a separate page, which is titled "References." The word "References" is centered in bold at the top of the page. Of course, it is double spaced with no extra spaces before or after.

The purpose of the reference section is to provide the reader with a detailed reference so they can follow up on your citation. A reference list is not a laundry list of sources you have consulted or some related reading. If you didn't cite it in the body of the paper, it shouldn't be in the reference list.

References are set with a hanging indent. See the dialog above for the body text. Where the indent is set to 0.5 indent, instead, set it to 0.5 hanging indent. The reference section is where using the paragraph dialog is most useful. Using a tab to indent each new line is a nightmare for your editor, who may need to change some of the details of your references, and all the careful placement of tabs needs to be undone.

hanging indent

For more details on how to write APA references, see How to write an APA Reference List. The key points are:

Some journals offer you a button that generates the citation in the specific style. These are often correct. But they can generate citations that are not in the correct style. You need to know the correct style to know if they need to be edited.

Many people now use citation management systems. These can be invaluable in organizing and managing your research. But if you do not enter the information into the citation management database correctly, it will generate incorrect citations. Like the old computer programming saying, "Garbage in, garbage out."

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