Unless you’ve been reading science journals in high school, you’re probably not familiar with APA, and looking at the manual for the first time can be intimidating. While it is different from MLA in many ways, it’s only confusing at first. Once you learn the rules, they are very easy to follow. And APA has a rule for just about everything, so if you have a question, its answer is in the book.

Though APA stands for the American Psychological Association, it is the go-to style for most of the sciences and their style reflects that. According to the official APA Style website, “Manuscript structure, word choice, punctuation, graphics, and references are all chosen to move the idea forward with a minimum of distraction and a maximum of precision.”1 Here at Southeast, the nursing department recently adopted it as well, so, nursing students, this is something you’ll want to pay attention to.

The Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association

20140807_114413This book may seem too complicated, but it’s not that bad if you know what it’s trying to do. Unlike MLA, which gives you a lot more flexibility in writing and structure, APA is designed to ensure that your research can be clearly and easily presented to the reader. For that to happen, they created precise rules for setting up the paper from start to finish.

If you feel overwhelmed and need a place to start, look at the table of contents. The first two chapters are about setting up the paper, the next two are about the writing, the next is about your results (because this is the sciences, remember), and finally, citations. So basically, they set it up in the order you’re going to need to know these things. If you ever have a question that you just can’t find in the book, check out their website, APA Style, which offers a search feature.

Formatting a Paper

APA has very strict rules on formatting, so you’ll want to pay attention to Chapter 2: Manuscript Structure and Content. This lays out section by section what your paper should look like. Remember though, your paper may not include every section that the book lays out. They are all listed in case you do have those sections you know where they go and how they should look.

Two things to take note of are the running header and the cover page. APA has set standards on how these should look and your paper won’t look APA without it. At the end of chapter two there is an example to show you how it should look, and you can also find tutorials on setting up both in the APA section of our website.

Make sure you go through the section on numbers if you have a lot of measurements or numbers throughout your paper. APA gives you guidelines on when to use numerals vs written out numbers. Luckily, APA doesn’t care if you want to use both numerals and written out numbers in the same sentence as long as it follows their rules.

Section headings are also very strict and examples can be found on our website.


Sometimes a teacher will say they want your paper in APA style but you don’t need a cover page or anything. That usually means what they want is the citation style to be APA. And if you’ve never used APA before, do not assume it’s the same as what you know.

APA uses an Author/Date style of internal citations. This means your citation will include the author(s) last name(s), the year of publication, and the page number: (Name, Year, p. #). If you use the author’s name in the sentence you are citing, then the form of citation changes; the year will appear directly after the name, but the page number will remain at the end of the sentence: According to Barker (2014), “blah blah blah” (p. 4).

Something that can be a little confusing in your internal citations is whether you need a page number when paraphrasing. The APA manual words it as “you are encouraged to provide a page or paragraph number, especially when it would help an interested reader locate the relevant passage in a long or complex text.”2 For a style that has a rule for everything, that’s a bit ambiguous. To be safe, if you can provide a page number, go ahead and do so. If the idea is too broad or in too many places to say that’s where you got it, don’t.

The easiest way to tell if you’re in APA style by looking is the date will be listed directed after the author’s name. Now, for a complete explanation of your reference page citations, visit our APA Style Guide, which has tutorials and examples of citations to help you. Here I’d like to list a few common mistakes that are made and important differences from MLA that students don’t know about. As with MLA, do not trust citation generators! They will eat your sources, and either way it comes back out you don’t want to touch it.

  • Yes, it should be double spaced.
  • It needs a hanging indent. (Don’t know how? Visit our Word tutorial.)
  • Punctuation is important! Look and see whether you should be using a period or a comma or nothing at all between each part.
  • The date is always second. It doesn’t matter if it is the author or title listed first, the date is second.
  • In titles, only the first word, the first word of a subtitle, and proper nouns are capitalized. All other words are lowercased. Journal Titles are written normal.
  • In all journal articles, the volume number is italicized. The issue number is not.


1. APA, “About APA Style,” APA, accessed July 30, 2014, http://www.apastyle.org/about-apa-style.aspx.

2. Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association, 6th ed. (Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, 2010), 171.