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Formatting Your Essay in APA

School can be overwhelming with many deadlines overlapping and the stress of graduation always looming. Add to that the stress of writing a solid essay, and you are sure to have an anxiety-filled semester. Knowing how to use American Psychological Association’s (APA) guidelines for citation can help lessen the stress of also having to deal with charges of plagiarism.

Many types of papers call for APA citation, including biology, psychology, and sociology. APA citation is the standard for most everything in the scientific world, be it life or social science. Therefore, you will probably be safe to choose this format unless otherwise instructed. While the many ever-changing rules and standards seem daunting, there are steps to help ensure a correctly cited essay.

Deciding Format and Style

Once you have decided APA is the format you need, you can begin by formatting your essay within a program like Microsoft Word. To do this, you will begin by creating what is called the “Running Head”. The running head you will create will carry over to each page, and will house important information like a shortened title and pagination. You will also want to ensure your font is set to Times New Roman and to point. One-inch margins all around the essay are standard, and double spacing is usually required.

Creating the running head is not terribly difficult. You will simply want to find the portion of the program you are using and create a header. Once you have found the header tab, make sure you are aligned left, and type the words “Running head:” complete with the colon as shown here, minus the quotation marks. Next, type a shortened title of your essay in all caps after the colon. To finish off the header portion, align right and add page numbers. You can then dose the header and continue with your title page. The title page will be the first page of your essay.

On the upper half of the page, you will include the complete title of your essay in no more than 12 words centered on the page. Below that, you will include your name, the name of the institution you are attending/writing for, and instructor’s name if applicable. Some instructors will give customized instructions, and if you are researching on your own, rather than using the name of a university, you will include the name of the place at which the research was conducted. This will conclude your title page.

Structuring the Abstract

Next, you will begin a new page entitled “Abstract”. Your header should have carded over to this page, including pagination, eliminating the need to manually include that information again. The first line on this page will be centered and simply say “Abstract” without any special fonts or treatments, such as bold lettering. Aligning left without indentation, you will then begin to write a concise description of your essay. You will want to write 150-250 words describing your thesis, research methods, questions you intend to answer, an analysis of data, and a conclusion of your findings. After this paragraph, you will create a new indented line that states “Keywords” in italics, followed by a list of key terms to aid those searching for information. That is all the information included on this page. You will next begin your actual essay on a new page.

When you begin the body of your essay, you will start by centering your complete essay title in both upper and lowercase lettering. Keeping to 12 words or under is recommended for a paper title. Each paragraph should align left, but unlike with the abstract page, you will indent each paragraph from here out. The first paragraph will be the introduction, and should include a thesis statement by the end. If you must use more than one paragraph as an introduction, please know incorporating your thesis by the end of the second paragraph is best. You will keep your readers focused, and they are more likely to keep reading if that roadmap to the rest of the essay is available early on.

Following your introduction, you may include many types of information dependent on how you have organized your essay. You might begin by describing the history of the subject, or maybe you will choose to begin describing your research. Either way, what follows your introduction are known as body paragraphs. These paragraphs are where you will give data, present an argument, and most importantly support your thesis. If, while writing these paragraphs, you find you are off the abject contained in your thesis, you might want to revisit the essay topic. Have you chosen too narrow of an argument? Could the subject be too broad? In either case, it will be important to correct this problem so the essay makes sense.

A good way to avoid these problems is to pre-write. By developing a solid outline, you can make sure your essay will stay on course rather than having to reformulate your essay after spending hours writing. Although it might seem to waste time, good planning will actually save you time in the end.

During your body paragraphs is where you will do the bulk of your in-text citation. In-text citation is needed to properly attribute information to its intellectual owner. Keep in mind not only quotations are cited. Even if you have reworded some information, what is called “paraphrasing”, you will need to cite the source. Many people ask how they should decide what to cite. The rules are simple:

  • Cite direct quotations
  • Cite any paraphrased material
  • Most data should be cited (e.g. dates, historical facts, scientific analysis)
  • Definitions
  • Anything that is commonly known (For instance, saying the world is round is a commonly accepted fad that probably would not require citation. However, if you were writing a paper for people new to Earth, you would need to cite that bit of information).
  • Anything that is not your original idea

Three Easy Ways to Avoid Plagiarism

One is to cite anything about which you are unsure. If you do not know if it should be cited, go ahead and cite it. No one goes before the chancellor for citing too much information. Second, free write before you try to include any of your research information. In this way, you will be able to separate your personal ideas from those of others. Last, while you are making your notes and outline, include the citation information with each piece of research information. This little trick ensures proper citation of material. Keep in mind, improperly cited material is considered un-cited material. Cite from the exact source in which you found the information. Different journals, articles, and books can contain nearly identical information from the same author; however, with editing, the material can change slightly. If an instructor or someone in your audience decides to check the information,you could run into trouble.

Properly citing material is not as difficult as it might seem. There are specific rules for each type of material, especially when we come to the reference page. While this guide will not give instructions for each type, the general idea will be the same. For extensive citation information, visiting a website like Purdue Online Writing Lab can prove helpful. Some of these sites list many examples and rules directly from the APA making them credible resources for your citation needs.

In-text citation is fairly straightforward. When including the author/owner’s name within the sentence, include the date of publication in parentheses directly following the name, and then place the page number at the end of the sentence. For example:

“In his article, Dr. Blank (2016) said words (p. zoo)”.

Notice the final punctuation comes after the final parentheses, the proper nouns are capitalized, and, the “said” is in past tense. According to APA guidelines, an author will use past or present perfect tense to describe the research that has obviously occurred beforehand. In example:

“The doctor wrote,” or “the doctor has written” are both correct, but “the doctor writes” is incorrect.

A second rule requires putting name, date, and page number at the end of the sentence. We use this when we may have already named the author/owner.

The aforementioned article also states words are important (Blank, 2016. p. zoo).

This type of citation contains the same information; only the location has changed. Again, the punctuation follows the parentheses. Hesse note the quotation marks are only placed here to show this as an example. If you were quoting a line from an article or other publication, the quotation marks would end before the ending parenthetical citation, like this:

Dr. Blank (2016) said, “Words are important” ( p.200).

For a single author, these are about the only way you will use in-text citation. With more than one author, however, the citation form will remain the same, but what is contained within will change. If you have up to six authors, you will name each author. For any amount six and over, you will put the name of the first author listed by the Latin “et al.” Make sire not to put a period after “et”. The citation would look like this:

“Dr. Blank et al. (2016) states…”

There is also a special case to using block quotes. While it is usually advisable to avoid quotes that are too long, in some cases, especially in research, they cannot be avoided. When making a block quote, which is defined as three or more sentences, you will need to indent the quote from the rest of the text like this:

Block (2016 ) states:

Words can be used in many different ways…with example text working like this. Even more text working and flowing like this. Text is great and this format is for text (p. 200).

Notice the block of text remains aligned under the original indent so it is set apart from other parts of the text. The author and date are named first with a colon following, so readers will know what follows is a quote. Then, the page number is included at the end as with other citations You will most likely use very few long quotes like this but they do happen.

Besides in-text citation, there are other formatting options that happen within these types of writing that would require APA. Sometimes, a writer will need to use multiple headings or subheadings. There are specific rules for using these, too, including placement and font specifics.

Your first heading may be something like “Introduction”. When using headings to separate major portions of your paper, you will center them in boldfaced font, using both upper and lowercase letters. If you need a subheading under any of the major portions, you will align those to the left, also using boldfaced upper and lowercase font. There may be a time when you need to breakdown a section even further. In these cases, the third heading will be indented from the left with boldfaced, lowercase fonts, and a period will follow. The fourth will be indented, lowercase, italicized, boldfaced font, followed by a period. Any more would be indented, italicized, lowercase font with a period. In example:

First Heading
Second Heading
third heading.
fourth heading.
fifth heading.

Do not be surprised in a major research paper for subjects like sociology to utilize some or all of these seriations. They are both acceptable and useful in organizing your scientific essay.

The final portion of your essay will be to compile what is known as the “Reference” list. This is the page on which you compile a complete list of your resources named in your paper. Make sure to include the word “References” at the top of the page, centered and without any special font treatment. The reference page should also be its own page. The entries that follow will be listed alphabetically, and if you have multiple entries by the same author, they will be listed according to date, beginning with the earliest.

Each entry begins with the last name of the author. It is greatly important to include as much information as possible within these entries, but sometimes all the mentioned information will not be available to you. The second line of each entry, if needed, is formatted using a “hanging indent”. This indention helps separate each entry. Explaining these entries could be difficult, no an example of an entry is more effective.

References Blank, Dr. (2016). The importance of words.
New England Journal of Medicine, 13, P. 200-459.
Johnson, Susie,. Smith, Tom., Jones, Jon. (2016). How to write essays. You can do this too.
Research Writers Monthly. 12(6), 7-21.

references page











These two sample entries show the basics of constructing the reference page. These by no means encompass every instance you might encounter. There are special rules for citing online information, movies, television shows, personal interviews, and data contained in graphs, graphics and charts that you might use within your paper. Online resources, as mentioned before, will give the best models for each case. It is also worth noting that these rules can change frequently, no buying books showing this information is not an efficient method for learning APA. Even if you think you know citation, visiting a site with updated information can be helpful.

Looking at each entry, there seems to be a lot of punctuation, some of it even stacked upon each other. These are not typos. The punctuation is needed to separate each part of the entry, which can become quite complex. Do not leave out the punctuation. Doing so can cause software that checks for plagiarism to flag your paper…”plagiarized”. A great tool to check for plagiarism which you can use for free is Plagiarism Check software. Other pages may be included in your essay, including diagrams, tables, figures and each page may also include footnotes or endnotes Once more, referring to an online resource can be an invaluable help when writing in APA as the options are nearly endless. For the most part, following the rules above will help you create a basic APA paper. The main point to remember is not to worry. Although the rules and procedures seem endless and daunting, once you become used to writing in this form, it will be much easier.