How to Complete an APA Style Paper

APA style paper

What is APA? 

Most of us begin our academic writing careers using MLA style, which is the preferred format for humanities and literature essays.  However, once you enter college-level courses, and sometimes before that, you are often asked to write papers in APA style.  This leaves many students wondering what APA style is, how it is different from MLA style, and how to approach writing a paper in APA style.

Fortunately, much of what you already know about writing can be used in an APA style research paper.  APA stands for the American Psychological Association, which puts out a manual detailing the guidelines for anyone that wants to publish in an APA-affiliated journal.  The manual is called The Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association.  It has become a popular reference for writers of all types of academic works.

There have been various editions of the APA manual, but the current edition is the Sixth Edition.  Unless otherwise instructed, you always use the most current version of any style manual.  Therefore, this guide to APA style paper format will rely on the rules outlined in the Sixth Edition.

When do you use APA style?

APA is the format generally used for the behavioral sciences, such as psychology, sociology, anthropology, cognitive science, neuroscience, economics, political science, linguistics, geography, and archaeology.  However, its growing popularity means that it is often the style chosen for other types of writing.  For example, undergraduate legal writing often uses APA format instead of Blue Book.  Some schools even specify that all of its academic writing be in APA format.  If you have questions about the appropriate format for any of your academic assignments, you should verify that you have selected the correct format with your professor.

APA Basic Format

Before you get into the more-complicated aspects of APA format, it is important to know the basics.  Here are the general rules you should follow for all APA papers:

  1. Use standard, white, 8 ½” x 11” inch paper.
  2. All margins should be one-inch.
  3. Indent paragraphs one-half inch.
  4. Select an easy-to-read 12-point font; Times New Roman is the preferred font.
  5. Double-space the entire paper, including block quotations and the references.
  6. Use a running head at the top of the pages in the header section.
  7. Number the pages in the header section; use consecutive numbers for all pages in the paper.

How to Organize an APA Paper

One of the best things about choosing APA as the format for your essay or research paper is that the style dictates organization.  APA papers are divided into the following sections: Title Page, Abstract, Introduction, Method, Results, Discussion, References, and Appendices.  Not all APA papers have these sections, but, if they do, they are presented in the following order:

Title Page- The title page has the running head, page number (1), title, the authors’ names, and the academic institution where they paper was prepared.

Abstract-  Page two of the paper is the abstract, which is a brief (generally about a paragraph) summary of the contents of the paper.  It tells the reader what the paper is going to do, but does not necessarily reveal the conclusions of the paper.

Table of Contents- You will note that this section is not included in the above list.  That is because APA format does not require a table of contents and does not contain instructions for how to format a table of contents.  However, if your professor has requested a table of contents, you would generally place it after the abstract, before the introduction.

Introduction- This is where the writer provides the readers with background information, as well as introducing the specific topic or questions addressed in the paper.  This is where you will put your thesis statement.  You also want to put the hook sentence in your introduction.

Method- Not all papers have a method section.  However, research papers need to include a method section, which is where the author describes the methodology, instruments, and measurement tools used to research the topic.

Results-  Not all papers have a results section.  However, if you have conducted any type of independent research or are presenting a summary of other research, then you would use a results section.  Your results section does not have to be just text; images and charts are frequently in the results section.  However, the results section is not the place for a complete summation of all test results; you can place those in an appendix.

Discussion- This section would be the body of the paper in a non-research paper, such as an essay.  However, for a research paper, you use this section to discuss the results and how they apply to your research question.  You may also have heard this section referred to as the analysis.

Conclusion- The conclusion is the end of the paper.  It is often a mirror image of the introduction, and serves as an opportunity for you to concisely recap the points you made in your paper.  It is also where you would suggest areas for future research or issue a call to action based on your results.

References- This is an alphabetized list of all of the sources that you cited to in your paper.

Appendices- Is there something in your paper that may need further explanation, but going into the explanation would detract from the flow of the paper or provide information that only a few readers might find of interest?  If so, you may want to consider putting it in an appendix.  Appendices may be text, drawings, figures, or research results, among other things.


Depending on the length of your paper, you may want to break it down into headings.  APA format provides for five different heading levels.  Obviously, you would only use that many levels for very long papers.  The format of the heading changes at each level.  First-level headings are centered and in boldface font using upper and lowercase letters.  Second-level headings are left justified and in boldface font using upper and lowercase letters.  Third-level headings are indented, using boldface lowercase fond and ending with a period.  Fourth-level headings are identical to third level, but they are italicized.    Fifth-level are identical to fourth-level, except they are not in boldface.

APA Citation Style

APA uses the author-date format for in-text citations.  In-text citations are also known as parenthetical citations.  The basic format is (Last Name, Year).  However, you can also use signal phrases in the sentences to eliminate using the author’s last name in the parenthesis.  When directly quoting from material, use the page number of the source (Last Name, Year, p.x).

APA Citation Formats

Your APA reference page will be an alphabetized list of the references you chose, all in APA format.  Our APA Citation tutorials can help you correctly format your sources, but here is the basic format for some of the most commonly used types of resources:

Simple Book Format

Author Last Name, A.A.  (Year of Publication).  Title of work: Subtitle.  City, State: Publisher.

Book with Multiple Authors

For up to seven authors, list each author by name.  For more than seven authors, list the first six authors then uses ellipses and conclude with the last author’s names.  The author’s names are not presented alphabetically, but in the order they are listed on your source.

Last, A. A., & Last, B. B. (Year). Title: Subtitle.  City, State: Publisher.

Website citation format

Author, A. A.  (Year, Month Day).  Article title.  Retrieved from URL

Article from an Online Periodical (Magazine or Non-Scholarly Journal)

Author, A.A., & Author, B.B.  (Date of publication).  Title of article.  Title of Online Periodical volume number (issue number).  Retrieved from URL

Article from an Online Scholarly Journal with DOI

Author, A.A. & Author, B.B. (Date of publication).  Title of article, Title of Journal, volume number, page range.  doi: xxxx/xxxxx or

Scholarly Journal with No DOI

Author, A. A., & Author, B. B.  (Date of publication).  Title of article.  Title of Journal, volume number.  Retrieved from URL

Videos Available on the Internet

Author, A. A.  [Screen name].  (Year, month day).  Title of video [Video file].  Retrieved from http://url or https://url

Motion Pictures

Producer, P. P. (Producer), & Director, D. D. (Director).  (Date of Publication).  Title of motion picture [Motion picture].  Country of origin: Studio or distributor.


As you can see, APA style may seem complicated, but actually follows some pretty simple rules.  However, we think that the easiest way to really understand APA style is to look at an APA style sample paper.  We have a huge library of APA style paper examples or can custom-write an example paper to your specifications.

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