What Is APA Format?

StumpedPeople sometimes ask me what APA format is, but I think a lot of people actually wonder about this. This post explains what APA format is, what it isn’t, why it exists, and how it is different from some of the other major styles, such as Chicago, MLA, and AMA.

What APA Format Is

APA format, or APA style, is just a preferred set of rules for writing scientific documents.

If you take one thing away from this post, make it the previous sentence. The rest of the post goes into more detail for people who are curious about who APA format is for, how it is different from other styles, and so forth.

If you are looking for the specific rules of how to format APA papers, you should buy the APA Manual, or you can use sites that have summarized the major style provisions, such as Purdue Owl’s APA Formatting page.

What is the Difference Between Format and Style?

For the purposes of this post, the words style and format will be used interchangeably. Technically, the two terms should be differentiated, and I’ll discuss that soon in another post, but for now let’s keep it simple. The APA Manual organizes rules for authors who prefer or are required to write their papers in APA style.

What APA Format Is Not

There are several other writing styles. Some of the best known are Chicago, MLA, and AMA. All of these styles share many basic similarities. For instance, all of these styles agree that periods and commas should go inside closing quotation marks.

But there are many differences as well. In Chicago style, we would say, “the classroom has seventy-five students.” In APA, we would say, “the classroom has 75 students.” Each style guide outlines specific preferences for how to write out numbers, how to use commas and other punctuation, how to hyphenate words, and how to cite sources.

What is the Difference Between APA Style and Chicago Format?

There is a short answer and a long answer to this question. APA does base many of its rules on existing “authorities” of publication practices. One of those authorities is undoubtedly the Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS), whose current, 16th version exceeds 1,000 pages! The 6th edition of the APA Manual sits comfortably at under 300 pages, so the next time you find yourself wanting to complain about having to learn APA format, count your blessings.  🙂

So, Why is APA Format Needed?

If the Chicago Manual is so extensive, why do we even need APA format? What could APA possibly have to explain in 280 pages that could not be explained in CMOS?

The first edition of the APA Manual (full title: The Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association) was published in 1929!  The goal was to create specific standards for scientific writing for psychology, sociology, business, and other human sciences.

That’s the basic idea that guides all of APA’s preferred style rules; that is, APA rules focus on scientific writing.

Two Examples of Style Differences

A couple of quick examples will help show why APA format is needed.

Number Expression

First, whereas Chicago recommends writing numbers as words in many cases, APA format is to write most numbers as numerals. This is because scientific articles tend to have more numbers in them, and writing out the numbers as words would make the papers long and the data hard to spot. Imagine if you ran a multiple regression analysis and had to write your entire Results section with numbers in word format. That would be crazy!

In-Text Citation Styles

The second example that quickly comes to mind is how sources are cited in the text. Let’s compare APA and MLA for this example. The Modern Language Association Handbook is common in many high schools and is the preferred style for research papers in the area of English literature and some other humanities.

Imagine that you are writing a research paper comparing different novels by Ernest Hemingway. When you cite the novels, MLA does not ask you to include the date in your parenthetical citations in the text. Why not? Because the actual content of each book never changes. A Farewell to Arms is still a Farewell to Arms. The dates are simply not very important in MLA style.

In APA style, however, dates are essential. If you cite a neurological study on cognitive dissonance, for instance, the reader absolutely must know the date of the research. The technology for measuring brain waves changes over time, and the research continually builds knowledge in the area. Findings from 20 years ago may no longer be relevant at all. Even the guiding theories have developed over time. This is why APA requires dates in citations in the text, and why a writer of psychology should never use MLA style.

There are many other differences between all of the styles, but I’ll save those for another day.

Who Uses APA Format?

So, we have established that APA format is for scientific writers. But, does that include all scientific disciplines? Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. There are many style guides available for scientific writing. One of the other big guides is the American Medical Association Manual of Style. This is the standard style guide for the medical profession. Remember, a style guide is simply a book with a set of rules for writing. So, the AMA Manual has different rules than the APA Manual. Some hard sciences use APA, but many use AMA or the style of a particular medical or scientific journal.

The main people who write in APA style are students, professors, and researchers in the fields of psychology, sociology, social work, social policy, education, and many other social sciences. Anthropologists use the AAA Style Guide. Scholars of economics and philosophy tend to use Chicago style. Theologians sometimes use Chicago and sometimes use styles especially written for theological works, such as the Handbook of Style of the Society of Biblical Literature (or SBL style). Journalists and media writers use the guidelines set forth in the Associated Press Style Book. Some schools even have their own preferred style, complete with their own citation systems, such as the Harvard System of Referencing. The list goes on.

Why all the Guides?

The same reason that APA needed to make a specific set of rules for scientific writing, other guides make rules that are useful to their fields. For instance, the SBL guide has very specific rules and a mountain of examples for how to handle various theological citations. APA and Chicago have very limited information in this area, so theological scholars needed something more detailed. The AP Style book focuses on media writing. For instance, an article on CNN or Yahoo! will be written in a completely different style than a psychological journal article.

A great example between APA and AP styles is paragraph length. The APA Manual discourages one-sentence paragraphs because the topic cannot be clearly developed. Media writing, however, relies heavily on short paragraphs. Ever notice that the first paragraph of a news article is almost always one sentence (usually a very attention-catching one)? Most Internet readers simply read the headline, the tagline, and some headings. Now that I think about it, I’ll be lucky if 1% of my readers get down to this point in this post!  So if you’re here, leave a comment to celebrate, because you really are dedicated!

It really does make sense that there are so many different formats out there.  So, you just have to figure out which guide your academic or professional discipline uses, and then start to familiarize yourself with the rules.

Should I Use APA Format?

The decision of what format is appropriate for your document depends on two main factors:

1. Your academic discipline. Some basic guidelines are mentioned in the sections above, but you should always check with your discipline’s departmental office to check. The chair will know, and your advisor should also know or should be able to find out.

2. Whether you are writing a copy manuscript for a final manuscript. Yikes! What are those? A copy manuscript is basically a draft, usually of an article that will be submitted for peer review or edited and changed before it gets into final form. For these documents, you should follow the preferences of the journal you are submitting to (the guidelines are almost always available on the journal’s Web site), and then follow APA for all other issues.

A final manuscript is a document that will be published exactly as you leave it. That means that you are responsible for all of the line spacing, margins, and other layout details. Some common examples of final manuscripts are dissertations, theses, and organizational reports. What makes sense for a draft copy of an article does not necessarily make sense for a final manuscript.

For instance, APA requires double spacing just about everything, including block quotes. The double spacing allows editors and reviewers to make notes to themselves when reading the article in the peer-review process.  But a long, double-spaced block quote can easily blend into the paragraphs above and below it, and block quotes are really hard to read in final manuscripts. That is why many schools have come up with their own guidelines for formatting dissertations and theses. Usually, such guidelines include single spacing block quotes and long titles and subheadings. This improves readability and the double spacing simply isn’t needed (indeed double spacing hinders reading).

Geez, I’m Lost!

Well, if you’ve gotten this far, you are a hero!  And I’m guessing you are either truly informed or truly lost!  If the former, leave a comment to make me feel better. 🙂  If the latter, just remember this:

APA format is a set of writing rules for scholars who write scientific documents, usually in the areas of psychology, sociology, education, and other related social-science fields. The rules include basic, mechanical issues such as how to use punctuation properly; issues related to content, such as how to write clearly and concisely; and issues of layout, such as how to format tables and figures.


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Rocky Citro

Hi, my name is Rocky, and I am a technical academic editor with over a decade experience editing for professors and graduate students in prestigious universities. I have also taught writing at the graduate and undergraduate level and have several years' TEFL teaching experience.