How to Write an APA Paper

Tips for scientific writing

Posted Apr 20, 2019

StockSnap / Pixabay
Source: StockSnap / Pixabay

APA style is the formal writing style that is endorsed by the APA (American Psychological Association). It’s got lots of rules (e.g., within a parenthetical citation, use an ampersand (&), but outside a parenthetical, use the word “and” in between the names of authors). And it bears on the entirety of a paper. From the title page to the final concluding sentence. And everything in between. And even a bunch of stuff after.

Back when I was a student, I remember thinking that APA style was arbitrary. Who cares if I didn’t put the year of the publication in the in-text citation? Who cares if I didn’t double-space my references? Why does it matter if the term “Abstract” at the start of the abstract is not centered? Seriously!!!

Years later, I’ve had something of a change of heart when it comes to APA style. If you’re a student of mine, you know that I’d much rather talk about actual content than about the details of APA style now. This said, I do think that mastering APA style is important (even if I’m fuzzy on a rule here or there!).

Why is APA Style Important?

At its core, APA style is a set of guidelines that pertain to manuscripts in scientific psychology that are submitted to journal editors for publication consideration. In other words, this is a format that a paper should be in when you want someone who runs an academic journal to publish your work as an article. An academic journal is pretty much a scholarly magazine that includes a peer-review process before papers are accepted to become articles. Many journal editors receive more manuscript submissions than they have space to publish. Only some fraction of submitted manuscripts will ultimately be accepted for publication in an academic journal.

Before a manuscript (i.e., a paper) is accepted (if the author is so fortunate!), it goes through a rigorous review process. The editor sends the paper out to a few experts on the topic of the paper. These experts read it, provide critical (often VERY critical) feedback, and then the editor takes this feedback into account and makes a determination as to whether the paper should be published as an article in the journal.*

Most journals in psychology and related fields require that the paper is in APA format. So from the perspective of a scholar in the field of the behavioral sciences, you need to master APA format because otherwise, you are probably going to have your papers rejected, even if your ideas are terrific.

Imagine a journal editor who receives 200 manuscripts to review in a given year. But that same editor's journal only has space to publish 40 articles in a year. Some pretty stringent screening is necessary. In the field of academic publishing in psychology, I can tell you this: Basic APA formatting is screen number one. If your paper misses the mark when it comes to APA formatting, good luck getting it published in an academic journal in psychology. Journal editors are way too busy to be dealing with papers that don’t meet basic APA standards.

In training students in the field of scientific psychology, then, it is critical for professors to mentor students in the process of APA writing. This style of writing is considered essential for professionals in the field.

What is APA Style?

APA Style is a method of writing that summarizes a set of scientific ideas. Usually, we think of it as a style that summarizes a report of some scientific study or set of studies that include actual data and a summary of the results. An APA style paper can also describe a proposed study (or set of studies) or it might summarize some theoretical, conceptual ideas on a topic. But a report of actual research is kind of the prototype of an APA-style paper.

So imagine you conducted some study on some psychological variables. Maybe you measured people’s level of extraversion (outgoingness) in a sample of 100 adults. And perhaps you also asked each person in your study to complete a measure of risk taking. And then suppose that your basic finding is that there is a positive and significant relationship between extraversion and risk taking. In short, you found evidence that extraverts tend to report being risky relative to the reports of introverts.

OK. So how would you write that up in a way that was able to convey your findings and their implications to the scientific community? If you look carefully at the overall structure of APA formatting, you will see that at its core, it is all about making it so that your presentation of your research is coherent and well-organized.

First you’ve got your title page. Here, you’re writing a headline and telling the audience who you are and where you come from. You might title this paper something like “Extraverts are Riskier than Introverts Are: A Correlational Study.” The title kind of bottom-lines the study.

Next, you will write an abstract in APA format. I like to think of the abstract as being the version of your paper written for very busy people. If you had to summarize your entire research in 150 words or less, what would you say? What information would be essential? What information could be left out and included in more detail later? Writing a strong and clear abstract is an intellectual skill that is, in my mind, almost without rival. It’s that important.

Next you have your Introduction. Don’t be fooled. Some people call this section the “literature review,” but that’s not a great way to think about it. Sure, you will be reviewing some past literature along the way. But the main thing that you are doing here is telling the reader what the main question is for your research and how this question has been studied in the past. And why it is important.  Ultimately, your introduction should be very linear. Each sentence should point toward the next sentence, with this section culminating in a way that makes your research question obviously important and ready to be studied. The final sentence of your introduction for the example used here might be something like “For these reasons, it is important for us to better understand the relationship between extraversion and risk taking.”

After your introduction, you have your Method section. This section should be written as if you are writing down a cookie recipe for someone across the world to follow. Your goal is to have that person bake the cookies in a way that is exactly like you and your mom make them!

The Method section describes the methods by which you collected your data. Who were the participants? What variables did you measure? How did you measure them? etc.

After you describe your methods for data collection, you need to describe what you found. This is your Results section. Here, you describe how you analyzed your data. You might say that you calculated a correlation coefficient between the two main variables (in this example, extraversion and risk taking). You might say how large that effect was and if that effect was in the predicted direction. You could also comment on “statistical significance," speaking to whether the finding was beyond what would be expected by chance.

Your study might have many variables and even experimental manipulations. You might have a lot to say when it comes to your results! This said, always remember that your audience is a person who has limited time and who probably cares about your research way less than you do. So, as is always the case, be parsimonious in writing your Results section. That is, make sure that your writing is streamlined and to the point.

Next, you write your Discussion section. Here, you step back and, literally, discuss your results in a broader sense. What are the implications of your findings? Were you correct with your predictions? Do your findings match past findings on this topic? Do your data tell the world something new? Were there problems and limitations in your data-collection process? What is your bottom-line conclusion—why does your research matter?

And that’s not all! In APA format, you need to then provide a References section. Here, you present the required information on the scholarly sources that you used in your research. By “scholarly,” I mean academic publications. It pains me to say this, but typically, Psychology Today does not count! Here, you will cite academic journal articles that have already been peer-reviewed and published. You may also cite academic books, book chapters, and similar sources. Generally, you should NOT cite websites. And you should DEFINITELY NOT cite Wikipedia. See your university's library for information on what all constitutes a scholarly sources. The library should be full of these kinds of sources!

And here is a tip regarding your References section: The easiest way for someone to spot shoddy APA style is found in your References section. The formatting rules are super-clear and specific. Do not write authors’ first names. Indent after the first line within each reference. Italicize journal titles. etc. Mastering these details is not really that difficult. You simply need to follow the guidance in the APA style guide or in a similar guide on APA style. I personally like to simply check out the details found in the APA sample paper found here. As I tell my students, just follow it! If it is italicized there, italicize it. If the page numbers are listed after the volume number of the journal in the example paper, then do that. If the first words of the journal in a reference are capitalized, then do that. etc. The easiest way to look like an amateur in this field is to botch your APA style when it comes to references. Don’t let that be you!

Bottom Line

APA style may seem arbitrary and unforgiving. But the rules that comprise APA style have, in fact, been well-honed over the years to help present scientific findings in a coherent and meaningful way. Mastering APA is, in fact, an essential part of a psychology education. If you want people in the field to give your ideas any credence whatsoever, make sure that your APA skills are sharp as a tack.

*This is a very abbreviated version of the peer-review process in academic publishing.


Basic References and Resources on APA Style

Geher, G. (2019). Own Your Psychology Major! A Guide to Student Success. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association, 6th edition (2009). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

APA’s website for APA style:

APA Sample Paper:

Purdue Owl: