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Essay Writing 1, 2, 3 - How to Write an APA Essay

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An APA essay uses the author date form of referencing. This article provides five main guidelines to formatting an APA essay. These five guidelines are: 1) In-text reference style; 2) Document format; 3) Reference section; 4) Paraphrasing and plagiarism; 5) Paragraph organization.

APA In-text reference style

The APA in-text reference style refers to how you do citations in the body of your paper. APA uses the author's last name and the date of publication of the item you are referencing. The reference is in parentheses with the closing punctuation of the sentence coming after the reference (Francis, 2022). The most common APA error is to place the period at the end of the sentence and then insert the reference. That makes the reference appear to be part of the next sentence since the period is the punctuation mark that separates sentences. Remember that something in parentheses (like this) is a part of the sentence, but simply a little extra information for the reader and does not need to be read for the sentence to be understandable. The difference between APA and MLA style is that MLA style uses the author's name and the page number of the work being referenced. There are other author date styles, and while some use a comma between the author and date, others do not. Some names of other author-date referencing styles include Harvard referencing and Vancouver referencing. These styles are usually specific to one university, and you should check with your library for a complete style guide.

There are two ways to provide in-text references in an APA essay. One way is the parentheses after the citation. You can also introduce the ideas of an author using a signal phrase with the author's name, such as "Acccording to..." or "In the findings of..." Remember, when the author's name is part of the sentence, it's not in parentheses. After introducing the idea, put the date only in parentheses. Keep in mind that authors with et al. are plural. Speaking of et al., notice that et is a complete word but al. is an abbreviation, so only al. requires a period. (Al. is short for alia, Latin for "others."

APA style does not require page numbers unless you are making a direct quotation. However, page numbers are encouraged. Here's a tip: keep track of your references as you are doing your research. Best practice is to take point form notes as you read through your research. Ensure that these notes include the reference information. Your life will be much simpler later.

Updates to APA 7

APA updated from edition 6 to edition 7 in 2021. Most of the changes are relevant to the reference section, relating to number of authors and electronic sources. You don't have to worry about most of these most of the time. But there are two main changes that affect students. The first is that there is now a student version and a professional version. The student version does not require a running head. But APA allows instructors to still require them, so check with your teacher. The other change that you should be aware of is that you now use et al. for three authors from the first citation. So there is no need to switch. See the chart below.

Using et al. in a Reference

Number of Authors

First Text Citation

Subsequent Text Citations

One or two authors

Francis & Francis, 2022

Francis & Francis, 2022

3 to 5 authors

(APA 6) Francis, Francis, & Francis, 2022

(APA 7) Francis et al., 2022

Francis et al., 2022

6 or more authors

Francis et al., 2022

Francis et al., 2022

A couple of things to notice about APA style for in-text references: there is no comma before et al. There is no comma before the ampersand (&) for two authors, but there is a comma before the ampersand for three or more authors.

APA Document Format

APA essays are formatted with double-spaced lines; paragraphs have a 1/2 inch indent at the beginning of each paragraph; no extra space is added between paragraphs; the body of the essay is followed by a reference section on a separate page. Formally, APA style was designed for professional publications; a properly formatted APA style essay begins with a title page, followed by an abstract, dedication, table of contents, body of text, and references. If you are writing an undergraduate essay and the instructor tell you to use APA style, then all you need is the title page, essay, and references properly formatted. Check with your instructor if you are in doubt.

APA Sample Cover Page

Title page

All the content on the title page is centered. The rest of the paper is aligned left or justified (adjusted to be flush to both left and right margins). The title of the paper is not bold. It uses title case. That means main words are in capital and minor words are in all lower case. The author's name is on a separate line below the title. Next is the name of the instructor, followed by the name of the school, and last is the date. Make sure you spell your instructor's name correctly!

Running head

A running head is a short version of the title that runs in the header space on each page. If the title is short already, it could be the entire title; otherwise, it's just a placeholder to remind the reader or to identify a page that's printed separate from the rest of the essay. The running head is in all caps. On the title page only, it is preceded by the words "Running head" and a colon. To set up the document so only the first page has the words "Running head," use the Format menu (in MS Word) and choose "Document." Find the checkbox for "Different first page." Save that option to return to the document. Now click in the header space to write your header. Whatever you write on the second page will be included on all subsequent pages unless you create a new section.

APA Reference Section

The reference section is organized in alphabetical order by author's name. As previously, all lines are double-spaced and there are no extra lines between entries. The paragraphs have a hanging indent; this means the first line starts at the margin and all other lines are indented. The easiest and best way to implement a hanging indent is to use the paragraph dialog box, whether you are writing in Microsoft Word, Google Docs, or Apple Pages. Once you set up the paragraphs, you can just focus on entering the words. If you hit return at the end of a line and then tab to indent, you will have to continue to adjust the returns and tabs as you proofread and edit your entries.

APA Journal Citation

There are two limited cases where you do not have an author name. In these cases, you either use the title of the document, or the name of the organization that published it.

Organization as author

An organization is an author when it publishes a document with no author's name on a subject related to the organization's purpose. The Centers for Disease Control are the authors of their webpages on vaccination. Wikipedia is never the author of its pages. For an organization as an author, use the organization's full name in the first citation with the initials or acronym in square brackets. Subsequent citations can use the initials (Centers for Disease Control [CDC], 2022). The reference list must match the in-text citation so when a reader looks for the CDC entry, they find it in among the C listings.

No author

Most mainstream newspapers and magazines like Time or the New York Times provide an author name. In the rare case that they do not, you use the title of the article in the reference. For the in-text reference, enclose the title in quotation marks and use title case (capitalize main words and do not capitalize minor words). This is probably how the original article was capitalized. Many teachers do not allow entries from Wikipedia for many reasons. You can always find a better source. A big part of your marks should be for research, so you should be learning how to find good sources.

Do not include the date you retrieved something from the web unless it's something that might change, like a Wiki. Do not include the URL information when you logged on through your password-protected library account. The URL has to be useful to your reader. If you have an issue and volume number for a publication, or an exact date for a non-professional publication, then you have done your duty. (You wouldn't need to include directions to the shelf in a library where you found a book, would you?)

Paraphrasing and Plagiarism

Plagiarism means using someone's ideas without proper acknowledgement. Paraphrasing should be your main way to introduce other people's ideas into your essay. Only quote when the wording is very important. Quotes under 40 words long are simply introduced into the text followed by the reference including a page number. If you are quoting from an online document without pages, use paragraph number. Quotes over 40 words long are set in a separate block of text that is fully indented 1/2 inch. The reference following a long quote is after the closing punctuation.

Obviously, if you quote and provide a reference it's not plagiarism, but if you paraphrase, it can also be plagiarism even when you provide a reference. If you use another's sentence structure or wording (even in a different order), you are copying. Many schools do automatic plagiarism checks, which will be triggered by these kinds of similarities. The best way to avoid this is to begin the research process by summarizing in note form the ideas you think are important. Use your own words as much as possible, then revise as you work it into your essay, then revise as you edit your essay. You can use your own online plagiarism check, such as Grammarly, before you hand in the essay, to be sure to avoid accusations of plagiarism.

Paragraph Organization

APA essay paragraphs are no different from other essays; unless you are doing original research, you are discussing your interpretation of others' research findings. Each paragraph should be organized around an idea that links to the previous idea. You may have one source in a paragraph or many. However, the general format is: Introductory sentence (which may link to previous paragraph); make an connection or interpretation; provide some information from another; provide more interpretation; connect the ideas with a statement of your own; prepare the reader for the next paragraph, or draw a conclusion. You should not have a paragraph in the middle of an undergraduate essay without an outside idea being discussed.


Lee, C. (2011.) The proper use of et al. in APA style [blog post]. APA Style Blog. Retrieved from https://blog.apastyle.org/apastyle/2011/11/the-proper-use-of-et-al-in-apa-style.html

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