Writing Center

APA Style for the Busy Student

By Sean Noble, Writing Tutor

There are an untold number of challenges that students face when transitioning from high school to college: the heightened academic expectations, living alone for the first time, deciding on in four years a career for the next forty... I am, of course, speaking from experience. When I arrived at Xavier two years ago, there was one newfound expectation, however, that never seemed worth the effort: proper APA formatting. "There isn't any point," I'd complain to my roommate, "in spending tons of time learning APA format in the hopes of gaining a few extra points, when there are a billion more important things to do... Did you eat my chips, bro?"

To this day, I stand by that sentiment: Of all the challenges faced by students, correct APA formatting should not occupy the bulk of your time. Yet, many students find themselves bogged down by what really amounts to a few simple fixes and new approaches to writing a paper. Of course, it would be foolish and impossible to try to teach all of APA format in a blog post, considering whole classes are dedicated to its proper usage (see: Psychology Research and Methods I). However, I developed a few quick, crash-course techniques and tips to help myself better write in APA style, and I've shared them here with you:

  1. Use Examples for Citations: Some are under the impression that citing sources correctly, both in-text and in the reference section, is the be-all-end-all of format styling and thus is the most difficult part to execute correctly. In actuality, citing sources is as easy as reading. My mother has always been fond of saying, "If you can read, you can cook," and I'd like to think the same of APA format: If you can read and copy a template, you can cite sources in APA format (doesn't have quite the same ring to it as my mother's pithy comment, but my point still stands). While copying someone's words or ideas is called plagiarism, copying a format's citation style is just called proper citation. So, when you're wondering how to cite something correctly, look up an example! Make sure, though, that you're following the right example. In this instance, the latest edition of Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association (try saying that three times fast) will be your best friend, but websites like Purdue OWL will do in a pinch. Also, you may have noticed links to the APA Style Blog throughout this post. If you're having trouble figuring out how to use the manual or what kind of entry you have, the APA Style Blog, which is the official companion to the APA manual, helps to clarify some of these trickier situations.

  2. Avoid Negative Framing: APA format, by its very design, is intended to convey a large amount of information to the reader in the simplest manner possible. "Reducing cognitive load on the reader," a phrase recognizable to those who have had a class taught by Dr. End of Xavier's Psychology Department, should be the guiding principle in your writing. Roughly translated, this phrase means that you want your reader to think as little as possible about how you're saying something, so that they can focus on what you're saying. While sometimes it makes intuitive sense as the writer to say what doesn't happen, the reader will most readily understand when you explain what does happen. For example, instead of beating around the bush and writing, "the data demonstrated that the correlation between height and creativity was not negative," simply state, "the data demonstrated a positive correlation between height and creativity." You've crafted a sentence poorly if your reader needs to read it twice in order to fully grasp its meaning, and negative framing is something that often contributes to this effect.

  3. Cause Before Effect: "He had a heart attack after being shot by the vice president," and "After being shot by the vice president, he had a heart attack." Which sentence is APA styled? The answer would be the second, as it presents the antecedent (cause) before the consequence. While both sentences are grammatically correct, and perhaps the first arguably flows better than the second, APA style is not concerned with what "sounds better." APA style aims to present information reflective of the manner it occurred in reality. The reasoning behind this goes back to the notion of "reducing cognitive load," and presenting to your audience "what caused what" as simply as possible. This rule may seem a bit ridiculous in the first example, but the need for clear causation becomes evident when that example changes to a more complex concept, like steric hindrance in molecules causing an elimination bimolecular reaction.

Overall, when in doubt, remember Dr. End's golden rule for APA: "Every word should have a purpose." APA isn't designed to make your writing take longer or to make writing more difficult. It's designed to make your writing better. APA encourages writers to be clear and concise, to slow down and think about why they're writing what they're writing, and to consider how to best present that information without extraneous detail. APA teaches that when dealing with complex data, even amongst peers, it's best to be as straightforward as possible: your knowledge should shine through your content rather than a poetic writing style.

A few simple techniques are all it takes to upgrade your paper from good to great, giving you time to focus on the more important things in life: classes, spending time with your new friends, or looking for loose change for the vending machine at 2:00 in the morning after your roommate ate all your Doritos.


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