APA Essay Writing Guide

APA (short form for American Psychological Association) is a format of scholarly writing used mainly on papers exploring scientific topics. APA writing style is often used in disciplines such as education, psychology, and other social sciences. These are the primary areas of study where APA formatting is used as the standard citation style although you may be asked to use APA in other disciplines. The one thing that separates different citation style formats is the structure and formatting of a paper as well as the sources used – in this case, the mode of in-text citation and the formatting of the bibliography.

No doubt some students have wondered what’s the essence of APA paper format. The answer to this question is that the format helps students and researchers to communicate ideas, concepts, and any other information consistently. Subsequently, readers will have a clear approach and knowledge about what to look for in any paper. As a result of this, students are required to have excellent mastery of APA citation style.

Unfortunately, most students and even researchers have little knowledge about the various requirements and rules observed in APA style. For this reason, they end up violating the very core elements that differentiates APA style from other scholarly writing formats. In helping you understand the basics about writing in APA 6th edition, we will consider 3 aspects:

  • Steps in writing in APA
  • General APA Paper Structure
  • Basic APA Citation Rules with Illustration

Steps in writing in APA

The first thing to do when writing a paper in APA is to ensure that you have been directed to use the format by your instructor or else your paper topic necessitates the use of the citation style. For instance, it would not be advisable to use APA for a paper on a topic on legal issues. It would be more applicable to use OSCOLA or Chicago in such a case.

Once you are certain that you will be using APA, develop a rough paper structure based on the requirements of your essay. Why do we say this? APA has specific sections that ought to be covered in your paper, such as abstract and reference page as we will see in the section below. In some papers, you may be asked to omit some of these sections depending on what your professor wants. As such, and for the sake of the essay instructions, it would be best to avoid including such sections unless it is unavoidable.

Lastly, develop a general structure and format it according to the APA requirements. Make sure that your first page comprises of a running head, the article title, and page number in the header section. The article title in the headers should be short – approximately 10 words at most. Other details captured in the title page include the author’s name and his/her affiliation. The last page should start with the word ‘references’ below which a list of sources used in writing the essay is provided. Each of these sections will be covered in detail in subsequent sections.

General APA Essay Structure

The APA paper should comprise of the title page, the abstract section, body, and the reference page. The title page formatting is as illustrated in the image below:

APA essay title page

On the other hand, the abstract page should be formatted as shown below:

APA essay abstract

Image obtained from

The abstract section also highlights the formatting in the case of the header section – note the missing ‘Running head:’ compared to the first page (first image)? Don’t make a mistake of forgetting to remove the text. As a rule of thumb, the abstract ought to be about 150-250 words long.

The main body starts after the abstract page. It starts with a centered and non-bold paper title. The structure of the body depends on the type of paper you are working on and your essay instructions. For instance, a research paper will have a different structure from a laboratory report and so forth.

The reference page is organized as illustrated below:

APA essay reference page

Basic APA Style Rules

  • The abstract, main body and reference page should always start on a new page.
  • The first line of every paragraph should be indented half an inch to the right.
  • Headings should be formatted based on the specific heading level involved as summarized below:
  • First-Level Heading: Should be in title case, bold and centered
  • Second Level Heading: Should be in title case, bold and left-aligned.
  • Third-level heading: Should be indented, bold, and in sentence case. The subsequent sentence ought to follow immediately after the full stop (e.g.Types of leadership styles. One of the types of leadership style is …). These are the most common heading levels used (should you need help formatting other heading levels, get un touch with us).
  • All references should be in hanging indentation and organized alphabetically in ascending order.
  • In-text citations should be in the form (author, year) format. This may vary in such as when you use a direct quote in which case you include a page number after the quote. For more information on in-text citations and formatting of different text size of quotes, check out Purdue OWL APA guide.

Some of the common mistakes that students make while writing a paper in APA format is the overuse of the boldface feature on the title (in the main body section) and the reference page section. These sections should not be in boldface. Also, students often include the ‘Running head:’ text on the header of all pages. This is totally wrong. Only the first page should have the text ‘Running head;’. For instance, the first page header should look like ‘Running head: XXX XX XXX     1’, (i.e. Running head: Article Title   Page Number)  while subsequent page should be just ‘XXX XX XXX     2’ (i.e Article Title     Page Number).

The other common mistake is the failure to format the various heading levels correctly. Remember that APA citation style is differentiated from other citation styles mainly by its formatting. As such, if you are writing a formal and professional essay article, it would be advisable for you to consider effecting all the formatting requirements of APA paper format.

The images below show the main parts of an APA paper. This paper is organized as per the directives of the client (in this case, no abstract was needed).

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