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Essay Basics: Format a Paper in APA Style

Updated on May 11, 2016
Learn how to format a new paper in APA style
Learn how to format a new paper in APA style

Before you write your paper, you must know these formatting rules...

When your professor requests that you write your paper according to APA style (the official style of the American Psychological Association), you will need to follow several formatting rules that will make your paper more coherent and easier to read. While many of these rules seem basic across all types of writing, APA style does have a handful of specific and unique rules that you must obey.

Start a new paper with these tips...

As a former English teacher for high school students, I offer you this checklist of 15 rules to refer back to when you need help on formatting a particular element in your paper. It does not matter the type of academic paper that you are writing—a research paper, thesis paper, term paper or dissertation—APA style format remains the same.

My advice applies to the latest edition of APA style which is the 6th edition. You should do most of the pre-formatting (for margins, typeface and size, and page numbering) before you write the first sentence.

Rule # 1: End of Sentence Punctuation

This rule for APA style has been updated and clarified in the latest version of the APA style guide. It's now recommended that you use two spaces after a period that ends a sentence (instead one space) because two spaces enhance the readability of the paper. If you have a habit of spacing only after a period that ends a sentence, you can use your word processor's "Find and Replace" function to change all instances to two spaces.

Example of two spaces after a period.
Example of two spaces after a period.

Rule # 2: Font and Typeface

The recommended font is Times New Roman, with 12-point type size. Times New Roman is a standard font installed on all computers. You have no reason to use a different font. All text in the paper should use this font and type size. For high school students: always type your APA style paper; do not hand write the paper. Never use a size above 12 pt for Times New Roman to make your paper appear longer than it truly is.

Times New Roman looks like this...

Times New Roman font - Use 12 pt.
Times New Roman font - Use 12 pt.

Rule # 3: Do NOT Use Footnotes and Endnotes

APA style discourages using footnotes and endnotes, although they are common in other styles, such as MLA style. Instead, APA style uses in-text citations and a Reference page.

Example of In-Text Citations

Example of in-text citations in body of main text of paper.
Example of in-text citations in body of main text of paper.

Example of References page

All in-text citations will appear on a separate References page at the end of your paper. Think of it as an alphabetized "endnotes page."
All in-text citations will appear on a separate References page at the end of your paper. Think of it as an alphabetized "endnotes page."

(I have bold-faced the word References to set it apart from the other text. You do not bold-face the word References. It should be plain text.)

FYI: I have created a separate Hub to show you how to format a References page in APA style, should you need assistance.

Rule # 4: Headings

Throughout the main text, you may use headings to break up the text into different sections. APA style has five levels of headings, each of which indicates main headings and various sub-headings based on the way you format them. Level one is centered and bold; level two is flush left and bold; level three is flush left, bold, and italicized; level four is indented, bold, and italicized; and level five is indented and italicized.

Study my examples below. This will show you how APA style wants you to format multiple headings in the main text of your paper.

Example of First, Second and Third Level of Headings

Example of First Level of Headings in APA Style
Example of First Level of Headings in APA Style

Example of Four Levels of Headings (Headings 1-4)

Example of Fourth Level of Headings in APA Style
Example of Fourth Level of Headings in APA Style

Example of Five Levels of Headings in APA Style

Example of Five Levels of Headings
Example of Five Levels of Headings

Rule # 5: Indention (general)

For the standard main text and for level four and five headings, you need to indent the line 0.5 inches for each new paragraph that you start. The exception is the main text for the Abstract page on which you do not indent.

Example of standard indention.
Example of standard indention.

Rule # 6: Indention (hanging)

This type of indention requires placing the first line of a paragraph against the left margin and then indenting subsequent lines of the paragraph by 0.5 inches. Hanging indention techniques are used for specific areas of the paper, such as the alphabetized sources on the Reference page.

Example of Hanging Indention used in APA Style for the Reference page.
Example of Hanging Indention used in APA Style for the Reference page.

Rule # 7: Margins

Your paper should have a 1-inch margin on all four sides. No text should appear in the margin. However, APA style does allow the bottom margin to have some text placed in it, if this is required to avoid having a widow (i.e., a single line of text that would be the only item on the following page).

Your entire paper should have 1-inch margins, top, bottom, left and right.
Your entire paper should have 1-inch margins, top, bottom, left and right.

Rule # 8: Numbers (decimal)

Anytime you need to express a number as a decimal and that potentially can be greater than one, use a leading zero before the decimal point, if the number is between zero and one, such as 0.43. If the number is a decimal representing a value that can never be larger than one, such as in a formula, don't use the leading zero.

Rule # 9: Numbers (whole)

Most of the time, you need to spell out a number in text as part of the main body of text, if it's less than 10.

Spell out numbers if quantity is under 10. For number 10 and above, use numerals.
Spell out numbers if quantity is under 10. For number 10 and above, use numerals.

THE EXCEPTION: If you are comparing numbers and one of the numbers is below 10 and the second number is above ten, you use numerals for both numbers--you do not spell out the number under 10.

EXAMPLE: Edgar Allen Poe had sold from 6 to 10 short stories.

Rule # 10: Order of sections

APA style requires you to follow a particular order, which is:

1) a Title page;

2) an Abstract page;

3) the main body of paper;

4) References page;

5) tables, figures, and appendices.

Start each section on its own new page. If you don't have a particular section in your paper, just skip it.

Rule # 11: Page header

The page header (known as the running header) should appear on the top line of each page, and it should consist of the title of the paper at the far left. If the title is extremely long, use the first several words of the title. The first page of the manuscript should not have the page header. The page header should be in all capital letters.

The full title of this paper is "Accelerating Careers In Science And Technology In Third World Countries." To create a "running head," use the first several words of the title if the title is too long to fit.
The full title of this paper is "Accelerating Careers In Science And Technology In Third World Countries." To create a "running head," use the first several words of the title if the title is too long to fit. | Source

Rule # 12: Page numbers

Place each page number at the top of the page, at the far right. Do use a page number on the first page, which is the title page.

Each page must include a running head and the page number, including the Title page.
Each page must include a running head and the page number, including the Title page.

Rule # 13: Paper size

You'll need to use a standard size of writing and printing paper, measuring 8.5 by 11 inches. Stick with 20 pound white paper. This can be multi-purpose paper commonly used for inkjet and laser printers and photocopy machines. Using thicker paper will NOT make your paper feel and look more important. Never use any color BUT white.

Rule # 14: Spacing

Always use double-spaced text, leaving a blank line between each line of text. Use double spacing throughout the paper, no matter what section you're working on.

Use double-space for your ENTIRE paper
Use double-space for your ENTIRE paper

Rule # 15: Title Page

The Title page is the first page of your paper. It is also the first page that your professor sees and knows if you have followed APA style accurately. The Title page must include:

1) a running head in all CAPS. Even though you are providing the full title of your paper on this page, APA style still requires you to include a running head. A running head is simply a shortened version of your title. The running head is always flushed left at the top. Note: You include the words "Running head:" before the abbreviated title on the title page only! All other pages will include the abbreviated title without the prefix.

2) the page number. Yes, even on the Title page you must include the page number--which is the number 1. Never spell out page numbers. The page number is always flushed right at the top.

3) the title. Center the full title of your paper and position it in the UPPER half of the page. Keep your title under 15 words. Your title will appear centered both horizontally and vertically. Do NOT uppercase the entire title; use Initial Capital Case.

4) your name. Remember you are using double-space for your entire paper. This means your full name appears two spaces below the title. Just put your full name; do not include the word "by" as in: "by Jennifer Haskill"

5) your institution affiliation. Double-space after your name and provide the name of your school, such as Rutgers University.

EVERYTHING on the Title page is CENTERED (except the running head and page number).

Sample title page for APA style
Sample title page for APA style | Source
Format a new paper in MS-Word
Format a new paper in MS-Word

Format a new paper in MS-Word quickly

You can quickly format a new paper in APA style using MS-Word or any common word processing program. Once you set up the specs to handle the basic formatting elements, save the document as a template to use for future papers. It typically takes me under 10 minutes to format a new paper.

One other item to remember is that some assignments will require you to follow a slightly different set of guidelines than what APA style requires. If your professor has some specific rules to follow for your paper, then follow his rules. He may prefer using an earlier edition of APA style.

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