How to Write a Paper in APA Format

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The APA format is a set of citation and formatting guidelines developed by the American Psychological Association, or APA. These guidelines are documented in the "Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association" and are used by students and professionals in a variety of disciplines, including business, economics, nursing, and, of course, psychology. 

The publication manual provides writers with a consistent formula for acknowledging the works of others. It also provides fairly comprehensive guidelines for how to order, structure, and format a paper, as well as practical writing and grammar tips.

If you’ve never written an APA paper before, the formatting rules and guidelines can seem daunting and difficult at first. You might be used to writing papers in another format such as MLA or Chicago style, so it might take some time to get the hang of writing in APA format. Familiarizing yourself with some of the basics is a great place to start.

APA Format Guidelines

Although your instructor, institution, or publisher may have other specific formatting requirements for you to follow, there are some general guidelines you should know. These include:

  • Paper size: Use standard, white, 8.5 x 11–inch paper.
  • Margins: Set page margins to 1-inch on all sides.
  • Line spacing: Type and double-space your paper. Do not add extra space before or after paragraphs.
  • Font: A variety of accessible fonts are allowed. Acceptable choices include sans serif fonts (such as 11-point Calibri and 11-point Arial) and serif fonts (such as 12-point Times New Roman).
  • Page header: The page header appears within the top margin of every page of the paper. For student papers, the page header only consists of the page number, which is located in the top right corner of each page. Professional paper headers consist of the page number and running head (top left corner).

The seventh edition of the APA publication manual was published in October of 2019. In addition to following any specific requirements of a publisher or instructor, you should always consult the latest edition of the publication manual if you have any questions about formatting or style.

Sections of an APA Format Paper

The exact structure of your paper will vary somewhat depending upon the type of paper you have been asked to write. For example, a lab report might be structured a bit differently than a case study or critique paper. Sometimes submitting a manuscript for publication in a journal can be even more complex because each study type and journal has its own format you must adhere to.

But no matter what type of APA paper you are writing, you should include four key sections: a title page, an abstract, the main body of the paper, and a reference section.

Title Page

The title page is the cover page of your APA format paper. As its name suggests, the goal of the title page is to present the title. This is where you can inform and engage your reader without being too wordy.

The title page should include the following components:

  • Title of the paper
  • Names of all authors
  • Institutional affiliations
  • Author's note and running head (for professional papers only)
  • Course number and name, instructor name, and assignment due date (for student papers only)


The abstract is a brief (around 150 to 250 words) but comprehensive summary of your paper. This summary helps your reader decide whether it is worth their time to read the rest of the paper.

An APA abstract is found on its own page, directly after the title page. It usually includes the following major aspects of your paper:

  • The overall purpose of your paper
  • Clearly stated hypotheses
  • Information regarding the method and participants
  • Main findings
  • Conclusions
  • Implications/significance of your findings

Most professional papers that are submitted for publication require an abstract, but abstracts are usually not required for student papers. If you are not sure, please ask your instructor if an abstract is required for your paper. 


The exact format of this section can vary depending upon the type of paper you are writing. For example, if you are writing a lab report, the main body will include an introduction, a method section, a results section, and a discussion section.

Check with your instructor or publication guidelines for more specific information on what to include in the main body of your APA paper.


The reference section is where you provide detailed information about all the references you used throughout your paper. This section should begin on a new page, with the word “References” centered at the very top of the page.

  • The first line of each reference should be flush left, with additional lines of the reference indented.
  • All references should be double-spaced.
  • All references should be listed alphabetically by the last name of the first author.
  • Any books or materials written by the same author(s) should be listed in chronological order from oldest to most recent
  • Use whatever capitalization and punctuation is used by the source, even if not "standard."
  • Book titles and journal titles should be italicized.

According to the "Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association," if there is a citation in the body of the paper, it must also appear in the reference list and vice versa.


While writing an APA paper may seem difficult or confusing, start by breaking it down into more manageable steps.

  • Preparation: Begin by doing your research. As you begin researching your topic, creating an outline and a working bibliography can help you structure your paper and keep track of all of the references you use.
  • Abstract: It may be tempting to start by writing your abstract because it is short and appears in the first section of your paper. However, it should be written last so that it accurately summarizes the paper. Only write the abstract section of your paper after you are completely finished writing your paper.
  • Body: As a general rule, use the past tense (e.g., "was," "stated") or past perfect or present perfect tense (e.g., "had been," "have shown") throughout an empirical research paper. Also, do not use contractions (e.g., “it does not follow” rather than “it doesn’t follow”).
  • References: Be sure to keep a careful record of all your references. Using a citation tool is a great way to manage, organize, and correctly cite your references.
  • Edit: Review your finished APA paper to ensure that your language, citations, and formatting are correct.

If you need additional help with APA format, consider purchasing your own copy of the APA publication manual.

APA format has changed over the years, so there are different iterations found in earlier editions of the official publication manual. While online sites can offer helpful tips, always consult the most recent version of the publication manual if you have questions.


The APA also offers accessibility guidelines for students who need accommodations for a disability. This includes changes to aspects of a paper including typography, headings, URLs, and the use of color.

A Word From Verywell

Writing your first APA format paper can be a little intimidating, but learning some of the basic rules of APA style can help. Always remember, however, to consult the directions provided by your instructor or publication.

2 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Appelbaum M, Cooper H, Kline RB, Mayo-Wilson E, Nezu AM, Rao SM. Journal article reporting standards for quantitative research in psychology: The APA Publications and Communications Board task force report. Am Psychol. 2018;73(1):3-25. doi:10.1037/amp0000191

  2. American Psychological Association. Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association. 7th ed. American Psychological Association; 2019.

By Kendra Cherry
Kendra Cherry, MS, is an author and educational consultant focused on helping students learn about psychology.