It all started with comic books. I was a voracious reader of Marvel and DC comics. In addition to brightly colored, spandex-clad heroes with incredible powers, they introduced me to another concept which has proved indispensable to my life: citing sources.

They didn’t use APA Style, or its well-known alternatives, MLA or Chicago Style. But they did connect what was happening in the story to what had gone before through footnotes. In the heat of a battle with super-villains, for instance, The Flash might refer to his good friend, Green Lantern, as “Hal.” There would be a footnote at the bottom of the panel that read, “Editor’s Note: Green Lantern’s real name is Hal Jordan.” It all seemed so official, so secretive, to be given information not shared with other characters in their world.

A more common example occurred when characters mentioned something which happened in a past story. When The Avengers faced their time-travelling enemy, Kang, in issue #129 of their series, a footnote informed the reader of all of Kang’s previous appearances, going back to issue #8.

Footnotes connected me to the larger world beyond the immediate story. The heroes’ world took on more depth and scope by showing how the current tale connected to previous events. In a subtle but significant way, they broadened my appreciation of the literature known as comic books.

For college students, this is exactly what APA Style can do!

What Is APA Style?

APA Style is a series of formatting guidelines developed by the American Psychological Association and widely accepted as the standard for colleges and universities, many businesses, and the sciences. APA Style shows how your paper should look on the page.

Why does this matter? Because every piece of writing has a style, whether the writer knows it or not. Choice of font, size of font, where your name appears on the paper, how wide the margins are, where the page numbers go … writers often take these details for granted, but readers do not. Your style forms an impression of you as a writer. A sloppy or inconsistent style makes you look sloppy or inconsistent. Readers may not trust your ideas, if they even give your paper more than a glance.

APA standardizes style so you and your readers can focus on bigger and better things, such as what you want to say, why it matters, and who should pay attention. This is what writing is really about: having something to say and saying it to someone who can benefit from your ideas. APA Style makes your work look professional and shows you mean business.

Citing and Documenting Sources

When people think of APA Style, they tend to think of citing and documenting sources. This is also where students often encounter the most difficulty. APA is very precise about what should be cited in the body of your paper and what should go on a separate References page at the end. The basic idea, however, is the same as in my comic book example: connecting your work to a larger body of literature. Using sources shows how your ideas build upon the ideas of previous writers and why your claims merit consideration — because they are supported by credible experts in your field. APA Style makes it easy for the reader to draw these connections.

While there are many online guides to APA Style, and most GU courses include a convenient APA guide, here is a (very) brief tutorial:

Let’s suppose I’m writing a paper on military members transitioning to civilian life. I need sources, so I go to the EBSCOhost portal of databases used by GU, and find an article called “The Intentionality of Education,” which I think may be useful. The authors are Carol A. Berry and Eurydice S. Stanley. In my paper, I want to paraphrase something they wrote. Here is how I’d do it:

All service members will eventually face a transition to civilian life (Berry & Stanley, 2014).

Notice that I’ve included only the authors’ last names, separated by an ampersand, and year in parenthesis at the end of the sentence. If I were quoting them, I’d add the page number: (Berry & Stanley, 2014, p. 84).

But I’m not finished. The reader doesn’t have enough information to find this source, so I also need to list the full citation on my References page:

Berry, C.A, & Stanley, E.S. (2014). The intentionality of education. JFQ: Joint Force
     Quarterly
, (74), 84-90.

Now the reader knows exactly what to look for. I’ve included the authors’ names, the year of publication, the title of the article, the journal in which it was published, the issue number, and even the page numbers. Everything is in its proper order and formatted in a particular way. The parenthesis, for example, indicates that 74 is an issue number, not a volume number. (Many sources include both.) The standardized style makes it easy for the reader to find this information at a glance.

The above formats vary slightly depending on the kinds of source you are using. However, you can cite virtually anything in APA Style: a book, a newspaper article, a movie, a YouTube video, a song, and so on.

APA Made Easy (Well, Sort of)

Learning APA Style may seem like drudge work at first. But with practice you can train your eye to notice when something in your paper — the heading, the margins, the citations, or the References page — doesn’t look right. Don’t try to memorize APA Style. If you find yourself looking back and forth between your paper and the APA Guide and double-checking every little thing, this is good. The attention to detail will pay off in the long run, and you will be amazed how professional your paper looks.

Interested in more helpful tips on studying, writing papers or conquering your next English class … or maybe you just want to learn more about Greg Gildersleeve? Check out these other Grantham Blog posts:

Greg GildersleeveAbout Greg Gildersleeve

Greg Gildersleeve joined Grantham University as full-time English Teaching Faculty in 2013. He earned his bachelor’s degree in English from Missouri Western State University and his master’s degree in English from the University of Missouri-Kansas City. Greg published his first novel, The Power Club, in 2013, and a novella, False Alarm, in 2015. He maintains a blog for writers called The Semi-Great Gildersleeve.

For more information about Grantham’s graduation rates, the median debt of students who completed our programs, and other important information, please visit https://www.grantham.edu/student-support/gainful-employment-disclosures/.

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