Journal Logo


Learning the basics of APA Style

Williams, Bridgette C. MSN, MAMS, RN

Author Information
doi: 10.1097/01.NURSE.0000471425.39452.07
  • Free

THE AMERICAN Psychological Association (APA) is a professional organization centered in the behavioral sciences.1APA Style describes the structure of a formal academic paper according to a set standard.2 Because many professional and scientific publications adhere to APA Style, nurses writing for publication should be familiar with it. This article provides key points about APA Style to help nurse authors understand how to apply it. (Note: Nursing2015 uses a modified version of American Medical Association Style, an alternative system that's beyond the scope of this article.)

Publishing in style

Style can be defined as accepted prose, grammar, structure, and spelling rules for communicating written ideas.1 APA Style, which dates back to the late 1920s,3 were guidelines that evolved into the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association (Publication Manual), a reference book that informs authors of the accepted conventions of constructing a paper for publication in a scholarly medium.4 The current edition, the sixth, was published in 2010.2 The reader is encouraged to review the current edition of the Publication Manual for more details about structuring scholarly academic articles for the nursing profession.

The Publication Manual discusses in detail the process of writing a formal academic paper using APA Style.1,2,5 Let's start with organization.

Parts of an article

Structuring an article in APA Style is a systematic process that starts with a title page, which features the article's title, the writer's name and affiliation, a running head, and a page number. A running head is a brief version of the title at the top of each page. This abbreviated title should be less than 50 characters and typed in uppercase letters without italics.2

The second page features the abstract, a 150- to 250-word summary of the article; don't indent this paragraph. At the top of the abstract, place Abstract as a header (uppercase A followed by lowercase letters without italics).

Start the third page by repeating the article title, followed by the introduction. The following pages contain the body of the article; each page contains about 300 words when using the required font and point size.

The References page follows the end of the content pages. Place any tables, figures, or appendices after the references page.

Cite it right

How to cite a source within a paper and in a reference list is described in detail in the Publication Manual. APA Style uses the author-year citation convention to give credit to the sources for ideas discussed within a scholarly paper. For example, citations such as Smith (2012) can appear within a sentence or at the end of the sentence such as (Jones, 2014).

The reference list provides information about the sources cited in the paper to facilitate retrieval of each source.2 List the references alphabetically by author name following APA format. For multiple sources with the same author and the same year, alphabetize by book or article title and add a, b, and so forth after the date in the call-out and in the reference list such as (Doe, 2015a). References to books include the publisher's location followed by a colon and the name of the publisher. If the publisher is the author, the publisher is listed as the author and where the publisher's name would usually go, the word Author is substituted. For examples, see Sample reference list in APA Style.

The advent of the digital information age has introduced new avenues to publish outside of the traditional hardcopy. Sources that have been published electronically are usually located on the World Wide Web using a uniform resource locator (URL), commonly known as a website address with a protocol (http), a host name (, and a path to the document (manual). Using this example, you can find the APA Publication Manual at

Sometimes URLs are moved or deleted, making content impossible to find on the Internet. This has led to the digital object identifier (DOI) system. A source that's been published for retrieval by electronic means is assigned a specific set of numbers and letters, which begin with 10 and contain a slash. It's placed on the first page of the published document. Include the DOI in the citation for any source that features a DOI.

APA Style tips

The Publication Manual emphasizes communicating written ideas that are clear, concise, and consistent. Here are a few important tips and guidelines.

  • Organization and clarity. APA Style is predicated on scientific prose and expository writing, or writing that describes concepts.2,6 For clarity, ideas must be presented in a logical order without extraneous language. Chapters three and four of the Publication Manual review rules for conveying written ideas using APA Style.
  • Agreement. Certain rules, such as “the subject must agree with the verb,” are straightforward; a singular subject requires a singular verb. Things get a little trickier when using English words that come from Latin or Greek. For example, datum is the singular form of the word data. In these cases, be careful to make the subject and verb agree. This is correct usage: The data support the theory of natural selection.2
  • Adverbs. Adverbs modify verbs, adjectives, or other adverbs and usually end in –ly. According to APA Style, adverbs can also be used to introduce, transition, or convey an impression of luck or similarity of a thought being discussed. For example: Conversely, the results of the trial were inconclusive.
  • Punctuation. Writers use punctuation to inform the reader of a recess or break within a point of discussion. Use a colon to list, emphasize, or introduce a point discussed in a sentence; for example, Nursing hasseveral pathways for entering practice: the diploma, associate's degree, and bachelor's of science degree. Commas separate points within a sentence. A semicolon can be used to unite two related ideas.For example, Skilled nursing is more than bedside patient care; it includes care for the patient's family.
  • The placement of punctuation marks with quoted words depends on the context. Use double quotation marks to quote verbatim from a source. For words that are quoted within a quoted phrase, use single quotation marks within double quotation marks. For example: “The nurse educator reminded the nursing student: ‘pain is the fifth vital sign.’” Quotation marks used to write conversational dialogue follow specific APA Style rules described in the Publication Manual.
  • Voice. Whenever possible, use active voice, which tells the reader who's doing what. For example, write The nurse administered the medication to the patient rather than The medication was administered to the patient. According to APA Style, use the passive voice in the methods section of a research article to describe how the study was conducted.
  • Relative pronouns. Use “who” when referring to people; use “that” or “which” for things. According to APA Style, use “that” for a restrictive clause and “which” for a nonrestrictive clause. For instance, The book that is on the shelf has the correct data. This says exactly what book is being discussed—the one on the shelf, not a book that's elsewhere. Now consider this sentence: The large red book, which is on the shelf, has the correct data. The phrase introduced by “which” is merely extra information that isn't critical to the meaning of the sentence.
  • Numbers. Use numerals for numbers 10 and above. Spell out numbers from zero to nine.
  • Abbreviations. Spell out a word to be abbreviated when it's first mentioned, followed by the abbreviation in parentheses; for instance, The patient was able to perform activities of daily living (ADLs). Then use the abbreviation consistently after that.

Although the APA Publication Manual has evolved over 60 years, the guidelines for developing a scholarly paper using APA Style generally have remained the same. By using the Publication Manual while writing articles or research papers, nurses can quickly become proficient in APA Style.

Sample reference list in APA Style

Sample books

American Psychological Association. (2010a). Mastering APA Style: Instructor's resource guide (6th ed.). Washington, DC: Author.

American Psychological Association. (2010b). Publication manual of the American Psychological Association (6th ed.). Washington, DC: Author.

Sample journal article

Bentley, M., Peerenboom, C. A., Hodge, F. W., Passano, E. B., Warren, H. C., & Washburn, M. F. (1929). Instructions in regard to preparation of manuscript. Psychological Bulletin, 26, 57-63. doi:10.1037/h0071487


1. American Psychological Association. Mastering APA Style: Instructor's Resource Guide. 6th ed. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association; 2010.
2. American Psychological Association. Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association. 6th ed. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association; 2010.
3. Bentley M, Peerenboom CA, Hodge FW, Passano EB, Warren HC, Washburn MF. Instructions in regard to preparation of manuscript. Psychol Bull. 1929;26(2):57–63.
4. Anderson JE, Valentine WL. The preparation of articles for publication in the journals of the American Psychological Association. Psychol Bull. 1944;41(6):345–376.
5. American Psychological Association. Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association. 5th ed. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association; 2001.
6. U.S. Department of Education. Thesaurus Descriptors: Expository Writing. ERIC. 1968.
Copyright © 2015 Wolters Kluwer Health, Inc. All rights reserved.