APA Stylistics: Basics
APA (American Psychological Association) style is most commonly used to cite sources within the social sciences. This resource, revised according to the 6th edition, second printing of the APA manual, offers examples for the general format of APA research papers, in-text citations, endnotes/footnotes, and the reference page. For more information, please consult the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association, (6th ed., 2nd printing).
Contributors: Joshua M. Paiz, Elizabeth Angeli, Jodi Wagner, Elena Lawrick, Kristen Moore, Michael Anderson, Lars Soderlund, Allen Brizee, Russell Keck
Last Edited: 2015-09-10 01:04:41
Writing in APA is more than simply learning the formula for citations or following a certain page layout. APA also includes the stylistics of your writing, from point of view to word choice.
Point of View and Voice
When writing in APA Style, you can use the first person point of view when discussing your research steps ("I studied ...") and when referring to yourself and your co-authors ("We examined the literature ..."). Use first person to discuss research steps rather than anthropomorphising the work. For example, a study cannot "control" or "interpret"; you and your co-authors, however, can.
In general, you should foreground the research and not the researchers ("The results indicate ... "). Avoid using the editorial "we"; if you use "we" in your writing, be sure that "we" refers to you and your fellow researchers.
It is a common misconception that foregrounding the research requires using the passive voice ("Experiments have been conducted ..."). This is inaccurate. Rather, you would use pronouns in place of "experiments" ("We conducted experiments ...").
APA Style encourages using the active voice ("We interpreted the results ..."). The active voice is particularly important in experimental reports, where the subject performing the action should be clearly identified (e.g. "We interviewed ..." vs. "The participants responded ...").
Consult the OWL handout for more on the distinction between passive and active voice.
Clarity and Conciseness
Clarity and conciseness in writing are important when conveying research in APA Style. You don't want to misrepresent the details of a study or confuse your readers with wordiness or unnecessarily complex sentences.
For clarity, be specific rather than vague in descriptions and explanations. Unpack details accurately to provide adequate information to your readers so they can follow the development of your study.
Example: "It was predicted that marital conflict would predict behavior problems in school-aged children."
To clarify this vague hypothesis, use parallel structure to outline specific ideas:
"The first hypothesis stated that marital conflict would predict behavior problems in school-aged children. The second hypothesis stated that the effect would be stronger for girls than for boys. The third hypothesis stated that older girls would be more affected by marital conflict than younger girls."
To be more concise, particularly in introductory material or abstracts, you should pare out unnecessary words and condense information when you can (see the OWL handout on Conciseness in academic writing for suggestions).
Example: The above list of hypotheses might be rephrased concisely as: "The authors wanted to investigate whether marital conflict would predict behavior problems in children and they wanted to know if the effect was greater for girls than for boys, particularly when they examined two different age groups of girls."
Balancing the need for clarity, which can require unpacking information, and the need for conciseness, which requires condensing information, is a challenge. Study published articles and reports in your field for examples of how to achieve this balance.
You should even be careful in selecting certain words or terms. Within the social sciences, commonly used words take on different meanings and can have a significant effect on how your readers interpret your reported findings or claims. To increase clarity, avoid bias, and control how your readers will receive your information, you should make certain substitutions:
- Use terms like "participants" or "respondents" (rather than "subjects") to indicate how individuals were involved in your research
- Use terms like "children" or "community members" to provide more detail about who was participating in the study
- Use phrases like "The evidence suggests ..." or "Our study indicates ..." rather than referring to "proof" or "proves" because no single study can prove a theory or hypothesis
As with the other stylistic suggestions here, you should study the discourse of your field to see what terminology is most often used.
Avoiding Poetic Language
Writing papers in APA Style is unlike writing in more creative or literary styles that draw on poetic expressions and figurative language. Such linguistic devices can detract from conveying your information clearly and may come across to readers as forced when it is inappropriately used to explain an issue or your findings.
Therefore, you should:
- minimize the amount of figurative language used in an APA paper, such as metaphors and analogies unless they are helpful in conveying a complex idea
- avoid rhyming schemes, alliteration, or other poetic devices typically found in verse
- use simple, descriptive adjectives and plain language that does not risk confusing your meaning
by Chelsea Lee
Any sleep-deprived student knows those papers don’t write themselves. A living, breathing, person must produce the words on the page, and in certain contexts, you have to acknowledge that fact in the text itself. Let’s go through several cases of how to write about yourself in an APA Style paper.
General Use of I or We
It is totally acceptable to write in the first person in an APA Style paper. If you did something, say, “I did it”—there’s no reason to hide your own agency by saying “the author [meaning you] did X” or to convolute things by using the passive “X was done [meaning done by you].” If you’re writing a paper alone, use I as your pronoun. If you have coauthors, use we.
However, avoid using we to refer to broader sets of people—researchers, students, psychologists, Americans, people in general, or even all of humanity—without specifying who you mean (a practice called using the editorial “we”). This can introduce ambiguity into your writing.
For example, if you are writing about the history of attachment theory, write “Researchers have studied attachment since the 1970s” rather than “We have studied attachment since the 1970s.” The latter may allow the reader to erroneously believe that you have personally studied attachment for the last 40 years (which may be difficult for those dear readers under 40).
If you want to refer to yourself as well as a broader group, specify to whom we refers. Write “As young adults in college, we are tasked with learning to live independent lives” not “We are tasked with learning to live independent lives.” By stating that we refers here to young adults in college, readers understand the context (which could otherwise be any number of groups tasked with the same, such as individuals with developmental disabilities or infants).
Use of I or We in Personal Response or Reaction Papers
A common assignment in psychology classes is the personal response or reaction paper. The specifications of these assignments vary, but what they all have in common is that you are supposed to critique and/or give your personal thoughts about something you have read. This necessitates using the first person. In the professional psychology world, a similar type of paper exists, and it is called a Comment or a Reply.
The excerpt below illustrates how the first person should be used to express personal opinions. Here, South and DeYoung (2013), the authors, respond to papers by Hopwood (2013) and Skodol and Krueger (2013).
|Research seems to be converging on a trait-dimensional system that can capture the majority of personality pathology, and this phenotypic work is supported by extant behavior genetic findings. We must ask, though, whether the ability to capture all multivariate personality pathology space with one structural model is sufficient for capturing disordered personality. Hopwood (2013) rightly pointed out that there is something unique about a personality disorder (PD) above and beyond traits, but in the DSM–5 (American Psychiatric Association, 2011) proposal the only difference between describing someone with a constellation of pathological traits and a PD “type” is the Criterion A requirement of impairment in self and interpersonal functioning. Skodol and Krueger (2013), partly in jest, suggested that PDs could conceivably be diagnosed on Axis I. We get the joke but worry that in an attempt to ameliorate the problems with the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (4th ed., text rev.; DSM–IV–TR; American Psychiatric Association, 2000) PDs a new system risks losing the forest (PD) for the trees (traits).|
Notice how the authors state their opinions and reactions: They use plain, straightforward language. If you are tasked with writing a personal response paper, you can do the same. The authors have also used the pronoun we because there are two of them; if a single author had written this passage, she or he would have used the pronoun I.
It’s less hard than you might think to write about yourself in APA Style. Own your opinions by using the appropriate pronouns. If you have further questions about this topic, please leave a comment.
|South, S. C., & DeYoung, N. J. (2013). The remaining road to classifying personality pathology in the DSM–5: What behavior genetics can add. Personality Disorders: Theory, Research, and Treatment, 4, 291–292. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/per0000005|