Tips for Getting the Most out of the APA Publication Manual

APA Manual with Tape Flags

APA Manual with Tape Flags (c) Cathy J. Thompson

In my nursing programs, all formal papers had to be written using the American Psychological Association (APA) Style Guidelines.  So I learned APA style, as required. I really learned it. 

Other than revisions for a new edition, once I learned APA, I didn’t have to learn it again — I was able to use this knowledge over and over again, for school papers, for my thesis and dissertation, and for manuscripts submitted for publication. Knowing APA basics was a major time saver for me!

The point of a style guide is to establish standards for scholarly writing or “style rules … to increase the ease of reading comprehension” (APA, 2010, p. xiii). In addition to the reference citation sections, the APA manual provides a lot of excellent content on grammar and writing, in general. This post will explain why using a style guide is important and provide tips to show you how to get the most out of the APA publication manual.

Why is Using APA Style (or any Style Guide) Important?

Though there are multiple ways to cite and format papers, many schools and colleges of nursing (SON/CON) faculty have decided that formal papers required for nursing courses should follow APA format. APA is a common method of citation in nursing journals and textbooks, though you will see other methods used, also.

Once I started teaching, I found that even though students were required to buy the APA
manual, most of them did not; and so, formatting was inconsistent and sloppy, and important information was missing.

Why be so picky, you might ask?

Attention to detail for nurses is important; it says something about your character and work ethic, I think. Also, readers (e.g., faculty, editors) may judge your work based on your inattention to this type of detail. Inconsistent or sloppy APA casts doubt over how carefully you researched the paper or even how carefully you credited your sources for their ideas!

Also, it is really frustrating to read poorly formatted papers, as well as trying to find an article you would really like to use for your own learning or your own research when the citation is incorrect!

Most faculty will count off for incorrect APA format, grammatical or spelling errors, and the inability to adhere to principles of logical and clear writing. The percentage of your grade for these errors for any individual paper is usually small, but multiple reductions could affect your grade in the long run.

Like many faculty, I make APA corrections to student papers – and depending on the level of error (e.g., missing a space between initials), I may not take off for APA mistakes. However, if it is clear a student has not attempted to cite using APA or if I have taken the time to show a student how to format correctly and then find myself making the same corrections on subsequent papers – I am not happy and points will be deducted. 

The bottom line is that readers depend on a well-structured document and accurate citations.

To help address issues I was seeing with APA format, I developed a quick guide to accompany a free APA seminar I gave over the lunch hour for the students and interested faculty. I covered the most frequent questions about APA style and references for books, book chapters, and journal articles.  I conducted these “Lunch & Learn” seminars almost every semester for many years.

I revised the guide with each new APA edition and I made the APA guide and my Plagiarism handout required reading in every course I taught.

The 6th edition guide, with includes the Plagiarism handout, is available here for free!

Quick Tips to Help You Get to Know the APA Manual

I know that the APA Manual is not a sexy topic! But I thought it was important to encourage you to (a) Learn APA (or whatever style guide your institution requires), and (b) point you to a resource for writing that you might not realize you have!

So if you will be required to use APA format for your papers, I suggest you learn it now, so that it becomes rote and you don’t have to think about the mechanics every time you need to cite information! A little practice now will save you much time in the future. 

  • Become familiar with the APA Table of Contents and the actual content.  

Besides giving you the rules for in-text and reference citations, the APA manual covers common writing and grammar errors and provides writing tips, in general (i.e., Manuscript Structure and Content, chapter 2; Writing Clearly and Concisely, chapter 3). This is some of the most valuable information — at your fingertips — to improve your writing!

For journal manuscripts, the APA manual covers how to Display Results (chapter 5) and the Publication Process (chapter 8).

Ethics in writing and research is covered in the first chapter. And of course, The Mechanics of Style (chapter 4), Crediting Sources (chapter 6), and Reference Examples (chapter 7) are used by students and authors alike. 

I suggest the use of tape flags (that you’ve labeled) to mark frequently used information and will help you quickly locate items and save some time. (You can see my APA manual with tape flags in the picture above.)

  • With each new edition, be sure to read the Introduction! Sounds boring, I know, but this section is usually short and it will specifically point out changes from the old edition, thus making it much easier for you to identify what you need to unlearn or relearn!
  • Be cautious of websites proclaiming to show you how to write according to APA format rules – they are not always correct. That said, there are some good resources out there, especially from university sites (e.g., Purdue Online Writing Lab). The APA manual is available as a digital download too. 
  • There is software available for APA format — but even software is fallible so you still need to know APA to make sure your program is doing it right. I have seen, usually minor, mistakes in APA format in papers for which the students used purchased software or even the library’s search databases to format their references.
  • The APA website identifies changes to be aware of with every new edition, as well as periodically provides informational updates: Free tutorials are available, as is a blog and FAQ section. 

While you should buy the APA manual for all your style needs, you can use a reliable condensed guide for quick info about the most common citing, referencing, and quoting needs. You can download my APA eGuide (includes my Plagiarism eGuide too) here!

Other Commonly Used Style Guides

APA format is just one type of style guide used in academia and for professional manuscripts and textbooks. Because standards change with new technologies, always buy the most recent edition of the style guide or publication manual! Other style guides and writing manuals that you may be asked to follow include:

  • American Medical Association (AMA): AMA Manual of Style: A Guide for Authors and Editors. 
  • Chicago: The Chicago Manual of Style: The Essential Guide for Writers, Editors, and Publishers. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press. 
  • Turabian: A Manual for Writers of Research Papers, Theses, and Dissertations: Chicago Style for Students and Researchers by Kate L. Turabian. 
  • Modern Language Association (MLA): The MLA Style Manual and Guide to Scholarly Publishing by Joseph Gibaldi. The MLA Handbook is an updated edition.
Final Tip

If writing for publication, always check the editorial guidelines and/or information for authors for preferred citation styles and guidelines specific to that journal.

Students, always check with your instructor for specific style format guidelines to use for assignments in that particular class.  The instructor may modify the guidelines for their purposes, this includes modifications from the current edition or from published SON/CON modifications.

Hint!  The instructor is the one grading your paper — so DO WHAT THEY TELL YOU TO DO!


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