To borrow a trite analogy, learning to use APA [or any documentation style, for that matter] is like learning to ride a bicycle. Once you understand the mechanics, including how to shift, balance, and stop, the rest is easy. The first step is to purchase, and actually read, an APA manual, either APA5 or APA6, depending on your university’s requirements. Granted, it is not a riveting work but essential. If the thought of reading a reference book causes chills to dance down your spine, it is likely time to seek professional help … not for your phobia but for editing your work.
Based on many years of editing dissertations, I can offer a few essential points that candidates frequently overlook. The top fifteen below may be helpful:
- All references in the text must have a comparable listing on the reference pages and vice versa. Each mention of an author’s name must have an identical spelling for each use.
- Et al. is Latin for ‘and others’; thus, it applies only to three or more authors of the same work. All authors [unless a number in excess of six] should be listed for the first in text citation; if the citation is for two or three authors, all names should appear in each citation.
- All direct quotes in text must have a page number (p.). Page numbers are not required on paraphrased material.
- If referring to the same author in closely connected sentences, it is not necessary to use the author’s date in subsequent citations.
- If websites have no author, begin the reference with the title of the material you retrieved and use that information as the in text citation.
- Listing databases [Ebsco, LexusNexus, etc.] as a source of retrieval is not required on the reference page. The website address is required.
- If you are using APA6, it is not necessary to use a retrieval date on websites.[Retrieved from http://xxxxxx]
- If you are using APA6, locate the doi number, if available, on periodicals. Add it at the end of the citation without a period. [doi: xxxxx]
- Eschew passive language but tread lightly. It is not enough to employ an active verb if the subject of the sentence is incapable of the implied action [anthropomorphism].
- If you are creating a proposal, refer to your work in future tense; if you are writing a completed dissertation, refer to your work in past tense.
- Normally, all references to previous studies are in past tense.
- In qualitative dissertations, you should avoid personal pronouns. Although it is sometimes necessary, to employ the rather stilted phrase, ‘the researcher,’ it is preferable to using I. Qualitative dissertations offer more leeway on author referents but ‘playing’ with sentence construction can help you avoid using either I or ‘the researcher’.
- Double check your Table of Contents not only to check correct page numbers but also to confirm identical wording as your text headings.
- Tables have labels at the top; figures have labels at the bottom.
- Let the computer work for you. If you are using Word, you can go to file and page setup to indicate consistent margins throughout your document. The paragraph tab under format can produce clean margin indentations and create a hanging indent for those pesky references. Under the insert tab, you can indicate page breaks, which rid your work of widowed headings and subheadings.
To keep your bicycle and your dissertation running smoothly may require additional maintenance. In the case of your dissertation, this means discovering whether your university committee or graduate school has exceptions to APA and tweaking your work accordingly. Normally, the exceptions relate to spacing and specific required headings within each chapter but, occasionally, there are exceptions to tense selection or other peculiarities.
This should provide a starting checklist for your work. But it’s no substitute for the manual. So if you’re a grad student or scholar, pick one up and enjoy it! Joke. It can be pretty dense reading, but that’s the name of the academic game.