Midterm Madness: A Primer on How to Format Your APA Academic Paper

by Lesley-Anne Longo

Published at 2019-11-20

November has rolled around again, which can only mean one thing (for students, anyway): midterms and papers are coming up and will be due before the winter break!


We’ve had a flurry of formatting projects at TEC in the last few weeks, and a few of them have involved formatting academic papers. Writing the paper is hard enough, but when it comes to proper formatting, depending on the assigned style guide, things can really get confusing.


This week, we’re presenting you with an APA formatting primer. I’ll be entirely referencing APA’s Publication Manual, 7th edition (newly released!), as it features some new information on formatting not included in the 6th edition. Please refer to the manual if you have a question that this primer hasn’t answered! It’s an invaluable resource for anyone doing academic writing (or editing).



Required Formatting Elements


There are some common elements that are often included in academic papers, including title pages, acknowledgements, abstracts, body text, footnotes, appendices, references, and lists of tables, figures, and illustrations.


The tricky part here is that, yes, APA does have a set order for how these elements should appear in your paper, but many universities also have their own way of ordering things. So, which do you use? If your university has a more detailed outline for how to format your paper, I would advise going with those requirements. And well, if you’re truly confused, I would suggest speaking to your advisor for clarification, especially if you have elements that may not be included in APA’s list, such as acknowledgements.


For proper APA formatting, the elements should appear in the order that follows:


Title page









APA notes that footnotes can appear in the footer of the page on which they appear, or on a separate page (as listed above). Tables and figures can be embedded in the text, or displayed on a separate page following the footnotes (or references, if there are no footnotes).



Basic Formatting Rules

Page Numbers + Header

Always include page numbers! Put them flush right in the header of every page. Use your word processing program’s automatic numbering function, APA advises against manually typing in numbers. The title page is considered page 1.


If you are submitting for publication, include a running head in the page header as well. The running head should be flush left, no more than 50 characters, and should convey the idea of the paper in shortened form. The running head should also be entirely in capital letters (and do not include the label of “Running head”).



It’s always a good idea to use a font that is accessible to all users, so please don’t pick something ultra-specific that most people wouldn’t have on their computers. APA allows for either serif or sans-serif. For sans-serif, APA recommends 11-point Calibri or Arial, or 10-point Lucida Sans Unicode. For serif, it prefers 12-point Times New Roman (a classic), 11-point Georgia, or 10-point Computer Modern.


Remember: function over form is king here. Accessibility and easy legibility are the most important factors over style. These fonts offer you everything you need, including special characters for math and Greek lettering.


With figure images, use a sans-serif font between 8 and 10 points. Computer code should appear in a monospace font (a font whose letters and characters each occupy the same amount of horizontal space), sized to 10 points. For footnotes, the default settings for your word processing program are fine (this is usually 10 points, single-line spacing).


Line Spacing

Double space the entire paper, except for:


Footnotes: should be single-spaced.


Displayed equations: can use triple- or even quadruple-spacing in special circumstances, such as before or after a displayed equation.


Table body and figure image: Table cells may be single-spaced, as well as words within a figure. Use the format that creates the most effective presentation. Insert a double-spaced line between body text and a table or figure.


Title page: Elements of the title page are double-spaced, and an additional double-spaced blank line should appear between the title and byline. At least one double-spaced line should also appear between final affiliation and any author note.



Use a 1-inch margin on all sides (top, bottom, left, and right). This is the default in most word processing programs. 



Align your paragraph text to the left and do not use the justify setting — leave the edges on the right margin “ragged.” Also avoid manually inserting word breaks, and turn off hyphenation. Do not add line breaks to long URLs, but automatic breaks inserted by your word processing program are okay.


Indent the first line of every paragraph half an inch. You can do this using the tab key or an automatic style in your program. Exceptions to this indentation rule include title page information, section labels, the first line of the abstract (should be flush left), block quotations, level 1 headings (centred), table and figure numbers, reference entries (should have a hanging indent of half an inch), and appendix labels/titles.



The great thing we noticed right off the bat about APA’s 7th edition is that it now includes directives for formatting headings up to level 5 (saving us many future headaches). These rules are as follows:


Level 1: Centered, Bold, Title Case

Level 2: Flush Left, Bold, Title Case

Level 3: Flush Left, Bold Italic, Title Case

Level 4: Indented, Bold, Title Case, Ends With a Period. Then the text is run in like this...

Level 5: Indented, Bold Italic, Title Case, Ends With a Period. Then the text is run in like this...


Note that all subhead levels are in upper and lower case, known as the “Title Case.” So titles always look like this: Always Keep Your Subheads in Upper and Lower Case.



Title Page


The title page has a good number of rules for how the information on it should be presented. APA has 5.5 pages of formatting outlines dedicated just to the information included on the title page, but here are the main rules of presentation.


Student title pages include:


Title of the paper

Name of each author

Affiliation for each author (typically the university being attended)

Course number and name for which the paper is being submitted

Instructor name (check with them for the preferred form)

Assignment due date, written in the month, date, year format used in your country (for example, November 20, 2019 in Canada)

Page number


The order is slightly different for what APA terms “professional papers,” so be sure to refer to the guide if that applies to you.




Title: The paper title should be in title case, bold, centred, and positioned in the upper half of the page (for example, three of four lines down from the top margin). The title can be moved up to accommodate a longer author note if necessary.


Byline (Author name): Omit all professional titles (e.g., Dr., PhD, MD, etc.). Write the byline under the paper title, with one blank double-spaced line between the two. If you are the only author, your name is centred and in standard font.


If multiple authors, list according to contribution, and write all on the same line, centred, and in standard font. For two authors, separate with “and.” For three or more authors, separate with commas and include “and” before the final author’s name. Separate suffixes (e.g., Jr.) from the rest of the name with a space, not a comma.


Affiliation: Depends on the number of authors, and whether the authors have different affiliations. Begin the affiliations on a new line after the byline Place different affiliations on their own lines, and do not add blank lines between them or between the byline and first affiliation. I would really recommend referring to the APA manual (section 2.6) for the final details on this item.


Author Note: This note provides additional information about the authors, study registration, data sharing, disclaimers, or additional statements — for example, for conflict of interest or help/funding of research. The author note should appear as a separate paragraph. Again, there are many details listed for APA here, so if this applies to you, I would recommend referring directly to section 2.7.


Additional Front Matter

Abstract: Should be typically no more than 250 words, or the limit the publication or university has set. Abstracts can appear in paragraph form, written as a single paragraph without indentation of the first line.


Keywords: Write the label “Keywords:” in italics one line below the Abstract, indented half an inch, followed by the keywords in lowercase (other than proper nouns, of course), separated by commas. Do not use a period after the last word. If you need a second line, do not indent it. Please note that keywords are not required for student papers unless requested by the instructor or institution. Most papers would require three to five keywords.


Once the front matter is complete, start the body text of your paper on a new page following the title page (and abstract, if applicable). On the first line of the first page of text, write the paper title in title case, bolded, and centred.


Reference List


The reference list is a whole other animal that I don’t think we want to get into here! So I am going to direct you to our handy how-to manual, “A Guide to Preparing References for a Bibliography or Reference List.”


Of course, you can always refer to the APA manual itself as well for even more details.


Good Luck!


I hope this blog has proved useful to you in this busy time of preparing papers, studying for midterms, and trying to find a spare few hours to sleep! Good luck, and remember, you can always contact The Editing Company team if you need help.


Additional TEC Resources 


Web Citations: Headache Extraordinaire?

3 Essentials for a Great Thesis or Dissertation

A Little Bit of Editing, A Little Bit of Proofreading, A Little Bit of Formatting: The Final Steps in Polishing Your Dissertation