An Introduction to Academic Style Guides–APA, MLA, Chicago

What are academic style guides?

A style guide is an international standard of writing rules in English-language documents. It is a kind of “instruction manual” that provides a guide for writing, syntax, grammar, and document formatting, especially in specific academic disciplines. Style guides also include rules for formatting citations and references. By setting standards for authors to follow, style guides help ensure intradisciplinary and interdisciplinary cohesion and knowledge-sharing.

Authors submitting a journal manuscript must be aware of which style guide to follow. A style guide will instruct you how to format your paper, how to list your references and cite other literature, and in most cases how to handle abbreviations, spelling, and punctuation. Some academic journals use their own unique formatting and style requirements, and these can be found by visiting the “Guide for Authors” page on the journal’s website.

In this article, we introduce some frequently used style guides across disciplines to help you choose the right style guide for your academic work. We also provide some examples of citing and referencing using APA, MLA, and Chicago styles. Finally, we show you how professional proofreading and editing services can provide formatting for different style guides to prepare your work for publication.

Frequently Used Academic Styles

The most frequently used style guides in academic writing include the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association (APA), the Modern Language Association’s MLA Style Manual, and the Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS). You are likely to encounter at least one of these styles when doing academic research. Because these style guide manuals are quite lengthy (ranging in length from 300 to 1,000 pages), it can take some time to familiarize yourself with all their respective requirements. Style guides are also revised frequently, so be sure to check the most recent edition of the style manual you are following.

APA Format Rules

APA format is the official style of the American Psychological Association (APA) and is commonly used to cite sources in psychology, education, and most of the social sciences. Using APA style, researchers writing about the social sciences can communicate information in a consistent and recognizable format.

APA Style website
Purdue OWL – APA Style

APA Citation Generator

Major Sections of an APA Paper

  • Title Page
    The title page tells the reader what your paper is about and who wrote it. Your APA title page should contain a title, author name, and school affiliation. If writing for a class assignment, list the course number and name, the name of your instructor, and the due date of your work.
  • Abstract
    The abstract is a summary of your paper and immediately follows the title page. In APA format, the abstract should not exceed 200 words. Of course, this can vary depending upon the academic journal or other specific requirements.
  • Main Body
    The main body includes all the content in your paper except for the title page, abstract, references, and figures. If you are writing a lab report or reporting a study, your main body should be broken up into four sections: introduction, methods/materials, results, and discussion.
  • References
    The References section lists all cited sources in your paper. If you cite any literature or other external information in your text, it should be included here. References in APA style are listed in alphabetical order by authors’ last names. They are also listed on a separate page from the main body of the text. Visit the Purdue OWL website for further details of APA reference citation.
Sample page of an APA paper. Note that APA 7 no longer requires the words "RUNNING HEAD" in the header.

APA In-text Citations

When referencing other studies or works in your paper, use in-text citations to identify where you found the information. When citing in APA style, include the cited text’s author(s) and publication date.

APA Citation and Reference Example

Citation: (Brown, 2013)
Reference: Brown, E. (2013). Comedy and the feminine middlebrow novel. Pickering & Chatto.

Example of APA parenthetical citation for APA 7.

MLA Format Rules

MLA is the style recommended by the Modern Language Association (MLA) for preparing academic manuscripts and course research papers. It is the most frequently used style format in arts and humanities disciplines including English Studies, Foreign Languages and Literature, Literary Criticism, and Cultural Studies.

MLA Style Website
OWL Purdue—MLA Style

MLA Citation Generator

General MLA Formatting Guidelines

  • Double-space the text of your paper using a legible 12pt. Font.
  • Leave only one space after periods or other punctuation marks.
  • Margins should be set to 1 inch on all sides.
  • Indent the first line of each paragraph to one half-inch from the left margin. (Hint: Use the “tab” key instead of pushing the space bar five times.)
  • Create a header numbering all pages consecutively in the upper right-hand corner.
  • List endnotes and Works Cited information on separate pages.

Formatting the First Page of Your Paper

  • Do not include a separate title page unless specifically requested.
  • Include your name, instructor’s name, the course, and the date in the upper left-hand corner of the first page. Double-space this text.
  • Center the title—do not underline, italicize, or place your title in quotation marks.
  • Use quotation marks and/or italics when referring to other works in your title.
  • Double space between the title and the first line of text.
A properly formatted first page in MLA style.

MLA Section Headings

Section headings can be used to improve the readability of your paper, especially if the paper is long (over 5,000 words) and contains many sections and subsections. When writing an essay using MLA format, divide your work into sections by using an Arabic numeral and a period, followed by a space and the section name:

You can further divide subsections and subheadings by adding a decimal and numeral to indicate that this information belongs under a previous heading:

Note that the MLA Style Manual does not require any specific formatting type when it comes to headings. You may use numerals, letters, or no symbols at all. The most important thing is to apply formatting consistently throughout your document.

MLA References and In-Text Citations

As with any formatting style, the trickiest elements of MLA Style to master are the requirements for citing secondary sources. We recommend visiting the Purdue OWL’s MLA citation page for details about including in-text citations into the text of your paper as well as how to create a Works Cited (references) page at the end of your work. You can also view APA sample citations and references on this site.

Here is a basic checklist for citing sources in the text of an MLA paper:

  • Use parenthetical citations at the end of the sentence in which you reference the work (just before the period).
  • The source information required in a citation depends upon the source medium (e.g., web, print, digital device) and the source's entry on the Works Cited page.
  • List your source name (usually author or title) and the page number, if available. Do not add a comma between these elements.

MLA Citation and Reference Example

Citation: (Nordhaus 33)
Reference: Nordhaus, William D. "After Kyoto: Alternative Mechanisms to Control Global Warming." American Economic Review, vol. 96, no. 2, 2006, pp. 31-34.

Chicago Format Rules

The Chicago (of “Turabian”) style is generally used when citing sources for humanities papers. It covers topics from manuscript preparation and publication to grammar, usage, and documentation and is perhaps best known for requiring writers to place bibliographic citations at the bottom of a page or at the end of the paper. This style is primarily used as a guide for published works rather than class papers.

For detailed information about how Chicago Style is applied to most of these areas of a research paper, use the following resources:

Chicago Citation Generator

Referencing Literature in Chicago Style

The most important formatting distinction to understand for CMOS is the difference between the two documentation styles: the Author-Date System and the Notes-Bibliography (NB) System. The Author-Date System is most used by those working in the social sciences. Whereas those working in literature, history, and the arts should apply the NB System.

Although both systems convey the central information about each source, they differ both in the way they direct readers to these sources and in terms of their formatting (e.g., the position of dates in citation entries). For examples of how these citation styles are applied in research papers, see these sample papers:

Purdue OWL—CMOS Author Date Sample Paper
Purdue OWL—CMOS NB Sample Paper

Chicago Style Citation and Reference Example

Chicago Style citations and references.

Citation Style Comparison Chart

The Purdue OWL website is perhaps the best online resource out there for learning how to apply different formatting rules to your paper. If you have to use a variety of academic styles in your writing, use their handy citation comparison chart to keep all of these styles straight and ensure you don’t apply the wrong style to your work.

Parenthetical citations in three formatting styles.

Get Style Formatting for Your Research Paper

As you can see, within each of these style guides, there are many formatting details to learn and apply when composing a research paper. And because these styles are revised periodically, keeping up with the current guidelines can present a lot of extra work to research authors.

For this reason, most authors and academics prefer to let an editor review their document’s formatting and make any needed changes. Wordvice editors have subject expertise in the subject area of your work and can ensure that your manuscript’s formatting will be appropriate and accurate for your given journal. Although a citation generator can be a helpful tool during the planning and drafting process, human editing is a more effective option and is used by most researchers.

See more details about how Wordvice’s research paper editing services can help prepare your paper for publication in top journals.