Why I hate (love), no hate (no love!) APA Style

I created the above “quiz” so to speak in hopes of getting to pose it in a workshop I was planning. What is APA format to you? The question asked.

  1. Does knowing APA make one a good writer?
  2. Does knowing APA prevent plagiarism?
  3. Does knowing APA make papers pretty?

Do you know the answer?

The quiz came about in a moment of frustration that had been building for years.  Comments from my colleagues saying, I’m grading papers and the APA is so bad. 

With further questioning I would always find out that what they really meant was the grammar was bad. Or the citations were all in the wrong spots. Or they weren’t critically analyzing their subject matter.  But somehow, all of this was the fault of APA or worse yet, as one person said to me, somehow this was all the fault of the fact our students were using a summarized manual describing APA and not the full Publication Manual.

So in other words. It was my fault.

Yes, we don’t make our students buy the whole publication manual.  There are a couple reasons for this, the main one being, if we required them to buy it, most of them probably wouldn’t anyway and what a disaster that would be.  So for the last 10 years, I’ve been writing, editing and revising (repeat x5) a summary manual that is about 50 pages long that pulls out the best of the best of APA, leaving out the mind numbing statistical stuff and publication specific details, and obscure document references, none of which are needed by undergraduate students in their papers (and if they do, I am happy to receive an email and help).

But I was getting the sense that somehow our faculty were putting APA on some kind of pedestal it didn’t deserve to be on.  When I first became the writing instructor in 2005, it started out as teaching them APA. I very quickly discovered that with a few tips and formulas, and a user friendly guide that boiled APA down to its essence, APA could teach itself. What they really needed was someone to teach them writing.

So let’s answer my questions above:

  1. Does knowing APA make one a good writer? 

Probably not. There are whole chapters in the Publication Manual dedicated to helping a writer put together a structured paper describing a research study, something well beyond the purview of what an undergrad needs in her tool kit. It’s written in such a way to suggest they think you should already know how to write. There are some grammar sections that clarify some tricky issues like pronoun usage, capitalization, and hyphenation (as APA sees it) — keeping in mind that most grammar rules are things that grammarians in the days of yore just decided to make up to better mimic Latin and call it a day. But the Publication Manual doesn’t teach you grammar from scratch. It is there as a reminder of what somewhere, deep down, you already know. It isn’t a magical cure-all for your student’s writing problems. It won’t teach you critical analysis, argument, creativity, vocabulary, proper transitions, thesis statements, or how to do the best lit search possible either. Those you need to learn elsewhere.

2.  Does knowing APA prevent plagiarism? 

Good God no.  One year, back when I was a neophyte writing teacher, I believed that if students demonstrated mastery on an APA marking guide (defined as receiving at least 20/25) that we could rubber stamp them as having learned the skill of APA. We made them correct their APA till they demonstrated proficiency, handing their papers back to their graders until they achieved mastery.  It was a phenomenally labour intensive process, stressing out numerous graders, me, the students, and our academic coordinator. Many students never achieved mastery. So I decided to collect a little data. In the next term I tracked those students who’s academic integrity was called into question on their second academic paper (there were about a dozen of them). Probably 90% of the students who were called in for insufficient citation had achieved mastery the previous term. Most of them, on the first try. There was no correlation.

The Publication Manual tells you what plagiarism is and that you need to “give credit where credit is due” (p. 15). It gives a process for how to consistently cite the work of others (author(s) last name(s) comma year of publication) and tells you how to use quotation marks and page numbers when you use the exact words of others.  But none of these tips will prevent plagiarism.  It does not tell you when, where, or how often a writer needs to cite in a paper.  It vaguely tells you:

Cite the work of those individuals whose ideas, theories, or research have directly influenced your work. They may provide key background information, support or dispute your thesis, or offer critical definitions and data. Citation of an article implies that you have personally read the cited work. In addition to crediting the ideas of others that you used to build your thesis, provide documentation for all the facts and figures that are not common knowledge. (p. 169)

Then it gives an example. It also doesn’t tell you how to track all those sources you read so you can remember which source you need to cite for what piece of knowledge. It also does not define common knowledge and common knowledge is not what many undergraduate students think it is:  Common knowledge is everything I know already.

No. It is not. That is the knowledge effect at work.

It does not discuss the grey areas present in establishing plagiarism, e.g., how many words in a row is a writer allowed to take from another source? How many citations should be in a paragraph? What if the paragraph was paraphrased from a single source?

Well. It depends.

3. Does knowing APA make papers pretty?

Since we’ve already ruled out the previous two options, that leaves only one correct answer.  I had an epiphany recently while watching a tutorial on how to write statistical findings in APA format — since I don’t teach it to undergrads, this is a part of APA I do not know.  The President of APA was on the video helping with the the tutorial questions. Someone asked (and I paraphrase), “If I choose to ignore the rules of APA format when I submit to a journal, will my paper be automatically rejected.”  Her answer was, that depends on the reviewers and the editor…. But I don’t know why you would want to potentially put yourself out of the running for cosmetic reasons.

APA is about pretty. It is about putting together a readable manuscript that is free of distracting inconsistencies. Being a lover of consistency, I love it for that reason. And it really is easy (but perhaps a little annoying) to master if you can dial up that detail oriented part of yourself and follow patterns. But there are a lot of portions of APA that I feel are a useless waste of time and I would toss out the window if I didn’t feel there would be at least one lone purist who would prevent me from doing that. And the frustrations of working with instructors who think it is some magical recipe to make all student writing turn into A+, plagiarism-free work, has had me popping the cork on many bottles of wine over the years.

There are only two things that will make a student’s written work improve: A student who cares about what they are writing about and an instructor who is willing to support them in their work.  Yes you, dear instructor. If you have an academic paper in your course, I wave my magic wand.

You are now a writing instructor.




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