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Academic Writing Styles: The 1 Expert Way to Do It Perfectly


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Academic writing is complex with complex ideas and often presented in hefty documents. It is therefore imperative that writers find a way to present the information in a way that does not confuse the reader and render the material useless. Some of these papers go on to contribute significantly to different disciplines from science to business and others. As a person who writes academic papers either for school or for professional reasons, it is your responsibility to apply an academic writing style that will offer clarity and a roadmap for readers to follow so that they are not lost in the maze of information.

In academic writing, how you present your information (technically) is often seen as important as the ideas you are putting forth. Proper citing, quoting and referencing of source material allows you to convey your breadth of research in a language commonly shared by others in your discipline. Giving others a chance to review and compare your work under these established guidelines enables your instructors to better see the work on its own merits, opposed to getting sidetracked by technical inefficiencies.

Academic writing styles are not suggestions, they are mandatory guidelines. You MUST follow the rules like every other student: this is not an area where you want to stand out for doing things your own way. Writing for any academic purpose carries with it certain expectations and formatting consistencies, and a failure to properly understand how or why you cite your sources in a specific way can have negative effects on your written projects and communications.


The Main Academic Writing Styles

APA, MLA and Chicago are the most commonly used academic writing styles. Some owe it to their simplicity while others simply prefer these three.

Chicago is the oldest of the three dating back to the early 1900s. It was a product of tireless work by the University of Chicago Press. These guidelines put forth in the Chicago Manual of Style, now in its 17th edition.  CMS style is predominantly seen in the humanities, particularly with literature students and those who study advanced segments of history and/or the arts. One of the most distinctive features of CMS is the use of notes (footnotes and endnotes).

The APA academic writing style was developed by the American Psychological Association as a simple and uniform way for researchers, scholars and students to format their papers. These are the official guidelines put forth by the American Psychological Association, now in its seventh edition. This is the preference of the social sciences, so if you are studying sociology, psychology, medicine, or social work you are going to know APA style.

Developed by members of language and literature studies, the MLA academic writing style is similar to APA with only a few minor differences like how the first page is formatted among others. The Modern Language Association provides guidelines you will be familiar with if you are focused on the Humanities: so artists, English majors, and theatre students will know MLA as they have used this style now for more than half a century.

While these formatting methods will share many characteristics such as margins and spacing, how they attribute references to source materials is the main differentiator.  For example, APA lists “references” while MLA calls the same thing “works cited” – a small but important distinction that might actually affect your grade.

Typically, you are going to use one style for most of your classes and communications, but there is certainly the possibility that you’ll need to know how to use any one of these three common styles. The good news is it is not hard to get up-to-speed on any one of them and use them properly.


Remain Abreast of New Editions

Academic writing styles

Be informed of the latest updates to academic writing style guidelines

The creators of these styles update them to remain aligned to the current world. For example, APA was developed in the 1920s while Chicago was developed before then. Back then there was no internet so these versions do not include guidelines on how to deal with online sources.

In this era, hard copies of books and journals are rarely ever used in research anymore with everything moving to portals and websites and databases. Therefore there has been a need to update the versions to include these changes in the world among others.

Regardless of which style you are using, it is imperative to get the most recent version of the guidelines to ensure your paper is as accurate as it can be. Each of the sources have updated their guidelines multiple times over the years, so working with the current standards is goal one.

APA and MLA are the most common styles to use, but CMS is not unheard of – just not as common for undergrads. CMS is commonly used in traditional book publishing and academic publishing situations, so if you are doing post-graduate writing, it is good to know. CMS is also often favored by law students and scholars as it makes it easier to quote things like case law and translate Latin words.

The main thing that seems to be changing in the rules for all of them is about the proper attribution of web-related sources, so you are going to want to re-check that you are working from the most recent versions of whichever style guide you need.


Common Mistakes People Make When Applying Academic Writing Styles

Even those who are well versed in academic writing styles may mix things up every once in a while. This is especially true if you use multiple academic writing styles. Things like how to punctuate the bibliographical reference entries can confuse even the best of us.

Just the same, the frequent revisions of academic writing style guidelines might leave some people out of the loop. The common mistakes being made in properly styling citations and references might be as simple as not downloading the most recent updates; however, it may also be a case where students are simply not understanding how to infuse referencing properly.

The wrong way to go when applying academic writing styles. Photo by Kenny Eliason on Unsplash

Common APA Mistakes

Professors and educators are in the best position to provide tips on which mistakes people often make so that   can learn to avoid them.

Some say that web sources present a challenge for a majority of students and even professionals. This is obviously because these people are not up to date with the current APA academic writing style guidelines. While some common APA formatting errors may be issues due to changes in updated guidelines (APA 5 vs. APA 6), there are other, and perhaps more common instances where a student fails to properly reference the source materials within writing assignments.

This is particularly true when citing content from the Internet. Understanding how to properly reference and cite source materials adds power to any student paper, because the papers can be used to show a proper understanding and blending of source ideas – a critical concept in higher learning.


Common MLA Mistakes

APA students are not the only ones who have common mistakes in formatting. MLA, having been birthed from language and literature, is very keen on things like grammar and style of writing as well as the quality of writing. MLA has very specific guidelines on things like punctuation. Experts say that people often make mistakes with such guidelines. For example, putting a period before and sometimes after the parenthetical citation or placing the closing quotation mark after the citation in parenthesis instead of after the quote.

In MLA, people also make mistakes when creating the Works Cited list. Simple mistakes like not alphabetizing or initializing the first names as it is done in APA. Some italicize the wrong parts while others leave off critical information like the city of publication.


Differentiating Academic Writing Styles

With the above mistakes making it clear that mistakes are still rampant, it is important to understand where styles differ so that you are not always mixing up academic writing styles. With this information, you will also know what you need to clarify before formatting your paper. This is a breakdown of the differences between 4 citation styles used by most that is meant to be used for quick reference. For more detailed information, consult one of the professionals at Custom Essays. Always be sure to follow your professors’ instructions.

  AMA APA Chicago MLA
Emphasis on Data Date Author Author
Bibliographical list References References Bibliography or Works Cited Works Cited
Notes? No No Notes page at the end before the bibliography No
Order of sources Order they appear in the paper Alphabetical by author’s last name Alphabetical by author’s last name Alphabetical by author’s last name
Title Formats Capitalize first word of title and subtitle ONLY Capitalize first word of title and subtitle ONLY Capitalize all major words Capitalize all major words
Author Names Initials with no periods or spaces Initials and last names Full first and last names Full first and last names
More than one author Do not list author names in in-text citations Use & with more than 1 author Use “and” with more than 1 author Use “and” with more than 1 author
In-text citation and

Do I use punctuation in my in-text citation?

Superscript numbers after the sentence punctuation Sentence text here1



Commas between numerals when citing more than 1 source

Sentence text here. 1,3,4

After the author’s name in the sentence in parentheses Author’s Last Name (2015) sentence text here with “quote” (p. 10).


Author’s last name and date and page numbers for quotes in parentheses or before the sentence punctuation. Sentence text here (Author’s Last Name, 2015, p. 10).


Commas between information Sentence text here (Last Name, 2015).

Sentence text here with “quote” (Author’s Last Name, 2015, p. 10).

Superscript number after the sentence punctuation Sentence text here.1

For Multiple Sources, references are included directly after info from that source.

Source 1 info here,1 continues here with info from second source.2




NO punctuation Sentence text here.1

Authors last name and page number in parentheses before the sentence punctuation

Sentence text here (Author’s Last Name 10).


Author’s Name in sentence followed by text (10).



NO punctuation in in-text citations Sentence Text Here (Author’s Last Name 10).

How do I include page numbers in my in-text citation? Can include page numbers in parentheses Sentence text here. 1(35-42) Use p. or pp. (for multiple pages) Author’s Last Name (2015) sentence text here with “quote” (pp. 10-11). Use page numbers in notes only Use page numbers in parentheses

Sentence text here (Author’s Last Name 10).


In Essence…

The reality is, depending on your discipline, there may be only one type of style that you need to use, ever. However, this is not saying the rules for how to properly cite resources and references is not going to continue to change and evolve over time. You will be held responsible for being current.

As a student or in post-college academic writing, you want your work to shine and to always show your best efforts. This means checking on the rules to properly style and format your papers.

Alternatively, you could get help…

The internet is chock full of resources that could really help your writing journey. Sources that are both reliable and current. We understand that reading those academic writing style manuals can be tedious. Who wants to pore over 200 pages of rules anyway?

Most institutions have writing centers that hold lots of great information and people to help you understand what to do in each situation you face. Not every situation calls for the same style guide, so checking with the experts on your campus is always a smart idea.

Or, you could call us. We have people on call at all hours of everyday of the week. We can help, all you have to do is ask.




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