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August 13, 2009

The Flexibility of APA Style

 

Timothy McAdoo by Timothy McAdoo

Sometimes it’s okay to color outside the lines. Although the stylistic guidelines in the Publication Manual are meant to ensure consistency within scientific writing, we also recognize the importance of a writer’s good judgment. The trick is knowing when it’s okay to do your own thing. It’s even trickier when you know someone may be reading your paper with a red pen in hand!

As an example, let’s consider APA’s guidance on introducing acronyms (from section 4.22): 

Abbreviations introduced on first mention of a term and used fewer than three times thereafter, particularly in a long paper, may be difficult for a reader to remember, and you probably serve the reader best if you write them out each time.

So in your paper on the psychological effects of duckpin versus tenpin bowling, when you mention the American Bowling Congress just twice, spell it out both times (and don’t introduce the abbreviation ABC). 

 

Clear enough, but note that the Manual says “you probably serve the reader best” by doing this. How, then, should you recognize an exception? Let’s say you are writing a paper on metabolism disorders, and you need to mention very long-chain acyl-coenzyme A dehydrogenase deficiency just two times. Because of the unwieldy nature of this term, wouldn’t it make more sense to introduce the abbreviation (which is VLCADD) in this case? Yep, go ahead: Your readers will thank you!

Still worried about that red pen? If you’ve mastered the fine points of APA Style throughout a manuscript, your choices will be recognized as careful decisions, not oversights. So be sure to display your in-depth knowledge of APA Style in all other areas of your paper: The Publication Manual provides a handy checklist on pp. 241–243.

If you’re still concerned, you might discuss your paper and the APA Style guidelines with your teacher or advisor. You might both still be learning the 6th edition style!

Are there other examples from the Publication Manual where you think flexibility is important? We’d love to hear from you!

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