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November 17, 2009

The Three Rs of APA Style, Part 1

Chuck

by Chuck

No, not those three Rs. Readin’, ’ritin’, and ’rithmetic are important and all. But the three Rs I’m talking about are those especially pertinent to APA style.

First R: readability. One of the goals of APA style is to make an article more readable.

Consider the use of footnotes. Essentially, you’re encouraged not to use them, or, if you have to use them, not to use them much. The sixth edition of the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association says of what it calls content footnotes, “Because they can be distracting to readers, [they] should be included only if they strengthen the discussion. . . . In most cases, an author integrates an article best by presenting important information in the text, not in a footnote” (pp. 37–38). This isn’t a new stance. As far back as 1929, in the first iteration of the Publication Manual, authors were being advised, “Footnotes should be avoided when the material can be suitably incorporated in the text” (“Instructions in Regard to Preparation of Manuscript,” 1929, Psychological Bulletin, 26, p. 60).

Now there’s nothing academically shameful about footnoting. If you don’t believe me, take a gander at any legal or historical journal. You’re more than likely to see not merely pages thick with footnotes but even—and often—pages with only a handful of lines of actual text resting on a massive foundation of footnotes.

In APA style, however, a choice has been made not to head in this direction, which improves the basic readability of the text. With footnotes, the reader must interrupt perusal of the narrative, drop eyes to the bottom of the page or the back of the article, absorb and interpret the noted material, return to the original spot in the text and recapture the original train of thought—and then, at the next footnote, repeat the process. With APA style, there is instead a quick in-text nod to the supporting authority or crucial source material—surname(s) and year—and then it’s right back to the narrative. The reader has little time to grow distracted from the writer’s point.

I suspect that this valuation of the main text is rooted in psychology’s literary side. The profession has a great written tradition running in parallel with its scientific one. To name but two psychologists also famed for their literary accomplishments, think of Sigmund Freud and William James (incidentally, APA Past-President, 1894 & 1904), both of whose works are still in print today, perused not just by members of the profession and historians of science but also by literary scholars and even that rarest of birds, the common reader.

[Tomorrow, “The 3 Rs of APA Style” will continue with the second R.]

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