WriteCast Episode 22: Make APA Style Work for You: How to Navigate Gray Areas
© Walden University Writing Center 2015
BRITTANY: Welcome to WriteCast: A Casual Conversation for Serious Writers. I’m Brittany Kallman Arneson.
BETH: And I’m Beth Nastachowski.
BRITTANY: Today we’re talking about everyone’s favorite subject: APA style.
BETH: It is my favorite subject, Brittany, I have to say.
BRITTANY: I know it is. Nerd alert.
BETH: [Laughing] Don’t worry, we’re not going to go into any nitty-gritty rules today.
BRITTANY: Right. Instead, we’re going to talk about what we call the “gray areas” of APA style.
BETH: So, when we talk about the gray areas of APA style, it’s really useful to kind of get back to the basics about what really APA is for, and the spirit of APA. I think as teachers of APA and writing, and as students of APA and writing, it can be really, really easy to get really hung up on the rules we need to follow, and the examples, and all of the things we need to keep track of. I think it can be easy for us to forget that really, APA is just there to help guide readers. So although APA has specific rules about specific things, it also has a general spirit of wanting to help writers help readers.
BRITTANY: Right. I think it’s really important for, like you said, Beth, both teachers and students of APA to remember this: that the rules aren’t just for the sake of having rules. The rules are there because we want to be able to communicate clearly. We want to be able to be consistent. We want to follow the format of a specific field, right? So APA is designed for people who are communicating in the social sciences, and I think that’s important to keep in mind, too.
BETH: And for me, I always like to say to my students, I’m sort of a selfish writer in that I like to know how my hard work is going to pay off. And APA is hard work. And I think it’s really important to remember the spirit or that back story to APA to remember that it’s for your readers. It really will pay off if you remember those rules. So if you’re like me and you’re a little bit of a selfish writer, and you want to know how your hard is going to pay off, know that it will in the form of aiding and guiding your reader.
So we all know that APA has a lot of rules--we all are agreed on that, I’m sure; but, some of those rules are set in stone and we need to follow them very specifically, and some of the rules are more guidelines and suggestions, and usually those sorts of rules aren’t really rules at all, except that we often sort of make them into rules.
BETH: So one of the things that is sort of difficult about APA is determining what are those gray areas, and what are the more suggestions and things to keep in mind when writing in APA, and what are things that are absolute rules, and why there might be that difference between the two.
BRITTANY: Right, and I think our listeners might be interested to know that, actually as a staff here in the Walden Writing Center, we’ve been talking about some of these gray areas recently, and realizing, like you just said, Beth, that we’ve maybe been talking about some of these areas as sort of hard and fast rules when in fact, they are more like suggestions. So this is something that even that those of us who study the APA manual a lot and teach it all the time have to continue to revisit and realize and kind of come back to that key point that you were making earlier, Beth, which is that APA is here as a toolbox for us to use to communicate with readers, not just necessarily a checklist of hard and fast rules.
BETH: And discerning those gray areas is really going to differ from assignment to assignment, sometimes, and rule-to-rule. So there isn’t always even a clear line between what is a gray area and what is a rule. But in general what I like to think about is that the rules for APA are the examples that you can find exact examples for what you’re looking for.
BETH: So you’re creating a reference entry for a book, you can find the exact example of that book reference entry in the APA manual. So that’s a rule you need to follow.
BETH: The difference comes in or those gray areas come in on things like passive voice, use of “I”, anthropomorphism; things that really more relate to precision and clarity. They are actually in the precision and clarity section of the APA manual, and they really relate more to clearly communicating to your reader. But an example of anthropomorphism in the APA manual isn’t necessarily the exact example you’ll be writing in your paper. And so for those places, you need to sort of think about APA rules as suggestions and consider, you know, the spirit and that back story of APA and how that applies to what you’re currently writing.
BRITTANY: I think too, it’s important to remember that a lot of those gray areas, those pieces that we find in the precision and clarity section of the manual, are gonna depend on the context in which you’re writing, too. So if you’re writing for a particular instructor, that instructor might have some kind of pet peeves or rules that they are particularly interested in having students follow, and it’s in your best interest, right, to follow those rules if you’re writing for that instructor.
So, for instance, maybe the instructor is particularly concerned about use of passive voice and wants you to avoid all uses of passive voice in your writing. So you maybe will spend a lot of time focusing on that for that one instructor in that one course, whereas in another course, of course you want to be cognizant of your use of passive voice, but there might be some situations in which you decide that it is appropriate to use passive voice. You should take a look at the context and make a decision based on the specific instance that you’re evaluating.
BETH: I think that’s a great point and, really, sort of an example of a larger thing that we talk about a lot, I think, in the podcasts--this difference between different assignments and also just different kinds of writing. Passive voice is something that we’re very cognizant of in APA, because APA talks about it; but in other kinds of writing, it’s less of an issue. And it’s just something that we have to navigate as writers and as scholars.
BRITTANY: Right. I think it’s important too, to keep in mind–and we run into this often with student questions that we get through our Writing Support e-mail account—that there are some rules that Walden has sort of adopted that are based on APA, but are not necessarily something that you’re going to find in the APA manual. And because you’re a student at Walden—again, the idea of context here—those are rules that are hard and fast here in this community, as a scholar, as a student at Walden University. But, for instance, once you leave Walden, you aren’t going to be using the Walden course paper template anymore. You’re going to be maybe following the other publication guidelines from the APA manual. So I guess my point is just that we need to be really clear about what the context is and, sort of, whose rules we’re following when we’re thinking about these things, that not necessarily everything is going to have a hard and fast rule with a specific example in the APA manual.
BETH: Right, and I think that again relates out to the larger, sort of publication rule, as well; we can kind of relate it to that. Just like Walden has, sort of, in-house guidelines that we follow very strictly as a Walden community, other journals or publications will have their own, sort of, in-house guidelines. So if you’re submitting an article to a journal that follows APA, they might have you submit it in APA, but they might actually make edits or changes based on in-house APA style that’s slightly different, and that’s really common. So different journals might follow slightly different rules for APA, or might really highlight different parts of APA, depending on the journal and the publication guidelines for that journal.
BRITTANY: Mm-hmm. So let’s talk about some more specific examples of these APA gray areas. I think one that we see a lot is questions about when to include the retrieval date with reference entries, right? Students are looking really hard for a hard and fast answer, and APA doesn’t really give one, right?
BETH: No, they don’t, and this is—you had talked about the Writing Center having discussions about APA rules, and this is one of the APA rules that we talked about, which we had a lot of discussion about. So it was a really helpful discussion for us. And in general, what I think we decided is that really, this is one of the APA gray areas. We couldn’t come to a consensus on when to include a retrieval date with a reference entry. The APA manual says that you’ll include a retrieval date with a reference entry for a website if that website is going to change often over time.
BETH: Now that last part, change often over time, is the hard part because what that specifically means can be interpreted differently. So, for example, I interpret that as meaning only sources that will change for sure, very often, over time, and “very often” to me means every week or month, maybe. Someone else might interpret that and say, “Well, ‘very often’ to me might mean once a year.”
BETH: And so for those sources we need a retrieval date to ensure the reader knows when you got that information.
BRITTANY: Right, right. So again, this maybe is a little bit frustrating again for those listeners who are like us, a little bit type A, maybe like those hard and fast rules, but we want to do as writing teachers is to empower students of writing to dig in and interpret those gray areas themselves.
So we really encourage you to dig into what the manual has to say about this issue and think about your reader, think about the specific source that you’re citing, and make a decision based on the information that you have. That can be really empowering as a writer, I think, to discover that you can take all the information that you have and make a decision that feels best for you within the context that you’re writing.
BETH: Yeah, and I think that’s a really important point to make because all the students come up to me and ask, “I have this website, here’s the URL, should I include the retrieval date?” And I’ll say, “Well, I’m not sure. I haven’t read that website--you have. What do you think about that?” And, “Is it a source that will change over time?” And I think that’s really the question that you need to ask yourself in this APA gray area.
BRITTANY: So another gray area is things that have to do with Walden course materials specifically, citing those course materials, because, of course, in the APA manual there are no hard and fast examples of Walden documents or course materials, or DVDs, or the course catalogue. That stuff is specific to us here in this community, and so we have to make decisions about how to cite it. And so, again, if you’re looking for a hard and fast rule in APA about those types of sources, you’re not going to find one.
And this is a little bit of a different category I guess because we at Walden have done some of that interpreting for the students, right? We’ve come up with some examples that we have on our website of how to cite the Walden course catalogue, how to cite a DVD that’s published by Walden University, LLC. And so while it’s a gray area within the larger context of APA, it’s not so much a gray area for Walden students because we have these examples that we’ve developed; but, it is a good example, I think, of how we, as an institution, and we as a writing center, have interpreted rules in the spirit of APA for our own purposes.
BETH: And it’s a good reminder that APA does take some interpretation at points. So it doesn’t have examples for everything that we’re gonna have to cite, and that’s where the authors, in this case the Writing Center, have sort of stepped in and done some of that interpretation.
BETH: So before we talked a little bit about that precision and clarity section of the APA manual that really gives suggestions for authors for clear writing. And two of the biggest areas or two of the biggest terms in that section that we talk a lot about with students is passive voice and anthropomorphism. So a lot of people know what passive voice is, that’s when the doer or actor of the sentence isn’t clear or stated, and then anthropomorphism is when we give human actions to inanimate objects. An example might be “the research found.”
BETH: Because the research didn’t actually find anything; it’s the author who found something during or through the research. But it can be tricky sometimes because a lot of students might really focus on anthropomorphism and passive voice and want to eliminate both of those things, and sometimes rightly so. Anthropomorphism and passive voice can both create unclear writing because the doer or actor of things isn’t always clear. Particularly for passive voice, I always like to tell students to look out for passive voice during election cycles, because you can see a lot of it in the news and when, you know, politicians start talking about things it’s sort of political speech sometimes because it does a good job of hiding the doer of an action.
BETH: And that’s really the issue. Passive voice in and of itself is a perfectly fine grammatical structure, as is anthropomorphism. Both of those are used in other kinds of writing all the time, but it’s really about the context, sort of like what you were talking about before, Brittany, where students have to think about whether it would clearer to eliminate passive voice and anthropomorphism, or if that would just create more confusion, and just really asking themselves whether the reader will understand what they’re talking about.
BRITTANY: Right. I think again, this is a really good example of a place where APA is empowering you as a writer to make decisions about your own writing and helping to, kind of, give some language to talk about certain issues in writing that we see, or certain techniques even, in writing, and then making decisions about whether or not to use those techniques. So again, yeah, there is really no hard and fast rule in APA that says never use passive voice or never use anthropomorphism, but it does say be aware of these two grammatical structures and watch out for places where they create unclear writing, where they create a question about what the meaning is.
BETH: And that’s really the important part is the unclear writing, right?
BETH: Because passive voice and anthropomorphism can be clear, but usually they’re a symptom of something that’s a little bit larger.
So we’ve talked a little bit about the gray areas in APA, and we talked a little bit about how the Writing Center talks about those gray areas, how we debate them between ourselves, and we’ve sort of come up with some rules to help students through some of those gray areas. But one thing to keep in mind is that all of your faculty have gone through this same process. They are scholars, and researchers, and writers, and they have had to navigate APA and those gray areas, as well. So you can see your instructor as really someone who’s a resource and who’s gone through a lot of what, you know, you’re trying to work through with APA, and see them as someone who has that experience, and that you can draw from that experience, hopefully.
BRITTANY: Right, right, I think that’s a really good point, Beth, and I think it’s a nice way of looking at the instructor and their expertise, more as somebody who has navigated these resources and learned how to make decisions based on the information that they’re finding in APA, rather than somebody who has simply memorized the APA manual and now knows all of the answers to all of the questions. And again, that’s really what we want you, as writers, to move toward as well—is being, sort of, interpreters of the manual rather than enforcers of the manual, if that makes sense.
BETH: Yeah, and to see when you see differences between what your understanding of an APA rule is, and what the Writing Center is showing you, or what your faculty is asking you to do is to take that as an opportunity to talk about these things, and engage in that conversation. Because like we said, there are APA rules that we have to follow, but there are gray areas and that’s where we get into conversation with one another about what the spirit of APA is and how that informs those gray areas.
BRITTANY: Okay, so earlier you mentioned, Beth, that there are some hard and fast rules in APA. And so, I imagine our listeners will be asking, “Okay, great! I feel so empowered. Now I can interpret the APA manual for myself, but how do I know which parts are open for interpretation and which parts are just, here’s the rule, follow it, no questions asked.”
BETH: That is a wonderful question, and as I kind of mentioned earlier, you’re going to want to look in the APA manual for an example.
BETH: And that’s really the first step. So hopefully you have an APA manual and you’ll look there. If you don’t happen to have an APA manual, it’s a great thing to get. It’s going to be useful for you throughout your course work, but you can also look at our website. So that’s the first step, really. Look at the manual, see if you can find a specific example for what you’re looking for. And then also go to our website. Often times when students ask us questions about certain kinds of sources, or things that there are rules about, but they might a little hidden or harder to find, we’ll include them on our website so they’re a bit easier to find and more navigatible. I don’t know if navigatible is a word.
BRITTANY: Sounds really dumb, but I think that’s right, now that I say it. [Laughs]
BETH: We put them on our website which is a little bit more navigable. Oh my gosh, that’s ridiculous [laughs]. Then I would say the next step is to look at the APA Style Blog. Just like our blog, I think it does a great job of approaching APA style rules and taking, sort of, a humanized approach in discussing them. Those would be my steps. Go to the manual, go to the website, then check the style blog. If all else fails, then we would suggest e-mailing us. Reach out to us know, or talk to your faculty, too, and see if they have suggestions.
BETH: But don’t assume it’s a gray area, unless you’ve exhausted those resources. That would be one big suggestion for you.
BRITTANY: Right, and I think too, I mean, you kind of already said this, Beth, but I think it’s important to point out that most of the time these gray areas sort of come in when you’re talking about grammar or clarity. We’ve talked a lot now about the precision and clarity section of the APA manual…
BETH: Word choice.
BRITTANY: Right, word choice, those sorts of things. Not so much when it comes to, like, formatting choices. That stuff is a little bit more set in stone, because again, it’s easier to set a rule, there’s less chance that setting that rule is going to limit you as writer in some way, and it has more to deal with having a consistent style across the entire published document. So that can be, kind of, a helpful way to think about it, too, is like if you’re looking for, you know, whether or not a certain title is supposed to be italicized, probably there’s a pretty hard and fast rule about that in APA, for the most part. Again, probably you can find some exception to the rule, but for the most part those formatting choices are a little bit more set in stone.
BETH: Yup, that’s a great point, and I think it’s mostly in the formatting for electronic publications, where there gets to be those gray areas, like the retrieval date…
BETH: ...like DOI and URL hybrids…
BETH: …a lot of those things that are sort of cropping up recently.
BETH: That’s where the, sort of, gray area comes about, and I’m guessing the next publication of the manual will probably stamp out some of those gray areas.
BRITTANY: So one other question I’m anticipating from some of our listeners is coming from our undergraduate population, specifically, right? So we talk a lot about APA as a publication manual—that’s what it is; it says so right on the cover. And we talk about students needing to learn these rules and guidelines, or to interpret the gray areas, because eventually they’re working towards creating a document for publication, a dissertation, or doctoral study. So what do we have to say to undergraduates who are tasked with using APA in their course papers, but who aren’t necessarily, not in this degree anyway, moving toward writing that capstone document that’s going to be published and put out in the world.
BETH: One thing to keep in mind, especially if you’re an undergraduate student listening, is that the APA guidelines that you’ll be following—the expectation for APA for you will be a little bit different than if you were going for your masters or your doctoral degree. With each degree the expectations are going to be more and more strict, because the expectation for publication becomes different. So at a master’s level, you might be publishing; you might not be. At a doctoral level you certainly are publishing, so the APA becomes that much more important.
At the undergraduate level, the expectations will probably be a little bit different, but potentially you will need to follow—especially at the very end of your program—follow APA pretty strictly. And really, that’s just part of becoming a scholar and helping you to practice becoming a researcher and author and part of that conversation. So really, just like all the other scholarly writing guidelines, you might never use our guidelines about thesis statements in the writing that you do at your work, and that’s okay; but, you’ll know how to do one because you’ve become part of that scholarly writing conversation, and APA is just one part of that.
BRITTANY: Yeah, I think that’s a really good point, and I think part of it is just practicing this act of interpreting a style, right? And it could be any style. I mean, here at Walden we use APA, but there are lots of other publication styles, too, and I think it’s a really important skill to build to know how to take this big Bible of rules and gray areas and figure out how to navigate it and how to apply it to a piece of writing. So even outside of the practical application of APA, it’s helpful and useful, I think, for you, as a student, to learn how to go through that process and how to interpret those guidelines in order to think about your audience and communicate effectively with an audience.
BETH: Yeah, it’s really also about critical thinking, I think, and that interpretation part is difficult and sometimes scary, because it’s critical thinking, and that’s one of the most difficult things that hopefully you’ll leave Walden knowing how to better engage in that critical thinking and that interpretation. Those skills are really important--not just for undergraduate students. Now we’re talking, I think, more broadly for all students.
BETH: But it’s scary and difficult because it’s hard, but it’s also important.
So we’re going to try something new and take a little bit of time at the end of each podcast episode for the next few episodes to check in with our listeners and respond to comments and questions that we get both in our social media survey and on any of our podcast episodes or blog posts. We really appreciate it when our listeners respond and take the time to write to us, and so we just want to make sure that we talk back, that we say, “We got your message!” And that we acknowledge it in some way.
So we have a comment from a student that we got through our social media survey and it says: “I’m a new student and have not had enough time with the social media channels to really evaluate them.”
So, thank you, first of all, for that comment. Again, any comment we are really open to hearing feedback, and thank you for taking the time to comment and let us know. We really love positive comments, but we also welcome your suggestions, as well. You can tell us what you like or what you don’t like, what you do or don’t find helpful, and so forth.
BETH: And then this is another comment that we got about a recent blog post titled, “Writing Against the Clock: Five Tips for Writing When You Have No Time.”
And the comment says: “If there is any negative experience that I can take away from writing, at least nowadays, is finding the time to write. I’m not only a student, but I have a full-time demanding job, and I’m also the mother of four. It is very difficult to find the time to write my papers for school. On the Walden University Writing Center website, I found an article entitled, “Writing Against the Clock: Five Tips for Writing When You Have No Time,” and I can very much relate to the author of the article, because the author has similar responsibilities as me.”
And I really loved this comment just because that’s our goal with the blog posts. I think every time we write a blog post—I know when I write a blog post, I really want to try to reach our students and relate to them, and help make, maybe, writing a little bit more relatable. So it’s wonderful feedback to hear, and keep that coming.
So thanks for listening, everyone. We will talk to you again next month, and remember to leave your questions, comments, feedback on our blog, our Facebook page, and even our social media sites, and that social media survey.
Thanks for listening, everyone!
BRITTANY: WriteCast is a production of the Walden University Writing Center. This episode was produced by me, Brittany Kallman Arneson; my co-host, Beth Nastachowski; and our colleague, Anne Shiell.