One of my best friends is a Ph.D. in political science candidate at Purdue University, and as a teaching assistant he grades the APA papers of undergraduate students. One of the problems he finds most frequently, he once told me, is that too often they “bury the lede,” or postpone essential information and instead begin with ancillary details. They believe they are building suspense by waiting until the end to reveal their key argument.
Because of its unique format, APA style can frustrate many college-aged writers unused to its intricacies, specifically as they relate to composition issues. For example, full APA adherence requires writers to be able to summarize their results succinctly in the beginning, in the form of an abstract, or their papers will be considered unpublishable. So in the interest of following my own advice and getting to the point already, here are a few tips for making your APA paper more readable.
Tip #1: Don’t Get Bogged Down in the Details
You may think that the obscure factoid you dug up is interesting, but chances are you’re the only one who thinks so. To quote William Faulkner, “in writing, you must kill all your darlings,” even that obscure detail that contributes little, if anything, to your overall argument. Writing is as much about omission as addition, if not more so. Don’t be afraid to critically examine your paper for any signs of unproductive, lifeless sentences that obscure or distract from your argument.
Tip #2: When Explaining Complex Data, Be as Straightforward as Possible
You’d think that being understood would be the primary goal of all writers, right? Unfortunately, many APA writers fail to heed the simple yet wise words of an expression we all likely heard as kids: “Keep it simple, stupid.” Others understand the idea but find it difficult to put into practice. The result is often long, unwieldy clauses full of alienating jargon that make it impenetrable for the layman (or “laylady”) to understand. Of course, if you’re writing an APA paper, you may be obliged to use terminology specific to your field. But even if you’re writing for a professor who’s familiar with your terms, she will appreciate if you make life easier for her by giving her a little KISS.
Tip #3: Effective Headings Are the Signposts of a Good APA Paper
What often happens to students writing APA papers is that they “lose the thread,” so to speak—it’s easy to think of each individual section of an APA paper (Abstract, Introduction, Theory, Literature Review, Data/Methods, Findings/Results, and Conclusion) as its own autonomous area than as parts of a larger puzzle. The purpose of having clear and direct headlines is to help guide your readers through your research without disorienting them, so they can understand your arguments more easily.
Tip #4: Tell Your Readers What You Want Them to Know–Right Away
Remember my TA friend’s advice about waiting too long to get to the point? When drafting their papers, inexperienced writers take the approach of a storyteller who builds narrative momentum toward a pulse-pounding conclusion. The problem with this approach is that most people reading APA papers don’t have the patience to endure dry statistics and analysis without first understanding the context that gives them meaning. If you don’t immediately provide the critical context and key argument, your readers will quickly lose interest and get distracted looking up cat videos on the Internet.
When writing an APA paper, your job is tell people what they expect to learn in your Abstract, then tell it to them again in the Introduction, then continue to remind and reinforce that message throughout the paper, until you get to the Conclusion, when you tell it to them one more time. If nothing else, you want your reader to come away with the key fact or argument that is central to your paper, and you want to be able to convince them of the validity of your fact or argument through data and research. And if you do just that well enough, you’ll make harried instructors the world over very happy.