How to Choose an APA or MLA Writing Style


Both the Modern Language Association (MLA) and the American Psychological Association (APA) writing styles prescribe standardized guidelines for citing sources and formatting titles, margins or footnotes. MLA and APA formats are often used in high school and university classrooms and in scholarly articles. Choosing the appropriate writing style for a research paper or article depends on your audience, your subject and, in some cases, your personal preferences.

  • Identify your target audience. If you're writing an assigned paper for a class, teachers and professors commonly request either MLA or APA style. Ask your professor, check your class syllabus or refer to your assignment handout to determine the preferred style for a particular paper. When submitting an essay to a conference or for submission, always check the guidelines for writing style preferences.

  • Choose a style based on the topic of your paper or article. Even if you aren't provided with a definitive style preference from your target audience, you can use the style typical to the subject you're writing about. As a general guideline, use MLA for papers focused on literature, art criticism, or other disciplines from the humanities, including history, anthropology and comparative religion as suggested by the University of Wisconsin's writing center. APA generally applies to papers from the behavioral and social sciences disciplines, including psychology and education.

  • Consider your personal preference if there is no precedent for either MLA or APA style, or if you are free to choose your writing style. The purpose of applying a documentation style is to provide a consistent method for citing your sources, as well as to create a uniform, well-organized paper. When you have the liberty to choose, write in the style you are most familiar with in order to present a polished essay or article.

Tips & Warnings

  • When writing for nonscholarly publications, including books, magazines and newspapers, where a particular style is not explicitly requested, consider using Chicago style. The Chicago Manual of Style, according to Long Island University's website, is appropriate to use for all subjects.


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