3 Common APA Mistakes

This post will cover:

  • Headings

  • Anthropomorphism

  • Active Voice

Did you know there is a whole section in the APA manual to help you with writing for clarity and style?

My assumption is that most of us only use the APA manual to look up formatting rules. You know, how do I cite this or that?

How many of you have actually read the manual?

Today, I’m going to share 3 common APA mistakes that I see when working with clients: headings, anthropomorphism, and active voice.


In scientific writing, organizational structure is key to clear, precise, and logical communication. This includes the use of headings to effectively organize ideas within a study as well as seriation to highlight important items within sections. Concise headings help the reader anticipate key points and track the development of your argument (p. 62).

Remember, we are writing for the reader. Writing for clarity and conciseness is for the benefit of the reader. We want the reader to know our arguments and the results of our studies.

We essentially want the reader to know what we know how we know it. Headings help us to accomplish this.

Let’s have a moment of honesty here…

There are many of us do not read every word of a document. We simply do not have the time or bandwidth to do so. We, as readers, rely on headings to help us navigate a document.

Likewise, we use headings when we’re writing because most likely, no one is going to read word for word of what we’re writing. (#SorryNotSorry)

That is why I even use headings when writing blog posts.

I know that if you’ve landed on my website, that most likely, you are looking for something specific. I want to make sure you can find that as quickly as possible.

Things to note:

  • Levels of headings denote the importance of the section.

  • All topics of the same level of importance have the same level of headings (e.g., Literature Review, Methods, Findings).

  • Strive for at least 2 subsections under any heading or use none.

  • You do not need an Introduction heading.

  • Avoid using letters and numbers in headings.

  • Write at least one paragraph in-between sections.


When you’re in the zone of writing, it easy to get into the practice anthropomorphism.

Anthropomorphism - attributing human characteristics to animals or inanimate sources (p. 69)

We assign human characteristics to institutions, programs, and all type of things. We do this in everyday speech and so it makes sense how we can get into this habit while writing.

The writers of the APA manual use the following example (p. 69):

Incorrect: The community program was persuaded to allow five of the observers to become tutors.

Correct: The staff for the community program was persuaded to allow five of the observers to become tutors.

I find it easier to go back through my document after I write to look for any anthropomorphism. Trying to catch it while writing slows me down and I have noticed that I’m getting better at avoiding doing it in the first place.

Active Voice

Writing in active voice leads to better clarity and conciseness in writing.

I notice that passive writing mostly happens in early draft stages, under time constraints, and when we’re writing something that is relatively new.

I also think that most of us learned this style of writing in K-16 schooling.

Passive writing can be a difficult habit to break.

The writers of the APA manual use the following example (p. 77):

Nonpreferred: The survey was conducted in a controlled setting.

Preferred: We conducted the survey in a controlled setting.

“The passive voice is acceptable in expository writing and when you want to focus on the object or recipient of the action rather than on the actor” (p. 77).

Writing hack:

Ex. At home, cooking is done by the parents.

Look for the comma.

Can you take the section that comes before the comma and put it at the end of the second section?

Then you may be using a passive voice.

Additionally, you want to check that the actor is the focus instead of the object or recipient of the action.

Ex. The parents do the cooking at home.

Active voice also takes practice.

There you have it!

Need help with your writing? Let’s schedule some time to chat!

American Psychological Association. (2009). Publication manual of the American Psychological Association. Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association.