APA Reference List: The Rules Explained

On this page, you’ll learn how to put together a reference list. This page has been compiled by citation experts who have extensive knowledge of APA style; it follows the 7th edition of the APA Publication Manual. 

The key points to remember for your reference list are:

  • each entry provides information about author, date, title, and source
  • it is arranged alphabetically
  • all works that you cite in your work should be listed


A reference list serves as a crucial element of academic and professional writing, compiling all the sources that have been cited or referenced within your paper. It is positioned at the end of your work and adheres to formatting guidelines established by the American Psychological Association (APA), which are widely used across various disciplines and academic institutions.

It’s important to distinguish between a reference list and a bibliography. While a reference list includes only those sources directly cited or referenced in your assignment, a bibliography may encompass additional works consulted for background reading, whether or not they were explicitly cited.

Each entry within your reference page will comprise the same four elements:

  1. Author(s): The individuals or entities responsible for creating the work.
  2. Date: The year of publication or when the source was made available.
  3. Title: The specific title of the source.
  4. Source: Details on where the source can be found, such as the publisher’s name, journal title, or URL for online sources.

Together, these four elements let you construct anything you may need to include on your APA reference page. Let’s look at the general layout of an entry, and then a real example:

  • Layout: Surname, Initial(s). (Date). Title (Edition, if applicable). Publisher. (DOI or URL if applicable)
  • Example: Friedland, P. (2012). Seeing justice done: The age of spectacular capital punishment in France. Oxford University Press.

Each of these elements—author, date, title, source—is separated by a period. 

It’s important to ensure accuracy and consistency across your references. Pay special attention to punctuation, capitalization, and any special formatting requirements that different types of source demand. 


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When formatting the reference page as a whole, there are four cardinal points to bear in mind:

  1. It should begin on a new page.
  2. The label References or Reference List should be bolded and centered at the top of the page.
  3. The list should be double-spaced.
  4. Each entry should have a ‘hanging indent’ of 0.5 in. This means that the first line of the entry is flush to the left margin; subsequent lines are indented. 

Ordering the reference list

The first principle in ordering your reference list is that it is arranged alphabetically. Sounds simple, right? But there will be plenty of authors whose names may leave you flummoxed. 

Fortunately, the APA has a handy couple of guidelines:

  1. In the APA’s own words, “nothing precedes something” (2020, p. 303). 
    1. This means that Love, N. S. comes before Lovecraft, H. P. 
  2. When dealing with two-worded or hyphenated surnames, ignore the space or the hyphen. 
    1. So, Declercq, G., comes before de Laplanche, J., who precedes Depreux, P. 

Multiple works by the same author should be arranged chronologically, oldest publication first:

  • Smail, D. L. (2003).
  • Smail, D. L. (2012).

Single-authored texts precede multiple-authored texts with the same first author:

  • Shryock, A. (2020).
  • Shryock, A., & Smail, D. L. (2011).

For multi-authored texts with the same first author, but different subsequent authors, alphabetize entries based on the surname of the second author. If the first two authors are the same, then alphabetize based on the third author’s surname, and so on.

  • Pratchett, T., & Baxter, S. (2012).
  • Pratchett, T., & Gaiman, N. (1990).

Multiple works by the same author and same date—this creates problems for in-text citations—are distinguished by a date/letter combination. Here’s an example:

  • Pratchett, T. (1988a).
  • Pratchett, T. (1988b).

If you have multiple works where separate first authors have the same surname, arrange them alphabetically based on their respective first initial(s), as follows:

  • Thompson, B. (1993).
  • Thompson, E. P. (1971). 

If you have a work with no author, then it is arranged alphabetically according to the first main word of the title (ignore ‘a’, ‘an’, and ‘the’). If the text is explicitly identified as the work of ‘Anonymous’, then treat ‘Anonymous’ as the name and arrange the entry accordingly.

Hanging Indentation in APA

Hanging indentation refers to the format where the first line of each reference entry begins at the left margin (flush left), while all subsequent lines within the same entry are indented. 

By aligning the first line flush left and indenting subsequent lines, hanging indentation helps distinguish between different reference entries quickly. This structure aids readers in scanning through the reference list efficiently, locating specific sources based on authors’ names or titles.

Implementing Hanging Indentation

To apply hanging indentation in your reference list, most word processing software, such as Microsoft Word, provides a straightforward method to create hanging indents. After entering each reference:

  • Select the entire reference entry.
  • Access the “Paragraph” settings or menu.
  • Set a hanging indent of 0.5 inches (or as specified by your style guide), ensuring the first line remains flush left while subsequent lines are indented.


American Psychological Association. (2020). Publication manual of the American Psychological Association (7th ed.). https://doi.org/10.1037/0000165-000

Matthew McHaffie (Ph.D.)

Matthew McHaffie is a Visiting Scholar at the University of St. Andrews. He has published on medieval law and has taught citation skills to undergraduates.