The Writing Center @ The University of Wisconsin - Madison
The Writer's Handbook

About Documentation Styles

What are documentation styles?

A documentation style is a standard approach to the citation of sources that the author of a paper has consulted, abstracted, or quoted from. It prescribes methods for citing references within the text, providing a list of works cited at the end of the paper, and even formatting headings and margins.

Different academic disciplines use different documentation styles; your instructor may require you to use a particular style, or may allow you use one of your choosing.

It is important to fully understand the documentation style to be used in your paper, and to apply it consistently.

Furthermore, documentation styles allow you to give credit for secondary sources you have used in writing your paper.

Citing sources not only gives credit where it's due, but also allows your reader to locate the sources you have consulted. In short, the reader of your paper must be able to use the information you provide, both in the text and in appended list(s), to duplicate the research you have done.

What do I need to document?

In general, you must document information that originates in someone else's work. All of the following should be accompanied by a reference to the original:

  • Direct quotations
  • Paraphrases and summaries
  • Information and ideas that are not common knowledge or are not available in a standard reference work
  • Any borrowed material that might appear to be your own if there were no citation

By now you're likely wondering, "Yes, but how do I know where the ideas of others end and my own begin?" If you're writing papers that require research, you've probably been in academia long enough to know that the only good answer to such a question is, "Good question."

Giving credit where it's due is a founding principle of academic inquiry, one that fosters the free exchange of ideas. Ultimately, you'll need to decide for yourself which ideas you can claim as your own and which should be attributed to others. Perhaps we should consider how we'd like our work to be credited, and use that as our guide.

How should I gather information for documenting sources?

You can make the process of applying any documentation style easier if you keep good notes while you perform research.

Write down the most complete bibliographic information available for each source that you consult; you may want to take a look at the sample references list for the style you will be using to get an idea of the amount of detail that's required. If you write out quotations or data from a source, be sure to note the number of the page(s) on which the information appears in the original. Double check the quotation for accuracy before you return the source to the library.

It's a good idea to put citations into your paper as you draft it. When you quote, put the source and page number directly after, perhaps marked with asterisks. When you refer, do the same. And when you place a citation in your text, add the source to your working bibliography.

When it comes time to put the finishing touches on your paper, the information you need will be available right in your text, and may be easily put into the proper format.

Which style should I use?

Choosing the appropriate documentation style for your paper may depend on three factors:

  1. The requirements of the particular course;
  2. The standard for the discipline in which you are studying; or
  3. Your individual preference.

Documentation style required for a course

Your instructor may assign a documentation style for papers to be written for that course. This will often be indicated on the course syllabus or in the paper assignment, but may simply be mentioned during class. If no documentation style is prescribed, you should ask whether the instructor has a preference. If no preference is indicated, then you are free to choose a style.

Documentation style used in a discipline

In doing so, consider which style will be most appropriate for your area of specialization. If you are pursuing a major in the humanities, consider learning the MLA style. If behavioral or social sciences are likely to be your interest, then the APA style may be most appropriate. For information about the major documentation styles, click on one of the menu items on the Documentation styles page.

Documentation style based on individual preference

If you don't know what you want to major in, or aren't particularly interested in adopting a documentation style that will last your whole life long, then what you should do is read the Writing Center Review of Documentation styles, where we compare the distinguishing features of the most commonly used documentation styles. Take a look around, choose a style that fits your style, and then go to its pages to learn how to use it.