Mastering References: A Guide to Different Citation Styles in Essays


Life as a student is full of opportunities for learning, exploration, and yes, writing essays. At the heart of any academic endeavor is the written work, an amalgamation of thoughts, insights, research, and critical analysis. Yet, there’s an often overlooked aspect of essay writing that plays a crucial role in elevating your work from good to great. That’s right—we’re talking about mastering references.

If you’ve ever asked yourself, “How do I properly cite my sources?” or even, “How can I write my essay better?” you’re not alone. Navigating the sea of citation styles can be daunting, especially when each one comes with its unique set of rules and norms. But don’t worry; it’s not as scary as it seems. The aim of this blog post is to break down some of the most commonly used citation styles, helping you master the art of referencing.

Each citation style serves the same fundamental purpose: to acknowledge the work of others, avoid plagiarism, and provide readers with the information they need to verify your sources. Now, let’s dive into these referencing styles, explaining when to use them and demystifying their intricacies.

APA: Perfect for Social Sciences


The American Psychological Association (APA) style is popular in social sciences, education, and psychology. What distinguishes it? Primarily, it’s the preference for parenthetical in-text citations accompanied by a References list at the end.

Remember, in APA, the author’s surname and year of publication should appear in the in-text citation. All major words in journal titles and book titles should be capitalized in the reference list. Additionally, the year of publication follows the author’s name. Here’s an example:

Brown, B. (2020). Daring Greatly. Random House.

In your text, this would look like (Brown, 2020).

MLA: The Humanities’ Choice


Next up, let’s talk about the Modern Language Association (MLA) style, commonly adopted in the humanities—think literature, philosophy, and the arts. MLA style focuses on the author-page format for in-text citations. Unlike APA, it doesn’t require the year of publication in the citation.

MLA style also differs in its approach to source listing, calling it a “Works Cited” page. Again, there’s a slight difference in how titles are capitalized. Only the first word, the first word after a colon, and proper nouns are capitalized. Here’s how an MLA citation would look:

Brown, Brené. “Daring Greatly.” Random House, 2020.

In your text, it would appear as (Brown 23), with the number referring to the page where the quote or information is found.

Chicago: For a Balance of the Arts and Sciences


The Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS) is another versatile citation style that caters to both the humanities and the sciences. However, it’s unique in that it offers two citation methods: author-date, which is similar to APA, and notes-bibliography, preferred in literature, history, and the arts.

The notes-bibliography system uses numbered footnotes or endnotes with a corresponding Bibliography page at the end of the paper. The author-date system is more straightforward, similar to APA and MLA, but places the year of publication immediately after the author’s name. An example of a Chicago-style citation in the author-date system is:

Brown, Brené. 2020. Daring Greatly. Random House.

Remember to stick to one system throughout your essay.

Harvard: The Universal Style

The Harvard referencing style, like its Ivy League namesake, enjoys broad acceptance. Widely used in the UK and Australia, it’s applicable to a large array of academic disciplines, making it a versatile choice.

The Harvard system is an author-date style, similar to APA, but with more emphasis on punctuation and the inclusion of the publisher’s location in the reference list. Here’s an example of a Harvard citation:

Brown, B. (2020) Daring Greatly. New York: Random House.

The in-text citation would appear like so: (Brown, 2020).

IEEE: The Engineers’ Friend


The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) citation style is most often used in technical fields, especially computer science, and engineering. The IEEE style uses numbers in square brackets for in-text citations, which correspond to a numbered reference list at the end of the article.

A unique feature of IEEE is that entries in the reference list are ordered as they appear in the text. Here’s how a citation would look:

[1] B. Brown, Daring Greatly. New York: Random House, 2020.

And, in your text, it would be referenced as [1].

ASA: For the Sociologists

The American Sociological Association (ASA) style is designed for use by authors preparing manuscripts for publication in ASA journals. Like the APA style, the ASA citation format uses parenthetical citations. However, it puts more emphasis on the date of publication, particularly in the text.

Here is an example:

Brown, Brené. 2020. Daring Greatly. New York: Random House.

In your text, this would appear as (Brown 2020).

Adding Nuance to Your Citations


To write with skill, it’s important to note that citation is not just about rules but also about communication. As such, adding nuance to your citations can make your writing more compelling.

For instance, using phrases such as “as argued by (author’s name),” “as demonstrated in (work),” or “building upon the ideas of (author’s name)” can make your in-text citations more engaging, informative, and smooth.

In any case, whether you are working on an English literature essay or a sociology term paper, mastering these styles will help you communicate more effectively, improve your writing, and boost your academic performance.

Final Thoughts

Mastering different citation styles may seem intimidating at first, but once you understand their key differences, it’s like learning a new language. It allows you to ‘speak’ to your readers in a clear, transparent manner, showing them exactly where your research comes from. This is a crucial part of academic writing, demonstrating respect for original thinkers and their ideas.

So, the next time you sit down to write your essay, don’t shy away from the citation challenge. Embrace it, practice it, and before long, you’ll be referencing like a pro, no matter what style your subject requires. Remember, mastery in anything, including referencing, comes with patience and consistent practice. Happy writing!