Writing Empirical Psychology Papers (for Beginners)

Please note:  The below reviews the commonly accepted practices in writing an empirical APA-style paper (6th Ed).
However, it was originally written for a specific class.  Remember to refer back to your own assignment and your professor for more information.
A Word about APA Style
Additional Links

Overall Shape of the Paper

hourglass drawing Daryl Bem (download a PDF of his chapter here) suggests that crafting a well-written empirical article is like "telling a story."  Your story has a beginning that sets up the primary problem to be solved (the Introduction). The primary problem is the gap in the existing research, or the question that is unanswered by existing research. You will be explaining that question, and why it is important, to the reader. Your story has a middle (the Method), a climax (the Results) and an end (the Discussion).  Although your language will remain formal and you must attend to the proper content required by APA-style, your paper will probably turn out better if you keep this notion of story-telling in mind as you write. Never forget that you are communicating with an audience through your paper.

A well-written article should be shaped like an hourglass. That is, the Introduction begins very broadly by introducing the topic and defining terms, and then begins to narrow to more specifically focus on the variables in your study. At the end of the introduction, the paper is at its most specific (or "narrow") in that the Method and Results both provide extremely focused information about your study.  The Discussion begins by reviewing your specific findings, but then starts to slowly broaden out again as the implications are discussed. By the end of the Discussion, the paper has become as broad in focus as it was at the beginning of the Introduction.  Thus, an hourglass shape.


 Use the following as a guideline for what to include in the introduction and how to organize it.

(1) Try to capture the reader’s interest right away in the first few statements. You want to introduce your topic.  One way to do this is by posing an interesting question. You do not have to summarize your entire argument in this first paragraph. It is mostly a stylistic paragraph to orient the reader to the general topic and your question. It would be easiest to write this paragraph after you've finished the rest of the paper. (For more on this, see the section on "Opening Statements" at: http://dbem.ws/WritingArticle.pdf)

(2) The main goal in the introduction is to provide a review of the relevant psychological literature, providing definitions and past research findings that inform the reader on your topic. Your goal is for the reader to understand the need for more research in the area (i.e., your proposed study), and to be able to clearly see the reasoning for your hypothesis. You should organize this section of your paper in such a way that you logically build to your study. You aren't just citing research, you are crafting a line of reasoning which leads to your research question. Avoid simply summarizing each of the different studies you read in a “list” type format. Remember this is a paper and you need to present information in a coherent way that moves from the broad to the specific, and in a way that leads the reader to the gap or question in the literature that you’ve noticed. You can accomplish this goal in many ways (look through multiple published articles for ideas), but you might try the below as a starting point:

After your opening statement, choose one of the variables that is relevant to your study. If you wish, you can label this section of the paper with the name of that variable.
  • Provide a thorough review of relevant past literature.
  • You should define the concept, explain "how it works" or what important relationships it has with other variables. And, provide empirical evidence to illustrate the definition, or provide evidence for the relationships. Discuss key studies,  and indicate how the authors support their conclusions (i.e., briefly discuss methodology).
  • As you choose what to include in the paper, remember that your goal is to provide the reader with information about the variable that will help them understand YOUR study. So, try to choose evidence and details that will specifically meet that goal.
  • Note: this entire section is about the one variable. You do not need to incorporate your other variables, or even mention your hypothesis yet.

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Provide a transition to...

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Review the next relevant variable from your hypothesis. If you used a section heading for the previous variable, provide a new heading for this one.

Again, define your terms and then elaborate on those definitions by providing more information about what is known about the variable/theory/concept (using empirical study descriptions where appropriate).

Continue this process until you have defined all relevant terms and reviewed most of the relevant background literature.

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Present the logic for your conceptual hypothesis. Some papers put this entire section under a heading called "The Present Study."  Other papers provide a different section heading for the logic, and use "The Present Study" heading for the information in the box below. This is a stylistic choice.

  • Now that the reader knows the relevant definitions and background, you can bring together the research evidence reviewed above to formulate your argument.
  • Lead the reader step-by-step to and through your hypothesis. This may involve a brief review of some of the ideas presented earlier, and it may include additional material (for example, you may want to provide information about a past study that is a "key" study and/or that closely mirrors your own research question).
  • Be sure to say what is unique/original about your research.
  • For example, (1) You might find a contradiction in the literature that leads to your study; (2) You might find a reason why the conclusions reflected in the reviewed literature might be wrong; (3) Perhaps there is a gap in the literature – something you consider important that has not been studied; (4) or, you might notice a point that, although it is dealt with in the readings, ought to be extended further in some other dimension.

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In the last paragraph of your Introduction, name the specific variables you intend to study and generally what you will be asking your participants to do (e.g. “…we plan to administer a survey measuring both variables X and Y to determine if there is a correlation.”).   Finally, state your hypothesis(-es) formally: refer to the specific variable names and use relevant "statistical" language (e.g., "We hypothesize that X will have a positive correlation with Y." or We hypothesize that participants in the experimental condition will score higher on Y than participants in the control condition.")


Throughout the entire paper, remember to provide a citation for any information that is not your own idea (including information from textbooks).  Put the citation at the very first mention of the cited material (not, for example, at the end of the paragraph).  Read and follow the guidelines on in-text citations found at the web page: Finding, Reading, and Citing Sources and consult the APA Manual.


All method sections need three basic categories of information:

Participants – who was in your study and did they volunteer or get some sort of course credit.

Materials – what were your measured variables (a.k.a. operational definitions)

Procedure – what exactly did you do (literally during the study session)

You may choose to use three different heading for this information (as presented in the example below), or you might want to combine procedures and materials into one section.  Format the method section however it works best for you – but be sure to put participant information first and in its own section. Write in the past tense.

The below example should help provide you with some commonly used (conventional) ways of writing out this information.


    Participants were __N___ college students enrolled in introductory psychology classes. The students received extra credit in exchange for their participation. This sample consisted of _N_ women and _N_ men. Participants were generally college-aged (M = XX, SD = XX), and most selected "White" (XX%) when asked their race/ethnicity (XX% selected "Black" and XX% selected "Latino/a").

Note:  In the participants section, gender, age (or year in school), and ethnicity are typical standard demographic statistics to include . You should also report any other demographic statistic that relates to your hypothesis.

     Contingencies of Self-Worth Scale. Selected subscales from the contingencies of worth scale (Crocker & Wolfe, 2001) were used. The subscale of interest for this study was the school competency scale. The measure of school competency as a basis of worth consisted of XX# items. An example item is:  “xxxxxxxx.” Participants indicated the extent to which they endorsed each statement using a 7-point Likert type scale (1=strongly disagree, 7=strongly agree). After reverse coding the appropriate items, the scale was created by averaging across items.  The internal consistency of the scale for our sample was adequate/high/low (alpha = XX).
      Sexual Orientation Prime Manipulation.  We designed a PowerPoint slide show in order to prime either heterosexual or homosexual relationships. Both slide shows consisted of 20 slides, ten of which showed photographs of neutral objects (e.g., trees, tables, houses) and ten of which showed photographs of two people hugging, holding hands, or touching one another's faces with obvious affection. Participants in the heterosexual condition saw images of male/female couples. Participants in the homosexual condition saw five images of male/male couples and five images of female/female couples. All images were free-use photographs downloaded from various internet sites.
      Another Scale or Variable.  Continue in a new paragraph with a new heading for any other scales or manipulations that are relevant to your hypothesis. (If you are reporting data from a larger data set collected by several researchers, you do not need to report scales that you are not relevant to your hypothesis.)  

Note: For scales/questionnaires, be sure to always include a reference (unless you wrote all the items), the number of items on the scale, the response format, the internal consistency, and an example question.)

    In this section, include what participants were initially told about the intent of study, how they run (e.g., in groups or individually? in what order were the questionnaires administered?), and also mention that an informed consent statement was administered and a debriefing session was conducted.  (If there was no informed consent or debriefing, you should explain why in this section). You’ll probably want to combine Materials & Procedure for studies with simple procedures (like a short survey). For a more complex study (for example, one which uses a manipulation like the one described above), you will probably want to keep the Procedure section separate from the Materials section.


The results section is where you tell the reader several things about your data and data analysis.  First, provide basic descriptive information about the scales you used (report the mean and standard deviation for each scale).  If you have more than 3 or 4 variables in your paper, you might want to put this descriptive information in a table to keep the text from being too choppy and bogged down (see the APA manual for ideas on creating good tables).  Most central to the Results section, you tell the reader what statistics you conducted to test your hypothesis (-es) and what the results indicated. 

Include the following, in this order, in your results section:



If you are using Microsoft Word as your word processor, create the table, then you can adjust the "borders and shading" for each cell/row/column to get the table formatted properly. Another tip is to play around with double-spacing and/or using the "Format" "Paragraph" "Spacing before/after" features.  Other word processors, PowerPoint and Excel can produce similar tables. Do not use Figures or Tables produced by SPSS.

Click on this link to see 2 examples (PDF). 

See the APA Manual for more specific instructions for certain kinds of tables.


In your discussion section, relate the results back to your initial hypotheses.  Do they support or disconfirm them?  Remember: Results do not prove hypotheses right or wrong, they support them or fail to provide support for them.

Include the following information in (roughly) the following order:

Other Parts of the Paper

Title page -  Try to write a title that maximally informs the reader about the topic, without being ridiculously long; 10-12 words is the maximum recommended by APA. Use titles of articles you've read as examples of form. Also provide the RUNNING HEAD (an abbreviated title that appears in the header of each page along with the page number). Provide your name and institutional affiliation (e.g., Muhlenberg College). Format as per APA style.

Abstract: Write the abstract LAST. An abstract is a super-short summary and is difficult to write.

In 250 words or less your abstract should describe:

    --the topic of research (an "introduction" type sentence)

    --the specific question and method of doing so (a "method" type sentence)

    --the results (no numbers, just words)

    --a hint about the general direction the discussion section takes

References: Use APA style.  See your APA manual, textbook and/or a sample paper for examples of how to cite and how to make a reference list.  Make sure that all references mentioned in the text are also mentioned in the reference list and vice versa. Also see Finding, Reading and Citing psychology sources for information.

Tables and/or Figures:  Use APA style. Tables go at the very end of your paper.  Make sure you refer to the table or figure in the text of your paper. 

APA Style Guidelines

The American Psychological Association publishes a book containing the standards and rules all psychologists typically follow when writing a manuscript. There are many guidelines and some are more obscure than others. Check with your professor to see which APA Guidelines he or she would like you to learn and follow.

Below is a list of the guidelines most commonly required for undergraduates learning APA style. The numbers refer to the relevant section in the 6th Edition of the manual.

Other useful links: 

Finding, Reading and Citing Psychology Articles- help with PSYCHINFO, reference pages and other citation issues

Writing Empirical Papers: Advanced (PDF)

General Writing Tips on Writing Psychology Papers

Avoiding Inappropriate Paraphrasing

More Writing and APA Style Links

Information about purchasing an APA Manual

Web site maintained (such as it is) by Connie Wolfe.

Last update: 08/16/09