General Tips for Writing a Paper for Psychology

Hopefully the following information will be useful as you begin to write your paper for your psychology class or research project.  Note that each assignment will have its own unique requirements. Never hesitate to ask your professor for assistance or clarification as well.  Your professor (and/or the APA Manual) has final word.


GETTING STARTED

  1. Try to write a little every day, rather than the entire paper in a single sitting.  You will write a better paper, learn more about improving your writing, and experience better mental health if you start EARLY.  Set mini-deadlines for yourself for an outline, a rough-rough draft, a less-rough draft, and your final product.
  2. If you experience writer’s block, try making a list of what information you could include in the paper (worry about ordering and prioritizing the list later).  Or try FREE-WRITING. Spend 10 minutes writing everything you can think of about your topic and assignment. Don’t worry about style, form, importance, etc. Free-writing can help you loosen up as you sit down at the computer for a few minutes of low-stakes writing.  
  3. Write the method section first.  It is much easier than the introduction.  Also, I’d suggest leaving the opening paragraph of the introduction for last.
  4. ASK YOUR INSTRUCTOR FOR HELP.  Writing for psychology can be difficult.  Your instructor will no doubt be happy to help with specific questions and/or just be a sounding board as you try to articulate your reasoning. He or she can also point you toward other sources for writing help.
  5. No one writes glowing first drafts (or second drafts....). Good writers are relentless revisers.

WHAT IS CONSIDERED "GOOD" WRITING IN PSYCHOLOGY?

Top Priority: Write Clearly and Fully Express your Reasoning

Your overall point in any given sentence, paragraph or section of the paper must be communicated clearly. Getting out of your own head to discern if it would be clear to someone else can be very difficult. Reading your work aloud may help you “hear” what the paper “sounds like” and find unclear passages.

Another important aspect to clarity involves FULLY expressing your logic and stating your conclusions. It is acceptable to assume your reader understands the basics of statistics and methods (e.g., you do not have to explain p-values or what an independent variable is). However, you cannot assume your reader is familiar with the particular topic you are writing about. So, take the reader in small steps from A to B to C to D...etc. Don’t leave any gaps in your reasoning, even if the logic seems obvious.

Another Top Priority:  Follow APA Standards for Organization and Expression

Much of what makes a paper a good one in psychology is following the APA style guidelines for organization and expression. These conventions are laid out in the APA Publication Manual. Your psychology paper will be a good one if you can smoothly articulate your ideas within the structure. The structure allows any psychologist to easily read any psychological article. Also, a standard format helps hold all of psychological literature to a high standard of scientific objectivity.  

The Ultimate Challenge:  Balancing Structure with Interesting Writing

Following APA style and organization sometimes leads to dry, plodding writing.  The best writers balance all that restrictive structure with an engaging writing style.  Especially in the introduction and discussion sections, it is possible to follow the formula and still articulate your ideas in an interesting way.  The best psychology papers tell a story to an audience of educated adults who are seriously interested in the research. Your story should be based on your research, however, and should avoid emotional or flowery language, metaphors that stray too far from the central topic, or personal accounts about your own life or some other individual’s life.


COMMON PROBLEMS

You have heard this before...

We never think computer problems will hit us until they do. Hard drives crash. Flash or SUB drives also fail and files uploaded to the internet can get lost or damaged. Save your work to multiple storage devices, and consider printing (on scrap paper) as you work.

Start with a very rough draft and do most of the work via revision...

It is difficult to write a coherent paper if you worry about the content plus the style and form all at the same time. Many writers start with an outline and then begin the actual paper using a "free-write" method. That is, they just sit down and start typing without worrying about APA style, grammar and so forth. After they have a very rough draft, they do multiple rounds of revision and editing. Most of the work writing the paper ends up happening during these rounds of revisions. As you revise your papers, keep the following common errors in mind:

And, before turning your paper in...

It helps to set the draft aside for a day or so and re-examine it with a fresh eye. Be sure to:

  1. Check for spelling, grammar, APA style, and typos.  Spell-check AND proof-read.
  2. Re-read the assignment to make sure you didn’t forget anything.
  3. Edit your paper one last time for clarity and fully articulated reasoning.
  4. Save your paper and a back-up copy as you work.  Also save a final copy for your files.


*The above was compiled by Connie Wolfe, modified from information distributed by the University of Michigan Writing Center.

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