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.
- 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.
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.
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.
ASK YOUR INSTRUCTOR FOR HELP. Writing for psychology can be
difficult. Your instructor will no doubt be happy to help with
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
- No one writes glowing first drafts (or
second drafts....). Good writers are relentless revisers.
WHAT IS CONSIDERED "GOOD" WRITING IN PSYCHOLOGY?
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.
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.
You have heard this before...
We never think computer problems will hit us until
Hard drives crash. Flash or SUB drives also fail and files uploaded to the internet can get lost or damaged.
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:
conceptual definition of your
terms before you begin discussing the term. For example, you should not be
talking about the relationship of "locus of control" to another variable if
you have not yet given the conceptual definition of locus of control.
Explain your ideas
fully. Be meticulous, even
nit-picking, in saying exactly what you mean.
To help maintain a consistent tone throughout
the paper, avoid direct quotes. Only
use quotes if there is something unique and special conveyed by not just the
author’s ideas, but the particular words used to express those ideas.
that is not yours needs a citation whether it is a direct quote or not. You
do not have to include a citation in every sentence, but the reader needs to be
clear where your information came from. Note: each new paragraph, even if you
are continuing to cite from the same source, needs a citation. Check this web page for more information.
Paraphrasing too closely from your sources is a
form of plagiarism.
this web page for more information.
Avoid using a psychological term or
expression when you are referring to the more colloquial meaning. Example to avoid: “The notion
that people dislike inconsistent thoughts correlates
with the need to behave consistently with our attitudes.” (Do not use the term
"correlates" unless you are referring to a statistical
correlation.) Other terms to be careful with:
Avoid absolutes and immodest expressions. The
word ‘PROVE’ and all variations of it are off limits (try using any of the
following words instead: suggest, support, show, indicate). Also avoid words
like ‘completely’, ‘absolutely’, ‘always’, etc. Avoid expressions like “These
results conclusively demonstrate that researchers have been all wrong in the
past.” Try to be more moderate: “The results of the present research failed to
replicate past findings....”
Avoid overly complex sentence structures. If
you have started accumulating many punctuation marks or clauses in a single
sentence, your sentence is probably too complex for the reader to understand
Work on transitions between ideas. A good
transition will lead the reader from one idea to the next smoothly – the reader
will not have to wonder why you’ve switched topics.
Avoid using an overly colloquial or chatty
writing style. Absolutely avoid slang and do not use
contractions. Your overall tone needs to be formal (but your paper should not
sound like a computer program wrote it.)
Passive voice is
somewhat accepted in psychological
writing, but active voice is much better where
ever possible. E.g. passive: ‘The experiment was conducted by Smith;
active: ‘Smith conducted the experiment.’
Avoid giving an object human qualities.
For example, studies don’t "want," people do.
You can use the 1st person from
time to time (e.g. “I hypothesized that....”), but try to avoid its overuse.
out for common grammar problems including: "then" versus "than";
use of apostrophes/possessives, noun-verb agreement, consistent use of
past tense. Also note that the abbreviation "e.g." means "for example"
and the abbreviation "i.e." means "that is" or "to clarify." The APA
publication manual includes information on basic grammar and
And, before turning
your paper in...
helps to set the draft aside for a day or so and re-examine it with a fresh
eye. Be sure to:
Check for spelling,
grammar, APA style, and typos. Spell-check AND proof-read.
Re-read the assignment to make sure you didn’t
Edit your paper one last time for clarity and fully articulated
- 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.