Writing in Psychology

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When working in the field of psychology, it is important to communicate the knowledge you discover to others. From this knowledge, others are able to understand various phenomena and—as a result—gain better insight into human behavior. Professionals working in the field can use this knowledge to help people. Your scholarly contributions can have a direct impact on people’s daily lives!

Psychology is a Social Science

Given the potential impact of your words on others, it is important to communicate in a manner that reflects the way knowledge is created and shared in psychology. Psychology is a social science. Thus, the writing style employed by psychology is scientific in nature, which means that you need to distinguish your subjective, personal opinions from objective, empirically supported information in your writing. Though your thoughts and feelings on a subject are important, they are not the same as information gained from research that is generalizable to other. To make this distinction, you will want to support the claims you make as fact with citations, employ the 3rd person in your writing to avoid subjectivity, and provide empirical or theoretical evidence to support your arguments. You are conveying knowledge to other people in your discipline and evaluating it critically, not making personal judgments pertaining to it.

The scientific nature of writing in psychology leads to certain attributes of writing being highly valued. Your writing needs to be clear, precise, objective, supported by evidence, well-reasoned, and "especially" respectful of the work of others.

Write Clearly and Precisely

  • Your texts should have a clear thesis statement. Be specific about the focus of your paper.
  • Use shorter sentences to be concise and clear. Avoid excessive wording. Eliminate any unnecessary words when revising.
  • Precision in language is important. Be specific, especially when describing variables, samples, and populations. Vague language can make it difficult for readers to understand a study or replicate it.
  • Construct paragraphs in a logical fashion. Have a basic structure for each paragraph: topic sentence, primary support with specific examples, and an objective conclusion that links back to your topic.
  • Avoid ambiguity. Readers should not have to interpret your meaning in a complex fashion. Say what you mean and mean what you say! To do so, be sure to avoid idioms as non-native speakers may not understand your intent. All phrases should make sense when interpreted literally.

Write Objectively

  • Use 3rd person in most of your writing. Rarely use 2nd person, and use 1st person only if you are describing a research project you performed or are stating your personal views that are not supported by research or theory.
  • Paraphrasing and summarizing are critical for writing in psychology! Explain the information from studies in your own words and cite your sources yet avoid adding personal evaluations.
  • Do not use quotes. Paraphrasing and citing your sources are always preferred to quoting when writing in psychology.
  • Be accurate. Mistakes in factual information will ruin your reputation with your reader and could be harmful to others who rely on your research!
  • Use affirming and inclusive language; avoid the use of language that perpetuates prejudicial beliefs or biased assumptions against persons on the basis of age, disability, gender, participation in research, racial or ethnic identity, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, or some combination of these or other personal factors.

Write Using Evidence and Strong Reasoning

  • Any claim made in psychology needs to be supported by a citation of empirical evidence or established theoretical knowledge. Do not make claims without providing sufficient support.
  • Employ citation strings when multiple sources support a claim so your reader has access to additional information regarding the claims made.
  • Use empirical evidence to support your argument. What other scholars said is not as relevant as what other scholars did and what the data means.
  • Choose reputable sources. All sources are not equally credible so be selective in the evidence you choose to support your argument and acknowledge the credibility of the source in your writing.
  • Make sure you fully comprehend any source or data that you use to support your arguments. Comprehension is key.
  • Write the first draft from your memory of the source - not while looking at the source itself. After the first draft is written, use the source to verify that your recall is accurate and edit your writing. Writing the first draft while looking at the source can set the conditions for unintentional plagiarism.
  • Prepare to defend arguments against a critical reader. Anticipate the types of questions such a reader may have and convince them that your argument and support are appropriate and sufficient.
  • Employ a funnel structure for your writing (see below). Start out by addressing the topic in a broad sense, narrow down to the specific area your research addresses, and conclude by returning to a broader discussion of how the results impact the overall discussion.

Write to Convey Respect for the Work of Others

  • Always include a citation when borrowing any idea from another source.
  • In a paragraph, cite every time you change sources. If everything in the paragraph comes from the same source, cite at the beginning and end of the paragraph unless adding additional citations elsewhere in the paragraph reduces ambiguity as to the source of the ideas being presented.
  • Avoid using secondary citations. Whenever possible, cite from the original source.
  • Never plagiarize! Plagiarism shows disrespect for your colleagues’ work, indicates your failure to acknowledge the discipline as a scientific endeavor, and tarnishes your reputation as a professional.

Helpful Resources