Writing Guide for Psychologists

More so than other social science and science-related disciplines, psychology requires practitioners to engage in various types of writing throughout their academic and professional careers. Beginning with their college applications, prospective students must supply a writing sample to demonstrate their ability to convey ideas clearly and effectively. Throughout their time in school, learners hone writing skills by learning about various styles associated with essays, research papers, and exams. They also learn how to properly cite sources to avoid plagiarism.

Graduates use writing in a variety of important ways. Whether reviewing literature, contributing an article to an academic journal, writing a report about their own research, or keeping detailed client notes, psychologists continually use writing to advance both their careers and the profession as a whole. Psychology's precise nature requires practitioners to expertly convey nuance. The following guide highlights some of the types of writing aspiring psychologists engage in while at school, provides helpful information about common writing styles, and offers a number of resources for those looking to learn more.

Personal Statements

As the introduction between a college and you, personal statements serve an important function. Personal statements provide the space for applicants to differentiate themselves by sharing unique interests, accomplishments, and life experiences in a well-crafted essay. When reading personal statements, admissions panels look at what makes a student tick and, most importantly, why they fit within the program. Rather than submitting carbon-copy statements to every school, students should take time to personalize each statement.

Some of the common application essay prompts students may encounter include:

  • Describe the background, interests, and talents that make you who you are.
  • Can you name a time when you found yourself questioning or challenging an idea or belief that previously informed your worldview? What did that process look like?

When sitting down to write an essay, students must consider how to portray themselves.

According to Purdue University's Online Writing Lab, students should consider a number of approaches, including what's unique about their story, how their life story has been shaped, how they became interested in the field, and how they hope to use the degree. Above all, students should avoid writing a generic essay that could easily belong to another applicant. They should highlight their personality, as admissions specialists want a true sense of you. While not every school requires a personal statement, learners should take advantage of schools that provide the option of submitting one as it allows them to further establish what they bring to the table.

Exams

Once students reach college, professors expect them to embrace numerous psychology writing styles. Exams also require students to perfect their writing, as exams take the form of essays rather than multiple choice or short answer questions. Because students typically enter the exam without having first seen an essay prompt, they must develop a plan of action for whatever faces them on testing day. Aside from keeping up with all required reading, learners should spend time thinking about how to apply the knowledge gained to real-world questions.

When testing day arrives, remember to embrace all of the writing rules. After developing a solid thesis, create an outline of the three main points that you plan to convey and jot down notes to support the main argument. Take a moment to review the prompt once more, ensuring your argument and outline thoroughly answer each question. Remember to write each sentence in a way that supports the overarching thesis. While students should avoid rushing through the essay, they must also remember to leave ample time for proofreading, as careless mistakes cause point deductions.

Research Papers

Research papers provide another avenue for students to demonstrate their psychology writing style and skill. Unlike essays, which tend to rely heavily on the student's point of view, research papers call on learners to highlight the views of others and draw conclusions about existing primary and secondary sources.

When selecting a research topic, psychology provides students with a wide range of options. In addition to focusing on particular branches of the discipline, students also explore disorders, therapies, historical psychology figures, case studies, and literature reviews. After selecting a topic, learners must form an outline incorporating the various sections expected within a research paper. Professors set specific guidelines, but a standard assignment consists of an introduction, literature review, outline of methods, results of any findings, a discussion of the topic at hand, conclusion, and list of references.

When starting, learners should ensure that they fully understand the writing prompt and follow any guidelines. They should also select a sound thesis with qualitative evidence to back it up. Students then create a comprehensive outline of points and sub-points to guide the argument. When sitting down to write, use the active voice, follow style conventions, proofread, and make sure to write an accurate bibliography.

How Do You Write an Essay?

During the course of their college career, students come across various types of writing in psychology. Essays take multiple forms, making it imperative that students familiarize themselves with each.

Narrative

Narrative essays may initially seem like the easiest of all writing forms, but those who earn the highest scores recognize the importance of ensuring that the reader learns something new or thinks that the story provides an insightful angle. When writing a narrative essay, make full use of all five senses to draw the reader in and help them experience the setting.

Expository

Expository essays help students learn how to properly conduct research and express their findings in an academic arena. Rather than relying on existing knowledge, students should use these essays to fully delve into research and demonstrate how their findings helped them uncover a new perspective or way of looking at something. Although expository essays ultimately call on students to express their opinions, research should inform the opinions they form.

Persuasive

Persuasive essays require students to use evidence and reasoning skills to persuade the reader that their point of view represents a logical conclusion. When sitting down to write this type of essay, students need to ensure that their sources strongly support the argument they want to make.

Comparative

These types of essays call on the student to examine two topics and draw conclusions about their similarities and differences. Students should use qualitative research for each topic and craft a new, logical, and interesting argument.

Cause and Effect

As the name implies, cause and effect essays require students to examine a situation or event that caused something else to occur (i.e., the effect). One example might include an individual experiencing trauma (such as fighting in a war) and then developing post-traumatic stress disorder. When crafting this type of essay, students must establish a strong relation between the cause and the effect.

Learning how to properly attribute research articles and sources counts as one of the most important parts of becoming a psychologist. When students fail to acknowledge the ideas of others, they plagiarize by passing off someone else's work off as their own. Many students commit accidental plagiarism by failing to understand the rules of citations. If caught, students may face suspension or even expulsion, especially if it happens multiple times.

American Psychological Association (APA) Style

Established in 1929 by the American Psychological Association, APA Style serves as the primary style guideline for individuals working within the behavioral and social sciences. Whether writing an academic paper or compiling an article or literature review, APA Style provides all of the information needed to correctly cite sources and avoid plagiarism. Unlike citation forms that emphasize authorship, APA style emphasizes the date of publication to help readers ascertain how recent the research and ideas appear in the available literature.

Example:
(Author last name, author first initial. (year of publication). Title of publication. Location of publication: publisher)
Frankl, V.E. (2006). Man's search for meaning. Boston: Beacon Press.

Chicago Manual of Style (CMS)

A variety of disciplines use the Chicago Manual of Style (CMS) to bring uniformity and clarity to readers. Regardless of whether the text focuses on literature, history, the sciences, or medicine, CMS serves as a uniting form of citation that allows users to introduce both notes within the text and a full bibliography at the end of the work. Footnotes and endnotes count as common methods used by CMS. While they both add clarification to the main text, footnotes appear on the page at the bottom, and endnotes appear near the end of the work. User should use the 17th edition of the CMS, it's latest update.

Example:
(Author last name, author first name. Title. City of publication: Publisher, Year of publication)
Frankl, Viktor Emil. Man's Search for Meaning. Boston: Beacon Press, 2006.

Modern Language Association (MLA) Format

Created by the Modern Language Association (MLA), humanities students and scholars most commonly use this style of citation because it emphasizes authorship. When using MLA, writers cite the name of the author within the text and organize the bibliography (known as the Works Cited page) at the end of the paper. Disciplines commonly using this form of citation include English, history, anthropology, philosophy, and literature. Many high school teachers use MLA, meaning lots of students possess some familiarity with this style upon reaching college.

(Author last name, author first name. Title. Publisher, Release year)
Frankl, Viktor Emil. Man's Search for Meaning. Boston: Beacon Press, 2006.

Associated Press (AP) Style

Associated Press Style (AP) caters to disciplines related to news writing and journalism. AP style focuses on numbers, dates, and abbreviations rather than end-of-chapter citations to ensure that writers maintain uniformity across publications. The Associated Press updates their style guides regularly, making it imperative for students and professionals alike to ensure that they follow the most recently established best practices.

The Best Writing Style for Psychology Majors

Students and scholars of psychology most commonly use the American Psychological Association writing style. Designed with psychology and other science-related disciplines in mind, APA style provides the clearest method for citing the types of materials typically encountered. Most psychology college professors require students to use APA style to prepare them for professional writing for psychology practice; however, some introductory classes may allow students to use MLA.

Active Vs. Passive Voice

Writing in the active voice allows students to convey findings clearly and succinctly by calling on the subject of the sentence to perform the action. Passive sentence construction, conversely, allows the subject to receive the action. While not technically incorrect, passive sentences tend to weaken the persuasive nature of a sentence -- as they require more words (and prepositional phrases, in particular) -- and sometimes muddle a sentence's meaning. Understanding how to use active voice presents little difficulty, but executing active-voice sentences often requires sustained focus and practice. Examples of active and passive sentences include:

Passive: The man was scratched by a feral cat.
Active: A feral cat scratched the man.

Passive: My shoe was left in the car by accident.
Active: I left my shoe in the car by accident.

Passive: The picture has fallen off the wall.
Active: The picture fell off the wall.

Punctuation

Students make a variety of punctuation and grammar errors. Some of the most common punctuation errors include the overuse or underuse of apostrophes and commas, adding unnecessary quotation marks, and failing to understand colon and semicolon rules. Examples of these mistakes include:

Apostrophes
Incorrect: The professor took five point's off of your test.
Correct: The professor took five points off of your test.

Incorrect: Its time to apply for graduation.
Correct: It's time to apply for graduation

Quotation Marks
Incorrect: The teaching assistant told me I wrote the "best paper he's ever read."
Correct: The teaching assistant told me I wrote the best paper he's ever read.

Commas
Incorrect: Within the field of psychology students are expected to use proper punctuation.
Correct: Within the field of psychology, students are expected to use proper punctuation.

Incorrect: Today, we have a test.
Correct: We have a test today.

Semicolons versus Colons
Incorrect: I am interested in three types of psychology; developmental, school, and educational
Correct: I am interested in three types of psychology: developmental, school, and educational.


Incorrect: I'm looking forward to summer break: I need time to rest.
Correct: I'm look forward to summer break; I need time to rest.

Grammar

Grammar mistakes take many forms, but students who closely observe the rules of writing quickly learn how to avoid them. Whether struggling with subject-verb agreement, unclear pronoun usage, or incorrectly using words, students can make easy repairs to these sentences. Examples of how to correct these common mistakes include:

Subject-verb agreement
Incorrect: My colleague and I was happy with our grades.
Correct: My colleague and I were happy with our grades.

Unclear pronoun usage
Incorrect: Our professor told my colleague that he didn't like his writing style initially.
Correct: Our professor encouraged my colleague by complimenting his improved writing style.

Incorrect word usage
Incorrect: When they're group excepted our invitation, their were no spaces left for others.
Correct: When their group accepted our invitation, there were no spaces left for others.

  • Purdue Online Writing Lab: Every students seeking writing advice should bookmark Purdue University's OWL. The site provides endless resources to help them excel as writers both in college and beyond.

  • APA Style: Psychology most commonly uses APA style for citations, and students should know the most updated rules. APA also provides several online and printed resources.

  • Writing in Psychology Resources: The University of Connecticut offers an extensive list of resources for psychology students, including guides on how to read research articles, summarize reports, report statistics, and take examinations.

  • Psychology Writing Resources: The University of Toronto offers help on APA style guidelines, scientific article writing, and best practices within the field.

  • Tips and Advice for Writing Psychology Papers: Very Well Mind takes psychology students through the steps of learning to write great psychology papers and offers helpful tips and resources along the way.