Psych Write: Psychology Can Make Sense and Be Fun to Read!

Everyday people can make sense of psychology articles written with them in mind.

Posted Jul 27, 2015

Writng about psychological topics for a general audience can be tricky. As a college professor and popular psychology book editor, I have to tell some writers, "You don't have enough psychology in that paper." I also have to tell people (sometimes the same people), "You're not writing a journal article."

"You don't have enough psychology in that paper."
"You're not writing a journal article."

It's not really a case of "versus," though. Students, teachers, bloggers, magazine writers, chapter authors, and anyone else trying to tell the masses about psychological topics could make both mistakes at the same time. Formal, stilted writing can, just as easily as a personal blog, say very much or very little without ever saying anything distinctly psychological.

SarahStierch/Wikimedia Commons
Source: SarahStierch/Wikimedia Commons

Consider who your readers are. At one extreme, writers can forget (or fail to realize in the first place) what a general audience is. They're readers. Most, though, are neither psychology professionals nor psych students. You probably want the pros and students to appreciate what you're saying, too, but remember they make up only a small portion of your readership.

Most readers are unaccustomed to reading APA style. If you often write in APA (or other) style, think back to how daunting the first APA style article you ever opened looked at the time.

For example, relatively few general readers are familiar with the way we write journal articles. Our parenthetical citations (Smith & Wesson, 1852) look weird and intrusive, and they act as speed bumps that interupt the reading momentum. Consider using unobtrusive endnotes instead.

Get to the point. Let readers know your topic quickly. Make your key points quickly. Even though you need to jazz things up with interesting anecdotes, remarks, asides, and other dressings, I see more writers err by dressing things up too much. Most stories can be told in half as many words. Most students' opening sentences (and often entire paragraphs) can be removed without losing anything important. Don't bury your Thanksgiving turkey under a pile of dressing.

Don't be redundant. Reminders have their place, of course, but notice when two sentences in a row convey the same basic notion through different sets of words. Don't be redundant. Don't repeat yourself too much, either (and remember that ironic remarks may not look as obviously facetious in plain text as they seem inside your head).

Remember your point. Meandering is too easy to do. Somewhere along the way, ask yourself how each sentence helps you to make your immediate point (whatever you're saying in that section or paragraph) and your ultimate point (the main thing you're trying to say overall). Remember which tree you're working on and which forest you're in.

Do not bore the readers. They won't like it.

Don't be too formal. Excessively formal writing style can even bore the psych pros who read your work. Use everyday language (up to a point - see below). Contractions can be okay.

Don't be too casual. Readers might not take excessively casual writing seriously or they might feel that the writer seems to condescend by either talking down to the reader or trying too hard to be hip. More importantly, using everyday language does not mean using all everyday language. Writing the way people really, um, y'now, talk is, like, way lame and-and totes distracting. Use slang sparingly, if at all, and don't overuse contractions.

Jargon is good. This may seem odd when we're writing for general audiences, but technical terminology is good when used well. Think of jargon like a strange term that appears in a science fiction story, because a lot of our jargon seems no less alien to our readers. 

Unique terms help us emphasize that this stuff is psychological, as opposed to being philosophical, theological, biological, political, comical, etc. To us, merely talking about thought processes might seem inherently psychological, but without including a term, mentioning a theory, naming a psychologist, or referring to psychology itself, our thoughts can strike the reader as carrying no more expertise than the rambling of any random person by the water cooler.Jargon can help assure them that we're qualified to do our rambling.

Don't assume readers already know any of your jargon. The fact that people don't use a term outside a particular subject area (psychology, in this case) is what makes it jargon, by definition. 

Don't announce that you're defining all of your terms. "Cognitive dissonance is defined as a conflict or anxiety resulting from inconsistencies between one's beliefs and one's actions or other beliefs." BLECH! One easy and more readable solution is to use the term in a sentence and define it parenthetically, or vice-versa. 

Jargon is good. So is chili powder. Don't overuse either. Instead of repeating jargon, sometimes paraphrase or use an everyday synonym.

Don't mix your chili powder with too many other spices. You're not writing a textbook chapter. (Probably not.) When readers see a large number of terms, that's daunting. One option is introduce each term parenthetically (insert relevant, brainy-looking term here) so readers have the option of skimming past most of them without interupting the flow of your sentences.

Another option is to say everything you need to say about one term so readers can see what you're saying about it, and then leave that term behind before you move onto the next one. In other words, use the term fully while it's in short-term memory (working memory, whatever's on the person's mind at that moment) without counting on that term making it into their long-term memory (information that lingers in memory for longer than a moment). Here's an example of how I used that method in a new book, The Walking Dead Psychology: Psych of the Living Dead, for my chapter on defense mechanisms.1

 Psych of the Living Dead ©  Travis Langley
Source: The Walking Dead Psychology: Psych of the Living Dead © Travis Langley
  • Affiliation, forming relationships with others, offers safety in numbers and security as part of a group even when people must keep relocating.2 "Surviving together is all that matters," Rick eventually decides.3
  • Instead of acting on unacceptable impulses, a person may sublimate that mental energy, directing it into creativity4 or any other activity. This occurs when Rick takes up farming on the prison grounds as an alternative to violence.5 

I used the term defense mechanisms repeatedly because that, as the chapter opening made clear, was the topic of my entire piece. I only tasked the readers with holding that one bit of jargon in long-term memory, and I used several techniques to help them hold it there.

Define a term succinctly and in everyday language. "Cognitive dissonance (stress over realizing your actions contradict your beliefs) makes many people change their beliefs so they won't feel like hypocrites."

Refresh definitions through context. Once the term is explained, it can be used casually. Use context to refresh readers' memory of a term instead of formally defining it yet again or assuming they remember. Restating things in a different way keeps things fresh while also helping readers who didn't quite get what you meant the first time.

Make sense the first time. The meaning of a theory, definition, or other concept is not the solution to a murder mystery. Spell it out already.

Italicize special terms. Italicizing jargon can help writers mix things up visually, reassure readers that they're not expected to know those words already, and say that you really are talking about psychology even while you're trying to be conversational about it. If I hadn't italicized affiliation in the example above, not all readers would have realized the word appeared there as a defense mechanism's name.

Do not mention a lot of people's names. In my chapter on defense mechanisms, I talked about Sigmund Freud some. Even though I'm no Freudian myself, my chapter applied his ideas to The Walking Dead (or used The Walking Dead to illustrate his ideas, depending on your point of view). I mentioned Anna Freud and George Vaillant because they both expanded our ideas on defense mechanisms and provided much of my chapter's structure. As with the technical terms, though, I named Anna and George only once.

Mentioning a person's name without talking about that individual as a person makes readers wonder, "Who?" I did not say things like "Gannt and Burton (2013) looked at egoism, altruism, and the ethical foundations of personhood"6 because every additional name makes it harder for readers to remember any details central to the overall topic.

Do not mention a lot of dates. In my chapter on defense mechanisms, I identified the years Freud lived (1856-1939) for historical context and included no other dates. Most dates are clutter and distractions. The occasional reader who wants to know more can find dates in the reference section.

Don't lecture. Talk to them, not at them, and do not make them feel like they're sitting in classroom. "In this section, we will look at..." might as well start with "Now, class...." 

"How?" is better than "What?" and "Why" is better than "How?" The best question your psych topic (e.g., defense mechanisms) can try to answer about your down-to-earth topic (e.g., how people or characters cope with stress) is usually WHY? "Here are a lot of terms that name things you see people do" has value, but "Here's what we might know about WHY people do those things we're naming" is stronger.


You're not writing a journal article! Come up with more interesting section headings than "Introduction" or "Conclusion." Don't use any form of "Introduction" at all, for that matter. Your paper or post already has a title. Readers know the introduction is exactly that when it's the first thing they read. They might not realize the conclusion is the conclusion immediately if they haven't scrolled down the page far enough to see that this is the end, so it needs its own heading.

Don't end too abruptly. That can be jarring.


And seriously reconsider using emoticons.


Langley (2015).
2 Wisman & Koole (2003).
3 The Walking Dead season 5B trailer (November 30, 2014).
4 Kim, Zeppenfield, & Cohen (2013).
5 The Walking Dead episode 3-1 "Seed" (October 13, 2012).
6 Gannt & Burton (2013).


Gannt, E. E., & Burton, J. (2013). Egoism, altruism, and the ethical foundations of personhood. Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 53(4). 438-460.

Kim, E., Zeppenfeld, V., & Cohen, D. (2013). Sublimation, culture, and creativity. Journal of Personality & Social Psychology, 105(4), 639-666.

Langley, T. (2015). Eros, thanatos, and an armory of defense mechanisms: Sigmund Freud in the land of the dead. In T. Langley (Ed.), The Walking Dead psychology: Psych of the living dead (pp. 192-205). New York, NY: Sterling.

Wisman, A., & Koole, S. L. (2003) Can mortality salience promote affiliation with others who oppose one’s worldview? Journal of Personality & Social Psychology 84(3), 511-526.