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Tips for Writing in Psychology

16 points to take into account for all psychology-related writing.

FirmBee / Pixabay
Source: FirmBee / Pixabay

Helping develop students' writing skills related to presenting psychology-related information is a core goal of my work. I have taught at six different schools since 1994 - and have probably graded upwards of 4,000 student writing samples over the years. Along the way, I created a writing tips document designed to help get psychology students (and students in general, really) to tighten up their writing - especially in terms of understanding verbiage that should be avoided at all costs. Below are the writing tips that I give to my psychology students — exactly as presented to my students. I hope you find these tips useful in your own writing related to psychological content. Enjoy!

Glenn’s Writing Tips

No papers with an abundance of the following errors will receive a grade of an A.

1. USUALLY affect is a verb and effect is a noun.

e.g., This variable affects several things.

e.g., That other variable produced a very large effect.

2. If the subject of your sentence is singular, the verb and subsequent pronouns referring to the subject must be also. This said, note that "they" and "their" are considered appropriate for singular pronouns in APA format.

e.g., The participant then provided their background information.

e.g., The measure showed its worth in the reliability analysis.

3. Never use the word prove in a psychology paper. While psychologists do many things, proving is virtually never one of them.

INCORRECT: These results prove that Schmedley’s hypothesis was correct.

BETTER: These results support Schmedley’s hypothesis.

BETTER STILL: These results support the hypothesis that Schmedley should change his name … just kidding.

4. Be succinct. Do not use a lot of words to make a point if you can make the same point with fewer words. If two papers make the same points, the one with fewer words is, to my mind, better.

BAD: Asch’s research on conformity is very interesting because it includes interesting research and has important ideas that are very meaningful.

BETTER: Asch’s research on conformity is interesting for several reasons.

5. Try to avoid first-person writing (when possible) and, especially, opinions (unless first-person writing is asked for, as is often the case in online discussion forums for classes, for instance).

BAD: I am writing a paper on conformity. In this paper, I will talk about how social psychologists have studied conformity and why I am so interested in this interesting topic.

BETTER: This paper will address conformity as it has been studied in social psychology.

NOTE: In some cases, first person is appropriate and/or necessary, such as a paper for a class that is supposed to basically be in APA format except that it asks for your perspective on someone or something or in an online discussion forum for a class; also, the newest APA formatting guidelines allow for first person in a research paper (e.g., "I collected data across six sessions" is fine).

6. Do not use contractions.

BAD: Subjects were asked if they’d administer an electric shock.

BETTER: Subjects were asked if they would administer an electric shock.

7. Its vs. It's. It’s means it is (but you should not be using contractions anyway). Its is a possessive pronoun referring to a noun that possesses something.

e.g., The frog grabbed the fly with its tongue. (here its means the frog’s)

8. Punctuation marks go inside quotation marks.

BAD: Then the experimenter said, “Oh Boy”.

BETTER: Then the experimenter said, “Oh Boy.”

BETTER STILL: Then the experimenter said, “Golly!”

9. Always follow the word this with a specific noun. Otherwise, your writing will be unclear.

BAD: Changes will be made at all levels of management. The impact of this will be enormous.

BETTER: Changes will be made at all levels of management. The impact of this restructuring will be enormous.

10. i.e., means “in other words.” e.g., means “for example.”

e.g., These people are thought to be cerebral in nature (i.e., they tend to think a lot).

e.g., Their diet includes several kinds of flowers (e.g., roses).

11. Some helpful word substitutions:


looked at to examined

got to obtained

did to conducted

12. Only use the word “correlation” if you are referring to a specific relationship between two different continuous variables. Do not just throw this word around because it sounds good.

GOOD: A positive correlation was observed between number of hamburgers eaten and the size of one’s bellyache.

BAD: A correlation between these different ideas can be found. (This sentence simply does not mean anything).

13. AVOID turn-of-phrase plagiarism! Paraphrasing ideas of others is not the same as rewriting all of their sentences with substituted words or structural changes. For instance, suppose that you find an article that says the following: “The stimulus in this study was very large and the environment was highly controlled.” It would be totally plagiarizing if you changed this to either:

“The stimulus in this research was enormous and the context was highly stabilized.” or: “In this study, the environment was highly controlled and the stimulus in this study was very large.”

In paraphrasing, you need to look AWAY from what you have read when you write your summary — and describe the ideas as you would as if you were describing them to a lay person. That’s best writing — and will help you avoid getting called out on plagiarism.

14. Compound adjectives are clusters of words that, in combination, describe some noun. Unless the first word in the cluster is an adverb ending in “ly” (random rule), the words in the cluster need to be hyphenated to make it clear that they act as a unit. For instance:

Change: The student was well read to: The student was well-read. (here, well and read work together to make a single adjective)

Change: The tip of the tongue phenomenon is really cool to The tip-of-the-tongue phenomenon is really cool (here tip and of and the and tongue work together to make a single adjective).

15. Technical terms should be demarcated by italics and defined on first use.

Change: Evolutionary mismatch may play a role in terms of why people now overeat unhealthy foods.

To: Evolutionary mismatch, which corresponds to situations in which modern environments do not match ancestral conditions that were common during evolution, may play a role in terms of why people now overeat unhealthy foods.

16. "Data," meaning pieces of information, is plural for "datum," meaning a single piece of information. Thus, data is a plural word - and it needs to be used in writing as such!

Incorrect: This data has an interesting implication.

Correct: These data have an interesting implication.

Happy writing from Darwin's Subterranean World!

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