Advice for writing psychology papers

Writing good research papers in psychology is an important skill that takes practice to master. Many students taking their first psychology course have never written this type of research paper and could use some guidance about what to do and what common pitfalls to avoid. Psychology courses at Goshen College require a good deal of writing to give students the opportunity to practice honing these skills. As always, your professors are happy to help you with your writing assignments. The following advice should help you get started:

Getting started (i.e., the literature search):

  1. Start early. Begin researching your topic at least 2-3 weeks prior to the due date. Sometimes the “perfect” article for your topic requires interlibrary loan. In addition, students often have an idea about how they want to argue a particular side of the issue, but it just doesn’t pan out in the literature. Starting early gives you more time to get a sense of what is known about a topic and allows you more time to think about your literature review or argument. You really do want to become more of an “expert” about your chosen topic.
  2. Use peer-reviewed academic sources. Peer-review is an important part of the scientific process. It means that the authors of a research study submit their paper for review by experts in the field to determine that the experiment was conducted in a rigorous manner with appropriate research methodology, data analysis, and understanding of the literature on the topic. When psychologists use peer-reviewed articles, they have assurance that the source is valid and provides reliable information. When you begin searching EBSCO for sources for your paper, choose only the PsycINFO and psycArticles databases. In addition, the reference librarians at the Good Library have put together an extensive page of resources for psychology students and are an excellent source of assistance when searching for relevant articles and academic book chapters.
  3. Find more articles than you think you will need. A common misstep many students make is to only read and use the bare minimum sources required for an assignment. People who successfully write research papers read many more articles than what they end up using for their papers. Reading broadly really helps students gain a better perspective about what is known about a topic. It also allows students to change their mind about which sources to include when they are in the process of writing without needing to start their literature search over. You should plan to become an “expert” on the topic you are writing about.

The first draft

  1. Use the 3rd person. Writing in psychology (and other related disciplines, such as sociology or nursing) requires the use of APA Style. APA Style encompasses not only the formatting of references and citations, but also the style which writers must use when publishing in the discipline of psychology. One element of APA style encourages the use of the 3rd person point of view. This means that instead of using the first person (i.e., I or we) or the second person (i.e., you), writers in APA Style should use the third person (i.e., he, she, it, or they). For further information about the distinction between first, second, and third person, Grammar Girl has an excellent explanation.
  2. Combine sources in a single paragraph. Novice research paper writers often think that each source should have its own paragraph. Sometimes this works well when a source has many relevant details, however, with broad reading on a topic, students often find multiple sources that have essentially the same findings.  These sources should be combined into a single paragraph so you are writing about the ideas that are supported by the research instead of focusing on individual studies as free-standing work. It also gives strength to the evidence you present because it shows that it can be replicated.
  3. Focus on the ideas. You should avoid stating the title of a work in the text of your paper. Why? In writing about a topic, emphasizing the ideas or the evidence is more important than the title of the source. The title is in the Reference section if your reader wants to know it!
  4. Don’t list full names of authors. Using a particular writing style is important to how work is published in a particular field. We give authors credit for their ideas and hard work by citing them in the text – this is of paramount importance because otherwise we would be guilty of plagiarism! However, listing both first and last name increases the length of written work, and those extra words increase printing costs. It is typical in many fields to conserve space by abbreviating the ways that we credit sources. In APA style, it is a general rule to only use the last names, even outside the parentheses unless we are writing about the individual as the topic. In addition, it is the researchers’ identity is often tangential to the topic. Listing out full names can take attention away from ideas and shift it to whose findings you are reporting. Sometimes this is OK, but when it consistently happens throughout a paper, it can distract the reader from your argument!
  5. Wordiness. Introductory phrases can be superfluous! For example, many students write things such as, “A research study conducted in 1998 by Smith and Jones found that primates can show insight in problem solving.” Research papers require succinct writing, meaning the writing style can help authors get their point across in fewer words. The same information can be conveyed more directly as: “Primates can show insight in problem solving (Smith & Jones, 1998).”

Revising your work

  1. Revise your work. You should aim to have a draft of your work ready several days before you need to turn it in. Writing a good paper in psychology means that you revise your paper 3 or 4 times before you are finished! This allows you more time to think about how well constructed your argument is, whether you are missing any information that would strengthen your argument, and to find any typos, mechanical and grammatical errors in your work.
  2. Visit your professor. Your psychology professors welcome students to visit our offices to talk about your writing assignments. We are happy to look over a paragraph or page of your paper as long as you share it with us at least 48 hours before it is due so you will have time to incorporate any feedback into your paper. Sometimes just talking about your paper will give you new insights and avenues of inquiry. It also lets your professor know that you are putting forth your best effort and allows us an opportunity to visit with you one on one about your work.

Getting ready to turn in your paper

  1. Get peer reviews. Have at least two other people read your paper, one of whom is not taking a psychology course. Choose people who will think critically about your message and ask good questions that may point out flaws in your argument or missing, but relevant, evidence. Ask if they understand the ideas you have written about and whether your argument makes sense. You will likely want them to proofread your paper as well, but making sure your message is clear is important.
  2. Compare your paper to the assignment’s grading rubric. Once you have revised your paper and incorporated feedback, make one final check that you have fulfilled the requirements and expectations for the assignment. Your psychology professors provide you with the criteria they use to grade your papers as well as expectations regarding content. Check to make sure you have answered the questions posed in the assignment and determine if you have met or exceeded the expectations set forth in the grading rubric.

Helpful online resources

Lastly, there are a number of excellent resources on the internet that can help you with APA Style and general grammar issues.