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Section 5.9 Writing for Psychology

Psychology presents unique challenges to student writers: It can be difficult to navigate between quantitative scientific data and the ineluctably qualitative arguments that you'll need to make about human behavior. Read this guide to get a better idea of what it's important to focus on while writing for psychology!

Genres

There are two main kinds of writing in psychology. The first is research reports, in which you will convey to your audience the research you have done, the reason you did it, what method you did it by, and the results and conclusions you arrived at. The second type of writing you will do is literature reviews, in which you will write papers focused on canvassing a particular area of research to generate new conclusions about that area. Another type of writing you may be asked to do that is less common is translational writing, in which you will be asked to “translate” scientific writing for general audiences.

Purpose

If your grandmother is a reasonably smart person and she's still alive and she's never majored in psychology, and if she can't understand your paper from beginning to end, there's probably something wrong with it.

The purpose of writing in psychology is, at its most fundamental level, to communicate our understanding of behavior and mental processes. Because knowledge in psychology can make a good and meaningful difference in the lives of people, it is paramount that your writing is understandable. In order to promote meaningful change in people's lives, you must first be able to communicate the findings of empirical research effectively to both other scientists and larger audiences.

Traits and Characteristics

The goal is to be honest.

Because psychology is a science and psychological writing is used to change how individuals and societies think about and treat others, it is crucial that arguments are made honestly and using empirical data. In your essays, it's therefore important that you prioritize presenting your data fairly over pushing your own interpretation of the data. Instead, while you make your argument you should allow room for alternate explanations: be honest about what you know and what you don't know and recognize the limitations of your argument.

In your attempt to be as honest as possible with your findings, you will be aided by being precise and concise rather than ambiguous and flowery. It is difficult to be straightforward if your writing is confusing or vague about what your results actually are and how you obtained them.

While presenting the facts of your research clearly and plainly is vital, it is equally important to “go beyond the data” by writing about its applied relevance in interdisciplinary and ethical spaces.

Evidence

In psychology, you can almost never see the thing you want to know . . . 

The data you use should be empirical rather than textual. For this reason, a theory from a secondary source is not evidence, and most professors discourage the use of quotes. However, while psychological data is scientific, how you interpret it is inherently qualitative. While in the natural sciences, for example, if you want to know the temperature at which a metal melts, you can take a thermometer and watch and see when it melts and you'll know the answer: you can observe the physical process you want to know about directly. In psychology you can almost never see the psychological process you want to know about because it's inside a person. For example, you could have an idea that a pharmaceutical increases hunger and then, when you give this pharmaceutical to people they eat more. Did the pharmaceutical increase hunger? Possibly. That's a good possible explanation for what happened, but you didn't see hunger, you just saw eating and you have to make a link between what you saw (which was people eating) and the underlying thing you think is in there (which is hunger). In this way, while the data you collect are wholly scientific, the way you choose to explain that evidence is, by nature, conjectural.

Conventions and Tips
  • Psychology writing operates on the sometimes subtle differentiation between broad generalizations and possible explanations. For this reason, writing in psychology relies on the “tentative tone.” Don't say “love is dangerous,” instead say “love can be dangerous” and add supporting evidence, allowing room for other conclusions.

  • Writing in psychology seeks to de-emphasize the “who” and instead focus on the “what.” For this reason don't “call on experts” or name-drop the authors of your secondary sources in text as you would in other disciplines. Cite them, but don't introduce them formally.

Additional Resources

The 6th edition of the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association (also known informally as the APA Writing Manual) is a great place to look for more technical writing instructions.