Writing in Psychology Overview
Psychology is based on the study of human behaviors. As a social science, experimental psychology uses empirical inquiry to help understand human behavior. According to Thrass and Sanford (2000), psychology writing has three elements: describing, explaining, and understanding concepts from a standpoint of empirical investigation.
Discipline-specific writing, such as writing done in psychology, can be similar to other types of writing you have done in the use of the writing process, writing techniques, and in locating and integrating sources. However, the field of psychology also has its own rules and expectations for writing; not everything that you have learned in about writing in the past works for the field of psychology.
Writing in psychology includes the following principles:
- Using plain language: Psychology writing is formal scientific writing that is plain and straightforward. Literary devices such as metaphors, alliteration, or anecdotes are not appropriate for writing in psychology.
- Conciseness and clarity of language: The field of psychology stresses clear, concise prose. You should be able to make connections between empirical evidence, theories, and conclusions. See our OWL handout on conciseness for more information.
- Evidence-based reasoning: Psychology bases its arguments on empirical evidence. Personal examples, narratives, or opinions are not appropriate for psychology.
- Use of APA format: Psychologists use the American Psychological Association (APA) format for publications. While most student writing follows this format, some instructors may provide you with specific formatting requirements that differ from APA format.
Types of writing
Most major writing assignments in psychology courses consists of one of the following two types.
Experimental reports: Experimental reports detail the results of experimental research projects and are most often written in experimental psychology (lab) courses. Experimental reports are write-ups of your results after you have conducted research with participants. This handout provides a description of how to write an experimental report .
Critical analyses or reviews of research: Often called "term papers," a critical analysis of research narrowly examines and draws conclusions from existing literature on a topic of interest. These are frequently written in upper-division survey courses. Our research paper handouts provide a detailed overview of how to write these types of research papers.
Rhetorical Considerations and Style in Psychology Writing
Knowing who you are writing for, why you are writing, and in what context is key to writing successfully within your psychology courses.
Audience: Your audience is person or group of people you are writing for. In psychology courses, this is often your professor or teaching assistant, although you might also be asked to write for a "general audience of psychologists" or to your classmates. Your instructor may or may not indicate who your audience is for your paper, so it is always good to ask. In articles, it is more complex—a combination of reviewers, journal editors, and readers in your area of interest.
Your audience's expectations about your writing determine:
- Formatting and style
- Tone of the piece
- The amount of technical language or jargon used
- The amount of information you assume the audience already knows
Audience expectations aren't always straightforward. For example, if you are taking a course in psycholinguistics and you are writing a critical review of research on semantic priming, your primary audience for the course is your instructor. While your instructor knows what semantic priming is, you may still be required to define it in your paper so that your instructor knows that you know what it is. Part of the instructor's expectation in this case is that you can clearly define key vocabulary concepts discussed in class in your term paper.
Purpose: While the overall purpose of your term paper or experimental report may be clear (to pass the course, to convey the results of your research) more specific purposes for writing your report are not always so. When you are prewriting and drafting, as yourself not only what your larger purpose is, but also what additional purposes you may have and want to achieve.
Context: The context is the larger writing situation in which you find yourself. Are you writing for a class? Are you writing an internal report to your advisor? Are you writing an article in preparation for submission to a journal? The context in which you are writing is another important factor that helps you determine style, format, and content of your piece.
For more information on audience, purpose, and context see the Rhetorical Situation PowerPoint resource.
Formatting and style in psychology
Your choice of format and style are dependent on the audience, purpose, and context of your piece. Most writing in psychology follows a strict format, developed by the American Psychological Association (APA). Some instructors or journals may have their own style guidelines that deviate from APA to varying degrees. You should always ask for clarification on the correct formatting and style from your instructor, advisor, journal editor or other primary audience member.
As a social science, the style of writing is scientific. A good rule of thumb when writing in psychology is to be clear with your discussion, be concise in your writing, and minimize your use of first-person pronouns ("I think that…", "I believe that…"). See the Purdue OWL handout on Stylistic concerns in APA format for more information.
Learning style in your field can be tricky and requires time and practice. You can benefit from analyzing examples of other pieces of writing from psychology. Look at published articles or ask the instructor for examples of previous papers written for the course.
Prewriting and information collection
Depending on the type of report you are writing, you will go through various stages of prewriting. The following list provides you with some options finding material to write from and beginning to prewrite.
Prewriting note-taking and class notes: Notes from readings, class lectures, conferences and presentations, and other professional activities can help you formulate ideas. You can keep your thoughts, sources, and notes organized in a journal, text document, or on note cards before you write.
- If you are writing a critical review, keep notes on topics of interest and sources that you encounter during your class (and related coursework) that can contribute to your topic.
- If you are writing an experimental report, notes from your previous coursework can help you find sources of information. As you are planning and conducting your research, keep a notebook handy to record your thoughts and ideas.
Creating an annotated bibliography of articles and books: Annotated bibliographies can be excellent ways to summarize and organize sources you are drawing upon when writing critical reviews or experimental reports. Please see our Annotated Bibliographies handout for more information.
Additional Purdue OWL resources you may find helpful in writing for psychology
Avoiding Plagiarism: Plagiarism is a major concern of any discipline. Be sure you are clear on what constitutes plagiarism.
Writing Concisely: A strategy for eliminating wordiness and redundancy in your writing.
Quoting, Paraphrasing, and Summarizing: Assists you in integrating sources into your paper with different techniques and avoiding plagiarism.
Proofreading your writing: Every writer needs to develop good proofreading skills.
Writing the Experimental Report: Overview, Introductions, and Literature Reviews
Experimental reports (also known as "lab reports") are reports of empirical research conducted by their authors. You should think of an experimental report as a "story" of your research in which you lead your readers through your experiment. As you are telling this story, you are crafting an argument about both the validity and reliability of your research, what your results mean, and how they fit into other previous work.
These next two sections provide an overview of the experimental report in APA format. Always check with your instructor, advisor, or journal editor for specific formatting guidelines.
Experimental reports follow a general to specific to general pattern. Your report will start off broadly in your introduction and discussion of the literature; the report narrows as it leads up to your specific hypotheses, methods, and results. Your discussion transitions from talking about your specific results to more general ramifications, future work, and trends relating to your research.
Experimental reports in APA format have a title page. Title page formatting is as follows:
- A running head and page number in the upper right corner (right aligned)
- A definition of running head in IN ALL CAPS below the running head (left aligned)
- Vertically and horizontally centered paper title, followed by author and affiliation
Please see our sample APA title page.
Crafting your story
Before you begin to write, carefully consider your purpose in writing: what is it that you discovered, would like to share, or would like to argue? You can see report writing as crafting a story about your research and your findings. Consider the following.
- What is the story you would like to tell?
- What literature best speaks to that story?
- How do your results tell the story?
- How can you discuss the story in broad terms?
During each section of your paper, you should be focusing on your story. Consider how each sentence, each paragraph, and each section contributes to your overall purpose in writing. Here is a description of one student's process.
Briel is writing an experimental report on her results from her experimental psychology lab class. She was interested in looking at the role gender plays in persuading individuals to take financial risks. After her data analysis, she finds that men are more easily persuaded by women to take financial risks and that men are generally willing to take more financial risks.
When Briel begins to write, she focuses her introduction on financial risk taking and gender, focusing on male behaviors. She then presents relevant literature on financial risk taking and gender that help illuminate her own study, but also help demonstrate the need for her own work. Her introduction ends with a study overview that directly leads from the literature review. Because she has already broadly introduced her study through her introduction and literature review, her readers can anticipate where she is going when she gets to her study overview. Her methods and results continue that story. Finally, her discussion concludes that story, discussing her findings, implications of her work, and the need for more research in the area of gender and financial risk taking.
The abstract gives a concise summary of the contents of the report.
- Abstracts should be brief (about 100 words)
- Abstracts should be self-contained and provide a complete picture of what the study is about
- Abstracts should be organized just like your experimental report—introduction, literature review, methods, results and discussion
- Abstracts should be written last during your drafting stage
The introduction in an experimental article should follow a general to specific pattern, where you first introduce the problem generally and then provide a short overview of your own study. The introduction includes three parts: opening statements, literature review, and study overview.
Opening statements: Define the problem broadly in plain English and then lead into the literature review (this is the "general" part of the introduction). Your opening statements should already be setting the stage for the story you are going to tell.
Literature review: Discusses literature (previous studies) relevant to your current study in a concise manner. Keep your story in mind as you organize your lit review and as you choose what literature to include. The following are tips when writing your literature review.
- You should discuss studies that are directly related to your problem at hand and that logically lead to your own hypotheses.
- You do not need to provide a complete historical overview nor provide literature that is peripheral to your own study.
- Studies should be presented based on themes or concepts relevant to your research, not in a chronological format.
- You should also consider what gap in the literature your own research fills. What hasn't been examined? What does your work do that others have not?
Study overview: The literature review should lead directly into the last section of the introduction—your study overview. Your short overview should provide your hypotheses and briefly describe your method. The study overview functions as a transition to your methods section.
You should always give good, descriptive names to your hypotheses that you use consistently throughout your study. When you number hypotheses, readers must go back to your introduction to find them, which makes your piece more difficult to read. Using descriptive names reminds readers what your hypotheses were and allows for better overall flow.
In our example above, Briel had three different hypotheses based on previous literature. Her first hypothesis, the "masculine risk-taking hypothesis" was that men would be more willing to take financial risks overall. She clearly named her hypothesis in the study overview, and then referred back to it in her results and discussion sections.
Thais and Sanford (2000) recommend the following organization for introductions.
- Provide an introduction to your topic
- Provide a very concise overview of the literature
- State your hypotheses and how they connect to the literature
- Provide an overview of the methods for investigation used in your research
Bem (2006) provides the following rules of thumb for writing introductions.
- Write in plain English
- Take the time and space to introduce readers to your problem step-by-step; do not plunge them into the middle of the problem without an introduction
- Use examples to illustrate difficult or unfamiliar theories or concepts. The more complicated the concept or theory, the more important it is to have clear examples
- Open with a discussion about people and their behavior, not about psychologists and their research
Writing the Experimental Report: Methods, Results, and Discussion
Your method section provides a detailed overview of how you conducted your research. Because your study methods form a large part of your credibility as a researcher and writer, it is imperative that you be clear about what you did to gather information from participants in your study.
With your methods section, as with the sections above, you want to walk your readers through your study almost as if they were a participant. What happened first? What happened next?
The method section includes the following sub-sections.
I. Participants: Discuss who was enrolled in your experiment. Include major demographics that have an impact on the results of the experiment (i.e. if race is a factor, you should provide a breakdown by race). The accepted term for describing a person who participates in research studies is a participant not a subject.
II. Apparatus and materials: The apparatus is any equipment used during data collection (such as computers or eye-tracking devices). Materials include scripts, surveys, or software used for data collection (not data analysis). It is sometimes necessary to provide specific examples of materials or prompts, depending on the nature of your study.
III. Procedure: The procedure includes the step-by-step how of your experiment. The procedure should include:
- A description of the experimental design and how participants were assigned conditions.
- Identification of your independent variable(s) (IV), dependent variable(s) (DV), and control variables. Give your variables clear, meaningful names so that your readers are not confused.
- Important instructions to participants.
- A step-by-step listing in chronological order of what participants did during the experiment.
The results section is where you present the results of your research-both narrated for the readers in plain English and accompanied by statistics.
Note: Depending on the requirements or the projected length of your paper, sometimes the results are combined with the discussion section.
Continue with your story in the results section. How do your results fit with the overall story you are telling? What results are the most compelling? You want to begin your discussion by reminding your readers once again what your hypotheses were and what your overall story is. Then provide each result as it relates to that story. The most important results should go first.
Preliminary discussion: Sometimes it is necessary to provide a preliminary discussion in your results section about your participant groups. In order to convince your readers that your results are meaningful, you must first demonstrate that the conditions of the study were met. For example, if you randomly assigned subjects into groups, are these two groups comparable? You can't discuss the differences in the two groups until you establish that the two groups can be compared.
Provide information on your data analysis: Be sure to describe the analysis you did. If you are using a non-conventional analysis, you also need to provide justification for why you are doing so.
Presenting Results: Bem (2006) recommends the following pattern for presenting findings:
- Remind readers of the conceptual hypotheses or questions you are asking
- Remind readers of behaviors measured or operations performed
- Provide the answer/result in plain English
- Provide the statistic that supports your plain English answer
- Elaborate or qualify the overall conclusion if necessary
Writers new to psychology and writing with statistics often dump numbers at their readers without providing a clear narration of what those numbers mean. Please see our Writing with Statistics handout for more information on how to write with statistics.
Your discussion section is where you talk about what your results mean and where you wrap up the overall story you are telling. This is where you interpret your findings, evaluate your hypotheses or research questions, discuss unexpected results, and tie your findings to the previous literature (discussed first in your literature review). Your discussion section should move from specific to general.
Here are some tips for writing your discussion section.
- Begin by providing an interpretation of your results: what is it that you have learned from your research?
- Discuss each hypotheses or research question in more depth.
- Do not repeat what you have already said in your results—instead, focus on adding new information and broadening the perspective of your results to you reader.
- Discuss how your results compare to previous findings in the literature. If there are differences, discuss why you think these differences exist and what they could mean.
- Briefly consider your study's limitations, but do not dwell on its flaws.
- Consider also what new questions your study raises, what questions your study was not able to answer, and what avenues future research could take in this area.
Example: Here is how this works.
References should be in standard APA format. Please see our APA Formatting guide for specific instructions.
Tables, Appendices, Footnotes and Endnotes
Appendices: When appendices might be necessary
Appendices allow you to include detailed information in your paper that would be distracting in the main body of the paper. Examples of items you might have in an appendix include mathematical proofs, lists of words, the questionnaire used in the research, a detailed description of an apparatus used in the research, etc.
Format of appendices
Your paper may have more than one appendix. Usually, each distinct item has its own appendix. If your paper only has one appendix, label it "Appendix" (without quotes.) If there is more than one appendix, label them "Appendix A," "Appendix B," etc. (without quotes) in the order that each item appears in the paper. In the main text, you should refer to the Appendices by their labels.
The actual format of the appendix will vary depending on the content; therefore, there is no single format. In general, the content of an appendix should conform to the appropriate APA style rules for formatting text.
Footnotes and Endnotes: When footnotes/endnotes might be necessary
Because APA style uses parenthetical citations, you do not need to use footnotes or endnotes to cite your sources. The only reasons you need to use footnotes are for explanatory (content) notes or copyright permission. Content footnotes contain information that supplements the text, but would be distracting or inappropriate to include in the body of the paper. In other words, content footnotes provide important information that is a tangent to what you are discussing in your paper.
The footnote should only express one idea. If it is longer than a few sentences, then you should consider putting this information in an appendix. Most authors do not use footnotes because they tend to be distracting to the readers. If the information is important, authors find a way to incorporate it into the text itself or put it in an appendix.
If you are including a quote that is longer than 500 words or a table or figure in your paper that was originally published elsewhere, then you need to include a footnote that acknowledges that you have permission from the owner of the copyright to use the material.
See our APA guidelines on Footnotes and Endnotes for more information.
When to use tables
Tables enable you to show your data in an easy to read format. However, you do not need to present all of your data in tabular form. Tables are only necessary for large amounts of data that would be too complicated in the text. If you only need to present a few numbers, you should do so directly in the text, not in a table.
How to use tables
Each table should be identified by a number, in the order that they appear in the text (e.g., Table 1, Table 2, etc.). When using a table, you need to refer to the table in the text (e.g., "As shown in Table 1,…") and point out to the reader what they should be looking for in the table. Do not discuss every piece of data that is in the table or else there is no point in having the table. Only mention the most important pieces of information from the table.
The table should also make sense on its own. Be sure to explain all abbreviations except standard abbreviations such as M, SD, and df. Don’t forget to identify the unit of measurement.
APA style has a specific format for tables. Tables should appear at the end of your paper, after the reference list and before any appendixes. Every table needs a unique title after its label. The title should be brief but clearly explain what is in the table.
References and Sources for More Information
The following is a list of works consulted when creating this guide and recommendations for additional information.
Bem, D. J. (2003). Writing the empirical journal article. In J.M. Darley, M. P. Zanna, & H. L. Roediger III (Eds), The Compleat Academic. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
An updated, online version of Bem's article is available.
This article is often required reading for most new graduate students and is one of the best sources on writing empical articles. The article provides a thorough overview of how to write a successful empirical journal article. Bem presents information what to write about, specific details about format of paragraphs and sections, writing methods, results, discussions, on revision, and on style.
Delvin, A. S (2006). Research Methods: Planning, Conducting, and Presenting Research. Thompson Wadsworth, Belmont, CA.
Delvin's book provides an excellent introduction to all phases of the experimental research project, including an extensive section on writing and presenting results. This book is very easy to understand and is, therefore, an excellent introduction for undergraduate students new to writing and conducting research in psychology.
Thaiss, C and Sanford, J (2000). Writing For Psychology. Allyn and Bacon, Needham Heights, MA.
Thaiss and Sanford provide an excellent overview of both formatting and writing processes for psychology students. They include information on presentations, written exams, experimental reports, and critical reviews.