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Tips For Writing Psychology Research Paper

The ability to write well is one of the most important skills you can gain as a psychology major. Most psychology courses require a significant amount of writing, including essays, case studies, research reports, and other papers. Learning effective communication skills will help you succeed in high school, university, graduate school and the work force.

How can you improve your writing skills? Start by viewing each class assignment as an opportunity to learn and practice.

Check out resources offered by your school such as tutors or writing labs and learn more about the different types of psychology writing. The following resources offer tips, guidelines and advice on how to write psychology papers.

Tips for Writing Psychology Papers

If you have never written a psychology paper before, you need to start with the basics. Psychology writing is much like other types of writing, but most instructors will have special requirements for each assignment. Always check the grading rubric for an assignment before you begin writing and brush up on the basics with these tips for writing psychology papers.

How to Write a Psychology Case Study

Students taking courses in abnormal psychology, child development, or psychotherapy will often be expected to write a case study on an individual - either real or imagined. Case studies vary somewhat, but most include a detailed history of the client, a description of the presenting problem, a diagnosis and discussion of possible treatments.

Before you begin your assignment, learn more about how to write a psychology case study.

How to Write a Psychology Lab Report

Lab reports are commonly assigned in experimental or research-based psychology courses. The structure of a lab report is very similar to that of a professional journal article, so reading a few research articles is a good way to start learning more about the basic format of a lab report.

Your lab report should provide a clear and concise overview of the experiment, research or study you conducted. Before you begin working on your paper, read more about how to write a psychology lab report.

How to Write a Psychology Critique Paper

Psychology critique papers are often required in psychology courses, so you should expect to write one at some point in your studies. Your professor may expect you to provide a critique on a book, journal article, or psychological theory. How can you prepare for this type of assignment? Start by reading these tips and guidelines for how to write a psychology critique paper.

How to Copy Edit a Psychology Paper

Before you turn in any type of psychology writing, it is vital to proofread and edit your work for errors, typos, and grammar. Do not just rely on your computer's spellchecker to do the job! Always read thoroughly through your paper to remove mistakes and ensure that your writing flows well and is structured logically. Finally, always have another person read your work to spot any mistakes you may have missed. You can find more tips and tricks for revising your papers in this article on how to copy edit a psychology paper.

A Guide to APA Format

Not learning APA format is mistake that costs points for many students.

APA format is the official style of the American Psychological Association and is used in many different types of science writing, especially the social sciences. Before you hand in any writing assignment, always double-check your page format, in-text citations, and references for correct APA format. If you need directions or examples, check out this guide to APA format.


General Tips for Writing a Paper for Psychology

Hopefully the following information will be useful as you begin to write your paper for your psychology class or research project.  Note that each assignment will have its own unique requirements. Never hesitate to ask your professor for assistance or clarification as well.  Your professor (and/or the APA Manual) has final word.


GETTING STARTED

  1. Try to write a little every day, rather than the entire paper in a single sitting.  You will write a better paper, learn more about improving your writing, and experience better mental health if you start EARLY.  Set mini-deadlines for yourself for an outline, a rough-rough draft, a less-rough draft, and your final product.
  2. If you experience writer’s block, try making a list of what information you could include in the paper (worry about ordering and prioritizing the list later).  Or try FREE-WRITING. Spend 10 minutes writing everything you can think of about your topic and assignment. Don’t worry about style, form, importance, etc. Free-writing can help you loosen up as you sit down at the computer for a few minutes of low-stakes writing.  
  3. Write the method section first.  It is much easier than the introduction.  Also, I’d suggest leaving the opening paragraph of the introduction for last.
  4. ASK YOUR INSTRUCTOR FOR HELP.  Writing for psychology can be difficult.  Your instructor will no doubt be happy to help with specific questions and/or just be a sounding board as you try to articulate your reasoning. He or she can also point you toward other sources for writing help.
  5. No one writes glowing first drafts (or second drafts....). Good writers are relentless revisers.

WHAT IS CONSIDERED "GOOD" WRITING IN PSYCHOLOGY?

Top Priority: Write Clearly and Fully Express your Reasoning

Your overall point in any given sentence, paragraph or section of the paper must be communicated clearly. Getting out of your own head to discern if it would be clear to someone else can be very difficult. Reading your work aloud may help you “hear” what the paper “sounds like” and find unclear passages.

Another important aspect to clarity involves FULLY expressing your logic and stating your conclusions. It is acceptable to assume your reader understands the basics of statistics and methods (e.g., you do not have to explain p-values or what an independent variable is). However, you cannot assume your reader is familiar with the particular topic you are writing about. So, take the reader in small steps from A to B to C to D...etc. Don’t leave any gaps in your reasoning, even if the logic seems obvious.

Another Top Priority:  Follow APA Standards for Organization and Expression

Much of what makes a paper a good one in psychology is following the APA style guidelines for organization and expression. These conventions are laid out in the APA Publication Manual. Your psychology paper will be a good one if you can smoothly articulate your ideas within the structure. The structure allows any psychologist to easily read any psychological article. Also, a standard format helps hold all of psychological literature to a high standard of scientific objectivity.  

The Ultimate Challenge:  Balancing Structure with Interesting Writing

Following APA style and organization sometimes leads to dry, plodding writing.  The best writers balance all that restrictive structure with an engaging writing style.  Especially in the introduction and discussion sections, it is possible to follow the formula and still articulate your ideas in an interesting way.  The best psychology papers tell a story to an audience of educated adults who are seriously interested in the research. Your story should be based on your research, however, and should avoid emotional or flowery language, metaphors that stray too far from the central topic, or personal accounts about your own life or some other individual’s life.


COMMON PROBLEMS

You have heard this before...

We never think computer problems will hit us until they do. Hard drives crash. Flash or SUB drives also fail and files uploaded to the internet can get lost or damaged. Save your work to multiple storage devices, and consider printing (on scrap paper) as you work.

Start with a very rough draft and do most of the work via revision...

It is difficult to write a coherent paper if you worry about the content plus the style and form all at the same time. Many writers start with an outline and then begin the actual paper using a "free-write" method. That is, they just sit down and start typing without worrying about APA style, grammar and so forth. After they have a very rough draft, they do multiple rounds of revision and editing. Most of the work writing the paper ends up happening during these rounds of revisions. As you revise your papers, keep the following common errors in mind:

  • Provide the conceptual definition of your terms before you begin discussing the term. For example, you should not be talking about the relationship of "locus of control" to another variable if you have not yet given the conceptual definition of locus of control. 
  • Explain your ideas fully.  Be meticulous, even nit-picking, in saying exactly what you mean.
  • To help maintain a consistent tone throughout the paper, avoid direct quotes.  Only use quotes if there is something unique and special conveyed by not just the author’s ideas, but the particular words used to express those ideas.
  • Any idea that is not yours needs a citation whether it is a direct quote or not. You do not have to include a citation in every sentence, but the reader needs to be clear where your information came from. Note: each new paragraph, even if you are continuing to cite from the same source, needs a citation. Check this web page for more information.
  • Paraphrasing too closely from your sources is a form of plagiarism. Check this web page for more information.
  • Avoid using a psychological term or expression when you are referring to the more colloquial meaning.  Example to avoid:  “The notion that people dislike inconsistent thoughts correlates with the need to behave consistently with our attitudes.”  (Do not use the term "correlates" unless you are referring to a statistical correlation.) Other terms to be careful with: significant, hypothesized.
  • Avoid absolutes and immodest expressions. The word ‘PROVE’ and all variations of it are off limits (try using any of the following words instead: suggest, support, show, indicate). Also avoid words like ‘completely’, ‘absolutely’, ‘always’, etc. Avoid expressions like “These results conclusively demonstrate that researchers have been all wrong in the past.” Try to be more moderate: “The results of the present research failed to replicate past findings....”
  • Avoid overly complex sentence structures. If you have started accumulating many punctuation marks or clauses in a single sentence, your sentence is probably too complex for the reader to understand easily.
  • Work on transitions between ideas. A good transition will lead the reader from one idea to the next smoothly – the reader will not have to wonder why you’ve switched topics.
  • Avoid using an overly colloquial or chatty writing style. Absolutely avoid slang and do not use contractions. Your overall tone needs to be formal (but your paper should not sound like a computer program wrote it.)
  • Passive voice is somewhat accepted in psychological writing, but active voice is much better where ever possible.  E.g. passive:  ‘The experiment was conducted by Smith;  active:  ‘Smith conducted the experiment.’
  • Avoid giving an object human qualities. For example, studies don’t "want," people do.
  • You can use the 1st person from time to time (e.g. “I hypothesized that....”), but try to avoid its overuse.
  • Watch out for common grammar problems including:  "then" versus "than"; use of apostrophes/possessives, noun-verb agreement, consistent use of past tense. Also note that the abbreviation "e.g." means "for example" and the abbreviation "i.e." means "that is" or "to clarify." The APA publication manual includes information on basic grammar and abbreviations.

And, before turning your paper in...

It helps to set the draft aside for a day or so and re-examine it with a fresh eye. Be sure to:

  1. Check for spelling, grammar, APA style, and typos.  Spell-check AND proof-read.
  2. Re-read the assignment to make sure you didn’t forget anything.
  3. Edit your paper one last time for clarity and fully articulated reasoning.
  4. Save your paper and a back-up copy as you work.  Also save a final copy for your files.


*The above was compiled by Connie Wolfe, modified from information distributed by the University of Michigan Writing Center.

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