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Writing About Psychology

Writing About: Psychology

Nov 30, 2012 - Posted to  Writing in General
While there are plenty of basic rules that apply to any type of writing, all disciplines have a set of guidelines that are specific only to work in those field. After all, a paper on Shakespeare is going to look pretty different from a paper on protein structure.
Here are the things you need to know if you're going to write a paper about psychology.
Voice: active
Style guide: APA (American Psychological Association)
Person: 3rd
Central argument: research question or thesis statement
Organization: IMRAD

Types of psychology papers

Research paper

If you're doing empirical research, you'll be writing about your work in a research paper. This paper will detail your methods and findings as well as the importance of your work in the broader context of your field.

Lab report

For empirical work done in a lab class you'll likely do a lab report, which is similar in structure to a research paper but is usually shorter.

Research summary/literature review

Research summaries and literature reviewsare both papers that summarize past and current research on a particular topic.

Case study

A case study is an in-depth look at an individual person in the context of clinical treatment. The format varies, but in general you'll give his or her background, the presenting problems, your diagnosis, and your recommendations for intervention.

Review paper

Review papers are short essays that summarize your response to class readings.

How to write about psychology

Research paper format

Research papers in psychology should be structured similarly to papers in other sciences using the IMRAD format:
  • Introduction: Begin the paper by introducing the reader to your topic. Start broad by discussing large issues in your field then narrow the focus down to your particular research topic. Finish by presenting your research question and hypothesis.
  • Methodology: In this section you explain the specific materials and methods you used in your research. This includes the details of your study participants as well as your data collection methods.
  • Results: Next you'll give the results of your research. Focus on the data that bears directly on your hypothesis, and start with descriptive statistics (such as mean and standard deviation) before moving into inferential statistics (such as t-tests or ANOVAS). This section should include only the data: there shouldn't be any of your analysis.
  • and Discussion: The last section of the paper is where you give the analysis of your findings. It's the heart of your paper - your chance to explain what your data means and why it's important. Situate your findings in the broader context of your field, and also make sure to discuss any problems you had with your research.

Research summary format

Research summaries and literature reviews are structured more similarly to traditional essays. They should have an introduction, body, and conclusion. In the introduction, you'll present your topic and explain its importance to the field. The body will then discuss past and current research. The body of the paper can be organized several ways. One is simply chronologically, starting with older research and moving forward. The second is by topic or concept. For example, you might break down a longer literature review on abnormal psychology into subsections on particular mental disorders. Lastly, you can organize your discussion by starting with a more general research overview and then gradually narrow the focus down to your particular topic. Finally, you should end the paper with a brief conclusion that sums up your findings.

Case studies

Case studies are an important part of psychology. Both studying them and writing them helps students understand how psychotherapy works in a clinical setting. In undergraduate courses, case studies are usually based on someone you know or a fictional figure. For graduate students in a clinical program, case studies will be written about actual clients. The format for case studies will vary depending on your teacher or the outlet you intend to publish in. In general, a case study will have four parts:
  • Background information: Start by providing background information on the client. This includes details like age, family history, health status, drug and alcohol issues, and other life difficulties.
  • Presenting problem: Next, describe the problem the client presents with. Physical and emotional symptoms should be noted along with the client's reactions to these problems. Make sure you include the details of any diagnostic tools used.
  • Diagnosis: What is your diagnosis for the patient? Make sure to use the appropriate code from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual.
  • Intervention: Lastly, describe possible treatment options for the client. You may be asked by your teacher to recommend a single option or to compare several. For example, you can discuss both a cognitive-behavioral and a psychoanalytic approach and compare their strengths and weaknesses.

Bias-free language

Psychologists are careful to avoid biased language when discussing people. For example, you shouldn't use the male pronoun (he, his) as the default; instead use "he or she." Two good rules are to describe a person or a group of people as they describe themselves and to never describe someone by what they aren't. So you wouldn't say non-white: you'd be specific and say "African American" or "Asian." Lastly, use the word "participant" in place of "subjects" when discussing participants in your research.


Almost every type of psychology paper will require you to do research and cite sources. These sources include empirical research (primary sources) as well as analysis of empirical work by other professionals (secondary sources). The best resource for primary sources are peer-reviewed academic journals such as The Journal of Applied Psychology or Developmental Psychology. Work from these kinds of journals has been reviewed and approved by professionals in the field and is the gold standard for research. Look on sites like the American Psychological Association's PsycLink database or Google Scholar to find these types of resources.
Books and literature summaries are examples of secondary research materials, but be careful about relying on this type of commentary in your work. Like a game of telephone, research can be distorted as it is analyzed and commented on, so it's always best to cite the original author of the research when possible. Psychology papers should rely on empirical research, and you should rarely cite the analysis or opinions of other scholars.

Consent/ethical issues

Empirical research in psychology usually requires human test subjects, and study participants are required to have signed an informed consent form. These forms detail the purpose and procedure of the experiment, any risks involved, the time the experiment requires, conditions of participation and withdrawal, benefits of participation, and confidentiality agreements. If you're working in a university setting it's likely that your department will have guidelines for informed consent.
The university will also have an ethics panel that reviews any experiments involving human subjects. This panel will need to approve your research before you get started. Both the approval of the ethics panel and the use of informed consent forms should be noted in your research paper.


Active voice

The APA recommends the use of the active voice for writing in psychology, although the passive voice is sometimes used in the methodology section of research papers (for example, "Participants were surveyed once a week.").

3rd person

Avoid the use of the 1st (me, I, we) and the 2nd person (you) in research papers and literature reviews. First person can be used sparingly in case studies.


In general you should write in the past tense except when describing currently-held theories.


As with other sciences, writings in psychology should be objective, clear, and concise. Avoid flowery language and unnecessary words, and keep sentences short.

What to avoid

Personal bias

When writing about psychology it's tempting to let your own opinions or personal experiences color your analysis, but an important part of writing in psychology is being able to write dispassionately. Make sure that your work isn't being influenced by your own biases and that your arguments are always supported by good research and evidence.

Overusing direct quotes

Instead of using direct quotes from sources, try to sum up their research using your own words. For example, "Rogers (2004) found the treatment to be ineffective" instead of "Rogers found that 'patients in the second treatment group showed no indicators of improvement.'"


The APA doesn't like footnotes or endnotes, so don't use them in your paper.

Trying to prove a theory

In psychology nothing can be definitively proven or disproven. Instead, you should say that your data supports or does not support your theory or hypothesis. Often in research papers and literature reviews you will need to present competing theories and demonstrate how the available data fits one model better than the other.

Vague terms

Like with any discipline, psychology has its own jargon and often those terms will need to be defined. This is especially true for terms whose meaning may vary between specialties or whose meaning is contentious. In your writing, you need to be clear with the reader what you mean when you use technical vocabulary.
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