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Eye on Psi Chi: Winter 2016

Writing Advice From
an English Professor,
a Psychology Professor, and
a Professional Copy Editor

Amanda L. Hiner, PhD, and Merry Sleigh, PhD, Winthrop University (SC)
Bradley Cannon, Psi Chi Central Office Writer
View this issue in PDF and Digital formats.

As psychology majors progress through their coursework, they come to understand both the depth and breadth of the field’s content and the exacting nature of the discipline’s scientific research; however, one thing they might not realize is the degree to which their ability to communicate clearly and effectively can influence their success in the field. As the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association states, “research is complete only when the results are shared with the scientific community,” and “the traditional medium for communicating research results is the scientific journal” (APA, 2010, p. 9).
Whether preparing papers for academic conferences, writing articles for scholarly journals, or simply communicating through a classroom assignment, your ability to write coherent, clear, accurate, and concise prose will determine how effective and successful you are in your field. It makes sense, then, for you to invest time and effort both in improving your writing skills and in thinking about how you can construct papers so that your ideas and research results are communicated clearly and effectively. To this end, we have assembled 14 suggestions to help you get started.
1. Be Inspired by Your Interests and Passions
You probably already realize that it is much easier to write about a topic you genuinely care about. Always try to select or modify topics to match your own interests. Engage and cultivate your intellectual curiosity. The field of psychology offers students innumerable areas of inquiry that are significant, profoundly relevant, and deeply interesting. Begin your research process by choosing specific topics and research questions that ignite your curiosity and enthusiasm.
2. Practice Critical Thinking
Good writing has less to do with an explicit knowledge of grammar and syntax, as important as those subjects are, than it does with an ability to organize and communicate ideas in coherent, logical ways. As you progress in your discipline, the content and concepts you address become more sophisticated and the questions become more complex. One of the most important aspects of clear and effective writing is having a good conceptual grasp of how ideas fit together. As you gather and summarize data, place that information into conceptual groups and organize your notes and your final draft into clear conceptual categories. Make sure you make the relationship between ideas explicit and clear in your paper by frequently using signaling or interpretive words or phrases such as “these data suggest . . .,” “this is important because . . .,” or “these findings account for the fact that . . . .” You may want to employ some of the many helpful templates for explaining data provided by Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein (2009) in their useful book They Say, I Say: The Moves That Matter in Academic Writing.
3. Prepare and Research Strategically
Near the beginning of your writing process, develop and articulate a clear sense of purpose. Begin with a hypothetical working thesis, but let your evidence lead you to a final conclusion and thesis. Identify your intended audience, articulate to yourself what you hope to accomplish in your research or in your paper, and assess the extent to which your research methods will meet your intended goals. Aim for both breadth and depth in the research process. Search on multiple online databases for more scholarly articles and books than you think you actually need, and try to use library databases, which contain a wide variety of vetted and scholarly sources, rather than Google®.
4. Read Critically
Critical reading, a form of critical thinking, is foundational to the writing process. Critical reading involves annotating your sources by underlining important information, summarizing key ideas in the margins, writing down questions and comments, and noting how data will contribute to your research goals. Undergraduate students often don’t realize the extent to which critical reading contributes to the writing process; carefully annotated sources almost write your paper for you because all of your important conclusions and key pieces of evidence are already included in the margins of your sources and in your notes. Read all of your sources critically, taking notes in the margins and in your own research notebook, and remember to include your date of access on your notes or on a hard copy of each article.
5. Avoid Plagiarism
Learn to treat every project you start as one that might eventually be published. Plagiarism not only involves malicious acts to steal content and ideas from others but also poor note-taking skills and accidental lapses in judgement. It is your responsibility as an author to always provide proper citations and references to give credit to others where credit is due. Keep in mind that this is true for every part of your project, not just the writing portion. For example, if you cannot locate the source for an image that your study revolves around, you may have more trouble publishing your paper in the future because you cannot cite the source of this significant aspect of your study and you do not have permission to reprint it either. When in doubt, refer to the Publication Manual, and always review the Ethical Compliance Checklist in section 1.16 before submitting an article for publication (APA, 2010, p. 9).
6. Be Aware of Confirmation Bias
Consciously analyze and assess your own thoughts and conclusions during the writing process. Think about how and why you might draw certain conclusions, make certain assumptions, or privilege certain types of data. If you know you are biased in favor of specific conclusions, force yourself to examine your assumptions critically and search for information that challenges or disconfirms your assumptions. Be mindful of the innate tendency to engage in confirmation bias, the prioritizing of information or evidence that confirms previously held hypotheses or beliefs. Embrace and examine evidence and data that contradict your beliefs and assumptions. View yourself as a truth-seeker during the research and writing process and follow the evidence wherever it leads you.
7. Consider Your Audience
Good writing does not always look the same. Although there are elements that will characterize strong writing across domains, different subjects also will require unique approaches. For example, scientific writing has different parameters than what might be appropriate for an English class or a brief report. It is critical to write to the specific style of the assignment. Similarly, you should be cognizant of the background of your readers. If you are writing to an audience highly educated in your subject matter, develop sophisticated arguments and use relevant vocabulary. If you are writing to a naïve audience, avoid jargon and provide a context for the information. Work to translate complex ideas into understandable ones. A bored or confused reader may not make it to the end of your paper.
8. Sharpen Your Sentences and Paragraphs
Write strong, clear sentences using the active, rather than passive, voice, which relies heavily on the use of the verb “be” and tends to make sentences awkward and vague. For instance, rather than writing “It was later observed that the subjects were . . .,” place the subject first in the sentence and write “Researchers later observed . . . .” Your sentences can be complex, but they should always be clear, powerful, and as concise as possible. Check each sentence and aim to cut any words that do not precisely and directly contribute to the sentence’s meaning. Likewise, cut any sentences or paragraphs that are not directly relevant to the paper’s thesis or central argument. Because school assignments often have minimum length requirements, students tend to naturally stretch out their writing with passive statements. However, in both the “real world” and in academia, the more concise your writing is, the more likely it will be that people will read and understand it.
9. Share Your Interests and Passions
You will often have to write for teachers and other audiences outside of the discipline of psychology. Do not make the mistake of compartmentalizing your knowledge and missing the chance to integrate ideas from different domains. Instead, incorporate psychological information into diverse topics. Allow new ideas to emerge by connecting different streams of thought and theory. Most people find psychology interesting, and you serve your discipline well when you can educate others about psychological constructs in an accurate and accessible manner.
10. Read Your Writing Out Loud
Always practice reading your writing out loud to yourself or a peer because the way you speak and the way you write should work hand in hand. For example, if you frequently stumble or struggle with awkward pauses while reading out loud, stop to consider how you might communicate the idea verbally and try writing the idea down that way instead. Also, remember to seek constructive criticism and ask your listeners if they have any questions when you finish reading to make sure all of your ideas were clearly communicated. Filling in a few simple details suggested by your listeners can often go a long way toward improving reader comprehension in the future.
11. Take Revision Seriously, and Remember to Proofread
Many times, students are so relieved to finish a rough draft of a paper that they just hit “print” and turn it in for assessment. It’s only after a few days of reflection (and a few nights of good sleep) that they realize that the paper could be significantly better with some minor, or even major, revision. Generally, the more experienced writers are, the more they take revision seriously as an essential part of the writing process. Revision is necessary, in part, because the human mind can only engage in so many organizational tasks at one time. Getting the ideas and evidence on paper in a somewhat logical order is all one can manage in a first or second draft. Revision allows writers to improve organization, content, and language style, resulting in a polished and persuasive final product. Take some time away from your draft and then examine it with fresh eyes.
What might be confusing in the paper? 
What claims need further evidence and explanation?

What paragraphs need better transitions?

Is the content organized logically?
Read your draft from the end to the beginning, sentence by sentence. You’ll catch all kinds of errors you missed because this forces your mind to focus solely on sentence structure and grammar. Be kind to yourself by being your harshest critic and by improving the content and structure of your paper before you submit it to outside review.
12. Ask for Help
During the research, brainstorming, and writing phases of your project, don’t be afraid to ask for help. Professors appreciate it when students come to them with research questions, and they will generally gladly help students with rough drafts, brainstorming, and paper organization. In addition, university writing centers are remarkable and often underutilized resources for students. Writing centers are not designed only for students who struggle with writing—even graduate students and professors take advantage of peer review and critique. Ask for help, submit your rough draft for outside review, and try to get as much feedback as you can on your paper before submitting it for evaluation or publication.
13. Improve Your Writing One Step at a Time
At times, when you get feedback on your writing, it can feel overwhelming. Sometimes readers mark the same problem each time it occurs or suggest multiple improvements that could be made to your writing. Either way, a paper full of critiques can fail to feel constructive. One strategy is to get a strong writer to help you identify the most common, or most problematic, writing mistake you are making. Focus on fixing that one problem. Then, move to the next issue that is compromising your writing and focus on it. Trying to fix everything at once may be discouraging and distracting. Instead, focus on making one permanent improvement to your writing style that can have long-lasting impact.
14. Recognize the Value of APA Style
Following APA style guidelines with consistent and concise writing helps to unite the scientific community and better facilitates understanding as a whole. According to APA (2015), uniform style allows readers to scan articles quickly by decreasing minor distractions, promoting full disclosure of essential information, and eliminating inconsistencies of spelling to enhance search engine optimization. Before finalizing your article for publication, always review the Publication Manual one last time for correct writing style and overall formatting. In particular, glance over Figure 2.1 to make sure your cover page, running head, and headers match the provided sample as appropriate (APA, 2010, p. 41). You should also double check for any additional submission guidelines provided by the specific publication where you intend to submit your paper.
In conclusion, consistent and concise prose prevents future readers from spotting discrepancies in your article that could distract them from the true purpose of the article. By association, the quality of your writing style may also cause readers to more readily perceive that you have made a satisfactory effort on the content of your article and that you are sufficiently familiar with relevant research. In particular, publishers often have hundreds or thousands of submissions to choose from. They will notice, before anything else, which submissions have implemented the correct formatting procedures in order to save everyone time during the editing process. By following the above advice to improve your writing style, you will be more likely to make an overall good impression on others. This is sure to increase your chances of being published and strengthen your ability to effectively communicate your ideas to make a difference in the topics that matter most to you.
American Psychological Association. (2010). Publication manual of the American Psychological Association. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
American Psychological Association. (2015). Why is APA Style needed? Retrieved from
Graff, G., & Birkenstein, C. (2009). They say, I say: The moves that matter in academic writing (2nd ed.). New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company.
Microsoft Word® Tricks and Keywords Every Researcher Should Know*
Create two windows in the same document
On most versions of Word, locate the tiny dash (–) at the top right of your screen just above the ruler button and scroll bar. Simply drag this dash down to create two windows in the same document.
Cut, copy, and paste, respectively
Ctrl + x, c, and v
Hanging indent
Select the appropriate text, right click, choose Paragraph, and then turn on “Hanging Indent” under “Special.” Each paragraph selected will automatically reformat to standard hanging indent.
Italics, bold, and underline, respectively
Ctrl + i, b, and u
Paste without formatting
Ctrl + Alt + v
Using this simple keyword will keep pesky font, paragraph, and line space inconsistencies from infiltrating your clean Word document. This is especially handy when inserting references into your document from numerous locations on the Internet.

Page break
Place your cursor where you would like to create a page break, select “Page Layout” in the top bar of Word, and then click “Breaks.”
Select all text
Ctrl + a
Ctrl + z
* For Macintosh users, use the command key instead of Ctrl and control instead of Alt where appropriate.

Amanda Hiner, PhD, is an assistant professor of English at Winthrop University (SC) and coordinator of the university’s Critical Reading, Thinking, and Writing Program. She teaches, researches, and publishes in diverse fields such as 18th-century British literature, critical thinking, and cognitive literary theory. Dr. Hiner has been recognized for developing broad expertise in the area of critical thinking. She publishes articles, presents at international conferences, develops curricula, and trains faculty in the Paulian framework for critical thinking and its application in the classroom.

Merry Sleigh, PhD, is a professor at Winthrop University (SC). She is in her second term as the Psi Chi Southeastern Regional Vice-President. Dr. Sleigh has won numerous awards for her mentoring, teaching, and advising. She is particularly passionate about helping students develop skills for future success through participation in undergraduate research.

Bradley Cannon received a BA in English at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga in Spring 2014. As full-time writer at Psi Chi Central Office, he composes Psi Chi’s biweekly Digest e-mail, reviews all Psi Chi Journal and Eye on Psi Chi articles for APA style, and has completed 20 Psi Chi Distinguished Lecturer Interviews. In his spare time, Bradley enjoys writing fiction; he self-published a novel called Extended Stay in January 2015.

Copyright 2016 (Volume 20, Issue 2) by Psi Chi, the International Honor Society in Psychology


Eye on Psi Chi is a magazine designed to keep members and alumni up-to-date with all the latest information about Psi Chi’s programs, awards, and chapter activities. It features informative articles about careers, graduate school admission, chapter ideas, personal development, the various fields of psychology, and important issues related to our discipline.

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