Writing Overview & Tips


This section is designed to provide some guidance to students on how to write psychology papers both for undergraduate courses and beyond, as well as to give some insight into paper writing in the field of Psychology generally. In compiling this guide the faculty have tried to address common questions and concerns that arise each year.

Paper Types Sources Writing Style Word Choice

Paper Types

Most papers you will write will be one of the following four types (or a close approximation). A description of each type of paper follows.

  1. Empirical Paper
    The empirical paper is a scientific paper used to summarize the results of an experiment (or laboratory experience). Because experiments create new knowledge by generating new empirical data, the empirical report may be considered the most scientific type of paper. Most commonly this paper will have four primary sections: Introduction, Method, Results, and Discussion. The Method and Results sections describe the new data collected and the logical analysis to which it was subjected in order to address the theoretical question outlined in the Introduction. The Discussion interprets and summarizes what the analysis has contributed to our understanding of the research topic as well as what questions remain. A large scale thesis project would be written up as an empirical paper.

    A Lab Report follows the model of an empirical paper, but may be briefer. It may also be referred to informally as an experimental "write-up" or "experiment paper." A small scale class project where one gathers data and "writes up" the results would most likely be in lab report form.

    A primary goal of PY202 Research Design is to teach students to both create and critically evaluate empirical papers. This includes understanding the reliability and validity of the method and analysis used, and the limitations of the method in attempting to address the research question.
  2. Critical Literature Review
    A critical literature review asks a research question and specifically addresses that question by using existing literature (i.e., Empirical Papers) to support and challenge it. Critical literature reviews, like empirical papers, create new knowledge by organizing the existing facts in novel ways that further our understanding. They do not, however, generate any new empirical data and as such may be considered slightly less scientific than empirical papers. The key elements of the critical literature review are a focused, organizing question or proposition and a logical analysis of evidence relevant to that question. Unorganized review of research articles one-by-one does not constitute a Critical Literature Review.

    The Critical Literature Review differs from the Introduction in an empirical paper. The Introduction is a brief outline of previously established facts necessary to support the question, data collection, and analysis proposed in the empirical paper. A Critical Literature Review more critically examines the existing facts and delves more into relevant theory and gaps in theory and evidence.

    To further contrast paper types (1) and (2), consider what constitutes Evidence in each: In an empirical paper, the newly collected data and statistical analysis are the evidence. In a critical literature review, the research cited (and existing data and analysis contained therein) is the evidence.

    The majority of published research articles in professional journals are either Empirical or Critical Review papers.
  3. Literature Summary
    The literature summary is similar to a literature review, but with an important distinction. The description and critique of each research study does not form the basis of support or refutation of a central thesis. The goal of this paper is to describe and critique the content (e.g., methodology, statistics, conclusions, etc.) of a set of studies and conclude what is known in a particular area of research and, in some cases, to offer directions for future research in the area. You are not attempting to make a broad or theoretical point from the set of studies, but merely to describe what is or is not known. Because this type of paper does not create new knowledge it may be considered less scientific than Empirical or Critical Review papers.
  4. Thought Paper
    The thought paper is most often assigned as a way to encourage you to read and think about course readings. A thought paper assignment may focus on a single reading or ask you to integrate your reactions across several readings. Rather than providing a summary of the reading(s), you should discuss your personal reactions, opinions, or experiences in light of the reading material. The degree of critical analysis of the readings you present in the paper will be determined by the preference of the individual faculty member when making the assignment. Some faculty may request that reaction papers compare and contrast points in the readings in the context of your reactions, whereas, other assignments may be focused solely on your view of an author's arguments or points.

NOTE: The style guidelines for this type of paper are variable and may differ from APA Style. Follow the instructions of your professor for the style desired.

Sources Contributing to this Section
The Literature Review: A Few Tips On Conducting It. (University of Toronto)

Writing a Review Article for Psychological Bulletin
Bem, D. (1990). Psychological Bulletin, 118 (2), 172-177.

General Writing Tips and Resources (University of Queensland, Australia)

Selected Links on Literature Reviews. (Portland State University)

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Sources refers to the books, articles, or other materials used as source material for a written paper. The quality of a source should be of primary concern and is briefly described below. Also below are some tips for locating sources effectively.

Quality of Source

The quality of a source for a scientific paper refers to the rigor with which the scientific method was applied in the source. Generally, rigor refers to the reliability and validity of the data collection/analysis and the soundness of the reasoning and logic used. It also refers to excluding opinion or speculation and limiting oneself only to the conclusions that can be drawn reasonably from the available empirical evidence. The greatest rigor is achieved when a paper has been subjected to peer-review by several other experts in the particular field (and specialty) of study.

Levels of Quality

Articles published in Academic Journals use a peer-review process and are considered the highest quality source.

Edited Books contain a collection of articles by different authors organized under a theme and reviewed by an editing author. The authors are often the same as those publishing in academic journals but the articles have not undergone true peer review, resulting in somewhat lower quality than a journal article.

Authored (Academic) Books refers to books on a single subject in which all the content is written by the same individual(s). Typically these books undergo little if any peer-review and are published partly on the quality of discourse and partly on their expected market value (i.e., sales). They are of lower quality for the purpose of research than edited books or journal articles. They may however have greater utility as teaching tools in some contexts. A college textbook is a typical example of an Authored Academic Book.

Other possible sources below the quality level of authored books are numerous and should be considered highly suspect for use when writing an academic paper. These may include: Non-academic journals with no peer-review; newsletters; magazines; websites; etc. This list is certainly not exhaustive. Most of these sources do not provide the empirical evidence on which Science is founded but rather offer opinion, speculation, or belief. 

When writing academic papers try to use sources of the highest quality possible.

Locating Sources

Two very common ways to try to locate source material for a paper are:
1. Electronic Database Search
2. Article Citations and Reference List

To use an electronic database search, access the databases available at Tutt (or other) Library. Many databases exist, but the most common for Psychology may be PsycInfo (abstracts) or PsycArticles (full text). FirstSearch, Medline, PubMed, Web of Science, and Google Scholar are also very useful databases. (This list is not exhaustive as the number of useful databases increases over time.) Use search fields like keywords, author, or journal to locate abstracts or full text articles. Review the abstracts and perhaps skim the articles to decide which articles are central to the research topic. The key is to locate at least ONE article that is central to your topic. After doing so you can use method two (below) to find additional sources.

To use article references lists, read an article central to your topic (perhaps from a syllabus or found in a database). While reading pay close attention to the in-text citations for parts of the article most centrally related to your topic. Check the reference list for the title and source of that citation and obtain the article online or from the library. The original article leads you to several other articles; the reference lists from those articles lead you to several more (each); etc.

The Reference List method is generally superior in that references and citations were designed specifically for this purpose - to provide a road map to scholars of the evidence supporting a topic. Database searches can be a bit more random.


Certain journals publish entirely or mostly Critical Literature Review Articles. These journals are particularly good places to start because the reference list of any article in the journal will be extensive and will generally include the most important articles for that topic. Some of the best Review journals are:

  • Psychological Bulletin (The Best)
  • Psychological Review
  • Annual Review of Psychology
  • American Psychologist
  • American Scientist
  • Nature Reviews Neuroscience
  • Annual Review of Neuroscience

Over time you will learn which journals and authors publish the topic you are interested in. Most authors are dedicated to an extremely narrow topic, and most of their publications are on that topic. Most journals are themed as well.

Journals of the American Psychological Association (APA)

Journals of the Association for Psychological Science (APS)

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Writing Style

Very rarely do academic papers for psychology contain quotations. Paraphrasing is much more common for this type of writing. (See the Avoiding Plagiarism page or the APA Publication Manual.)

Footnotes are NOT used in psychology papers or in APA Style. Footnotes are the common technique in MLA Style (Modern Language Association) so may be seen in fields which use that style as the standard. In the field of Psychology, APA Style is the standard, and uses in-text citations and alphabetized reference lists as described in the APA Manual.

When writing the Method and Results sections of a research paper be sure to use the past tense. The past tense conveys that you are speaking about the specific project conducted, whereas the present tense would indicate you are speaking "in general" which equates to "established fact" or "expected replicability."

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Word Choice

When writing, choose each word carefully...

Use Formal English:

  • avoid contractions (such as, "don't" and "we're"; instead, "do not" and "we are"),
  • avoid slang words (such as, "a lot of" and "cool"; instead, "numerous" and "popular")

Commonly Misused Words:

In Psychology, the word "correlated" almost always refers to a statistical quantity (Pearson product-moment correlation coefficient), and does NOT mean, "related to."

A second example is that the noun, "research," refers to experiments that are reported in academic journals. In CC-ese, the verb, "research," which means going to the library and looking for information (of all sorts) about a topic is not commonly employed in scientific writing (e.g., The phrase, "Bozot (1998) researched the age differences in...," would be better stated, ""Bozot (1998) studied the age differences in....").

Another example is that the word "prove" is used very sparingly, because proof implies very rigorous experimental and logical implications generally exceeding what most scientific practices can achieve. In general, psychologists prefer to say, "the evidence supported the prediction," "the evidence was consistent with the prediction," or "the evidence confirmed the prediction." Use caution in the conclusions you draw from one experiment - Generally a series of experiments over a long period of time is used to establish confidence in a theory or finding.

Other Wording Tips

Remember that a study is inanimate, and thus the following is incorrect: "The study looked at the importance of dopamine for Parkinson's patients." This is like saying that "the hamburger ate the dog". We know it is nonsense for inanimate subjects to take animate verbs (like ate or looked at). Instead, use the authors of the experiment as the subject of the sentence (they are animate!): "Erdal and Jacobs (1999) examined the importance of dopamine for Parkinson's patients."

Avoid superlatives, such as: "Operational definitions are extremely consequential in psychology because...." Instead say, "Operational definitions are important in psychology because...."

Avoid unsupported quantitative statements, such as: "There are many viewpoints on the topic." It is better not to say anything about the number of viewpoints. For instance, "Two viewpoints about aging are the wear-and-tear theory and the genetically-programmed aging theory."

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Report an issue - Last updated: 04/25/2021