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Why Writing Matters

"Writing reflects thought, writing sharpens thought, writing generates thought. Writing is as important for intellectual growth as exercise is for athletic growth."

~Andy Swihart, Psychology Department 


Why Writing Matters in Psychology

The Department of Psychology at SVSU requires writing in many of its psychology course offerings and has multiple important reasons for doing so. First, psychologists in particular, and successful individuals in general, communicate ideas through written means. If you are unable to communicate your ideas in a clear, coherent, written form, you will be unable to participate in the science of psychology. If you cannot communicate your observations, conclusions, and intentions in written format, you will be unable to participate in the clinical application of psychology. If you cannot share task lists, priorities, and information in written format, you will be unable to participate in any but the lowest levels of any employment setting. Being unable to write competently is as devastating a disability as being unable to read.

Second, writing reflects thought, writing sharpens thought, writing generates thought. Writing is as important for intellectual growth as exercise is for athletic growth. Writing is, in large part, the effortful process of wrestling with poorly apprehended and as yet disorganized ideas with the goal of achieving a higher level of understanding of these ideas. Hence, it is entirely erroneous to view writing as the result of putting well-understood and clearly articulated ideas into words. Rather, writing is a process that leads to improved understanding and articulation of the important intellectual ideas we did not initially understand.

Third, as a direct outcome of the above, your written communication of ideas allows your professor a means to assess your academic growth. Through review of your written work, your professor can assess your acquisition and level of mastery of psychological concepts. Furthermore, evaluation of your writing allows your professor to assess your ability to develop a critical, reasoned, intellectually defensible response to the psychological ideas you are encountering in your psychology course work.

In summary, writing is an exercise that is indispensable to your development, both as a consumer as well as a generator of psychological knowledge. More broadly, competency in written expression is a fundamental prerequisite to your post-graduate success. We urge you to approach the writing assignments in your psychology course work with appropriate energy and effort.

Typical Writing Assignments

Psychology instructors assign a wide variety of written assignments. These assignments include literature reviews, laboratory project reports, position papers, research article critiques, case reports, book reviews, observation reports and self-reflection exercises. Many instructors give essay questions on exams as well.

Professors in this discipline assign a variety of short and long written assignments.

Qualities of Good Writing

A straightforward, organized style of writing is valued in psychology as it is in any other science. For most assignments it is essential to make clear points with valid evidence supporting each point. For many assignments it is also important to include unique insights or critical thinking about the topic based on the evidence.

It is important to focus on the overall purpose and intended audience of your paper. Because the purpose and audience for each assignment is different, make sure to thoroughly review any assignment guidelines provided by the instructor. Also, take advantage of instructors' office hours to ask questions about an assignment.

Do not forget elements of grammar, sentence structure and paragraph structure when you write psychology papers. (These fundamental elements of good writing are important for more than English papers.) Unless otherwise stated, assume that the instructor prefers a formal style of writing with no slang terms or contractions, for instance.

Appropriate Types of Evidence & Support

Empirical evidence and theoretical arguments from peer-reviewed journals provide appropriate support in psychology papers. As with all sciences, the field has its foundation in theory and research. That foundation should be reflected in your papers. You should become familiar with the two general types of psychology journal articles: empirical articles (relate the methods and findings of one study primarily) and review/theoretical articles (synthesize evidence from multiple studies). Both types of articles offer valid support in your papers.

The appropriateness of personal opinion and logical arguments will vary based on the type of assignment. In general, all personal opinions must be supported by theoretical concepts or research.

Citation Conventions

All psychology instructors require (or at least prefer) APA style for citations. APA style must be followed for in-text citations of quotations, paraphrases and summaries as well as for the reference list at the end of the paper. If you are using direct quotations, remember that you must include either quotation marks (for shorter quotations) or indentation (for longer quotations) AND an in-text citation giving credit to the original author.

References to outside sources are often either underused or overused in student writing. It is vitally important to properly cite all quotations, summaries, paraphrases or even ideas that you got from an outside source. Failure to cite others' ideas, either intentionally or unintentionally, is considered plagiarism. Whereas you must cite all outside ideas, do not just string direct quotations together to construct your paper. Such writing does not reflect true understanding of the material or critical thought.

Laboratory reports should follow all APA formatting guidelines. These papers should include the major sections of an APA manuscript: abstract, introduction, method, results and discussion. These papers also should follow APA format for the cover page, running head, headings, page numbers, tables, and figures. Pay attention to the details and refer to the Publication Manual of the APA frequently!

Other types of papers, such as case reports and literature reviews, may not lend themselves to a format that includes the major sections of an APA style manuscript (e.g., methods, results). Ask your instructor for his or her guidelines for the structure of your paper.

Special Comments

Common "pitfalls" in student papers include the following:

  • Lack of organization in papers (outline first and then write!)
  • Stating a personal opinion without support
  • Trying to sound "scholarly" by writing long, convoluted sentences with obscure vocabulary (In general, keep it simple)
  • Careless mistakes in grammar and spelling
  • Overuse of direct quotations
  • Lack of proper citations of sources (this could get you into trouble with plagiarism!)
  • Use of websites instead of scholarly sources as references.

References and Resources

Peer reviewed (i.e., scholarly) articles are highly preferred as references for almost all assignments. Journals published by the American Psychological Association are good sources. Articles from these journals can be found on the databases PsychARTICLES and PsychJOURNALS. You may ask your instructor for a more specific list of recommended journals in his or her subfield. Academic books, such as those found in a university library, are generally also acceptable and should not be overlooked as valuable sources of information.

Information from popular magazines, such as Newsweek, Time, and Psychology Today, are generally NOT preferred or NOT allowed. Information from websites is also generally UNACCEPTABLE. (The exception may be information from government or university websites.) Ask the instructor about his or her policy on citing websites.

See also Writing in Your Major @ 
See "Handouts - Writing in Your Major":
- Application Paper
- Research Proposals & Reports

Faculty Perspectives 
on Writing:

Andy Swihart, Psychology

How I Learned to Write

Strategies For Writing

Writing In Psychology

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