Tips Straight from Professors!
Note: These tips should be used only as general guidelines for writing in psychological science. Though most writing in Psychological Science shares key characteristics, writers should be mindful that every professor looks for something different in papers, every paper has different requirements, and every student has a different method and style of writing.
What have you noticed makes a Psychological Science piece really stand out from others?
- Students should never forget that Psychology is a science. As with any science, terms should be operationally defined, writing must be precise and specific, and factual statements need to be supported with evidence. Objectivity is essential. —Professor John Green
What makes you go “Wow” when reading papers? –In a good way?
- When a student is able to integrate prior research studies by identifying a common theme, using the studies to support that theme, and connecting several themes into a cohesive argument or topic, I have a “wow” moment. I suspect that students have their own “wow” moment when they are able to do this, because I find that the act of integration deepens your knowledge of what you are writing about and can lead to creative new ideas that perhaps no one has ever thought about before. That is one of the things that I love the most about scientific writing. —Professor John Green
What makes you go “Wow” when reading papers? –In a bad way?
- When a student simply describes one study after another, paragraph-by-paragraph, with little or no attempt at integration, I have an “anti-wow” moment. This can be made even worse by describing very loosely-connected studies one-after-another. I think that a good way to avoid this is to identify one or more themes in what you want to write about and then to find studies that support each of those themes. Sometimes, you can even find individual studies that support several of your themes. If you can’t identify themes, or if you identify themes but your literature searches on those themes yield hundreds of articles, you need to refine your theme (i.e., make it more specific). —Professor John Green
What can turn a good paper into a great paper?
- When a student can refine their topic, identify two or three clear themes, and then support these themes with previous research, I think he or she has the potential for a great paper. A good paper is often one where the student has an excellent topic, but is not able to break it into clear enough sub-themes. I think students also need to keep in mind that broad research ideas or literature review topics always sound more interesting than somewhat more narrow topics, but sometimes (perhaps often) the narrower topic makes a far better paper or experiment. With a tight focus, you can actually draw some really intelligent, specific conclusions. —Professor John Green
What is your favorite database for online research?
- I tend to use Ovid Medline, which is a habit I picked up in graduate school in the mid-1990s. This is not necessarily the best search engine out there anymore, but I feel really comfortable with it. My suggestion is to learn one search engine really well and then only branch out to others if you think you are missing key papers. For example, Ovid Medline doesn’t index some of the smaller Psychology journals so I will occasionally use PsycInfo as a supplement to make sure that I’m getting everything on a particular topic. I’ve recently been exposed to Academic Search Premier, and that seems like a very powerful search engine that students may want to try initially. —Professor John Green
Any last advice for writing in Psychological Science, whether for intro courses or upper levels?
- I view science writing as sharing one important feature with endeavors such as learning to play a musical instrument or learning to play a sport: it takes a lot of practice to improve and develop competence and, eventually, mastery. Unfortunately, also like learning to play a musical instrument or learning to play a sport, practice is hard work and is not always fun, particularly when you are a novice. However, improvement and mastery in any of these endeavors is incredibly rewarding and, at this point in my career, I love being able to write a manuscript or a grant application that gets my thoughts down in a clear way. There’s also a lot of pride in rereading something that you’ve written and thinking, “Did I really write that? That’s pretty good! I might actually have convinced someone that my idea is correct.” The act of writing is the best way that I know of to refine and sharpen your knowledge of a scientific topic. I think that if you pursue writing as a learning experience, and not as a chore, and you realize that if you continue to practice it you will master it, you will find your writing experiences to be very rewarding. —Professor John Green