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Rhetorical Considerations and Style in Psychology Writing

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Knowing who you are writing for, why you are writing, and in what context is key to writing successfully within your psychology courses.

Audience: Your audience is person or group of people you are writing for. In psychology courses, this is often your professor or teaching assistant, although you might also be asked to write for a "general audience of psychologists" or to your classmates. Your instructor may or may not indicate who your audience is for your paper, so it is always good to ask. In articles, it is more complex—a combination of reviewers, journal editors, and readers in your area of interest.

Your audience's expectations about your writing determine:

  • Formatting and style
  • Tone of the piece
  • The amount of technical language or jargon used
  • The amount of information you assume the audience already knows

Audience expectations aren't always straightforward. For example, if you are taking a course in psycholinguistics and you are writing a critical review of research on semantic priming, your primary audience for the course is your instructor. While your instructor knows what semantic priming is, you may still be required to define it in your paper so that your instructor knows that you know what it is. Part of the instructor's expectation in this case is that you can clearly define key vocabulary concepts discussed in class in your term paper.

Purpose: While the overall purpose of your term paper or experimental report may be clear (to pass the course, to convey the results of your research) more specific purposes for writing your report are not always so. When you are prewriting and drafting, as yourself not only what your larger purpose is, but also what additional purposes you may have and want to achieve.

Context: The context is the larger writing situation in which you find yourself. Are you writing for a class? Are you writing an internal report to your advisor? Are you writing an article in preparation for submission to a journal? The context in which you are writing is another important factor that helps you determine style, format, and content of your piece.

For more information on audience, purpose, and context see the Rhetorical Situation PowerPoint resource.

Formatting and style in psychology

Your choice of format and style are dependent on the audience, purpose, and context of your piece. Most writing in psychology follows a strict format, developed by the American Psychological Association (APA). Some instructors or journals may have their own style guidelines that deviate from APA to varying degrees. You should always ask for clarification on the correct formatting and style from your instructor, advisor, journal editor or other primary audience member.

As a social science, the style of writing is scientific. A good rule of thumb when writing in psychology is to be clear with your discussion, be concise in your writing, and minimize your use of first-person pronouns ("I think that…", "I believe that…"). See the Purdue OWL handout on Stylistic concerns in APA format for more information.

Learning style in your field can be tricky and requires time and practice. You can benefit from analyzing examples of other pieces of writing from psychology. Look at published articles or ask the instructor for examples of previous papers written for the course.

Prewriting and information collection

Depending on the type of report you are writing, you will go through various stages of prewriting. The following list provides you with some options finding material to write from and beginning to prewrite.

Prewriting note-taking and class notes: Notes from readings, class lectures, conferences and presentations, and other professional activities can help you formulate ideas. You can keep your thoughts, sources, and notes organized in a journal, text document, or on note cards before you write.

  • If you are writing a critical review, keep notes on topics of interest and sources that you encounter during your class (and related coursework) that can contribute to your topic.
  • If you are writing an experimental report, notes from your previous coursework can help you find sources of information. As you are planning and conducting your research, keep a notebook handy to record your thoughts and ideas.

Creating an annotated bibliography of articles and books: Annotated bibliographies can be excellent ways to summarize and organize sources you are drawing upon when writing critical reviews or experimental reports. Please see our Annotated Bibliographies handout for more information.

Additional Purdue OWL resources you may find helpful in writing for psychology

Avoiding Plagiarism: Plagiarism is a major concern of any discipline. Be sure you are clear on what constitutes plagiarism.

Writing Concisely: A strategy for eliminating wordiness and redundancy in your writing.

Quoting, Paraphrasing, and Summarizing : Assists you in integrating sources into your paper with different techniques and avoiding plagiarism.

Proofreading your writing: Every writer needs to develop good proofreading skills.