Why Emphasize Writing in Psychology Programs?

Why Emphasize Writing in Psychology Programs?

Students frequently ask why good writing is emphasized instead of comprehension of the ideas. There are many answers to this, and the answers vary with one’s career trajectory. I teach mostly in graduate programs in psychology, which informs my answer to this question. I will first address why it is important for all students of psychology to learn to write. Next, I will consider APA style I will conclude addressing graduate students more specifically.

Why Writing in Important for All Psychology Students

If you are seeking a degree in psychology, it is likely that communication with others will play a prominent role in your career if you are planning to use your psychology degree. While some people communicate effectively orally while struggling with communication in written form, improving your communication in written form will positively impact your ability to communicate orally as well. Furthermore, academic writing influences the way you think about knowledge. Learning to support your assertions and avoid over-stating your arguments will help you improve your thinking skills. When considering many prominent issues in the world today, it is readily apparent why this is an important skill to develop.

Additionally, nearly every career path related to psychology is going to require some writing. If you are planning to go to graduate school, it is imperative to learn to write well. If you are planning to go straight into the workforce, then you will likely be required to begin using your writing skills right away. Many intelligent and talented individuals struggle in succeeding and progressing in their field because of their limitations with writing.

Last, learning to write well is a good way to show respect to your professors. Much of my time is spent grading papers. When the writing is poor, it is stressful and takes more time. There are many reasons why it is good to not cause additional stress to your professors! For one, they may writing your letters of recommendation someday. When writing these letters, you do not want them reflecting upon how stressful it was to read you papers.

Why APA Style?

Many students become frustrated learning APA style and often even develop good critiques of APA style. Yet, if you are going to be in the field of psychology it is best to master the professional writing style of your profession. I have worked with many students who have lost countless hours to corrections because of their resistance to learning APA style. Furthermore, there are aspects of APA style that impact how the reader interprets your sentence. For example, there are variations in the use of commas in different professional styles of writing. In APA style, you place a comma before “and” in strings of three or more. If you do not do this, it can change the meaning of the sentence. At other times, it may confuse your reader causing them to spend more time trying to understand what you are saying.

When papers are not written in good APA style, it takes longer to read and grade the papers. When reference citations are inaccurately placed, the professor may have to spend more time to determine if you are adequately supporting your assertions. When your punctuation is incorrect, the professor may have to read sentences a few times to make sure they accurately understand what you are stating. When you do not use headings correctly (or not at all) the professor may have to spend more time understanding how you are organizing your ideas. Not writing in good APA style can easily double the amount of time a professor spends grading your paper. Also, when the professor is distracted by the APA style errors, they may have more difficultly understanding the content you are trying to convey. Good writing helps your content stand out.

While APA style is not perfect, it does help individuals in professions that use APA style communicate with each other more clearly. If you are in one of those fields, it is in your best interest to take the time to learn APA style. While some students think, “I’ll have an editor do that” or “I’ll just use a program that does it for me,” in my experience, these add much more time and stress in the long run than just learning APA style. The programs that help individuals put their papers in APA style often create errors. The use of editors is expensive and is still time consuming. Learning APA style may take more time at the beginning, but saves you time and possibly money in the long run.

Why Good Writing is Essential in Graduate School

If you are in graduate school in psychology, you most likely are going to be required to write a thesis or a dissertation. If you have not mastered good writing by time you get to these tasks, they can be very painful experiences. I know of students who have spent several days just correcting APA style and similar writing errors on their dissertation. Additionally, if your writing is poor, professors may be hesitant to agree to serve on your thesis or dissertation committee.

When your writing is not strong, professors may spend more time focusing on providing feedback on the mechanics of  your writing, which distracts from providing feedback on the content of your paper. Students often will not receive as comprehensive of feedback on their papers when their writing is poor and requires attention from the professors. Students, too, will be spending more time focusing on the mechanics of writing instead of focusing on the content of their papers and the course.

When students enter graduate school, I strongly encourage them to prioritize mastering scholarly writing, including APA style, early in the program. The more one is able to accomplish this, the more they are able to focus on learning the content, mastering skills, and preparing for the more exciting aspects of their future profession.


Regardless of the path you are choosing in psychology, it is fairly certain that writing will be part of your professional life. Furthermore, your writing is a reflection upon you. In my career, I know that my writing abilities have helped create opportunities for me. Similarly, I know of talented professionals who have been held back in many ways because of their struggles with writing.

No one’s writing is perfect, and people often struggle in editing their own work. Personally, I am much more effective at copy-editing the writing of others as compared to copy-editing my own work. Professors and other scholars who review your writing most likely will have their own strengths and weaknesses in writing, and will be tolerant of the occasional error. This is different than writing in a way that shows you do not understand the mechanics of good writing and APA style, or writing that suggest you have not made an effort to proof-read your paper.

To conclude, even if you do not envision writing being a major part of your professional future, it is in your best interest to learn to write well.

“One repays a teacher badly if one always remains nothing but a pupil.”

— Friederich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra