Skip to Main Content
Skidmore College
Psychology Department

Writing Advice

General Advice

  • Start working on your project as soon as you possibly can. Remember, you may need to make use of resources not found in our library, so it's best to begin organizing your project as soon as you can. (And everything takes longer than you anticipate, right?)
  • Be sure that you understand the assignment. If you have any questions at all, meet with your professor.
  • You should finish the first draft of your project as much ahead of the deadline as you possibly can. That allows you time to have the draft read by a friend, fellow students from the course, and/or tutors in the Writing Center. Faculty are expecting a polished, clearly written, clearly thought-out paper. You cannot produce such a paper without careful revision and proofreading of several drafts of your paper.
  • Completing your project early also serves to avoid the technical problems that always seem to emerge at the last minute (computer problems, disk corruption, printer problems, etc.)
  • Many useful links are scattered over a number of different pages. As a writing resource, we've created a one-page list of useful links to aid your writing.
  • Student Tools and Resources site has general advice and resources.

General Writing Resources

Choosing a Topic

  • The trick is to find a topic that interests you, fits the constraints of the assignment, and has sufficient research available to allow you ready access to the information.
  • You may not have a lot of freedom in your choice of topic, but within whatever constraints you find yourself, you should try to choose a topic that truly interests you. You are about to embark on a journey—one that may become difficult at times—so you should be sure that you are happy with the destination.
  • If you're having a difficult time deciding (Hey, it's all fascinating, right?), then you might try talking with your professor. He or she will surely have some advice for you.
  • Generally, such advice might include: 
    • Jot down topics that intrigue you as you read the textbook and listen to lectures.
    • You can use references cited in your textbook as a starting point. For example, if your book cites an article about a particular topic, you can look at that original article and search the list of references for related articles in which you might have some interest.
    • Look in related books for topics that you'd like to explore in greater depth.
    • Browse appropriate journals for articles on topics that interest you.
    • Locate articles on a particular topic using the PsycInfo or Medline search databases in the Lucy Scribner Library.
    • If you can find one good source, use the references from that source for additional readings to help you focus your topic.
  • You should also work to avoid a topic that is too broad (difficult to develop a concise thesis) or too narrow (far too few resources available). Again, if you are having difficulty determining the appropriate level of your topic, consult your professor.

Conducting Background Research

  • Web Resources: You are reading this advice on the web, so you may also be inclined to use the web for your research. Do so with extreme caution. Keep in mind the virtually anyone can put virtually anything on the web—totally without oversight. You have a number of Internet search tools at your disposal. Our department also maintains a list of useful links, organized by areas within the discipline. However, you must learn to separate the wheat from the chaff. To help you do so, why not use the web? Here are some sites that have been developed to help you in the evaluation of the information found on the web (thanks to Miriam Joseph, St. Louis University): 
  • Journal Articles: The ideal reference is one that has been reviewed by peers of the author(s). This level of oversight allows you to have greater confidence that you can trust the information. You will typically find such references in scientific journals, some of which you will find in our library. You can typically obtain the ones not found in our library by using interlibrary loan. To aid you in your search for information, you'll find a number of databases available. You may also choose to look at a site that has a fairly comprehensive list of journals in psychology, some of which may not be represented in the library databases. You should think of journal articles as primary resources (i.e., based on original empirical research). You may want to check out what David Wasieleski (Valdosta State) has to say about summarizing articles.
  • Books: Some books, often edited ones, actually contain chapters that are primary resources (though they may not have undergone the peer scrutiny that typifies journal articles). Other books are secondary resources, so the author(s) will typically review and integrate primary sources. If you have any question about the acceptability of a book for use as a resource, check with your professor. You can access our library's holdings through the local catalog. You may also find that other library's catalogs are useful resources for books. You can also request books through interlibrary loan.
  • You'll find many useful tools to enhance your library research. Because the APA publishes major journals and abstracts (including the PsycInfo database), you may want to check out their advice about conducting library research.

Writing the Paper

  • Typically you will be writing either a generic research paper or an APA-style paper for your courses in psychology.
  • By a generic research paper, we mean one that relies primarily on library research. Thus, this type of paper will resemble those that you might write for courses in other departments. On another page we have some advice for writing a generic research paper. If you've never used the APA style of referencing, you may find it useful even in this type of paper.
  • By an APA-style paper, we mean one that is highly structured and based on empirical research as well as library research. Thus, this type of paper will be unlike any that you would write in other disciplines. Instead it would typify the writing for Experimental Psychology (PS 306) and other laboratory-based courses. On another page we have some advice for writing an APA-style paper.
  • In the past, scientific writing was rife with passive voice. To an extent, it might have seemed that researchers weren't actively doing anything, but evidence just sort of fell out of the sky into their laps: "It was found that..." In part, such writing may have been an attempt to avoid using the first person pronoun (either because of modesty or to emphasize the impartiality of data collection). Now it is much more fashionable to write in the active voice, though researchers still tend to avoid the first person singular pronoun: "We found that..." or "Researchers found that..." Nonetheless, the passive voice remains much more acceptable in scientific writing than in other areas of written discourse (especially when you want to focus on the object rather than the actor). You can learn more about using the active vs. passive voice in the APA Publication Manual and in John Bellquist's Guide.


  • Plagiarism is a serious violation of the Skidmore Honor Code. (You may want to read about the ethics of scholarship.) However, plagiarism is not always easy to define. For instance, plagiarism is typically defined as passing off another's words as your own. But how many words do you have to change to make the words your own? (Answer: If you're approaching plagiarism that way, you're already off to a bad start.) Is it possible to plagiarize yourself? (Answer: Maybe.) First, we'll give you some advice, then we'll provide you with a number of links to good resources about plagiarism.
  • A good place to start discussing plagiarism is to talk about the purpose of writing a paper. Typically, a paper serves as a means of exploring a topic in a depth that is not ordinarily achieved in a course. Thus, the paper is an opportunity for you to learn a great deal about a particular topic. The goal is to get some new ideas into your mind. The goal is an admirable one, but one not easily achieved. Attempts to shortcut the process inevitably subvert the goal of learning and understanding. That's why using the original author's words is a problem—you're likely to be parroting without understanding. That's also why submitting a paper (in whole or in part) that you'd written for a previous course to satisfy a requirement for a current course is a problem. Doing so prevents you from learning something new.
  • Let's put the concept in a more positive light. You are taking courses in psychology to learn as much as you can about this fascinating field. If you really want to learn, then you should take every opportunity to do so—recognizing full well that learning is often an arduous process. And if you really understand a concept, you should be able to explain it entirely in your own words. (In fact, you should be so excited about the concepts that you want to talk to people about what you're learning.)
  • But suppose that you aren't passing off another's words as your own, but are quoting extensively from your sources (with proper attribution, etc.). Once again, ask yourself if you really understand the passages you are quoting. If you do, then why are you quoting? Our best advice is to avoid quotes entirely, unless the original passage is unique in some way.
  • The web has brought us a number of opportunities. One is the opportunity to cheat. You are likely aware that all sorts of sites exist to supply you with papers on various topics. Clearly, use of papers from such sites is plagiarism. (And faculty are as aware of such sites as you are. In addition, people have developed sites just to detect plagiarism.)
  • Here are some links with advice about plagiarism: