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General advice for effective writing

Patric Bach, University of Plymouth, Plymouth, Devon, UK


Patric.bach@plymouth.ac.uk; www.actionprediction.org

The following is list of the problems I encounter – or have been asked about – most often in
student final year dissertations, and how they can be overcome. Please email me in case of
questions or comments.

Writing a great introduction


The goal of the introduction is not to primarily give a literature review about the general
topic, but to establish the link between Problem, Theory, Experiment, Predictions. Your
introduction will get high marks only if you can establish each of these links. Proceed in the
following order. You first need to explain the problem of interest. You then explain one (or
more) theories that could explain it (and the evidence for them). You then explain the
experiment you are running to test if the theory is correct. Finally, explain what will happen
in the experiment if your theory is correct - these are your predictions. Ideally, each
introduction should cover these four steps, in sequence. Of these four sections, the third is the
most often forgotten. You need to make sure that readers understand the logic of your
experiment, and how it forms the link between theory and predictions. If you do not get this
across, everything that follows will fail, too.
Here is an example for a minimal introduction: "Schizophrenia is prevalent and very
disabling, but it is not clear why the disorder emerges" (Problem). "One possibility is that
people are genetically predisposed to develop Schizophrenia" (Theory). "To test whether this
theory is correct we will compare Schizophrenia rates in people who do or do not have
Schizophrenic relatives." (Experiment). "If the theory is correct, then we should find a higher
rate of Schizophrenia in people who have relatives that are Schizophrenic than in people who
do not have Schizophrenic relatives" (Prediction). Then the paper heads into the methods and
results section, while readers have clear guidance what to look out for in the results, and how
to interpret them.

Grounding of abstract concepts


The goal in scientific writing is not only to be correct (this is a given), but to be
understood. This is what you will be primarily marked for. So, when talking about abstract
ideas, ground them with everyday examples, or with studies that show how the concepts are
used. It is otherwise very hard to make abstract concepts clear, and even if it may be clear to
you, it may not be to the reader. For example, don't just write: "Ideomotor theories of action
assume that actions are initiated by anticipating their sensory consequences." Nobody would
understand something like this, even though it is a correct description. Better write:
"Ideomotor theories of action assume that actions are initiated by anticipating their sensory
consequences. For example, the simple act of reaching for a cup of coffee would be triggered
by people first thinking about how it would look and feel if their arm would really move
towards the cup: the perception of forward motion, the tension in the skin and muscles, and
the feel of the cup in their fingers." It is still difficult, but at least gives the reader an
opportunity to link an abstract theory to their own experience, and allows them to double
check whether they understood the abstract idea correctly.
The same goes for the description of experiments and tasks. Don't just write: "Brass' task
(2002) is a measure of automatic imitation.". Write something like "Brass' task (2002) is a
measure of automatic imitation. In the task, participants have to respond to random numbers
by lifting one of their fingers. In the background of the numbers, hands are displayed that
either execute the same, or a different finger movement. Brass and colleagues (2002)
observed that participants were faster in executing the same response as the hand in the
background compared to a different response. This shows that people have an automatic
tendency to imitate the actions of others, and that this tendency might interfere with the
actions they are themselves trying to make." Again, this is still difficult, but allows the reader
to understand what automatic imitation means, and how it is measured. It also very directly
signals to the marker that you have understood the task and that you can critically assess its
findings.

Showing your knowledge vs. making an argument


Often, students use the Introduction and Discussion sections to showcase how much
knowledge they have and how much they have read around. This is certainly one part of your
grade, but by far not the most important one. The biggest contributor is whether you make a
clear argument. Things that are included just because they show your learning but do not
contribute to your argument will count against you, and cause you to lose marks. This means
that whenever you feel that something is relevant to your topic in general, but it does not fit
into your argument, then either leave it out or make a different argument, which incorporates
this aspect fluidly. Remember this: you will not be judged for the completeness of your
overview, just the completeness of your argument.
The same goes for technical terms, of course. Make sure to use technical terms only if
they are crucial for understanding your argument and experiment. For example, include
sentences like “Johnson researched the adaptive dopamine novelty hypothesis” only if this
hypothesis is important for understanding your argument, and if you do, explain it in a few
sentences, so that your readers know what it is and how it is linked to your argument.

Result sandwiches
There seems to be a rumour that you are not allowed to explain anything in your result
section, and that you are supposed to just report the results objectively, without commentary
or contextualisation. This is not true. In fact, the best result sections clearly motivate, for
every prediction, (1) how it was tested, (2) what was found, and (3) what the result reflects,
concretely. So, in a way, explanations provide a sandwich for each test; they introduce it at
the start of the analysis, and they explain the result at the end of it. Here is an example for
how results should be presented (courtesy of Ben Whalley).

1. Restate the question and how it was tested; for example, "to test the hypothesis that
schizophrenia has a genetic component, we used logistic regression to predict
participants' current schizophrenia diagnosis from the number of relatives with
schizophrenia they reported.
2. Report the result and the statistics. e.g.: "the number of relatives with
schizophrenia strongly predicted participants' current schizophrenia diagnosis, (beta =
xxx, p = yyy, CI = LO to HI)"
3. Restate the finding and the direction of the effect (especially for complex effects or
interactions), e.g. "This positive relationship supports the hypothesis that schizophrenia
has a genetic component.

Writing a good Discussion


I feel there are several misconceptions about what the Discussion section is supposed to
achieve, with many discussions spending most time critiquing your own experiment, or
calling its results into question (in an attempt, perhaps, to show critical assessment). This is
almost the polar opposite of what the Discussion section is supposed to do. What you need to
achieve in the discussion is to (1) explain your experiment and its findings, and (2) illustrate
all the ways in which its findings affect the theories outlined in the Introduction; does it
confirm them, does it add new information, does it challenge them? Any concerns and
limitations should be (3) the last point you address.
This is how you do it, for a simple experiment testing one clear prediction: Start the
Discussion (1) with reminding the reader which theory you set out to test and how you did
this (“To test whether Schizophrenia has a genetic basis, we compared…”). Then (2) restate
in simple terms what you found in the Result section, to remind the reader how your results
link to the theories (“As predicted, we found that Schizophrenia in parents predicted
Schizophrenia in their children.”). Finally, (3) you now need to explain everything that you
can conclude from these findings, and how it should change thinking in the research area.
You ran your experiment for a reason, so now you have to make explicit how your data
change your thinking about the theory that you tested. Does it support it or not? Does it
further specify it? In what way? If it does support it, how does it change (or confirm) our
prior thinking? Have we learned something else from it? Make sure to go through all these
implications step by step. In the above example make clear (1) that the data support the idea
of a genetic basis of schizophrenia, (2) that this, in turn, implies some genetic changes in
brain development, (3) that this might have larger implications for the basis of other disorders.
Squeeze every little insight out of your findings that you can. That also means writing about
theories that your result disconfirms (“Our findings are a challenge for theories claiming that
Schizophrenia mostly results from environmental factors…”) and so on.
By doing all this, you demonstrate critical assessment. Critical assessment does not
primarily mean to slag off your research or point out alternative explanations; it means being
able to generally see the relationship between data and theories you set out to test: whether
the data support or undermine them. This does not mean that you should ignore criticisms,
but that they should not be the primary focus: leave them till after you discussed the positive
implications (unless of course your experiment was a complete failure, then skip the above
discussion about squeezing insight out of the results). And even then, focus on criticism that
(potentially) undermines your conclusions and the implications of the study, not just on
things that could have been done better. No study is perfect – your job is to home in on these
flaws that would materially affect the conclusions that can be drawn, not just to provide a list
of what could, in principle, be done better (but would still probably lead to the same result).
So, if you have an alternative explanation for your results, definitely point it out. But don’t
talk about that the same study could be repeated at a different university or a different city
(unless you have good reasons to suspect that the results would be different there).
End the Discussion about future research that could be conducted, ideally some creative
ideas about further experiments that are not just methodological advances, but which allow
some unanswered aspect of your research question to be answered, and finally a Conclusion
that presents the main things you learned from your study in an easy to grasp take home
message.

Opinions don't count, data does.


Don't write: "This is supported by Marshal, who said that Schizophrenia is genetic." This
puts the importance on the person and what they think, or what they might have said.
Psychology is a science, and therefore an argument is decided by data, not theories or quotes
of some random people, irrespective of how important they may be. Better write: "This is
supported by studies conducted by Marshal (1978)." And then you would have to explain, in
a few sentences, what Marshal did, what they found, and what it means. "She compared A
and B, and found that the rate of Schizophrenia is higher in B. This support the idea of a
genetic link". In this way you talk about what the data show and what you conclude from it,
rather than what Marshal thought about the data, showing critical assessment. Typically, the
only reason why you want to highlight what other people said, is when you want to prove
them wrong. e.g. "Marshal said Schizophrenia was 100% genetic, but our data shows
instead..."

Critical thinking
I have been told that you are all very aware that your writing is assessed in terms of
critical thinking and assessment, but that there is a lack of clarity what "critical thinking"
actually means in a writing context. Some seem to believe that, for every study they cite, they
would have to report what might have been wrong with it (i.e. non-representative sample,
etc.). As a result, many introductions or essays become very cumbersome and hard to read,
and the criticism appears forced.
I agree that sometimes, for very bad studies, such sentences are necessary. However, in
most cases, it suffices to simply re-state what the study really found, and link it back to your
question or topic, after you described their results ("This finding supports the notion that
schizophrenia has a genetic basis"). In this way, you state what you believe their findings
mean, not what the authors of the study think, and you integrate it into your argument. If
there is no shortcoming that undermines the conclusions you draw from the study, don't feel
obliged to write something!
One of the best ways to show critical thinking is if you can pick up the limitation of a
study and then point to other research that addressed these shortcomings. For example, you
might write: "Research in siblings suggests that schizophrenia has a genetic basis. However,
siblings typically also grow up in the same environments, raising the possibility that these
links emerge from shared environments rather than shared genes. For this reason, other
studies investigated siblings that were separated at birth. These studies confirm that....". In
other words, critical thinking is not only demonstrated by picking up shortcomings of studies,
but also by showing that you understand what the results of some studies mean (not just what
the authors claim their results mean), how different studies interrelate, and how they
complement each other.
Other tips

1. This should be a given, but I mention it anyways. Please make sure to write in full
sentences: Don't write: "People are more likely to become schizophrenic when one of
their relatives is schizophrenic. Suggesting schizophrenia has a genetic basis." The
second sentence is incomplete --- it has no subject (who is doing the suggesting?). You
can either connect them into one sentence, by simply replacing the full stop with a
comma: "People are more likely to become schizophrenic when one of their relatives is
schizophrenic, suggesting schizophrenia has a genetic basis.", or write it as two full
sentences: "People are more likely to become schizophrenic when one of their relatives
is schizophrenic. This finding suggests that schizophrenia has a genetic basis."
2. If you are talking about alternative explanations for or limitations of your results, make
sure to complete your argument. Don’t just write: “One reason for our finding might be
gender differences. Only females were tested. Therefore the experiment would need to
be repeated with males.”). You need to explain why you think that this alternative
hypothesis could explain the results. In the above example, you need to explain why
genetics of schizophrenia might be different in males than females, and so on.
3. Use direct quotes sparingly. As a general rule, one direct quote per paper is acceptable.
Only use it if you want to highlight that somebody *really* said something, or use it
when the exact formulation is important. Otherwise, always use your own words. Using
quotations makes it seem as if you have not understood the material enough to explain
it in your own words.
4. Never write "looked into". This is much too vague. Use: "they tested whether..." or
"they compared...", or "they investigated..." and so on. These terms force you to be
more specific and will signal to the marker that you understood the study you are
describing.
5. Statistical values (p values, etc.) should only be mentioned in the Results section. Don't
mention the actual significance values in the discussion, unless you want to make a
point about the actual value, e.g. when a result was just below .05 and you doubt
whether it is real.
6. Really, really, use the APA format. This is so easy to get right. If you don't use APA
format, you signal to the marker that you just don't care. Please put in the effort and
check whether your references (both in the text and the reference list) are formatted
correct.
7. “et al.” is always written with a full stop, because ‘et al’ is short for ‘et alia’. It stands
for “and others.”
8. In references in the text, “&” is used when a reference is cited in brackets “(Hommel &
Greenlee, 2007)” while “and” is used when it is cited in the flowing text (e.g. “Hommel
and Greenlee (2007) have found…”).