Tips for Technical Writing

The following sections make some important suggestions for improving your writing. Please read these very carefully. Following these suggestions will likely improve your writing and subsequently your grade.


Make sure your verb "tenses" are correct and consistent. Most of the paper should be written using the past tense because most of what you are writing about has already been done. For example, "Cullari (1994) found (not "finds") that freshmen spend less time" . . . , or "the mean results were" (not "are"). Although the present tense is not used as frequently as the past tense, it is appropriate at times. For example, it can be used when you are giving your own ideas, when presenting statements that are well accepted, or when describing your results. For example, "I believe that self-disclosure is very useful in psychotherapy"; or "Freud believes that the unconscious determines our behavior"; or "Table 1 shows." Future tenses are used very sparingly in psychological writings but are appropriate when writing research proposals.

Sexist Language

Do not use the words "boys" or "girls" to refer to older men or women. "Girls" or "boys" is correct when the subjects are high school age or younger. Try to avoid terms like "man" or "mankind". Use "person", "people", "humanity", "human beings" and so on. Try to avoid the generic use of "he" or "his" to refer to both genders. For example, rather than saying "a therapist often uses his common sense", you might say "therapists often use their common sense." Rather than saying "a person should apply for his grant", you can say "a person should apply for the (or their) grant". Using terms such as "he/she" or "(s)he" tend to be distracting and should be avoided as well. The APA manual gives a number of suggestions for avoiding the terms "he" or "she", and the reader should review these (see pages 50-60 in the 4th edition of the APA Manual) for further information.

Common Mistakes

Use "all right" (two words) rather than "alright".

Use "a lot" (two words) rather than "alot". Alot is a verb meaning to distribute.

Advice is a noun meaning something that is given (to give advice). Advise is a verb meaning to counsel. "I would advise you to read your papers carefully."

Allude means "to refer". Elude means "to avoid " or "to escape." Illude is not a word.

Although means "whereas" or "but" ("Although Smith found significant results" rather than "while Smith found significant results).

All together means "all at once" (we did this all together). Altogether means "completely" (I am altogether puzzled).

Backward and backwards mean the same thing and either one can be used.

Bad is an adjective usually describing health or emotions (she felt bad this morning). Badly is an adverb describing actions (he pitches badly).

Compliment means to praise. Complement means to balance (our new worker complements our office very well).

Criteria is the plural of criterion just as phenomena is the plural of phenomenon.

Dessert is eaten after a meal. Desert can either be a noun (as in an arid land) or verb meaning to abandon.

Emigrate means to leave a country. Immigrate means to enter a country.

"Etc." is the abbreviation of et cetera. "Et al." is the abbreviation of et alia meaning "and others".

Flammable and inflammable mean the same thing.

Good is an adjective (you look good today). Well can be used either as an adjective or adverb (you look well or you do things very well).

People get hanged and coats get hung.

To imply means to suggest. To infer means to deduce or interpret. A psychologist usually draws inferences from the data but the data may also have many implications.

Important relates to being meaningful or significant. However, when psychologists use the term "significant", they are usually referring to statistical significance, which means unlikely to be due to chance variation (for example, results may be statistically significant but not important).

Irregardless and regardless mean the same thing, but regardless is the preferred usage.

Loose is an adjective which is the opposite of tight. Lose means to misplace.

Media is plural, while medium is singular (a film is a medium, while TV, radio and film are media)

Ones is a plural noun (there are two ones in 1001). One's is possessive (one's work is a reflection of their skill) or the contraction of one is.

Stationary means "in one place". Stationery is what you write on.

While is typically used to connect events that occur simultaneously (we ate while she slept).

Who serves as the object of a verb (I want to know who did this).

Whom serves as the object of a preposition (whom do you prefer)