Paper Writing Tips for Grad Students in Counseling and Psychology


I recently had the honor and privilege of reading the first set of papers submitted to me by graduate students this semester. The papers were generally of good quality, but a few repeating patterns inspired me to provide the following list of basic tips for graduate students seeking to become mental health professionals.

  1. There’s nothing quite like a clear and concise topic sentence in academic writing. The topic (or focus sentence) introduces the content included in the paragraph. When used well, it’s a beautiful organizing force that brings joy and comprehension to the hearts and minds of many a reader.
  2. Although I absolutely hate the saying “More is less” (because, in fact, “more” is always “more” even though “less” can better), it’s a good general rule to make your sentences shorter rather than longer because all too often I find students, like myself in this particular sentence, trying to fit too much information into one sentence when it would be clearer and better to break it up into two or three sentences. A corollary to this rule is that fewer quotation marks and exclamation marks are better than more of those particular “Marks!”
  3. A transition sentence or two that describes what you’ll be covering in your paper and placed at the end of your opening paragraph is very helpful to your reader (me!).
  4. Unless you’re a Brit, you should put your commas, periods, and ellipsis inside the quotation marks, “Like this. . .” Think about it this way: commas and periods like to be on the inside; they don’t like to be floating outside the quotation marks because it increases their existential sense of isolation.
  5. You don’t need to use a comma when you have a short list of only two thoughts because all you need in that case is the word “and.” For example, notice the absence of a comma in the following sentence: Max was feeling quite spry and decided to post a smiley face to his Facebook status. In this case we definitely do not need or want a comma after the word “spry.”
  6. Keep in mind that in most cases it best to maintain consistency between singular and plural within the same sentence and paragraph. For example, if you write: “The counselor should work to have empathy with their client” it will cause me to wonder why you didn’t go with: “Counselors should have empathy with their clients.” Note: There is also a good reason to use what is now commonly referred to as the singular “they.” Using they or their as singular (representing an individual) is perfectly acceptable–especially when referring to individuals who are averse to the gender binary. However, in most cases, it’s easier and IMHO maintains better grammar-flow to shift to plural-plural whenever reasonable.
  7. Remember that your professor really likes the appropriate use of the Harvard comma. What this means is that when providing a list of more than two items, you should place a comma after the first item, second item, and before the and. An example: John very much enjoys running, walking, and dancing. If you leave out that last comma, it seems like the final two items are somehow joined together. Remember also, that using the Harvard comma is also consistent with APA style.
  8. When you’re quoting someone you should use the past tense; this is because the person whom you’re quoting has already said it. For example, in his book Working with challenging youth, Richardson stated: “Yada, yada, and yada.” Although it’s tempting to write, “Richardson states” the past is the past even though Gestalt therapists might want us to bring everything into the now.
  9. Please include the page number or numbers when you’re quoting someone so your reader, if so inclined, can confirm the accuracy of your quotation.
  10. In contrast and opposite of how I’m writing in this list of writing tips, APA style doesn’t like contractions. Instead, just like Commander Data in the Star Trek series, you do not use contractions when writing in APA format and you will see a little red mark on your paper if you write with the casual contraction.
  11. You may recall that Michael Jackson sang: “A, B, C is easy as 1, 2, 3.” Well, APA actually thinks that (a), (b), (c). . . is better than 1, 2, 3. . . when it comes to list-making.
  12. If you use capital letters when you don’t need to, I will think you’ve freshly arrived from Germany. Words like counselor and psychologist should not be capitalized and even though specific mental disorders like major depressive disorder are often capitalized, we shouldn’t privilege particular words just because we feel like it or just because the American Psychiatric Association would like those words to take on greater significance.
  13. My old statistics professor always used to say that you write numbers just like you write words. What he meant by this is that justlikeyouwouldneverwritelikethis, when writing an equation you should always put a space between the operation and the integer. For example, it’s always n = 1 and never n=1.
  14. Although corporations are people (according to SCOTUS, not me), people are not corporations. This means you should use “who” when referring to actual people and “that” “them” or “it” when referring to non-people. When it comes to addressing corporations, make no reference at all, just bow your head in deference.
  15. Although it’s very cool and good form to cite your professor’s work in your paper, you should do your best to spell his name correctly.
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