The write stuff for better marks

The Principles of Writing in Psychology. First edition
December 2, 2005

My first impression of this book was that it seemed to be a potential "bible" for psychology students when preparing coursework. So often students are told that it is not just content that counts but how it is presented, and this is the position strongly taken by this book at the outset. I remain convinced of its biblical worth, with a few reservations, and would heartily recommend it to any student sensible enough to care about writing and communications skills.

T. R. Smyth covers just about everything one could on writing, ranging from spelling, paragraphs, line spacing and hyphens, through tables, figures, statistics and qualitative reports to the preparation of a research paper.

There is even a section on marking papers that I wish all my students would read before submission. It is comforting to know that Australian students -Smyth teaches in Australia - also err with "could of" (instead of "could have"), as well as expecting high marks simply on the basis of the time and effort they expended.

There is an air of long experience about this book, which is confirmed by the author's poignant acknowledgments and by the quaint use, at least once, of "typewriter". A short 11-line section titled "Word processing" touches on one or two very obvious and basic points. In a second edition, this would be worth expanding into a chapter that I am sure students would find useful. At times, then, the author is somewhat grandfatherly and perhaps a little out of touch. Yet, his almost ponderous tone, perhaps difficult to avoid, given the subject matter and message, delivers a good deal of credibility and demands to be taken seriously if the reader desires academic success or at least some improvement over his or her last essay mark.

One gripe, which is perhaps a bee in my own bonnet: the author's use of "hypothesis" rather than simply "prediction" (from a hypothesis). This will have statistics tutors pulling their hair out.

The flaw is easy to forgive, though, in the face of the comprehensive good advice on writing so clearly and coherently offered by the book. It will not be read cover to cover but should be kept to hand on every student's desk, ready for consultation well before the assignment deadline and, more important, when reading the tutor feedback on how to improve.

Hugh Coolican is principal lecturer in psychology, Coventry University.

The Principles of Writing in Psychology. First edition

Author - T. R. Smyth
Publisher - Palgrave Macmillan
Pages - 366
Price - £12.99
ISBN - 1 4039 4236 6

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