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Moravian professor authors guide to writing about psychology

Dana S. Dunn's A Short Guide to Writing About PsychologyDana S. Dunn’s new book explores the process of writing—and overcoming writer’s block

(Bethlehem, Pa.)— Dana S. Dunn, professor of psychology at Moravian College, may have created the most useful book to come out of the academic arm of his field. A Short Guide to Writing About Psychology (Pearson Longman, 2004) is 228 crisp pages of straight advice about the process of writing a research paper, from the literature search to the final manuscript.

Much of the book is about the process of writing—of overcoming fear of the blank page, which afflicts everyone (at one time or another) from undergraduate students to seasoned writers. “Most students find writing difficult,” says Dunn. “I’m a firm believer that the more you write, the better you are at it.”

To this end, he supplies a timeline that encourages writers to begin long before they think they’re “ready”—prepared with the results of their experiments or analysis of their data.

“Better to start your paper early and do a little bit each day,” he says, adding dryly, “I can recognize a last-minute paper.” And he advocates what he calls the “trick draft.”

“When I sit down to write an article that will come out to be, say, 25 pages of manuscript,” says Dunn, a prolific author in the field, “I create a framework. I set up all the pages, from the title page to the author’s notes, and when I sit down to begin the text, I’ve got eight pages filled already. And usually after the second session of writing, I have a working document.”

Dunn also is the author of The Practical Researcher: A Student Guide to Conducting Psychological Research (1999), Statistics and Data Analysis for the Behavioral Sciences (2001) and co-editor, with Chandra Mehrotra, College of St. Scholastica, Duluth, Minn.and Jane Halonen, James Madison University, Virginia, of the forthcoming anthology Measuring Up: Assessment Challenges and Practices for Psychology (due out in 2004).

He has several times taught Writing 100, the basic freshman writing course at Moravian, which is often taught by faculty from other disciplines, using their own subject as content. He also leads a writing group at Moravian for faculty members who would like to publish their work but sometimes don’t know how to get started.

Mostly, he says, writing is a matter of planning and managing your time. “All of us know it, some of us do it, while others continue to struggle,” he says.

After that basic task, which is mostly a matter of will-power, the second most important advice of the book is to write every day, if only a little. This is a point of technique that any professional writer will confirm, but faculty, busy with teaching, and students, busy with everything, often sidestep it, citing lack of time.

His book is not designed to shape the kind of academic writing that’s narrative in nature: a biographical study, for instance, or a historical analysis. “It is for research-based studies,” he says. “It is not meant to be creative writing. It teaches you to be concise and direct.”

A psychology research article follows a standard format set by the American Psychological Association (APA) for the presentation of research findings in the field: abstract, introduction, methods, results, notes and sources. Students may find that they are stating the same material in different ways in the abstract, the introduction, and the results, but this is what’s demanded by psychology journals. “There’s an art in conveying the same information in different ways,” Dunn says.

The format is the same in the related fields of sociology, business, criminology, and even some nursing and economics journals. All use, with slight modifications, APA format and style.

The book explains and illustrates APA style, from paragraphing to punctuation and especially the all-important matter of citation for sources.

Dunn has used examples of work by Moravian students, including a complete paper by Christine Pukszyn ’04, Center Valley, a Cohen Scholar who has a double major in elementary education and psychology. Excerpts from work by Jaime Marks ’04, Macungie, and Sarah Dougherty ’04, Mountain Top, also are featured.

“What students need are examples,” Dunn says. “Too often they get exhortation rather than illumination.” His book provides checklists, how-to guides, and what Dunn calls “insider trading” about writing: hints, tricks, methods that have helped him or others. Some comes from other books on writing. “There are great ideas out there.,” he says. “I use them—and cite them,” he adds.

A Short Guide to Writing About Psychology by Dana S. Dunn. New York: Pearson Longman, 2004. Part of the Pearson Longman Short Guide series. 228 pages. $24. wps@ablongman.com.