So I am going to write my master thesis in psychology. It is expected to be of roughly publishable quality since I am a research master student. I always struggled with writing and am often overwhelmed with the vagueness of theories and concepts in this field. I often get lost and thrown of path without a good structure. What books can you recommend me that are for "dummies".

The things I would like to improve and know more about are:

  • The right attitude for academic writing
  • Academic writing pitfalls (e.g. when does something become too speculative?)
  • Smart ways to structure the process
  • Ways to make my writing more readable and make it flow better

Are there recommendable books that address such issues that are considered standard in any way?

  • 19
    You need more of writing not reading. And a diligent (and honest) proof-reader. Jun 4, 2015 at 14:10
  • 1
    As a research student you may have access to writing workshops. These may be run through your department/school/faculty, or even through a service department like the careers service or library. Some of my PhD colleagues (after my time) ran a couple of writing retreats themselves -- the idea is to go away and write for a day, all in the same place, free of distractions, but to discuss and be open about the writing process as well. You may want to organise something like this. This might want to come after reading, but reading about writing is no substitute for writing.
    – Chris H
    Jun 4, 2015 at 14:42
  • related question: academia.stackexchange.com/questions/18079/…
    – henning
    Jun 4, 2015 at 17:46
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    Questions of the form "Please recommend me a list of books" are generally not a good fit for this site. It tends to turn into an opinion poll, which this site is not a good format for.
    – D.W.
    Jun 4, 2015 at 19:21
  • 5
    @MeaningfulUsername, I feel differently. Every one of those answers is just an opinion. How would you evaluate those answers? There's little objective basis; it's just an opinion poll of Academia.SE users. How would you select a single, correct answer to accept? There's no single correct answer. Instead, we just get a "big list of book recommendations". "List of X" questions are frowned upon at Stack Exchange, for a reason (also here).
    – D.W.
    Jun 4, 2015 at 22:18

5 Answers 5


On attitude to academic writing

I like Write to the Top by Johnson. It has 65 short gems on how to structure an academic writing life; most of the tips are applicable to graduate students.

On Writing Well by Zinsser is a classic. It's not a recipe kind of book, but closer to something like those "Chicken Soup" series for writers. When I felt not very productive I read this as a "cleansing."

Academic writing pitfalls

A must have is Booth's the Craft of Research. It talks about the whole process of research from generating arguments and hypotheses to writing up the thesis or paper.

I also like A Manual for Writers of Research Papers, Theses, and Dissertations by Turabian. It's more of a style book, very clearly laid out and approachable.

Smart ways to structure the process

This is really "my grandma's potato salad is the best" kind of answer. No one can tell you because they probably will tell you different things that work for them. Here are what I use and have found useful. (If that helps, I work in biomedical field.)

I use Evernote to organize writing projects. I also incorporate Zotero or other bibliography software like Endnote (I like how Endnote allows me to link to PDF and comment them). I have also recently started using Docear to manage the thought process and it was fun. I also like Scrivener although I prefer physical note cards and Evernote. The key is to keep all resources in one place that is very accessible. Keep backups of your work.

For the writing process, setting up a ritual is important. Silvia's How to Write a Lot would be a nice inspiration. Pretty much the key point is: write every day for a fixed amount of time at a comfortable place. One hour, two hours, it does not matter, what matters is that you write.

Ways to make my writing more readable and make it flow better

Two eye-opening titles for me are Williams's Style: Toward Clarity and Grace and Schimel's Writing Science: How to Write Papers That Get Cited and Proposals That Get Funded.

Style: Toward Clarity and Grace is just simply wonderful. Starting from just "Subject + Verb," the book builds a framework on how to structure a statement based on one main theme: to be clear.

Writing Science dives further to analyze different levels from word use, syntax, sentence, paragraph, to the whole article using components seen in storytelling (Opening, Challenges, Action, Resolution) and their variation. It even discusses how different words in a sentence form a relational "arcs" and how to place and pace these relations for best clarity.

A classic that I must also mention is The Elements of Style by Strunk and White. Also having an easy access to Chicago Manual of Style, APA Manual (I use AMA), and Gregg Reference Manual on your desk would be tremendously helpful when any stylistic questions arise.

If you'd be writing about statistics, I'd also recommend Miller's The Chicago Guide to Writing about Multivariate Analysis which covers basics on par with writing statistics for news. For more advanced writing examples, Huck's Reading Statistics and Research is a good option. It talks about how to read results of different statistical techniques with plenty of examples from journal articles.

Freebie that you didn't ask but I want to tell anyway:

Break in by practicing free writing. It helps me focus in the morning before my writing hour.

Meet with an editor or academic writing coach who is familiar with your field for an assessment. Show your work and get a general sense of areas to improve on.

Just write. It's not possible to become a good writer by reading about writing. Remember: to suck at something is a start of being excellent at it.

  • 1
    "One hour, two hours, it does not matter": Well, when deadline is approaching it surely does matter, and maybe you can write at "a comfortable place", but surely you'll have to write at an uncomfortable pace :-) Jun 4, 2015 at 21:11
  • @MassimoOrtolano, the comment made me smile. :) I surely hope TC does not have to be under a deadline for a huge Master thesis. Yet, I agree making a plan is crucial. Jun 4, 2015 at 21:17
  • +1 for Williams Style: Toward Clarity and Grace. Brilliant book.
    – Corvus
    Jun 5, 2015 at 1:40

Different books work well for different people, depending on your natural writing style, how you think, and your writing process (long writing sessions or short bursts, frequent iterative revision to 'perfect' each sentence as you go, or drafting the whole thing and revising from start to end later, etc.).

I recommend first googling "thesis writing tips" and reading reviews of the books that pop up in the results (on Amazon, etc.)

Also you might find some ready-made lists of resources helpful, such as this one from UIUC: http://www.library.illinois.edu/learn/research/writing_tips.html

In addition, there are some fundamental classics on general writing strategies that can dramatically improve your academic writing. One such classic is Zinsser's "On Writing Well" (http://amzn.com/0060891548).

You might also appreciate some one-off resources that offer advice about specific sections of a thesis, such as the literature review, methodology, analysis, results, and conclusions. Google "tips for writing [fill in section here]" and see what comes up.

For instance, doing this for "literature review" brings up resources such as this handout, from the University of Toronto: https://ctl.utsc.utoronto.ca/twc/sites/default/files/LitReview.pdf

or this presentation from faculty at UCSD: http://www.jacobsschool.ucsd.edu/student/student_grad/docs/How_to_Write_an_Effective_Literature_Review.pdf

or this page from the UNC Writing Center: http://writingcenter.unc.edu/handouts/literature-reviews/

In general, university writing centers exist for the very purpose of assisting students with writing needs. I highly recommend spending an hour at your university's center perusing their resources and learning about the types of support they provide. Try a consulting session with one or two of their writing assistants and see if it helps. Often a 1-hr consultation can help to correct some persistent trouble spots. They can provide actionable advice on everything from the right 'attitude' (ways to motivate yourself to write and to structure your time accordingly) to thesis organization, to grammar and style issues.

With regard to technical aspects, a helpful resource would be the APA Publication Manual, now in its sixth edition. Proper formatting seems a trivial after-thought, but appearances do matter in the academe. How you cite authors in a citation, or what part of the citation you italicize, can jump out at your reviewers (professors or journal peer reviewers, should you choose to submit the thesis for publication - which I recommend) and either enhance or hurt the overall impression about the quality of your written work. Good luck!

  • 2
    +1. I took the liberty of adding a link to the APA Publication Manual. This is really the standard writing manual in psychology. A Master's candidate can get by without skimming it, but it would be helpful in any case, and a Ph.D. candidate simply couldn't pass it by. Also note that it is far more comprehensive than treating just the "technical aspects", as can be seen from the chapter summaries available at the link. Finally, it is the one resource that is definitely available at your library (maybe in an older edition, but that's fine, too), in contrast to some other writing guides. Jun 4, 2015 at 13:50

I can recommend the book "How to write a lot" from Paul Silvia. It specifically addresses all questions that you pose: the right attitude for academic writing, writing pitfalls, and guidelines for the process as well as the text itself.

What I like particularly about this book is that it clearly distinguishes academic, technical writing from writing prose. It compares this metaphorically to painting a wall vs. painting a piece of art. As with painting a wall, there's a clear way to getting it done, and if you follow guidelines of good practice, there's not a lot to get wrong with it. I found that reading this book really leaves you wanting to write more.


I found Tara Gray's «Publish & Florish» useful. It is very hands-on and emphasizes the practical and motivational problems of productive writing. Having said, that there are countless other guides and you can check their reviews on amazon etc. (Now, if you will excuse me, I need to get back to my daily writing routine.)

  • as per @jakebeal's request.
    – henning
    Jun 4, 2015 at 13:26

Take a look at Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day (http://www.amazon.com/Writing-Your-Dissertation-Fifteen-Minutes/dp/080504891X).

It doesn't deal explicitly with writing quality per se, but others have found it helpful.

One thing you'll find there is an endorsement of @Penguin_Knight 's free writing strategy.

Shameless publicity department (the author is my wife).

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