At the end of last year, I began a professional training programme of child and family psychology (similar to clinical training, but specific to child and family psychology). Our first assignment was to write a psychological report based on a fictional family, and with this came a whole new world of writing! Even as someone who has spent a year now in a research team focused on teaching information literacy (IL) skills, this was eye-opening. And it certainly wasn’t easy!

Because psychology is a soft science concerned with somewhat hazy concepts such as motivation, perception, and cognition, it is very difficult to determine causal links (cue for the psychologists in the room: correlation, not causation!). Most of what we learn is based on likelihoods and associations; and to reflect this, the language needs to be probabilistic, not definitive. For example, in my report I wrote:

At school, Amy’s perceptions of being bullied may mean she misattributes normal jostling and teasing as something deliberately harmful or aggressive, leading to further isolation as she chooses to close down rather than engage with peers.

In this case, Amy can be interviewed and asked why she struggles to engage with her peers. A psychologist, teacher, or parent can observe Amy amongst her peers and take note of her behaviour. And yet, because we cannot ever fully know anyone else’s internal cognitions or motivations, a direct link cannot be inferred; and thus, it is necessary to say x may mean y.

Another important thing I learnt is that knowing your audience for a psychological report is crucial; audience dictates both language and tone. For instance, a report only for circulation amongst professionals may use more jargon or terminology. However, if parents are going to read the report, clinical terms and explanations need to be described in such a way that someone with no understanding of psychological theory or knowledge can understand. Even more importantly, with real reports, children themselves can request to read them. This means their well-being and perspective needs to be considered as you write it; the last thing you would want to do is make anyone feel unvalued, misunderstood, or blamed.

For me, learning this style of report writing has led to a change, fundamentally, in the way I think. Where before I may have jumped to conclusions about someone’s behaviour and attributed motivations or intentions, now I catch myself doing this and think – what do I actually know, and how would I write about this using my newfound clinical reasoning skills? I find myself needing to catch myself less and less as this way of thinking starts to become instinctual.

What I am trying to say, quite long-windedly, is that every discipline has their own way of writing. This is how it should be! Language, style and the structure of writing ought to be aligned with each discipline’s purpose, right?

Knowing what to write and how to write it may seem simple if you have been in a field for some time. But teachers need to be aware that, when students are coming into it new, writing in a specific discipline is an art form that needs to be taught, discussed, practiced, and (hopefully, eventually) mastered! In my opinion, this is something to introduce to students early; not just ‘how to write an essay’ but ‘how to write an essay in the social sciences’ or ‘how to write an essay in mathematics’. Not only does this give students time to hone necessary skills before heading out into the workforce, it also allows us to compare and contrast across disciplines and understand why there are differences. And even more significantly, I think, it nurtures a way of thinking that reflects the priorities, values, and concepts integral to the discipline.

Rose O’Connor

Junior Researcher, Massey University