General Writing Tips for Therapists


As a therapist, you have already written hundreds of articles, papers, and reports.  Most of us are able to write average quality content without much training or preparation.  Plus, you survived grad school, so you are on the right side of the norm.

Although you have the capacity to crank out some decent content, there are a few tricks and tips that you can use that may greatly enhance your writing.  These are a few of the skills that I have found to be effective, and I use these when I’m working with new graduate students.

Check out these pro tips for therapists!  If you use these well, you should notice positive changes in your writing style.

Pro Tip #1 – Type / Read / Repeat

Therapists tend to enter this line of work because we are verbally oriented.  If you want us to build rapport with a client in under 5 minutes, or find a complex feeling word (such as demoralized), or talk about self-care, we’ve got you covered.  If you want us to give you directions to the grocery store, you are out of luck.

My point is, if you are writing content without routing what you type through more refined verbal processes, you rob yourself of your greatest asset.

For example, let’s say I want to write about caretaker fatigue:

Caregiver fatigue, simply put, is the exhaustion that results from bearing the demands of work and/or childrearing while also providing care to an elder.  Psychologists consider this position to be the “sandwich generation,” where the middle-aged adult is sandwiched between caring for parents and children.  As becoming sandwiched is unavoidable, caregivers must be intentional about finding time for self-care.

Ok, that is a decent paragraph that gives the reader some context for caregiver fatigue and highlights the pressures of the sandwich generation.  However, there are a few clunky sentences that may encourage the reader to check out or move on to something new.

When I read the paragraph out loud, I noticed that the last sentence is particularly bad.

If you read a sentence to yourself and it sounds poorly worded, try changing the structure by:

  • Moving the subject (caregiver) of the sentence to the front
  • Begin the sentence with a different word (However, therefore, yet, etc.)
  • Say it out loud a few times and experiment by altering the wording
  • Break it apart into multiple sentences
  • Delete the sentence if it seems redundant

After I restructure the sentence a bit, it looks like this:

Getting sandwiched is a normal part of life.  As this role can be stressful, caregivers must be intentional about self-care.

Much better.

Pro Tip #2 – Avoid the Pet Peeves

I had a mentor during my time at Duke University, Dr. Mark Leary, who had a list of “writing pet peeves.”  If I submitted a paper to him that had any of these, he would circle the peeve and then write a number from the list.  I am now passing on his list to the world of therapists, not to shame but to provide guidance.

When I am intentional about noticing Dr. Leary’s Pet Peeves, my writing style improves dramatically.  So, I encourage you to use these in your pursuit of creating excellent content.

Here are a few of Dr. Leary’s Pet Peeves:

  1.  – Starting a sentence with the word “There”
  2.  – Using the word “individuals” (use “people” instead)
  3.  – Incorrect placement of quotation marks (The author said “If you type a sentence with a quote, make sure the ending punctuation in inside the quotation marks.”)
  4.  – The word “data” is plural   (data are collected, not is collected)
  5.  – Starting a sentence with the word “Since” or “Because” (use “As” instead)
  6.  – Effect vs Affect   (make sure to use them correctly)
  7.  – Monster paragraphs   (no one wants to read your bulky 20 line beast, break it up into 5 liners)
  8.  – Unnecessary wordage   (try to avoid super duper completely vital yet redundant descriptors)

I keep the full list on the wall next to where I write as an easy reference.   Trust me, your content will improve if you avoid the peeves.

Pro Tip #3 – Pleasure Read

One of the easiest ways to improve your writing is to read what other people write.  Sometimes it helps to read something that is not work or school related, just to get out of the psychology box for a while.  Science fiction is a great way to go, as the authors tend to pose interesting ethical and moral questions that may even come up in your office.

Pay attention to the ways other authors create structure, even at the word-to-word level.  Does the author use rich descriptions of emotion?  Does the content feel engaging?  Reading is a great way for those of us who learn by observing to pick up those nuanced writing skills.

Pro Tip #4 – Ask for Help

If you want to take your writing to the next level, one of the best ways to do that is to get feedback.  Graduate students have the luxury of easy-to-access faculty mentors, although many do not tap into that resource.

Would you like some feedback on your writing?  I am happy to work with therapists who want to take their skills to the next level.  Click on the sticky note below, let’s get started!