To APA or not to APA?

Thoughts on having read (half of) Stanley Fish’s 2011 book, How to Write a Sentence:

Long ago, in order to seem more “scientific,” the discipline of psychology decided to adopt (and rigorously enforce) a staccato, just-the-facts writing style. We drill it into our students in nearly every course, using a multi-hundred-page writing manual that everyone is expected to own and use. Indeed, in some courses, knowledge of APA style seems to loom more important even than knowledge of the psychological topic (cognition, personality, social, etc.) that is supposedly being taught.

It was originally intended, I suspect, to be a kind of anti-style in which “things” would be the only persuasive factors at work, all rhetorical techniques having been banished to the not-entirely-trusted realm of “words,” so that the reader would not be confused by the eloquent flourishes of crafty belle-lettrists of times past (or of the humanities present). This justification is, of course, ridiculous. A spare, telegraphic writing style is every bit as much a style as an elaborately ornamented one; giving the appearance of reporting “just the facts” is every bit as much a rhetorical technique — viz., one intended to be persuasive beyond the mere quality of the content — as is one that displays erudition through the most startling verbal gymnastics.

My question, then, is what important insights has psychology, the discipline, made it difficult or impossible to express by cleaving so strictly to this particular style, rather than allowing a wider range of writing styles to exist side-by-side in the discipline?

About Christopher Green

Professor of Psychology at York University (Toronto). Former editor of the Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences. Creator of the "Classics in the History of Psychology" website and of the "This Week in the History of Psychology" podcast series.

2 thoughts on “To APA or not to APA?

  1. The discipline of psychology surely was one of the first ‘soft’ sciences to yern for a label of being scientific. and to achieve this it was early on decided that the formatting should be rigorously elaborated, and consequenly described in the APA Manual. As time went by, this manual became more and more _the_ manual for social science, and today I teach my student (in Education) to follow it closely. What you say, ‘using a multi-hundred-page writing manual that everyone is expected to own and use’, rings a bell for me. It sometimes seems as if teaching/following the Style is paramount to the content. Form become superior to core, i.e. the things taught. You point the finger to an interesting fact: the Style was developed partly to contrast against the other styles at that time (the hermeneutic/humanities), and I think this is important to fully understand why the APA Style became so rigid – if I may call it that. To reply to you ending quiery, surely some types of studies and types of knowlegdes are harder to conduct and construct, because they are harder to describe given the format. Although, I cannot come up with any concrete examples right now. Though, it may be that the required format stipulates the focus and the insights. Hope the other half of Fish’s book was equally inspiring.
    Best Wishes. Kent.

  2. Thank you for writing this article.
    As a Dyslexic student the APA writing style is something that has caused me distress. My time is writing to fit the APA rules instead of researching and that is while using templates, citation tools, and endnote. I have had to make the difficult decision of picking my grade over choice in research. Its not that APA is an unfair system, but I feel that some of the rules are made to weed out anyone does not write perfectly.

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