5 Tips for Better Writing

1. Use scholarly voice and proper syntax

Syntax: The arrangement of words and phrases to create well-formed sentences in language.

Proper syntax is important in all levels of writing because it helps ensure clarity to the reader. Syntax often involves proper use of format (sentence structure and paragraphs), but it can also include grammar. For more information about syntax and examples, see this website.

Scholarly Voice: Simply put, scholarly voice is the unbiased, high-level and evidence-based writing that reflects good grammar, syntax, and tone (the underlying “voice” which comes across from your writing). Scholarly voice is also referred to as “academic English.” Colloquial or day-to-day English (how you speak at home or with others with whom you are familiar) is not a bad thing, but traditionally in higher education, scholarly voice or academic English is used because it is a “common” ground or basis for writing. Therefore, when you are working on assignments for class, make sure you refrain from using slang or non-Academic words, tones, and sentence structures.

2. Follow the rules of punctuation (know them inside and out)

Common errors or overlooked punctuation errors often leave a bad or unprofessional impression on readers. Since you are essentially working towards being a master/subject-matter expert in your field, proper punctuation is very important. Common errors include:

  • Incorrect placement of quotation marks, commas, and periods in citations;
  • Improper use of the semi-colon;
  • Incomplete sentences and sentence fragments.

3. Include references, citations, and/or footnotes no matter what kind of document you are writing

Even when you are writing discussion board posts and blogs, taking time to locate sources that support your statements and arguments is important because it demonstrates your proficiency as a scholar-practitioner (the goal of a masters or doctoral degree) and your commitment to excellence and your subject. Of course, citations are always required in all former academic papers, but getting in the habit of always supporting your arguments, opinions, and ideas will help you in your academic papers and will make citations easier. Keep in mind that even in the business world, including reputable sources and research that support your “pitch” will increase the likelihood that your recommendations and ideas will be approved…and it boosts your credibility!

4. Embrace the full writing process (even if it's tedious)

The writing process can be long and tedious, but embracing the full process is not only beneficial for your writing but also for your graduate career. Make sure you make time to do the following:

  • Outlining your work BEFORE you start writing—this is especially helpful for the students who struggle to start writing their papers. Outlines can help you make sure you follow the outlined format, stay on track and not go off on “tangents”, and answer all the questions proposed for your assignment. Expect to go through 2-3 revisions of your outline before you start writing, and include resources and proper citations within your outline to make your writing easier. 
  • Embrace the revision processeven the “experts” know that no piece of writing is perfect the first time around. Research and writing go hand-in-hand with revision, but so many students and writers get tripped up by setting impossible or unrealistic expectations of themselves (which only adds to the stress of grad school). The best way to avoid this stress-trap is to make revision part of your mindsets.
  • Seek feedbackto help with the revision process, seeking feedback from classmates, your faculty, or the Writing Center is important. The more times you look over your paper, the higher chance you have of writing an almost perfect paper.
  • Read your finished product out loud to yourself before submittingif you don’t have time to seek feedback or are still nervous about hitting the “submit” button, reading your paper out loud to yourself is a great way to practice revision. Two of the biggest issues in graduate writing are typos and mis-phrasing. Avoid these simple errors by reading your paper out loud slowly to yourself and read exactly what is not on your paper (not what you meant to say). As impractical as this may seem, it will usually help you catch 70-80% of this typos and small errors you miss.

5. Remember, we don't just say "what" in grad school

This is one of the biggest changes between undergraduate writing and graduating writing. We have to remember that at this level, we don’t just say “what” or provide summaries of things—we have to talk about “how” and “why,” as well.  As graduate students, you are expected to demonstrate both understanding and application of the knowledge you are gaining; you can no longer just absorb the information and regurgitate it without thinking more deeply about the information.

One very simple example of this is the fire truck example. If we ask an undergraduate student what color a fire truck is, they might respond with “red,” which is ok at this level. However, if we ask a graduate student the same question, the would not only say that it is red, but also discuss why it is red, why it isn’t blue or green, and how being red helps it do its job.


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