Grad Writing Email Tips
By Lauren Cerretti
I’ve been sending out grad writing email tips and thought I’d post them to the site for those of you not on the grad student listserv.
Avoiding Passive Voice
Passive voice is sometimes a confusing issue for students. Often, we aren’t entirely sure what passive voice is when we are encouraged to avoid it. Basically, passive voice occurs when there is an action but no subject to complete the action—an action without an actor. Here is an example of passive voice: The results were entered into the system for analysis. Nowhere have I stated who entered the results, just that they “were entered.” The rules regarding having yourself, the researcher, in the sentence differ from field to field, so it is best to ask your advisor for advice to navigate this issue.
Check out this link for further explanation. The website is from the University of Wisconsin, Madison’s Writing Center and Joseph Williams, Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace. 3rd ed. Glenview, IL: Scott, Foresman, 1989.
How to Proofread
Most of us don’t like to do it. Proofing our own work can be harder than the writing itself for some of us. Catching every little mistake is hard work, hard frustrating work. But proofing is important, right? More important than maybe we’d like to believe. Those little typos or word choice mistakes affect how the reader views you as the author/scientist/researcher/etc. Those mistakes affect your ethos as a writer. You need the audience’s trust in order to convince them of your case; you need to show the reader that you’ve put all the effort possible into creating this document. Here’s a link to the University of Wisconsin Madison Writing Center; it offers a handout on proof reading techniques: http://writing.wisc.edu/Handbook/Proofreading.html Give the techniques a chance and I’m sure you’ll see improvement in your error rate.
Remember: leave yourself enough time at the end of a project to slowly proof your document—you don’t want to rush through it.
Effective public speaking has a lot to do with writing. You must write and draft your presentation. Finding the perfect active verb can sometimes really help accomplish your goals. As with other writing, a presentation must be written clearly and organized logically. But, because you are presenting your information orally, there’s another component: you. Your style, voice, projection, visuals, appearance, and confidence all affect the success of your presentation. To learn more about public speaking from a very experienced presenter, please attend the Public Speaking Seminar, hosted by Toastmaster Tom Stenzel, on February 17th at 11am in SUB 233. As always, light refreshments will be provided. Hope to see you there!
Review of Literature
A review of literature for a thesis or dissertation is a common writing assignment and not always the simplest for students. While writing the review of the literature you’ve researched to become familiar with your topic, keep these few tips in mind: 1. Remember that the review is your opportunity to show the reader that you’ve researched thoroughly and know what information is out there about your topic; 2. A lit review is often organized thematically, so look for trends in research to begin your organizational plan; 3. You still need to include topic sentences and transitions in the review to keep the reader engaged and following your logical progression. Here is a link to the University of Wisconsin Madison Writing Center’s article on writing a review of literature. It is a general article, but offers useful tips for any discipline. http://writing.wisc.edu/Handbook/ReviewofLiterature.html
Writing without judgment
A huge mistake writers make is agonizing over every little sentence too early in the writing process. You must learn to initially write without judgment so that you can get through drafting. It will never be perfect the first time. It will always take multiple drafts—even for seasoned, professional writers. But without that first, imperfect draft, you’ll never have anything to revise.
Writing is Revision
Sound familiar? This is a common saying of writing teachers and I’ve found it to be very true. Writing, like other academic disciplines, is a skill that can be mastered. Too often writing is considered an art (which it certainly can be) and that makes it feel inaccessible to a lot of us–which can make getting started even harder. Revision is a big part of producing an effective and successful document, and that is your goal. Revising a document means asking peers or advisers (or the writing tutor!) to read your draft and ask questions about it. Their questions and concerns will hopefully lead you to write stronger arguments with more effective support. Reading our own work critically is difficult and something you will get better at the more you practice. Try to be open to constructive criticism of your own work and the revising process will get easier.
Take a break
Possibly the best part of the writing process is when you get to take a break from your writing. Some students forget this necessary step in the writing process. Often, a break of a few days or even a week (or more, if you can afford it) once or twice during your process–once before your last major revision and once before final proof-reading–can instantly improve your mood, your revision speed, and your engagement with the material. Taking a break isn’t lazy and it won’t lead to you becoming disengaged with your project, either. In all likelihood, taking a break will only improve your work once you get back to it. Coming back to a project with fresh eyes and a sharper mind is the best thing you can do for yourself and your work–and it certainly makes spotting all those little typos a whole lot easier.
Lead with your own voice
It’s a common mistake for writers to begin a paragraph with a source–either another person’s idea or a quotation–rather than our own. Beginning a paragraph with a source often means you haven’t transitioned into the paragraph or offered the reader a topic sentence (a sentence that tells the reader what the paragraph will be about). It’s important to begin and end paragraphs with your own words, voice, and ideas because the paper is yours. Writers use sources to support their own arguments; you are the star of your writing, not your sources.
Hope these quick-tips are useful. Good luck with your writing!
About the author: Lauren Cerretti is the graduate writing tutor at Montana State University in Bozeman, Montana.