December 2010 -->

Walden University Writing Center

Where instructors and editors talk writing.

Four Quick Tips for Better Academic Writing


By Sara Culver, Writing Specialist

Need a fast route to scholarly writing success? These tips should get you on your way.

1. Use standard formatting. Wing-dings are fun, sure, and who doesn’t like a customized title page? All that fancy formatting, however, can easily overshadow your ideas. Readers who are used to a standard format may be distracted or confused by too much pizzazz. Keeping things professional—using 12-point Times New Roman font, double-spaced lines, and APA templates—ensures that your original analysis stays front and center.

2. Take a trip to the library. No matter what stage of writing you’re in, a trip to the library can help. Brainstorming topics? The library has broad overviews of any subject you might choose. Refining your thesis? Librarians can point you toward articles to help shape your argument. Think you’re ready to get published? Back issues of journals at the library can help you decide where to submit your manuscript.

3. Pick the weird (or challenging) topics. Scholarly writing should advance new and original analysis, research, and ideas. That task is sometimes easier to accomplish when you’re writing on a less-popular topic. The next time all your classmates are writing about substance abuse or No Child Left Behind, branch out—it’s likely there are many areas in your field that will allow you to make a new contribution.

4. Ask for help. If you ever have a question or a concern about a writing assignment, don't be afraid to email your instructor, a classmate, a librarian, or a writing tutor. The worst thing that can happen is that the person you emailed will point you to a better resource. The best thing that can happen is the person will be able to help you and will remember you as a motivated, engaged student.


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Organize, Organize, Organize

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By Beth Oyler, Writing Tutor

For many of us, the hardest part of the writing process is organizing our information. You’ve done all the research, taken copious notes, and now know a lot about your topic (maybe too much); what do you do now? I often find myself simply staring at the blinking cursor of my blank Word document. When the number of my sources has reached the double digits, I tend to freeze. For some of you who are like me, Writer’s Café may help solve this problem.

In a recent blog post for The Chronicle, Billie Hara reviewed Writer’s Café, a program to help writers keep track of the information used in a project. As Hara reports, Writer’s Café was originally created for fiction writers developing their characters and storylines, but it can easily be used by scholarly writers who would like a little help organizing papers both small and large. As a writer who could certainly use some help in this area, I was intrigued and thought I would see how well Writer’s Café translates to scholarly writing.

Hara discusses all of the Writer’s Café tools in detail, but the Storylines tool seems to be the most helpful in academic writing. If you are early in your writing process, you can put each topic on a note card and then play with the order. This function can aid writers who are having trouble with the overall organization of their paper. The note cards can also be used to represent each paragraph. As you write your paper, you can fill in the information you’d like to discuss. The note cards have the capacity for as much information as you’d like to add, so you could even list all of the sources you’d like to use in that particular paragraph. Or you could use each chapter to represent a paragraph and then use each note card to represent a sentence or source you’d like to include in that paragraph.

So far, I’ve discussed the Storylines tool as it could relate to a paper that doesn’t have chapters. Where it really gets fun is if you used Writer’s Café to write a dissertation or doctoral study. With the ability to add multiple chapters, writers have the freedom to organize their entire dissertation. Each chapter can be organized into the various sections and topics that you’d like to discuss, making outlining your dissertation much easier.

As you'll see, Writer’s Café isn’t perfect. Because it is geared toward fiction writers, it might not work effectively for all scholarly writers. But if you’re a visual learner, Writer’s Café could be a great way to visualize the structure of your paper.

Although Writer’s Café is for PC users, Mac users do not fear. According to a few reports, the comparable Mac program, Scrivener, is much more user-friendly (Ryan Cordell, who reviewed the program for The Chronicle, says that it “changed the way I think through, organize, and perform my professional writing”). One advantage that Scrivener offers is its ability to store research (including PDFs, Word documents, audio and visual files, and Web pages). Scrivener is also able to display the research alongside your paper. Another advantage of Scrivener is that it is geared toward academic writing instead of creative writing, allowing its functions to handle the amount of research you might have for a dissertation. Cordell discusses many other features of Scrivener in his blog, and I’ll admit that I’m pretty jealous.

Bottom line, there are some great programs out there to help you organize your academic writing—for both Mac and PC users. These are only two programs that were featured in The Chronicle; I’m sure there are others. If you’ve used one of these programs, or a different program altogether, let us know! We’d love to hear about your experiences. Feel free to leave us a comment so other writers can learn from your experience or send us an email at

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