June 2013 -->

Walden University Writing Center

Where instructors and editors talk writing.

Capstone Calendars: A Plan for Success

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One of my favorite parts of my job here at Walden is meeting students face-to-face at residencies and dissertation intensives. However, at these events, when students glance down at my nametag and see the letters—P, h, D—next to my name, I often see their otherwise cheery faces go dark. Instead of smiles, I see grimaces and eye twitching, representing what the student feels has been a never ending process of capstone drafting, revising, hair pulling, and tears. Without fail, the next utterance out of students’ mouths always seems to be a version of the same question: “How did you manage to finish such a long and overwhelming writing task?” Although the question is frequently phrased differently, my answer is always the same. To complete a successful capstone, whether it is a dissertation or a doctoral study, one must have a specific and binding plan. This plan must include time for research, organization, writing, collaboration, and revision. Now, before these same students begin to roll their eyes at my abstract guidelines, l invite them to take a seat while I spend some time clarifying these requirements. So, just for a moment, imagine that you are sitting across from me at an advising table, and I am telling you how to successfully complete your capstone.


Capstone calendars: A plan for success

Determine your research and writing style. 

Your first task is to answer three important questions: How many days a week are you able to work on your capstone? What time of day are you best able to focus on research or writing? And, how many hours at a time can you generally work without feeling exhausted or distracted? The answers to these questions are important, as they will become the foundation of your capstone writing plan.

Commit to a specific plan. 

After answering these questions, the next step is to buy a calendar specifically for your capstone tasks. When detailing your responsibilities in your calendar, specificity is important. You will want to make several small deadlines that are too specific to avoid or put off. For instance, if you commit to having 30 pages finished in two months, you might never start writing, as each day is a potential day to procrastinate. And, there is always tomorrow, right? However, if you make a plan to write 3 pages a day, six days a week and you commit to beginning your writing every morning at 7 a.m., there is not a lot of wiggle room for procrastination.

Research and take notes. 

Before you even begin to think about writing, you want to complete your initial in-depth research of available resources on your topic. In this phase, you want to accumulate a substantial number of resources—articles, books, websites, etc.—that you need to read and take notes on. If you are struggling at all with accumulating sources, I strongly suggest you contact Walden’s librarians, as they are super skilled at locating a range of resources on many different research topics. After your initial research has been completed, you want to return to the questions you answered about your research and writing style. Based on the number of hours you have designated to work on your capstone each week, you will want to figure out how long it will take you to read and take notes on all of your sources. For example, let’s say I have designated 4 hours Monday through Saturday to work on my capstone. I have 40 articles and 5 books I need to get through. My plan is to get through 3 articles a day or one book every two days. Based on these requirements, it will take me 14 days to take notes on my articles and 10 days to take notes on my books. After I’ve figured out I need a total of 24 days to research and take notes, I want to map out this time period on my capstone calendar, making sure to account for the one day a week I am not working on the capstone.

Organize. 

After you have completed your initial research, you then want to spend some time organizing your research. Depending on how quickly you feel you can organize your notes into a cohesive outline or mind map, schedule 2 days, a week, or even longer for the organization phase into your calendar. Remember, when determining how long it will take you to organize your notes, don’t forget to take into account how many hours a day you have promised to devote to the capstone writing process.

Write and make daily goals. 

When writing a longer paper like a capstone, I usually suggest that students write 6-7 days out of the week. If writing most days of the week is not possible, I then suggest writing as often as possible. As writers, we tend to stay focused and make more progress when we consistently write on the same topic. On the other hand, if we only write sporadically, we tend to waste time in each writing session reacquainting ourselves with our topic, research, and where we left off during our last writing session. In addition to writing consistently, I suggest writers make one of two daily goals during the writing process: how many pages you will write per day or how many hours you will spend writing each day. While writing my dissertation, I decided I would write 2 pages 5 days a week. After only one short month of writing, I had over 40 pages written. So, even though only two pages a day does not seem like a lot, using this method, page counts can really add up quickly. Make sure to decide on a goal that works for you and map out how you plan to achieve that goal in your calendar.

Collaborate. 

Despite many students’ belief that writing a capstone is an isolating process, your computer should not be your only friend during dissertation or doc study writing. In fact, your writing will improve if you seek out collaboration and feedback while working on your capstone. While working on my dissertation, I regularly scheduled appointments with my university’s writing center every two weeks. By talking with someone else about my writing, I could ensure that I had sound organization, a clear argument, and a clear idea of what revisions needed to be made to continue on the right track while writing my chapter. Meeting with a writing tutor also gave me external deadlines; I knew that I would need to have words on the page in order to have something to discuss each week. Whether you choose to make an appointment with Walden’s Writing Center, workshop with a group of writers in your area, or just talk through your work with a friend or family member, collaboration is the key to making progress and improving what is on the page. Make sure to schedule regular collaboration sessions as you are planning for your capstone completion.

Revise. 

Although making time for revision seems straightforward, this part of the writing process can be a slippery slope for many writers. In writing my dissertation, I had a tendency to revise every sentence as I went. I would write one sentence, and then I would read that sentence aloud over and over, endlessly thinking of new edits. Before I knew it, an hour had passed, and I was still staring at that one sentence. The moral of the story here is to designate separate times for writing and editing. Your first goal is to get words on the page. This draft is the raw material that you can shape into something you are proud of during the collaboration and revision stages. Now, depending on how you work, you could schedule a day to revise after each collaboration session. Or, you could plan to revise once midway through your chapter or section and once at the end. Your revision style should reflect your style as a writer. Just remember, don’t get so bogged down in revision that you forget to actually write.

Finally, after completing your plan, you have to make a commitment to finishing. Just like failing to show up at work is not an option, your planned capstone work is also not negotiable. The plan you make is binding, period. And, if that means making it into a contract, signing it, and posting it somewhere others can see, so be it! Best of luck!



Sarah PrinceSarah Prince is a Writing Instructor & Coordinator of Embedded Writing Support and Design. Her favorite thing about working with Walden students is helping them to develop the confidence, clarity, and unique critical voice it takes to become effective and articulate scholarly writers.


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WriteCast Episode 2: Thesis Statements

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thesis comic

Why is a thesis statement so important? Where does it go? How is it different than a purpose statement? How can you make yours stronger?

These are some of the questions Brittany and Nik talk about in this week’s podcast episode. Listen below via the widget or on our Podcast page, and view the transcript here. Don’t forget to share, like, and comment!

Visit our Podcast page for the episode archive and information on several ways to listen to, subscribe to, and download episodes.



The podcast pilot is made possible by a Social Media Research Grant from Global Products and Services, Laureate Education, Inc. 

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Good Writing is Rewriting! Learning to Revise

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Some people tell you that the secret to writing is just getting words onto the page. Whether you grind away for an hour a day, carefully crafting paragraph by paragraph, or whether you wait until the last possible second, hoping the adrenaline will be enough to overcome your inhibitions about putting your thoughts into words, a draft is a draft, right? Once you hit that required page count, it’s pretty much just a quick spelling and grammar check and done, right? …Right?

Well, no, not exactly. Getting words onto the page is really just the first step—after that, you still need to turn those words into what you really mean to say. Experienced writers will tell you that the majority of their time is spent reworking, rewording, and reorganizing that first draft. Careful revision is the difference between work that is passable and work that is truly publishable.

As you develop as a writer, your process should grow and change, too. While the one-and-done philosophy may still work for you with drafts of shorter assignments, skipping past the revision process in longer assignments will rob you of the chance to really think deeply about what it is you are saying and what it is you really think. The more time you spend finding the best way to put your ideas into words, the better you will understand those ideas yourself. As you go over your own words, you might even come up with something new you hadn’t thought of before sitting down to write that first draft.


Like writing, revision is a skill you can practice and hone. Here are a few tips for how to make rewriting a bigger part of your writing process:

Adjust your expectations

Yes, it would be wonderful if we could all sit down at a desk and produce a perfect essay or article extemporaneously—however, that’s unfortunately not how writing works. Writing can be a slow, messy, sometimes painful process, and nothing’s going to come out perfect the first time. If you take some pressure off yourself and don’t expect a masterpiece to fly out of your fingers on the first try, it will make that first draft much easier to write. Then, after you have some material written that you can work with, you can set about refining your writing to be the best it can be. Hear another tip from writing instructor Brittany on adjusting first draft expectations in WriteCast Episode 1: The Writing Process

Make it part of your schedule

Revision takes time, and careful and extensive revision can take even more time than it did to come up with the first draft. Plan ahead and write a draft enough ahead of time so that you can read it over and think about the changes you could and should make.

Go big or go home

A writing teacher once told me that the writing process doesn’t even really start until the first draft is finished. That draft then becomes the raw material you mold into a piece of skillfully written work. Using the first draft as a starting point, don’t be afraid to make big choices. Rearrange every paragraph, delete your introduction—heck, delete the first four pages, see if the final point you make in your conclusion isn’t really your central thesis after all—don’t be afraid to take risks when you’re looking for ways to develop a draft. After all, you can always undo a change if it doesn’t work!

Practice giving feedback

Start a writing group or see if you can exchange drafts with some of your peers. Becoming a careful reader and responder to other people’s work will help you develop the skills to read and revise your own.

Read your work out loud

Whether you read out loud to yourself or to someone else, or if you can get someone to read your own work out loud to you, hearing the words out loud rather than just in your own head is a great way to listen for how the words fit together and hear when your prose gets confusing or convoluted.

As you progress in your scholarship, your ideas will become more sophisticated and your work will become more original. Whereas you may have started out writing summaries and explanations, you will eventually find yourself coming up with original analysis and evaluation, perhaps even developing your own original research. The longer and more involved your written work becomes, the more impossible it will be to capture the entirety of what you have to say about a subject on the first try. Making rewriting a central part of your writing process will give you the room to really think through and develop your ideas, and careful revision may help you realize an idea you didn’t even know you had.


author

Dissertation Editor Lydia Lunning’s interests include writing pedagogy, literature for children and young adults, contemporary cinema, and cooking.

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Writing Center Staff Picks: Resources for New Students

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While I was attending the Phoenix residency last week, a student asked me to tell him the most common question the Writing Center receives from students. I paused, thought a moment, and realized that there isn’t a most common question we get because students’ questions and needs are often so varied and specific.

However, what I did tell the student was that I consistently point students to specific services. (My favorite is our e-mail address; send an e-mail to writingsupport@waldenu.edu, and like magic, we’ll respond within 24 hours!)

And, after surveying other Writing Center staff, I discovered that we all have similar resources we refer students to time after time, particularly new students. These resources represent the best bang for your buck: If you use our website and webinars, you’ll have the most information possible at your fingertips.
website and webinars
So, in the tradition of your local bookstore’s Staff Picks section, here are the inaugural staff picks for Writing Center services all new students should use:
The Writing Center’s website was the most common resource staff reported recommending to students (over 50%!). As one staff member put it, “the website seems to be the hub of the Writing Center” and “offers the best orientation to Writing Center resources.”

The website is ideal for students new to the Writing Center because “it also allows for a low-pressure way to poke around the resources without the potential embarrassment of asking a ‘stupid’ question or zeroing in too quickly on one type of resource.”         
 
The website is also massive; as one staff member put it: “For breadth and depth … the website has more to offer than any other single resource.”        

When asked about specific pages of the website, staff recommended
  • the Getting Started page: This page “describes all of our services,” giving students a sense of where to go first depending on their comfort level.
  • the Writing Process page: Use this page to “start the writing/review iterative process as soon as possible!”
  • the References and Templates pages.
  • the APA Style tab: “I see the most mistakes with APA and formatting, so this resource tackles both.”
With both live and recorded webinars available, staff feel that since “we have such a big library,” students can find many webinars to fit their needs. A webinar is also helpful because it “provides a human voice to the Writing Center.”

As one staff member put it: “I really do think that students get the most out of these.  Plus, students can download the slides or rewatch the entire webinar again, with commentary, for more help.”

What specific webinars should you check out? Take a look:
  • “Welcome to the Writing Center”: “This webinar is a good overview in a neat lil package.”
  • Capstone webinars: Another staff member said these “would be the most relevant” for doctoral students beginning to write their capstone and are useful for “Walden-specific advice and help.”
What Writing Center services have you used? What would be your top pick? Let us know in the comments below!

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Beth Oyler
In her work in the Writing Center, Beth Oyler is “constantly fascinated by the research Walden's students are completing and where their interests are.” She learns from each paper she reviews.

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Taking Your Food for a Walk: Lessons in Fluency

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Language comic
Image from Quickmeme.com
Two and a half years ago, I was living in ViƱa del Mar, Chile, teaching kindergarten English (I was okay at that) and trying to live an active and social life with limited Spanish skills (I was not so fantastic at that). Despite years of Spanish classes, my communications were riddled with confusing grammar (“You are quiet or no to get stickers!” I often told my students), poor vocabulary (“Can I take my food for a walk?” I asked at a restaurant once, hoping for a to-go container), and charades and sound effects when language utterly failed me. I knew precisely what I wanted to say, but lacked the ability to express myself. Anyone who has spent much time outside his or her home country can, I’m sure, relate.  

This frustration is not limited to travelers. As Rachel discussed a while back, writing can be like learning a new language: whether you are moving from professional to scholarly writing, undergraduate to graduate writing, or graduate to doctoral writing, you are entering a new discourse community that has its own norms and expectations. This is can be a confusing and daunting transition, and if you are making this transition in a second (or third or fourth) language, it can be even trickier.

No matter how well I communicate in English (and I’d like to think that I’m adept at that), I struggle to express fairly basic ideas in Spanish. Similarly, no matter how articulate you are when, say, communicating with friends and family, with your boss and coworkers, with former professors and classmates, or in another language, you might sometimes struggle to meet your faculty’s expectations here at Walden.

While I never achieved my goal of Spanish fluency in Chile, I learned some lessons that help when I – like many Walden students – enter a new discourse community:

1. First and foremost, be patient. Language acquisition takes time, as I learned the hard way, and academic language is no exception. If English is not your first language, it might take even longer (we’re talking years) to become comfortable with academic language. If you get a few poor grades on a few course papers, that doesn’t mean that you are unintelligent or not cut out for your program. You might just need a bit more time.

2. Immerse yourself in the language. For me, that meant listening – to my students, their parents, the couple at the table next to me. For you as students, immersion typically means reading, and not just skimming for content, but reading actively for vocabulary and style. What kinds of words appear in a scholarly article? How do authors construct and support their arguments? Just as important, what kinds of words do your authors not use? Challenge yourself to read the literature in your field as actively and extensively as possible (check to see if your instructor offers a recommended reading list) to immerse yourself in scholarly language.

3. Ask for help. In Chile, I very quickly lost my shame about asking people – whoever was in reach – whether I was saying a word or phrase correctly. You will want to find your own support system in your writing at Walden. Ask friends, family members, or coworkers to help you work through an idea or proofread a paper. If you have questions about an assignment or a grade, ask your instructor. Consider taking a writing course for more practice. And of course, reach out to the Writing Center – that’s what we’re here for. 

4. Remember that fluency does not mean perfection. Even if I had stayed in Chile for another 20 years, I would probably not sound like a native Spanish speaker. My goodness, I wouldn’t even call my use of English “perfect”! Similarly, no matter how hard you work or how many papers you write (and if English is not your first language, no matter how long you have lived in the United States or studied English), you may never receive a paper back from a faculty member that says “A++; don’t change a thing.” I know that I myself have never received such feedback. Focus not on perfection, but instead on communication. That is, after all, the goal of writing.

Have you ever struggled to communicate in another language? Have you reached fluency in a second, third, or fourth language? How might those experiences inform your writing at Walden? Share with us in the comments!
We’re always looking for ways to improve our resources. If you're a current international and/or multilingual Walden student, please take our brief survey to help us improve our services for you. The survey link will remain posted here as long as the survey is active. Thank you!

Kayla Skarbakka
Kayla Skarbakka, coordinator of international writing instruction and support, says, "Walden students inspire me with their drive to pursue their educational and career goals." She currently lives in Dallas, Texas.

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Introducing WriteCast, the First Writing Center Podcast

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headphones
The Writing Center is excited to launch our first audio podcast, hosted by writing instructors Nik and Brittany. This podcast is dedicated to all things related to scholarly writing (for general information about podcasts, visit Apple’s FAQs: For Podcast Fans page.) Whether you're a brand-new Walden student or in the final stages of your dissertation, we hope you'll join us on our podcasting adventure! We’re subtitling the podcast “A Casual Conversation for Serious Writers” because we hope that the podcast will be fun but also valuable in helping you develop your skills for academic, professional, and personal writing.

During this pilot period in June and July, we'll publish four additional episodes, airing a new episode every other week. Then, we'll launch a short feedback survey to hear your thoughts on the podcast and help us determine its future. We’re excited about this new writing resource, and we hope you are, too! Click the widget below to stream, download, and share our first episode: The WritingProcess. You can also view a transcript of the episode here. Keep an eye on our blog, our Facebook page, and our Twitter feed for more new episodes, transcripts, and our survey.


No iPod? No worries—you don't need an iPod or an MP3 player to experience the podcast. Our new  Podcast page hosts our episode archive and explains several ways to listen.

The podcast pilot is made possible by a Social Media Research Grant from Global Products and Services, Laureate Education, Inc.

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