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Walden University Writing Center

Where instructors and editors talk writing.

Blog and Podcast Announcement

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Walden University Writing Center


Over the next few months, the Writing Center staff will not be updating the Writing Center Blog or the WriteCast podcasts with new posts and episodes. Instead, we are investing our time and efforts into hiring and training a number of new Writing Center staff! We are excited to expand our team, as this will allow us to offer more paper review appointments and to better serve Walden students. We will resume posting to the blog and publishing new podcast episodes later this year, and we will share more information about the new additions to our Writing Center team. In the meantime, you can find writing help in the blog archive and podcast archive

Thank you for your patience during this very exciting time for the Writing Center!


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Anne Shiell
 is a manager of writing instructional services at the Walden Writing Center. 


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Where, Oh Where, to Begin? Expert Advice on Starting Your Proposal

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This month on the blog, we're featuring a guest post by dissertation editor, coach, and author Noelle Sterne.


You’ve reached the first dissertation milestone—approval of your prospectus. Great! And you can’t wait to plunge into the next step, writing the proposal. But now, somehow, it’s not working. With all the best intentions and surrounded by all the scholarly materials, you may be spending long fruitless hours in your study or the library. The days are slipping away, your friends are out eating pizza, and your family wonders what you’re really doing in all those solitary hours. You feel paralyzed.
To cheer yourself up, you remember that the proposal becomes the first three chapters of the real dissertation or doctoral study. But this fact offers little consolation. A completed proposal seems like a sky-high wall with not even a step stool in sight. Where is that danged first step?

Break the Rules

Here is one remedy. Contrary to the King's advice to the White Rabbit in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, you don't have to start at the beginning and keep going until you reach the end. If you follow this dictum, you may only increase your fears and tremors.

In my academic coaching practice, I advise clients not to start at the beginning--that is, with Chapter 1, the introduction. Why? This chapter requires a concise overview of your topic and the literature. You must be highly familiar with both. But many students don't get to know what they're really writing about until they've been living with their capstone for several months.

How to Start         

So, here’s first trick to break your paralysis: Make separate files for each chapter. Use the university’s requisite chapter names and headings (from the capstone manual or handbook), or the templates in the capstone section of the university website. Once you create the files you’ll feel more organized. You’ll also gain a sense of accomplishment. You can keep throwing notes into these files as new materials surface and brilliant thoughts occur to you for each chapter.

The second trick: Start writing by choosing something relatively straightforward. No doctoral divine lightening will strike if you start in the middle, or later.  I often recommend that students start with Chapter 3: Methods. In this chapter you describe who's in the study and how you will study them—your population and sample, and what you're going to put them through (experiments, questionnaires, or interviews). Your writing style here should be direct, with precise descriptions of the steps you'll take to gather information for your later conclusions.

Dissertation Brownies

It's kind of like a recipe for dissertation brownies—as in this example student’s paragraph:

First, I will create a flyer for recruiting students to complete my questionnaire on their most effective study habits. Then, I will seek permission from the Office of Student Affairs to post the flyer on campus bulletin boards. When students respond to my contact information, I will send them the letter of introduction to the study and the informed consent to participate. Next, I will . . . 

In the margin of the paragraph above, the student's chair commented, "What's your authority for bypassing the university's institutional review board?" The student hastened to add this information in the next draft. What you write may not be the final draft, and shouldn't be. Accept this, and recognize that you’ve made progress in writing something. 

The Advantages

Writing anything loosens your fear-frozen mind so you think more creatively about the steps you need to take. Let’s say you were writing the example paragraph from above—you need to think about where to recruit, who to recruit, when, and many other considerations. As you visualize the actual steps, think about what your actual recruitment flyer and letter of intro to the study will say. This is a great opportunity to actually draft the flyer, letter, and informed consent form—you're going to need them as appendices. Then, possibly to your elated shock, you'll have written more!

When you see the paragraphs mounting, you will feel greater confidence to keep writing. A few days after I guided my client Rod to start with his third chapter, he emailed me: "I finally got to a double digit page numbers! A miracle!" I congratulated him for reaching page 10. Practice makes progress.

As you keep going, you'll likely find that related ideas pop up. Say you’ve decided to study the study habits of red-headed students over six feet tall. You suddenly realize that another study could be done on the study habits of enrolled redheads under six feet. Here's where you click to your largely empty file of Chapter 5: Discussion, Conclusions, and Recommendations, and type the new idea under the subhead of suggestions for future research. You’ve written more!

Starting your proposal with something easier isn't a black mark on your moral fiber. It's simply a way to get moving. So, choose a section or subsection that feels doable, even obvious. Tell yourself, "It's all got to get done anyway." Now . . . start writing.

author

For 30 years, dissertation editor, coach, and author Noelle Sterne, Ph.D. (Columbia University) has helped doctoral candidates complete their dissertations. Her new handbook addresses their overlooked but crucial nonacademic difficulties: Challenges in Writing Your Dissertation: Coping with the Emotional, Interpersonal, and Spiritual Struggles (Rowmand & Littlefield Education, September 2015). Visit her website at trustyourlifenow.com.


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How "That" Can Improve Word Flow in Your Writing

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What does the phrase word flow mean to you? It is a difficult metaphor to pin down because words don’t literally flow like a river or a stream. So, the definition of word flow can vary for each student, teacher, and writing instructor.

As a writing instructor, I had a few specific identifiers for word flow when reviewing a student’s essay:
  • Simple, clear sentences that communicate in active voice.
  • Limited rhetorical phrases or words.
  • No dramatic grammar usage.

This last one may seem strange, so I want to lead with an example and anecdote. The last time I wanted to buy a rug, I visited my local IKEA store. When I approached the checkout counter, there was a sign posted that read: “It’s OK, to change your mind” with a little heart next to it.* I would like to give the folks at IKEA the benefit of the doubt and presume the comma is a translation issue from Swedish to English. However, my first assumption is that the comma was included for dramatic effect. In other words, a dramatic pause after the reassuring phrase “It’s OK.”

Eliminating that excess comma would improve word flow immensely! Take a minute to read these sentences out loud:
  • “It’s OK, to change your mind.”
  • “It’s OK to change your mind.”

Hear the difference? That’s word flow.

* Side note: Apparently some Ikea store signs have better word flow: 

IKEA: it's OK to change your mind... by Feeling My Age | Flickr (CC by 2.0)

A quick tip that you are sure to like:

Quite often, many of us write with the same inflections found in our speech. And while it is true for all writing that there should be a distinct scholarly voice versus an informal voice, this distinction is especially true for APA where the proofs are founded on scientifically proven measurements.

Lucky for all of you wonderful readers, I have a quick tip to help improve word flow and your scholarly voice. It is as easy as finding just one word that you might be using unnecessarily throughout your writing: which.

The word which introduces what professional writing gurus refer to as a nonrestrictive clause. This particular clause includes information that can be eliminated from your sentence without changing the meaning of your sentence. The issue is that we often use the word which, which introduces unnecessary information, when the word that will suffice.

By contrast, the word that introduces a restrictive clause. In other words, a clause that—you guessed it—is necessary to the sentence and changes the meaning if it is removed. The catch is that the word which requires a comma before it, and the word that does not. That comma interjects a short pause into your writing, which is quite often unnecessary.

Let’s take a look at some examples:

  • Here is a quick tip that you are sure to like.
  • Here is a quick tip, which you are sure to like.

Which is correct? Well, both are correct because the phrase you are sure to like is additional information and can be removed from the sentence without altering its meaning. However, the first example does not contain a pause. And the absence of that pause helps increase word flow.

Here’s a trickier example:

  • My dentist only accepts Melba Dental Care Insurance, which is great for me because I am covered by Melba.
  • I have strawberry or orange candy; which do you prefer?

Which is correct? Both are correct! The first example is a nonrestrictive clause, but it is useful information for your reader or listener. The second exemplifies another function of the word which: the word which indicates a choice between objects.

What I would like all of you to do is open the latest document that you are working on. Go ahead, I’ll wait. OK. Now, use the find function (ctrl+f or command+f) and find the word which throughout your document. Here’s the test: When you find the word which in your document, determine if the information that follows it is relevant and necessary to the sentence.
  • If it is not relevant, and you want to keep the information, then make certain to add a comma before the word which.
  • If it is relevant and you want to increase your word flow, then try exchanging the word that for the word which and eliminating the comma.

This test is great for becoming accustomed to the distinction between that and which. However, my rule for scholarly writing and word flow is pretty simple: I always prefer that over which. And that, ladies and gentleman, is how that can quickly improve word flow.



This month, we're discussing word choice on the blog and podcast. To catch up on what you missed, check out WriteCast Episode 24: Why Word Choice MattersMatt's post on abolishing imperatives, and Hillary's post on writing meaningful and worthwhile sentences.



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Shawn Picht, formerly a Writing Center writing instructor, is the manager of faculty support in the Academic Skills Center. In his free time he likes to jog, jump rope, read literature and philosophy, write about his travels, and play Rolling Stones and Dylan songs on a blue acoustic guitar. 


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Tips for Writing Meaningful and Worthwhile Sentences

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Tips for Writing Meaningful and Worthwhile Sentences | Walden University Writing Center Blog

It’s the summer of ’15, and the song “Things Happen” by Dawes is getting significant airplay on my local radio station. If you haven’t heard it, tune in to the video at 1:31, 2:18, and 3:09:



Did you catch the refrain? “Things happen; that’s all they ever do.” The first time I heard it, my brow crinkled. I thought, Well, that’s technically true, but does it really need to be said? And Couldn’t they have written more compelling lyrics? Despite these thoughts, I’ve been singing the song all summer, so maybe it has achieved its purpose. Things happened to me indeed.

The song settled in my brain beside the memory of an old Dunkin’ Donuts advertising campaign. Check out the commercial below. The jingle “doing things is what I like to do” is similarly catchy but also meaningless. What are these things? Why does the writer/actor/Dunkin’ Donuts coffee drinker like to do them?



Then I thought of Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off,” with the redundant line “players gonna play, play, play, play, play and haters gonna hate, hate, hate, hate, hate.” 



While there might be a purpose for these hollow phrases in pop culture, in academic writing, they just cause frustration and confusion. After all, in an essay, you do not have the amazing vocal range, instrumentation, or attitude; you just have words on a page that should resonate with readers and compel them to continue. If readers start to think Huh? or—worse yet—Duh! after a particular sentence, then you have lost them and your essay won’t get the attention it deserves.

In the Writing Center, we often talk about the paragraph as the unit of power in an essay. Today I want to take that discussion even narrower, to sentences and to individual words. A paragraph is only as meaningful as its parts. Let’s look at some examples.

Sentences that are too broad

In today’s society, education is an important topic.
This sentence is likely the first one in a student’s paper. The student wants to guide the reader into the essay’s subject matter carefully, with some background. I can see that. However, in this case, the sentence is just too general. What exactly is “today’s society”? Sure, education is an important topic, but what aspect of education? The keys for revision are to (a) determine a subtopic and (b) make the reader care.

Possible revision to narrow the focus: Because of the steady decline in U.S. high school graduation rates over the past 10 years (Smart, 2015), New York school administrators have developed greater retention efforts.
I used a variety of counseling tools on many occasions.
Like the previous example, this sentence does not tell me much. What are these tools? How were they used, and when precisely? As a reader, I want to grab hold of an idea and sink my teeth into it. This kind of sentence leaves me gnawing at air.

Possible revision to narrow the focus: As a counselor, I used active listening, open-ended questions, and eye contact in my initial interviews with clients.

Sentences that are unnecessary

Nurses have a plethora of knowledge about nursing.
The student in this example is essentially saying that nurses nurse (similar to Swift’s “haters gonna hate”). In a revision, more specific aspects of nursing should be conveyed so that the reader sees the true power of this nursing knowledge.
An employee is defined as “a person who works for another person or for a company for wages or a salary” (“Employee,” 2015, para. 1).
Chances are, an educated reader will already know what an employee is, so this definition is not needed. Sometimes it can be hard to determine what kind of knowledge a reader brings to your material. You should trust that a reader will understand common concepts in everyday adult life.

Imprecise words to watch out for

Thing and stuff. These words can refer to such a wide range of circumstances and contexts that you should eliminate them.

Many or most. How many is many? Replacing these adjectives with numbers aids precision.

Nowadays. This term can mean 2015, the past 20 years, or sometime in between. In revision, pick a precise year or time frame.

These problematic sentences and words might be easier to locate in other people’s writing than your own. That is because you approach others’ text without any specialized knowledge or attachment. Eventually, though, with practice, you will be able to assess your own writing for these overly broad or unnecessary sentences.
Practice: I challenge you to write a rough draft of your next assignment and then leave it on your computer for a day or two. Return to the document with fresh eyes and scrutinize the phrasing, looking for some of the indicators I have addressed in this post. How could you infuse those sentences with greater power? Share your thoughts and findings in the comments!

Word Choice | Walden University Writing Center Blog
This month, we're discussing word choice on the blog and podcast. To catch up on what you missed, check out WriteCast Episode 24: Why Word Choice Matters and Matt's post on abolishing imperatives.



author

Hillary Wentworth, a writing instructor and the coordinator of undergraduate writing initiatives, has worked in the Walden Writing Center since 2010. She enjoys roller-skating, solving crossword puzzles, and basking in the summer sun. She lives in Minneapolis.  


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For the Good of All Humanity, Imperatives Must Be Abolished

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As a Walden student, you likely have an interest in using your research to make a positive change in people’s lives—most Walden students do, and the university strongly supports efforts to apply scholarship that might otherwise remain abstract and theoretical to concrete, real-world situations. This is, on balance, a good thing. Sometimes, though, students’ enthusiasm for social change can overwhelm their writing, introducing biases that could lead a reader to question their objectivity as researchers and doubt the validity of their results.

Let’s look at two examples of what I’m talking about:

 Teachers must use differentiated instruction because students deserve to benefit from the best instructional methods available (Erickson, 2014).

 This prenatal education program should be implemented to help mothers in developing countries avoid disease.

Both of these statements are grammatically sound, and readers can easily comprehend their meanings. However, they are both imperatives, or statements that implore the reader to do something because it is essential or fundamental in some way. Imperatives can powerfully underscore a writer’s overall point and convince the reader to take action. Imperatives, though, do not really belong in your scholarly writing as a Walden student because in the social sciences, your arguments must be based (as much as possible) on logic and evidence.

You may have heard, in an English or writing course, of the three classical modes of persuasion: pathos, ethos, and logos, which basically mean persuading via emotion, authority, and logic, respectively. These are all effective ways of persuading a reader, and you can see them in your everyday life: Look at any television commercial, political ad, or opinion column, and you’ll likely find some or all of these persuasive appeals at work, making you desire a product, trust a respected official, or believe in the significance of a piece of data.

All about imperatives | Walden University Writing Center Blog

Imperatives, by appealing to our sense of right and wrong, are a potent application of pathos, and they can profoundly affect our judgments. Sometimes imperatives serve us well: When world leaders argue to take action to prevent atrocities like genocide or slavery, they often use imperatives because they’re appealing to our sense of compassion and decency. They’re not arguing that preventing these crimes is true; they’re arguing that it is right. In other cases, though, imperatives are misused to bolster arguments that lack evidence or logical coherence (a quality aptly captured by the term truthiness) and lead readers to draw false conclusions. In those situations, imperatives distract us into believing something is right without concern for whether it’s true.

Our susceptibility to pathos is one reason why scientific research is based on the principle that we should not trust a judgment unless we can verify it with objective observations of the world around us. Consequently, social scientists avoid—and are skeptical of—appeals to our emotions or morals; social scientists use logos (and ethos, to some degree, by doing things like citing sources and maintaining a scholarly tone to establish their credibility) to articulate their research. Put another way, using imperatives in social-sciences writing is akin to sculpting marble with a bulldozer: It's the wrong tool for the task at hand, and it can destroy the very thing you’re trying to create.

With this in mind, let’s look at revisions of my two examples:

 In several recent studies, differentiated instruction has been identified as a more effective method than more traditional instructional techniques (Erickson, 2014).

• If implemented, this prenatal education program could help new mothers in some developing countries minimize the risk of their children being born with nutrition-related health problems.


Even though I might personally feel strongly that all students deserve to benefit from the best teaching methods available or that we should fund health education programs in developing countries, those sentiments don’t belong in my social-sciences writing. Limiting your claims to only what your evidence and analysis will support will make your arguments more precise and more compelling. 



This month, we're discussing word choice on the blog and podcast. To catch up on what you missed, check out WriteCast Episode 24: Why Word Choice Matters.


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Matt Sharkey-Smith is a writing instructor and the coordinator of graduate writing initiatives at the Writing Center says, "It's at once paradoxical and commonsensical, but it's true: You get better at writing by writing."


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WriteCast Episode 24: Why Word Choice Matters

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We've been talking about some big-picture writing ideas on the podcast lately--how academic writing helps you outside of academia, gray areas in APA style, writing expectations at U.S. colleges and universities--so this month, we're getting specific. In our latest episode, Beth and Brittany share several examples of words and phrases to avoid in your academic writing and explain how word choice impacts your precision and clarity.

Stream or download the episode below. If you're reading this post in your email, click on the post's title to visit the blog, where you can listen to the episode. 



Episode 24 Transcript

As always, we welcome your thoughts and questions in the comments!


This podcast episode kicks off our discussion of word choice. Throughout the next few weeks, we'll discuss other specific words and phrases to pay attention to in your writing. 


author

Anne Shiell
 is a writing instructor and the coordinator of social media resources at the Walden Writing Center. Anne also produces WriteCast, the Writing Center's podcast.


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What Are You Writing For? How Your Academic Writing Skills Transfer Into the Workplace

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During one of my recent residency presentations on the topic of Writing at the Doctoral Level, one student raised her hand and asked, “What are we writing for?” This short but powerful question took me by surprise, and I have been thinking about all of the possible answers to this question ever since. 

Walden students write in order to earn a higher degree, they write in the hopes of social change, and they write to gain and refine their communication skills. And these few answers don’t even scrape the surface! However, I when I initially thought about the “What are we writing for?” question, my answers were all based on prospective gains, as if students could only write as a way to make a difference or gain something in the future. This got me thinking: What are we waiting for? Since many Walden students already have careers, why can’t they begin to apply the writing process skills they gain while earning their higher degrees in the workplace right away? Below are just a few ways you can begin to use (or perhaps are already using) your writing process knowledge in the workplace.

What Are You Writing For? How Your Academic Writing Skills Transfer Into the Workplace | Walden University Writing Center Blog

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Become a Stronger Job Applicant by Using Your Academic Writing Skills

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Many academic writing topics—such as considering the purpose of the document, making adjustments based on the audience you’re writing for, writing concisely, maintaining an appropriate tone for that particular piece of writing—are also important to think about when applying for a new job. Last week, we shared Denise’s recommendations for writing dynamic cover letters. This week, we want to share some tips and resources for additional writing-related parts of the job application process.


Become a Stronger Job Applicant by Using Your Academic Writing Skills | Walden University Writing Center Blog

Resume and curriculum vita (CV)

Bulleted lists are a popular choice for highlighting skills and experiences in a resume or CV because bullet points are easier on the reader’s eyes than blocks of text. Bullet points also allow hiring managers to see key information at a glance (which is crucial when they have stacks of applications to go through). For your lists to read well and be grammatically correct, you’ll need to follow parallel structure.

In your resume or CV, you might use a bulleted list to showcase your professional accomplishments. Below is part of a list from a sample healthcare administration resume available in Walden’s OptimalResume system. I’ve highlighted parallel terms in pink, yellow, and blue:
  • Project ManagementImplemented large-scale healthcare administration projects including standardizing compliance monitoring and streamlining processes for a two-thousand client database.
  • Growth ManagementDeveloped growth strategies that improved quality of healthcare for at-risk populations within the community.
  • Multi-Site ManagementCoordinated the development and expansion of a rural out-patient clinic.


The pink words are adjectives, and the yellow words are nouns (all the same noun, in fact). The bolded phrases use the construction of an adjective followed by a noun. The blue words are verbs. This list has strong parallel construction, which we can see just by looking at the colors in the list and how they line up. An example list with poor parallel structure might look like this:
  • Managing ProjectsImplemented large-scale healthcare administration projects including standardizing compliance monitoring and streamlining processes for a two-thousand client database.
  • Management of growth Responsible for growth strategies that improved quality of healthcare for at-risk populations within the community.
  • Multi-Site ManagementDeveloping and expanding a rural out-patient clinic.

See how the colors in this example are all mixed up? All of the bold phrases still contain nouns, but instead of having the same adjective + noun construction for all of the phrases, as in the first example, the phrases now also contain a verb, another noun, and an adjective. They are no longer parallel.  

Now, let’s look at the first word following each dash. In the first example, remember that all of the words are the same type—they are all verbs. In this second example, we have a mix of the past-tense verb implemented, the adjective responsible, and the gerunds (verbs that show a state of being) developing and expanding.

Understanding the parts of a sentence and how parallel construction works can help you make your lists grammatically pleasing and clear. If you read these lists out loud, you can also hopefully hear how the first example just sounds better.
Tip: Did you know the Career Services Center staff offers personalized help with resumes and CVs for Walden students? Make an appointment to take advantage of this great service!

Job applications

The Career Services Center suggests that when you’re applying for positions, you should organize your application materials and track which positions you’ve applied for. If you apply for several positions and get a call for an interview, you don’t want to find yourself mixing up the name of the company or scrambling to remember the details of the position! Here’s a suggestion from us, too: You know our literature review matrix that we recommend for organizing your sources and research? Download the template—which is really just a big table—and tailor it to your job application process. For example, instead of using categories like “Author/Date” and “Theoretical/Conceptual Framework,” you could set up categories like “Company,” “Position title,” “Position summary,” “Date applied,” etc. Just as a literature review matrix can help writers track, organize, and compare sources, a similar organizational scheme can help job seekers track, organize, and compare applications, as well as keep tabs on each application’s status.

Thank-you email or letter

Another tip from the Career Services Center is to send a thank-you letter or e-mail after an interview. You likely use e-mail every day for work, school, or personal reasons, but this thank-you isn’t just any e-mail; it's particularly important that this communication to your prospective employer is professional, concise, specific, and grammatically correct. You’ll want to consider your tone and audience, stick to the point and avoid wordiness, and make sure to proofread your draft. The Academic Skills Center’s video on e-mailing your professor can be helpful for career situations, too.


Think beyond the grade

Writing Beyond Academia series via the Walden University Writing Center Blog


I hope today's post shows how strengthening your writing skills isn't just about pleasing your writing instructor or getting an "A" on a paper. This month's "Writing Beyond Academia" series aims to illustrate some ways in which the writing skills you're building now can help you in contexts beyond the classroom. If you're just joining us, check out our latest WriteCast podcast episode on "How Academic Writing Helps You Beyond Academia," an explanation of how and why to read the room, and a Career Services Guest post on writing dynamic cover letters.  


As always, we welcome your thoughts and questions in the comments!


author

Anne Shiell
 is a writing instructor and the coordinator of social media resources at the Walden Writing Center. Anne also produces WriteCast, the Writing Center's podcast.


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How to Write a Dynamic Cover Letter (A Career Services Center Guest Post)

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As I read last week’s blog post by Amber Cook about engaging your audience through "reading the room," I thought about the one-page cover letter, a document that we often don’t think about in academia. You put so much effort into writing academic papers; how do you make the shift to writing a one-page cover letter that engages your audience--the hiring manager? 


How  to Write a Dynamic Cover Letter | Walden University Writing Center Blog

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Reading the Room: Adjusting Your Writing to Engage Your Audience

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Have you ever heard the expression “read the room”? This is a concept, familiar to anyone who does public speaking or entertaining, in which the person on stage does a quick scan of the audience. A comedian, for instance, will look for signs that indicate the group will be receptive (or not receptive) to certain material. A motivational speaker might “read the room” and note that the audience’s energy is lagging at the end of a long day. In each case, the speakers will alter their material to suit the needs of the audience with whom they’re working.


Reading the Room: Adjusting Your Writing to Engage Your Audience | writing advice from the Walden University Writing Center Blog


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WriteCast Episode 23: How Academic Writing Helps You Beyond Academia

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"Why do I have to write this? Why do I have to do so much writing? Why is this going to matter after I graduate?" Admit it--you've probably asked questions like these at some point in your academic career. 


How Academic Writing Helps You Beyond Academia - WriteCast podcast episode by the Walden University Writing Center

In this month's WriteCast episode, Beth and Brittany encourage you to rethink your academic writing as building skills that will benefit you beyond the university. 

Stream or download the episode below, and don't forget to share your thoughts in the comments! If you're reading this post via e-mail, click the post's title to visit the blog, where you can stream or download the episode. 




Episode 23 Transcript


author

Anne Shiell
 is a writing instructor and the coordinator of social media resources at the Walden Writing Center. Anne also produces WriteCast, the Writing Center's podcast.


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Citation Placement: Where the APA Citation Goes in a Sentence and Why It Matters

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Exploring APA Style on the Walden University Writing Center Blog

This month’s theme for the blog is everyone's favorite: APA style! (If you haven't heard my discussion with Brittany on APA gray areas, check it out here, and don't miss Rachel's explanation of precision and anthropomorphism and Hillary's three secrets to writing strong headings.) 

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Three Secrets to Writing Strong Headings

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In an earlier blog post, I explained how headings, which APA recommends for organizing ideas, can help guide readers through your paper. The thing is, it is not just enough to have headings; you need to have good ones. In this post, I will take you through some problem examples that I have seen as a Writing Center instructor and explain three secrets for revising headings to be more successful.

Three Secrets to Writing Strong Headings via the Walden University Writing Center Blog

Problem #1: Generic

Example headings:

History
Education
Strategies

Remember that a reader will often scan through your paper to pre-read it and get an idea of the content, the length, and the flow. If readers encounter generic headings, they will not know the specific story you are telling, may become confused, or may lose interest. Generic headings are those that are so vague they could apply to any paper—not necessarily yours. The first way readers know what your paper is about is the title; the second way is the abstract (if your paper has one); the third is the headings. They are important not just for guiding readers through your work but also luring them in in the first place.

Secret #1: Be specific

So, if I were to revise the above headings for a paper on government health care, I might write

History of the Affordable Care Act
Patient Education
Advocacy Strategies

Do you see how these specific headings tell a clearer story?

Problem #2: Long

Example headings:

Identify three qualities of transformational leadership, according to this week’s resources.

Analyze how a chosen public figure has demonstrated those three qualities. Be specific and give examples to justify your position.

Examine the advantages and disadvantages of transformational leadership. Is it a viable style for business?

Sometimes I see students using the full assignment instructions or questions as headings, as shown above. This is a good practice as you are writing your first draft because the instructions can serve as a de facto outline. By following the instructions, you ensure that you are addressing all required components of the assignment. Unless your instructor prefers that you use these instructions or questions as headings, though, revise them for the final draft. In most cases, headings should be brief phrases, rather than full sentences.

Another problem with using the assignment instructions is that they often contain command-type language or “you,” so they come across as ordering the reader around.

Secret #2: Be brief

Long, detailed, commanding sentences can be revised to phrases such as these: 

Transformational Leadership Qualities
Obama as a Transformational Leader
Advantages and Disadvantages of Transformational Leadership

With this revision, notice how I have retained key words and the key point of each assignment instruction, but I have done so in a way that is more concise and specific to the public figure I have chosen. To get ideas for headings, highlight the important words and phrases of the assignment.

#Writingtip from @WUWritingCenter: To get heading ideas, highlight the important words and phrases of the assignment.

Problem #3: Disconnected

Take a look at this example heading and paragraph:

Testing’s Impact on Teachers

No Child Left Behind (NCLB) was enacted in 2002 to increase accountability and achievement in U.S. public schools. Each school is tasked with showing adequate yearly progress through its students’ assessment scores (U.S. Department of Education, n.d.). According to recent scores, overall student achievement appears to be improving in reading and mathematics (Jackson & Mayhall, 2014). However, because NCLB focuses on those subjects, teachers cannot spend time on other important areas like science, history, and the arts. Furthermore, the continuity of teachers’ lessons is derailed by the frequent testing. In order to truly impact learning, teachers need to focus on differentiation rather than teaching to the test.

When I read the heading, I expect to learn about teachers and testing. However, the first sentence is about the No Child Left Behind Act. If I approach this paper without any clear knowledge of how that act relates to testing—which might be true of some readers—I won’t immediately make the connection between the heading and paragraph.

Secret #3: Clearly represent the content

To fix the disconnect issue with the example above, we could add one sentence to the start of the paragraph to create a bridge. Remember that the heading does not replace a topic sentence; the heading is a supplement.

The connection between testing, teachers, and NCLB would be clearer if I added this as a topic sentence: Regular student testing has a strong—and sometimes negative—presence in a teacher’s classroom, largely due to the No Child Left Behind Act.


Now that you know problems to avoid and secrets to follow for writing strong headings, take a look at the Writing Center’s page on heading levels for information about formatting headings in APA style. 


This month on the blog, we're focusing on topics related to APA style. Check out our latest podcast episode, "Make APA Style Work for You: How to Navigate Grey Areas" and last week's post on precision and anthropomorphism, and stay tuned for a post about citations next week. As always, we welcome your thoughts and questions below in the comments section! If you liked this post, please share it, tweet it, and join the discussion!

author

Hillary Wentworth, a writing instructor and the coordinator of undergraduate writing initiatives, has worked in the Walden Writing Center since 2010. She enjoys roller-skating, solving crossword puzzles, and basking in the summer sun. She lives in Minneapolis.  


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