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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 writingsupport@waldenu.edu.

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From Creative to Scholarly

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By Hillary Wentworth, Graduate Writing Tutor

Do you ever ask yourself how you wound up here, writing scholarly papers and worrying about serial commas? Staying up late at night agonizing over whether to use “et al.”? Well, I do. You see, I’m a creative writer and I often find it hard to switch between my artistic endeavors and my academic pursuits. Imagination and creativity—traits that put you ahead in other areas—don’t necessarily translate to a scholarly venue. Lately students have been asking for tips to make this transition into academia. There are indeed ways to keep your creative “you-ness” and still write in the formal style expected of scholars.

1. Theme-ify it. Your paper doesn’t have to be stuffy summary—in fact, it shouldn’t be. Just as creative writing follows thematic lines, so should your academic writing. As you read, make note of the themes that emerge in the literature and consider organizing your paper around them.

2. Relate it to real life. Creative writers are told “write what you know." However, I encourage all writers to give real-life examples to illustrate the points they make. This could be a situation in your own classroom or business that highlights a certain theory, for instance.

3. Look it in the I. Both Walden and APA allow you to use the first-person “I” in your assignments and capstone projects. This gives a personal tone to your paper, eliminates the awkward “this author,” and asserts your control over the narrative. If you’re used to expressing how you feel and what you believe, though, rein in the impulse to provide opinion. You are a scholar and your writing should be based on evidence.

4. Turn it around. Similes and metaphors, the beautifiers of creative writing, are not accepted in scholarly writing because they can be vague and confusing. If you normally like to make connections through analogy, that impulse is correct: the topic probably needs further description. It is your job now to explain it in clear, concise language.

5. Write it out. Sometimes you just have to give in to the creative spirit. If you’re reading a scholarly journal and it gets your poetic juices flowing, sit down in a quiet spot (not at your computer) and write a poem about it. Then go back to your computer and start fresh. You might find that writing creatively has given you a new perspective on the topic that you can use in your scholarly paper.

6. Deal with it. One of my greatest discoveries as a creative writer was how to flourish under constraints. It can be yours too. Challenge yourself to work within the boundaries of APA, and you will reap the rewards.

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How to Be Productive

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By Timothy McIndoo, Dissertation Editor

I recently learned about two productivity tools that can be useful in doing research. One highlights, while the other reveals deeper content without leaving the Web page.

Back in the day, researching the literature meant photocopying articles and then underlining passages with pen, pencil, or highlighter. I can recall typing up such passages (along with my notes). Today’s Web tools make such work much easier. For example, a software company, Diigo, has created an online highlighter that lets you use different colors to highlight text you read on the Web. It even lets you save all your highlighted text in one place. (It also lets you add permanent Stickies to a Web page.) If you think this might be useful in your research, visit the following page for further details:
https://chrome.google.com/extensions/detail/oojbgadfejifecebmdnhhkbhdjaphole. So far, however, it’s only available on the Google Chrome browser.

Performing searches on the Web just gets easier and easier. First there was the search tool embedded in the browser’s menu bar. But now Apture Highlights lets you search Google (as well as YouTube, Flickr, Twitter, Wikipedia) without leaving the screen you are reading—and without typing. Simply highlight the word or phrase you’re interested in and voila! Up pops a small screen with the search results, whether text or video or pdf. If you think this might be useful in your research, visit the following page for further details:
This tool is available for three browsers: Firefox, Safari, and Chrome.

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Google Knows Everything

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By Erica Schatzlein, Writing Specialist

Google knows everything, according to a friend’s kindergarten-age daughter. Oh, how I wish it were true. I have thousands of questions: When will my retirement account start to grow again instead of shrinking? Where was the “very special place” I put that very important document I can no longer find? I wouldn’t be surprised if people type these questions into search engines. In fact, if you go to Google and type in “when will I” or “how do I” you will get some amusing suggestions for the rest of your question!

Less amusing but much more helpful are the number of search engines that will help your academic career. Here are a few of my favorites for saving time, money, and sanity:

1. Get Help Completing Your Reference List

Students get a majority of their scholarly articles online, often from different databases like ERIC or SAGE. Following sixth edition APA rules, though, listing the name of the database as retrieval information is not preferred. (You can read more about retrieval information details here: http://writingcenter.waldenu.edu/355.htm). The preferred retrieval information is the digital object identifier, or DOI. A search engine isn’t my favorite way to look for a DOI; instead, I use crossref.org (http://www.crossref.org/SimpleTextQuery). However, for articles that have no DOI assigned, the next preference is to list the journal homepage. How do you know if the journal has a homepage? Entering the journal title into a search engine is the best way to tell.

2. Nail That Picky Grammar or Style Rule

As I read papers from numerous students each week, I come across just as many different writing styles, and often many topics I know little about. How do I check if a student is using an unfamiliar term or awkward phrase correctly? I search for it. Additionally, many of us know how to write to avoid tricky grammar situations. For example, I always set my book on the table because I’m never entirely certain if I should lay it or lie it. But when I need to find out the right way to write something, search engines are blessings. Typing a “versus” statement often works: lay vs. lie. I have also searched for APA reference formats for sources students use that I’ve never seen before and aren’t addressed in the manual, like the first time a student asked me about the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, which was not in my grammar nerd schema.

A note here about scholarly, reputable, and junk sources: Almost none of the sources in regular search engine results are scholarly. Thus, they are not good sources for a KAM or dissertation. Many of the sources in search results are pure junk. When relying on websites for factual information, be a savvy searcher! Two of my favorite (and trusted) sources for grammar are Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips and Grammarbook.com. They often come up on the first page of results when searching for a specific grammar topic, too. I feel better knowing that both of these online resources resulted from published books. For APA information, the best source is always the actual APA manual, which is not online. Besides that, apastyle.org is the official manual website, so anything that appears on the search engine from that site is my first choice. Many universities (including Walden!) have great APA information online. Please take a minute to evaluate the source before trusting the information found in web searches.

3. Get a Free Book

A kind student at July’s Summer Session Residency shared in one of my sessions that some of the books written by classical theorists (so commonly used in KAM Breadths) are available on Google Books for free, as they are out of copyright. Additionally, just like in a database search, where you restrict searches to “full text,” you can limit for “full view” sources in this search. For books that aren’t free, many offer a nice amount of pages to preview. I’ve since located hundreds of books I want to read, both scholarly texts and books for use when procrastinating about scholarly work.

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Read This ASAP

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By Hillary Wentworth, Graduate Writing Tutor

Is it becoming cool to misspell? Hip to abbreviate?

I asked myself these questions as I strolled through the business district of a town I was visiting recently. Everywhere I turned, something was a bit off. In front of the theater, the marquee read, “TONITE: JAWS!” I strolled by a salon with the name Hair and Moor (I doubt that meant a tract of marshy land). And to top it all off, the actual road on which I walked was called Mainstreet. Not two words but one.

It is true that language can change; the words in dictionaries today are very different from those 100 years ago (think of the computer terms alone!). Over the years, doughnut became donut due to length (and probably so we don’t have to think of all that dough while we’re eating it)—but doughnut is still the main entry in Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary. While you’re texting, how often do you write out because or see you later? Man, that takes time and finger strength. Instead, you truncate and cut corners. But does that make it okay?

Misspelling is not the only popular corruption of the English language these days. Abbreviations and acronyms have permeated American culture due to texting and emailing, and they’re likely to stay. Though APA allows acronyms (SAT instead of Scholastic Aptitude Test, for instance), limit their use. You don’t want your paper to sound like a string of HTML code. Your responsibility as a scholar-author is always to express meaning through clear language. And to do so, sometimes you just have to write the whole word or phrase.

Advertisers long ago discovered that if a business was “creatively” spelled or abbreviated it would get more attention. Passersby would stop and stare and think that’s not right. Then they would go inside to see what all the fuss was about. Misspelling was a way of attracting customers! Call me a purist, but I like my tonights with night in them and my doughnuts with dough. I think that misspelling in order to save time or business is, well, just plain lazy.

And as for scholarly writing, forget about it. It’s certainly not cool to write “thru this research” or “2day I will demonstrate” in your dissertation. It’s not even cute.

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What is the Point?


By Amy Kubista, Graduate Writing Tutor

Have you ever wondered, as you toil away at ensuring your paper adheres to all of the APA rules that the manual throws at you, what is the point? Why do you, as a student, commit so many mind bending hours to correcting grammatical nuances, inserting running heads, and choosing appropriate wording so your paper follows APA format? Well, for one, because your professor tells you to, but why is it so important? Let’s take a deeper look at this issue of APA format and its importance in the academic world.

Many journals within the social science realm require articles to follow the APA style in their publications. One of Walden’s goals is to help students produce scholarly articles worthy of publication, and therefore APA is drilled into the students via the papers that are assigned. It is much easier to submit articles for publication if they are already in the correct format, even though most manuals are very similar with their rules (the differences are often in the details). So the strict adherence to APA is due in part to the potential publication of students’ work.

Academic journals utilize specific formatting in order to maintain consistency throughout their publications. This helps avoid confusion between articles. For example, one article may have pretest, another pre-test, and a third Pretest. A reader may easily interpret these as different while in reality they all refer to the same type of test. By having rules to follow, uniformity is assured, and there is less chance of a misunderstanding.

APA rules also help professors in their reading and grading of papers. These rules act as guidelines so professors can easily look for necessary components of a paper instead of quibbling about certain grammatical or style rules. Instead, everyone follows the same rules. Think of it as something constant in a skill that has so much elasticity. Plus, learning to use APA shows you are capable of taking directions from professors (or a future boss) and problem solving by finding answers to APA questions you may have.

So the next time you are flipping through your APA manual because you can’t remember how to cite a personal communication, know that there is some reasoning behind the madness. When you are submitting articles for publication, you will be grateful that Walden and your professors were so insistent on using APA format.


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Introductions: Waiting Until the End


By Jessica Barron, Graduate Writing Tutor

I dread creating introductions to my papers. A blank MS Word document is quite intimidating, and I know that the opening sentences of my introduction should and will set the tone for my whole paper. Not only do I want the first sentence to grab my reader’s attention, but I want the rest of the paragraph to set the stage for my thesis statement. Because my anxiety often overshadows the actual paper I have outlined in my head, composing introductions is the last task I complete in my writing process.

“But, Jess, it’s called an introduction for a reason! Your whole paper will be disorganized if you just start in the middle.” This might be true, but as long as you have a solid outline that flows smoothly between topics and a strong thesis statement that encompasses the argument of your paper, why couldn’t you write your third section first? I mean, who ever said that you have to write your paper in order? Whatever mood I’m in when I sit down at my computer dictates what section I begin to write.

How do I overcome my introduction anxiety? Once I get into my writing groove and have a rough draft of the body of my paper, the anxiety begins to dissolve, and I am able visualize my first paragraph. I know what my paper is about and what background information my reader needs to know, and because I’ve already written my thesis, I just need to add transitions to link this statement to my newly created opening sentences. Forming an introduction can be quite a simple task once I know what I am introducing.

So, any other writers out there who are stuck on an introductory paragraph, try putting the task aside for a day. See if you, like me, prefer constructing the beginning of your paper near the end of your writing process.


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Economy of Expression: Being Concise is Nice

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By Laurel Walsh, Associate Director of Writing Services

The first rule of writing at the graduate level is to befriend the delete key. Early iterations of scholarly arguments are cluttered with extra phrases. This is because we use phrases as placeholders on the page. We are waiting for good ideas, but we type things that do not illuminate an issue for our reader while those juicy thoughts marinate. One of the editors on our team would argue that you should find every adjective and adverb and kill it, but I am not quite so ruthless about prose. To compose elegant sentences, you need only promise the reader one thing: to inform and delight.

To inform your readers, you need to do your research. I am not talking about a midnight stroll through Wikipedia or making a few Google searches. To really inform and delight an academic audience, you need to look at the academic material that is available on the topic. The problem is that there is so much information. An essential part of becoming part of the academic community is learning to be a thoughtful consumer of information.

So much of what is available to us online is biased. News sources routinely promote video that was provided to them at no cost from corporate sources (check out this link to read a fascinating story on Video News Release or VNRs), and the stations most often do not disclose a source for this content. With so much misinformation, it is not surprising that student authors have difficulty writing in an unbiased manner. Writing for an academic audience requires clarity, cohesion, and fairness. Authors cannot inform their readers if they do not review many different approaches to a policy, phenomenon, or practice.

Learning to evaluate sources takes time and energy. By carefully reviewing, analyzing, and summarizing a variety of sources, you can begin to create a thesis by integrating several insights into an overarching theme. The trick is that you must not merely look at material that supports your hunch about a topic. To really delight your audience, you must include counterargument. By juxtaposing contradictory findings, student authors establish themselves as thorough scholastic investigators. Make sure that your audience can tell that you are trying to cast light on a topic and do not create essays that make the reader think you are out to prove a point.

I ask students each term to omit all unnecessary words from their drafts. Many students have asked me, “If you want me to omit unnecessary words, why did you assign 10,000 word assignments?” Writing academic essays is not like writing a haiku. In an academic paper, you are exploring and engaging your reader in an investigation. When authors delete clunky extra phrases and empty verbiage, we honor our contract with the reader. Our words are our gift to the world of scholarship and each one is a form of currency. Spend your words wisely and get rid of each phrase that does not carry its weight!

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APA: True or False?

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By Jessica Barron, Writing Tutor
There are a lot of APA rules to remember. A lot. Most students learn these rules through reading the APA manual. Others hear about these publication requirements through the Writing Center. And some people… well, some people just plain make them up. Below, I weed through common APA myths that are taken as fact and a few APA truths that are hard to believe.

True or False: Personal pronouns, like “I” or “we,” should never be used in academic writing. Using the third person, like “the author,” is more appropriate.

FALSE! Per APA section 3.09, the third person can be ambiguous in scholarly writing. Writing “the author found…” can make the reader wonder, “Are you talking about yourself or that theorist you just wrote about?” Personal pronouns are preferred, but be sure to follow up with your instructor if using the first person is appropriate for your assignment.

True or False: Always begin a sentence, title, or heading using words rather than numerals.

TRUE! Fifty-two percent of people begin sentences with numerals while only 12% actively follow the correct format. These statistics have been falsified, but the sentence demonstrates how numbers at the beginning of a sentence should be treated (see section 4.32 of the APA 6th edition manual).

True or False: As long as I put a citation at the end of my sentence, I have not committed plagiarism.

(KIND OF) FALSE! Citations should always be included when you use research to support your argument, but any time that you have taken word for word content directly from a source, your in-text citations need to be more thorough. For direct quotes, quotation marks should surround the cited material, and the citation at the end of your sentence needs to include the page or paragraph number(s) where this material can be found (Author, Date, p. #). Accidently forgetting to include quotation marks could be considered an act of plagiarism. Feel free to brush up on the plagiarism guidelines and the Writing Center tips on how to avoid committing plagiarism in your writing.

True or False: The APA manual is the first place I should look when I have a citation or reference question.

(PRETTY MUCH) TRUE! Your APA manual will be your best resource (and perhaps best friend) when you are writing a scholarly paper. The tips you receive from the writing center or your writing tutor on properly crediting sources are all based on the information housed within your APA manual. For specific Walden assignments or sources, however, the Walden Writing Center website provides information on citing course material, discussion posts, and yourself.

I hope these explanations helped ease a little APA confusion. Learning APA standards can be the most difficult process on your writing journey, so just make sure that you are asking questions of a tutor or your manual when you are unsure of the proper methods for scholarly writing.

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Avoiding Unintentional Plagiarism

Amber Cook explains unintentional plagiarism
By Amber Cook, Senior Writing Specialist

A specific image comes to many of our minds when we think of the word plagiarism. A sinister and perhaps lazy student surfs the Internet and finds a well-written paper by another writer. Hoping to avoid the effort involved in writing an original work, and knowing that this other writer’s paper will likely earn a higher grade, the student downloads the paper. Looking around to make sure no one is watching, the student deletes the name of the original author, replaces it with his or her own, and submits the paper, intentionally deceiving the unsuspecting reader.

This scenario might occasionally occur, but the plagiarism committed by many writers looks quite different from this act of blatant cheating. In the Writing Center, for instance, the vast majority of plagiarized passages we see are unintentional. Some writers paraphrase poorly or intend to add citations after finishing the paper. (This practice, by the way, is a bad, bad idea. You may want to refine your APA format after you’ve finished the writing, but you should always put at least a note to yourself to indicate the need for a citation.) Other writers do include citations, but these attempts are inadequate for the type of citation being used. For instance, many writers will borrow wording directly from another source and then provide only a parenthetical citation for that source. This is better than nothing, but without quotation marks or block quotation format, this passage would still be considered an academic integrity violation. Check out our website for more information on directly quoting or paraphrasing a source.

Although the plagiarism in the cases mentioned here may be unintentional, it is still problematic. Walden’s plagiarism policy, like that of most academic institutions, involves disciplinary measures. Learning to cite properly and use sources judiciously is part of the challenge of becoming an academic writer. If your instructor or writing tutor points out plagiarism during a paper review, try not to be offended. There is a broad range of mistakes that fall under that term, which can include the unintentional plagiarism mentioned above. Your reviewer’s job is to call your attention to anything suspect, and your job is to learn quickly, making the avoidance of academic integrity violations your top priority.

If you’re ever feeling unsure about your citation format, you may want to send your paper through the Academic Skills Center’s Turnitin dropbox. Turnitin will help you identify any material that matches other documents in its database, and you can then adjust any citation format as needed. Once you’re in the habit of thorough and proper citation, you can still use the tool to double check your use of source information.


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Tutor or Editor?

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Jamie Patterson
By Jamie Patterson
One question we get a lot from new students is who in the writing center they should be working with: the writing tutors or the dissertation editors. The answer is dependent on what course a student is enrolled in, but for most students as soon as the dissertation or doctoral study process begins the shift from tutors to editors happens. The services between the two writing center groups do not overlap. On the Student Guide page of our website you will find a clear explanation of when to move from working with the tutors to working with the editors.
We tutors have gone through some title changes over the last couple of years: we began as tutors, became writing consultants, then graduate writing consultants, then writing specialists, now we’re back to being tutors. It is a title I am pleased with because when I tell strangers I am a writing tutor the title explains exactly what I do: I teach writing.
The best way to utilize the writing center services is to take advantage of meeting with a writing tutor every week while you’re in your course work. Tutors can work with you to develop your academic writing skills and we can share our APA style knowledge. By the time you begin your dissertation or doctoral study you’ll have mastered the elements of academic writing that will make writing a dissertation-length document a little less painful.
The dissertation editors work with students who have completed their courses and, in so doing, have reached a certain level of academic writing mastery. Unlike working with the writing tutors where students get ongoing suggestions for revision the editors do exactly what their title suggests: they edit. Their goal is to help you publish the best possible document that you, and Walden, will be proud of.
Take the time to get to know your writing center staff and know that we, both tutors and editors, are all here for only one purpose: to help you achieve your higher education goals.

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Writing is Hard

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Brian Timmerman
By Brian Timmerman, Manager of Writing Specialist and Tutor Services

No one really ever told me that before either. I had to learn it. While I’ve toiled away, wrestling with a word or struggling to figure out a transition from Sentence A to Sentence B, I just figured everyone else was really good at it. It somehow came naturally for them.

Oddly enough (and perhaps sadly enough), It wasn’t until I taught freshman English when I realized that this wasn’t the case.

“Man, I just sat down and wrote the thing. Took me about 2 hours,” I’d overhear a student saying.

And initially I was impressed too. Two hours? Maybe she’s got this whole writing thing figured out.

But I can tell you now: She didn’t. Her paper was a mess. Because writing is hard and time intensive.

Now, I say this to you too realizing that I’m not offering any solutions here. You can find plenty of helpful advice on this blog, on our website, or from your peers on our discussion board. But still, I think it’s important to take 5 minutes and acknowledge this one truth, if only for our own sanity: Writing is hard.

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Show and Tell

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Amber Cook
By Amber Cook, Senior Writing Specialist

A lot of student writers hesitate when asked to discuss their own experiences. Afraid of misstating an idea or veering too far into opinion, they tend to do more telling than showing, resulting in an inoffensive but unconvincing paper.

Here’s what I mean. Let’s say that a student (we’ll use a female student for this example), using her own classroom as a case study, is attempting to argue the validity of Knowles’s adult learning theory. (Bear in mind that this sort of experience-based information isn’t appropriate for every paper, but it is often required in reflections, KAM Applications, and other assignments.) Here’s the kind of discussion I often see:

Knowles (1968) asserted that adult learners bring more experience to the classroom than do their younger peers, which impacts their learning. Frederick (2006) also reported that adult learners’ experiences affect their academic success. In my classroom, the adult learners show a wide range of experience, which affects their learning. Many of these learners bring many different kinds of experiences to the classroom.

What’s good here is that the writer presents her thoughts clearly and has supported those thoughts with evidence. The problem is that each sentence says essentially the same thing: Prior experience affects adult learning. Also, the writer’s main goal of viewing Knowles’s theory through the lens of her classroom didn’t go deep enough. The writer’s observation could apply to any classroom in any school setting. She has told us rather than shown us.

Here’s an example of how she could work her classroom in a bit more meaningfully:

…experienced than young students. A student in my classroom, for instance, has 30 years of experience in neonatal care. This experience has made her knowledgeable about infant care, so she is a valuable asset during class discussion. However, her background has also tended to close her mind to emerging research in this field. As Knowles (1968) predicted, this student’s prior experience is deeply affecting her education.

This detail demonstrates how the Knowles assertion plays out in the writer’s classroom setting, which was the task of the assignment. It is more convincing than the original and, from a reader’s perspective, it is also more engaging.

This showing versus telling advice also applies to research-based writing. In the original excerpt, the reporting of research was a bit weak as well. Here’s an example of using the research to show rather than tell:

Knowles (1968) asserted that adult learners bring more experience to the classroom than do their younger peers, which impacts their learning. This assumption is supported by Frederick (2006), who studied the effectiveness of several teaching methods in multigenerational classrooms. Frederick found that educators who drew upon the experiences of the adult learners during simulation exercises had higher pass rates on those exercises, as well as higher student satisfaction rates, than those who did not acknowledge the adult learners’ experience.

Again here, the detail makes this reference to the literature more convincing and more memorable. If you’re someone who shies away from using detail, writing this way may feel a bit risky and unfamiliar. However, it will give your writing depth and conviction missing from more surface-level argument. Take the risk!

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I sometimes wonder: When did writing become WRITING

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Brian Timmerman
By Brian Timmerman, Senior Writing Specialist

The strength of any piece of writing (fiction or non) is dependent on the strength of its narrative. Plain and simple. I might even have that put on my tombstone: “Here lies Brian Timmerman: The strength of any piece of writing (fiction or non) is dependent on the strength of its narrative.” Seriously.

And keep in mind, this is not just me telling you this. It’s smart people too. As Mark Turner (2001) concluded in The Literary Mind: The Origins of Thought and Language, story (the same lowly technique used by, yes, schlock writers like Danielle Steele) is still the primary mode in which our brains organize information. To use any other method to organize a paper, any paper, he argued, would be ridiculous, counterintuitive to the way we process information (Turner, 2001).

So, a DDP should read like a story?


A Praxis?


Even a KAM?


What about a CRS-7?

You made that up didn’t you?

Yes, as simple as it sounds, everything you write needs to have a beginning, a middle, and an end. It needs to, as our own Iris Yob (2007) pointed out, tell a story, and “you...need to follow that story line from beginning to end” (p. 24). It needs to introduce characters (typically a specific demographic that you think is in trouble), and have a plot (a way to get your reader to understand some sort of solution for the characters). And for God’s sake, it needs to have some sort of moral (i.e. “Revoke NCLB,” “We should be less reliant on corn-based products”).

And remember: The strength of any piece of writing (fiction or non) is dependent on the strength of its narrative.

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Books for the Inner Grammar Nerd

Jeff Zuckerman
By Jeff Zuckerman, Writing Center Director

Students occasionally ask the writing staff about our favorite books on writing. I hesitate to recommend books to students: To me reading about writing can be another excuse not to write.

But because you asked, here goes:

For grammar help the leading contenders are (no surprise here) The Elements of Style by Strunk and White, and Eats, Shoots and Leaves by Lynne Truss—but do get the American version. A couple others are Comma Sense Richard Lederer and John Stone, and, as far as I’m concerned, the best grammar book around because it’s the funniest: Woe Is I by Patricia O’Conner. Dr. Laurel Walsh on our staff recommends Grammar Sucks by Joann Kimes, which Laurel says is adult-themed and offensive. Now there’s a grammar book for a snowy night.

If you’re looking for a couple of great books on writing style, Senior Dissertation Editor Martha King recommends William Zinsser’s classic On Writing Well, while Editor Jen Johnson has enjoyed Style: The Basics of Clarity and Grace. The author is one of my heroes, Joseph Williams, at the University of Chicago, and I’ve used that book when I’ve taught a graduate editing course.

Senior Writing Specialist Amber Cook offered this endorsement of Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird: “The focus is on the process of writing (revisions, motivation, that kind of thing), and it's super readable.” Amber added the caveat that Ms. Lamott swears a lot.

Two other books that popped to mind were The Craft of Research, recommended by Dissertation Editor Tim McIndoo, an excellent book at one time required of all MSEd students at Walden, and The Literary Mind: The Origins of Thought and Language by Mark Turner, and recommended by Senior Writing Specialist Brian Timmerman. I skimmed the first chapter online, “Bedtime With Shahrazad,” and immediately saw its entertaining, readable, and thoughtful way of discussing storytelling as a powerful means of expository writing.

As for me? My new favorite book is Death Sentences: The Decay of Public Language by an Australian writer, Don Watson. Thirty doctoral students learned about Mr. Watson’s rant during my most recent “Politics and the Junk English” presentation at the Dallas residency. (And say? If you found the copy that I left on a Delta flight, I’d be grateful if you mailed it to me.)

My next read will be Past Dark. Jen told me author Bonnie Friedman addresses topics that affect writers of all stripes, including writer’s block and (ah-hem) procrastination.

I mean it. I’ll read it when I get around to it. I really will.


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Email Etiquette: Because We Live in Litigious Times

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By M. Laurel Walsh, Writing Center Faculty

The problem with human communication is that fully flawed humans are doing it. One person’s constructive feedback is another person’s flagellation. It is easy to see how individual interaction can become protracted miscommunication when emails sent to large numbers of people are available to be misinterpreted by any or all of the recipients. Mind the ever tempting blind carbon copy. It is the siren call of the email communication and must be used sparingly. You do not want information that an individual couldn’t possibly know (unless it had secretly been also sent to them) being discussed where you are not.

Anything that is sent from a work computer has implications for work. Professional communication requires rigid and inflexible guidelines regarding what is permitted. Any company can pay a forensic computer detective to look at what employees have been sending from the office and what has been sent to those individuals. Unprofessional communication is not just a bad idea; it has resulted in litigation that was not even physically possible twenty years ago.

It is important to really double check to be sure of who you scroll down and click in your To: section. A Human Resource manager at a St. Paul healthcare company recently discovered that she was sending hilarious furry animal photos to Steven Mitchell (colleague) and not to her intended Stephen Mitchell (cousin). Spelling is everything, so make sure to carefully survey all of the subheadings and body of an email before sending. Spell check is not just a good idea; it is a must. Even then, reading your email quickly out loud before you press the send button is a vital revision tool that can catch things that scanning with your eyes would not. If no one is around to hear you, read with verve; if you are in a crowded office, mutter inaudibly but make sure that important messages are carefully reviewed. The good news is that many of the most egregious email offences are easily avoided. We at the Walden Writing Center hold these e-truths to be self-evident:

1. Civility can quickly erode in the absence of face-to-face interaction. Save to drafts any email communication you compose in haste after experiencing a strong emotional response to a professional email.

2. Email is to letter as Instant Messaging (IMing) is to texting. Do not be impatient if you do not get an immediate response to an email. Text or IM a person if you need an instant reaction.

3. Use salutations. It takes two seconds to write a person’s name at the top of the email, and it will increase the warmth level exponentially. Use an exit tag line before your name. Consider the email as part of the letter family of correspondence and remember to sign off. (Never sign off on a text; always sign off on an email.)

4. Recognize your client or colleague more formally in email correspondence than they do you. If they begin to use your first name, use their full name one last time. If they twice send their first name as an exit line, then switch from “Mr. Smith” to “Stuart”. Email is the place to take the higher ground and resist the temptation to become more casual than the previous email response.

5. People in offices across the hall from each other have created havoc via email. When it is not going to be too physically difficult (your boss is not in Hong Kong), speak to actual humans regarding tricky or unpleasant situations. Such conversations do not leave a permanent trail across a computer’s hard drive.

6. Never respond to professional emails if you’ve been to Friday night happy hour. (It seems to go without saying, but I’m still blushing from emails I’ve been exposed to that turn out to be written by less-than-sober individuals.) Would you answer a call from the boss in a compromised situation? The same logic should apply, but for some unfathomable reason does not when it comes to email.

7. Don’t just avoid all contact with a problematic piece of communication. One client admitted to stacking a folder with increasingly frantic emails from a colleague, so that the problem had at least become “out of sight”, but it was clearly not mitigated. Dealing with a difficult email is like ripping off a band-aid; it’s best done quickly and kindly.

8. Forwards should never be sent to professional colleagues under penalty of death. If you feel you should send a message to your entire address book, resist the urge. (Having said that, some people have great taste in forwards and amuse us, we call these people our friends. Make sure to open those emails at home and never leave evidence of your casual communication on work devices if possible. One man’s funny joke is another man’s discrimination lawsuit.)

9. NEVER USE ALL CAPS. This is another seemingly obvious thing that repeatedly comes up in email gaffe escalations that spiral into full blown feuds. Caps used even as one word looks like it is yelling at the reader. Avoid the caps lock email at all cost. It does not look assertive; it looks like you need Anger Management for Dummies.

10. Subject lines rock. Use them with precision, and a lot of your fellow e-citizens will welcome you to their inboxes (and as an added bonus, these folks will be able to find you in their searches of the trash/sent folders of their web accounts if you get accidently placed in the trash or marked as spam).

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Fixing the Ugly

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Kari Wold
By Kari Wold, Writing Specialist

We have all written The Ugly Paper. Yes, I’ll admit it. I was a journalism major, I’ve been teaching writing for years, and I’m working on my PhD, but I still mess up. I have acute, painful memories of clutching poorly-written papers to my chest and sobbing in bewilderment over why these papers weren’t loved in offices of uncomfortable-looking professors.

The thing is, though, sometimes papers can be train wrecks. We may or may not know the reasons behind the Ugly, either. At times, we write Ugly because we’re just busy. I get it: I’m in a full-time doctorate program with an assistantship and work as a writing specialist. Or at times, life emergencies force us to just do the best we can to cope and have to dash off some Ugly in the process. Other times, we pour our hearts into a paper and get feedback deeming it Ugly while we’re left cocking our heads in bewilderment with a vague mandate to improve.

No matter the reason, summoning the will to fix these rejected papers can be tough. But because fixing the Ugly papers in our lives is an important step in showcasing our credibility as scholars, I’ve gathered some road-tested ways that show how I and many others have gotten through this process:

1. Psych yourself up. Look, you’ll need to go into some mental trickery here. Make yourself love your topic, fix your mind on an end goal, and check your attitude to make sure it’s at least vaguely positive. Your attitude will creep into what you’re putting on the page, so it’s important you’re engaged in what you’re writing. Additionally, this fixing the Ugly process will go much more quickly if you’re at least faking excitement.

2. Remind yourself text is not precious. Yes, it’s tough to change or to even delete the text you initially wrote. But you need to change the Ugly in order to improve it, and in general, pieces drastically improve with some good revision. I promise! What helps me emotionally in this process is creating a separate MS Word document where I can paste all my “deleted” text. It makes me feel a bit better to know that I’m not really deleting it…

Another trick to get yourself removed from your own work is to make your work look like someone else’s, as it’s so much easier to edit someone else’s piece. Put your piece in a different font, a different size, or a different color. Not only is it amusing (and a great procrastination method), it will help you be more effective when tearing into the Ugly.

3. Sit. Stay! Use your time wisely. My house is never cleaner than when I need to fix a paper, and when a deadline is looming, there is no greater draw than the Internet. But we all know our high-energy mental hours, and those high-energy mental hours need to be spent in front of academic work. You’ll thank yourself later.

4. Make checklists. To be an effective editor, you need to know what you’re reading for when you go through a piece before you can hope to change the Ugly. Think about what your professors or your friendly neighborhood writing folks keep mentioning. List those in an MS Word document and group them into APA, writing, and content categories. You can then go through your work once for APA, once for writing, and once for content, looking at each checklist in tweaking the Ugly. It’s actually fun for me, but because I’m a huge nerd, you might have to psych yourself up for this.

5. Let it cool. When you’re done fixing the Ugly, it’s tempting to send off the assignment and forget it ever existed. The temptation is strong, I know! But if you have time, let the assignment cool a bit. Go off and do something completely different. Move your body around; you’ve earned a bit of a breather. Then, come back and read your work again. Read your work out loud. You’ll surprise yourself by what you find.

You may well be rolling your eyes by now as what I described above isn’t exactly a picnic of a process. But hey: The reaction is understandable because summoning the will to fix the Ugly is tough for everyone. But once we actually stop fussing, sit down, and start working, we might very well come up with something much less Ugly than before. In fact, we might come up with something quite Beautiful.

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Writing Like a Doctor: Scientific but not Boring

Sarah Matthey
By Sarah Matthey

I was recently at the Lansdowne residency and while talking to students, I found that we discussed the same daunting writing issue in seminars, advising sessions, and in the labyrinth halls of the National Conference Center. Our discussions centered around the use of the scholarly voice. Many students were frustrated by trying to attain what they viewed as unattainable: the graduate-level academic style of writing. We writing specialists (nerds, grammar-obsessed, otherwise unemployable English majors, you can pick) talk all the time about the importance of the scholarly voice. We use that catchy phrase in our presentations and when providing feedback to students (not when writing blogs—this is clearly in the informal voice). But, what does this phrase really mean? How does one describe the scholarly voice? Defining this concept was more difficult than I thought it was going to be. However, after much internal debate (and internal monologue), I think I came up with a quantifiable list of what it means to write in the scholarly voice.

The first component of writing in the scholarly voice concerns vocabulary usage and word choice. One way to help determine what kind of language you should use is to consider your audience. When writing in a graduate community, the writer is addressing a formal audience. This means that casual forms of speech like slang (dang), metaphors (my heart is a lonely hunter of articles and the library is an emptied forest), similes (the due date is looming like a storm cloud), or cliché phrases (those researcher’s findings were as clear as mud) should be avoided. These types of speech not only detract from your academic voice, but they may also be confusing to the reader. A metaphor or a cliché phrase may mean something different to everyone who reads it. Along those same lines, contractions (won’t, shouldn’t, can’t, etc) should also be avoided because they are casual forms of speech. Eliminating informal language from your paper will not only make you sound more professional, but it will also make your language more clear and concise.

In addition to removing casual language from your paper, you should also consider removing unnecessary pronouns. Some pronouns to avoid include the personal you (as in, you are reading this blog), the editorial we (we all know this or that to be true), and the over reliance on the personal I (I know how much you must enjoy reading what I wrote and I would appreciate you telling my boss). When a writer uses the personal you, they appear to be speaking directly to the reader (like I am doing now. See? It’s distracting), as if they are having a personal conversation with them. This is too personal for a scholarly paper.

APA 3.09 states that broad uses of the word we may leave readers confused about who the we encompasses (p. 69). For example, if a student wrote “We need to exercise greater self-control,” the reader is not sure whom the plural we might encompass. Does it apply to the reader or to some unseen other person? Try to use the proper noun whenever possible.

Finally, while some assignments require that the personal I be used (like reflection papers, assignments that require a personal example, or when the writer has conducted research himself or herself), academic papers require the third person voice to be used. Use of the third person is objective and will sound more scientific. Although personal feelings and experiences are valid, they can be difficult or even impossible to support with the literature and may not be understood by a reader. It is best to try to use nouns instead of pronouns in academic writing.

The final component of scholarly writing is the use of unbiased language. As a social scientist, everything you say must be objective and supported by evidence. APA 3.07 states that arguments should be presented “in a professional, noncombative manner” (p.66). Writing using unbiased and neutral/noncombative language can be tricky. Be on the lookout for making broad generalizations; avoid using over-sweeping adjectives (outstanding, obvious), adverbs (really, clearly), and qualifiers (some, many, a bit), in particular, always and never. Qualifiers lead to generalizations, which can be demonstrative of bias. Try to avoid using emotional (I am deeply moved by Sarah’s comments) or inflammatory (I am sick and tired of APA) language. Instead of saying that Smith’s findings were terrible, embarrassing, horrific, and so on, state that Smith’s findings were questionable.

Be sure that everything you say is supported by evidence. If you make an assertion, be sure that a citation is nearby. Try to think of a Writing Specialist sitting on your shoulder say, “Oh yeah? Can you prove it?” Using unbiased language and supporting your assertions will show that you are an effective, scientific researcher, and that you are serious about contributing to the scholarship in your field.

Writing as at the graduate level is different from writing at an undergraduate level. Mastering the unbiased voice and supporting everything with evidence is challenging. However, like everything else, it will get easier with practice. So as you sit down tonight (or whenever, this is an asynchronous program) to craft that literature review, remember to challenge yourself to be the best social scientist you can be and that graduate-level, scholarly writing is not unattainable.


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