Helping Grad Students Write Better

Universities should offer writing courses and other support aimed at teaching graduate students the sort of writing they'll need to succeed in their careers, Aisha Langford argues.

June 19, 2015
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Academic writing is a skill many graduate students will need at some point in their careers, especially if they end up at a research-focused university. It is often assumed that graduate students already know how to write well. After all, they made it to graduate school, right?

It’s also assumed that graduate students will learn essential writing skills from their professors, however, this isn’t always the case. Unfortunately, many professors struggle with writing themselves. Additionally, few professors are prolific writers with the ability to effectively teach writing to students.

Academic writing can be difficult. Academic writing can be mundane (hey, we’re not writing creative poetry or jokes for The Tonight Show -- we’re writing articles for journals and grants that may never get funded).

Academic writing is scary. It presents our thoughts and research to the world. This can make us feel vulnerable because our published work is open for critique. Nevertheless, writing is essential. And when something is essential, it needs to be integrated into curricula and made a priority for departments.

Graduate students should know how to write journal articles and grant proposals. And perhaps they should know how to write policy briefs so that elected officials can use their research to inform policy.

In this article, I’ll propose three potential models for raising the importance of writing in graduate school.

Model 1: Mandatory Course(s) for Graduate Students

Let’s imagine a world where graduate students would have a writing class in their first semester. In this magical world, graduate students would learn the basic model for writing a journal article from teachers who enjoy writing and can provide useful feedback to students.

Many of my past professors noted that they only comment on the soundness of ideas, not critical aspects of writing like grammar and flow. In short, they don’t think it’s their job to improve our writing; it’s their job to improve our critical thinking.

In our imaginary world, graduate students could assist research teams with manuscript development earlier and more efficiently because they’d have a better understanding of academic writing with regard to tone and format. They’d also be better equipped to complete their master’s theses and doctoral dissertations.

Of course, guidance and mentorship from professors will still be needed. That’s part of the role of higher education professionals. The point is that students may need less writing-related attention if they take a course early in their graduate programs.

Such a course could be based on the book Writing Your Journal Article in 12 Weeks: A Guide to Academic Publishing Success, by Wendy Laura Belcher (2009). More details about the book can be seen here, but a general overview is below.

Week 1: Designing Your Plan for Writing
Week 2: Starting Your Article
Week 3: Advancing Your Argument
Week 4: Selecting a Journal
Week 5: Reviewing the Related Literature
Week 6: Strengthening Your Structure
Week 7: Presenting Your Evidence
Week 8: Opening and Concluding Your Article
Week 9: Giving, Getting and Using Others’ Feedback
Week 10: Editing Your Sentences
Week 11 Wrapping Up Your Article
Week 12: Sending Your Article!

The course could also be based on the book How to Write a Lot, by Paul Silvia (2009). Per the book’s description on Amazon, “Paul Silvia explains that writing productively does not require innate skills or special traits but specific tactics and actions. Drawing examples from his own field of psychology, he shows readers how to overcome motivational roadblocks and become prolific without sacrificing evenings, weekends and vacations.”

An overview of chapters is below.

  1. Introduction
  2. Specious Barriers to Writing a Lot
  3. Motivational Tools
  4. Starting Your Own Agraphia Group
  5. A Brief Foray Into Style
  6. Writing Journal Articles
  7. Writing Books
  8. “The Good Things Still to Be Written”

Other examples can be seen via Princeton’s Writing Program webpage. Princeton offers half-term courses including Reading and Writing about the Scientific Literature and Writing an Effective Scientific Research Article.

Model 2: Optional Universitywide Writing Centers

There is a growing movement for universities to provide writing support to undergraduate and graduate students. Each writing center is unique but many offer one-on-one appointments, workshops, writing groups, books and online guides. Some universities also host dissertation-writing institutes. Additionally, writing centers offer various workshops that can be tailored to students’ interests and needs. For example, the University of California at Los Angeles offers the following workshops:

  • Introduction to Grant Writing in the Nonprofit Sector
  • Editing for Style: How to Improve Your Writing
  • Writing Successful Grant and Fellowship Applications
  • Getting Started on the Dissertation: How to Get Going and Keep Going
  • Email Etiquette for the Job Seeker
  • Self-Editing Strategies for Nonnative Speakers of English

Model 3: Writing Labs Within Schools

Although similar to model 2, this option is unique in that you have one or two people facilitating a writing lab within a school.

For example, the University of Michigan’s School of Public Health supports a writing lab that is available to all graduate students and postdoctoral fellows. The writing staff is physically located within the school and has dedicated office space.

Unlike universitywide writing centers where you may see different people each time you go in for an appointment, this model is nice because you’re typically working with the same person. This makes it easier to track your writing progress over time and to develop relationships with a writing coach. The writing lab is funded by the School of Public Health (rather than the university centrally) and was created because professors saw the need for such a lab within their school. The lab has been helpful to many students, but especially for nonnative speakers of English and those struggling with dissertation writing.

Writing is important, and graduate students are not well prepared in this area. We need to support writing education at the graduate level.

Your thoughts about other models and effective programs are welcome. Please share!


Aisha Langford is a writer, speaker and researcher with a background in public health and communications. Her research focuses on clinical trial participation, chronic disease prevention and health literacy. You can follow her on Twitter @AishaLangford or on LinkedIn.


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