October 5, 2012

Academia's Best Kept Secret: How to Make Use of Your University's Writing Center

During the process of working on your thesis or dissertation, you may find yourself considering the possibility of hiring an outside editor or at least finding another pair of eyes to read your dissertation work.  Even if you have the best of relationships with your dissertation or thesis committee, it's sometimes helpful to have an outsider's point of view, and particularly someone who can take the time to work with you more closely and give you more feedback than an adviser may be able to.  In the coming days, I'll be talking about the pros and cons of hiring outside help, along with some tips for choosing the right editor, but before you look for one, you might want to consider a resource many students overlook--the University writing center.  

While generally thought of as resources for undergraduates, many writing centers also offer to read small, discrete portions of graduate papers and dissertations.  While the focus will be on a learning/tutoring relationship rather than an editor/writer one, students can learn a lot from a writing center tutor or consultant.  You won't be able to have much of your dissertation read--probably only up to 8 or 10 pages at a time, but even those 8-10 pages can tell a writing tutor a great deal about the strengths and weaknesses of your writing, and by working through those pages, you can apply the lessons you'll learn to other parts of the dissertation as well.  And for structural work, you can always bring in an outline of a dissertation chapter or even of the dissertation as a whole, and just "talk structure" with a consultant.  You can discover problems with continuity and repetition just from going over an outline with someone else and talking through your strategy for overall organization.

Some schools don't offer their writing center services to graduate students or faculty, so make sure to call and check on the policies regarding thesis and dissertation work first.  But many schools do, and this resource tends to be unadvertised and most often under-utilized, which is a shame, since most grad students would get the service either for free or for a nominal charge.  You also want to make sure that outside help is not frowned upon at your university.  Some universities don't like for their students to have outside editors but encourage students to use the writing center, while others may discourage the use of the writing center for graduate students.  Just be clear on what the policies are at your school.

Writing centers aren't proofreading services, and if you ask for them to proofread or edit your paper, you'll probably be met with a simple "we don't do that" answer.  The reason is that the mission of the writing center is to teach, not to change the student's words for them.  But by working with a writing center tutor, you can still discover patterns of error that repeatedly occur in your work, and learn strategies to catch them yourself.  A good writing center tutor can help you to self-edit to the point where you may no longer even need to pay money for an outside editor.

For help interpreting statistics or writing about research findings, the writing center may not be your best bet, but if you're looking just for general writing help, such as organization, clarity, and the development of your prose, you might want to consider this option first.  You never know--you may both save yourself money and end up learning about your own writing and writing process along the way.

October 3, 2012

Enter the Conversation: Find Your Voice in the Scholarly Literature

Enter the Conversation: Find Your Voice in the Scholarly Literature

Does the literature review section of your project intimidate you?

Is it hard to figure out what to include and why? 

Are you unclear about what your readers need to see?

You can get beyond your hesitation to write the review of literature by imagining yourself in an ordinary conversation.

Entering a Conversation

How do you enter a conversation?
  • When you are new to a group of people, does it take a long time to find your voice?
  • When some of them are better known than you are, do your words get stuck in your mouth?
  • When you are interested in the conversation and have something to contribute, is it hard to figure out how to start?
  • Do you sometimes feel you blurt out a thought?
I bet your apprehensions about writing your review of the literature are similar! So use the same strategies! In ordinary conversation, how do you speak up?

Conversation Strategies

Here are some strategies you probably use as you make your way in a conversation:
  • Listen quietly awhile to the tone of the conversation and then say something:  “This dog park controversy you are talking about….where I used to live there was one and an issue there was …”
  • Frame your agenda as a question: “Does anyone know a good novel about a dog?”
  • Pick up on a comment and extend it: “You said you have a little dog, and I think they are getting much more popular than ten years ago.”
  • Refer to a resource you find useful: “The dog-training books written by Carol Lea Benjamin are my favorites because….”
  • Ask for advice about your plans: “I’m traveling by car with my dog; what kind of crate should I choose?”
  • Challenge someone’s opinion: “You claim off-leash dogs in a secure area are dangerous, but the evidence demonstrates...”
A Conversation Among Scholars

The literature review in academic writing represents a conversation, an ongoing exchange among scholars. You have gathered the scholars together for your own purpose: you have a particular agenda and a set of questions to ask. You are asking for their sense of the importance of your question, for their analysis of your key topic, and for their advice on the best method for you to use. You might be asking them for their opinion in order to argue with them that yours is better, or you might invite two to debate each other.

Two of our favorite guides to academic writing, Peg Boyle Single in Demystifying Dissertation Writing (Stylus, 2009) and Wendy Laura Belcher in Writing your Journal Article in Twelve Weeks (Sage 2010) use the concept of a conversation among scholars.  Both describe very useful ways to engage in the scholarly conversation as you develop your own writing project.

Manners of Speaking

Have you noticed that people speak differently in different conversational settings? A casual encounter may require that you introduce one person to another.  In some environments, people are addressed by first names, in others, by a title or just through body language. A discussion following a presentation may be quite circumspect when the discussion involves the presenter, in contrast to a more volatile reaction among your friends alone. A conversation among people of similar social circumstances may involve private references to things everyone takes for granted. If a strong opinion leader is in the group, people may direct many of their comments to that person.

As you find your voice in a group, you begin to understand how people speak in that group. It is just the same as you join the conversation among scholars. Your discipline, the nature of the publication, the type of article, and your planned use of the source all will influence the voice you adopt as you write. Your entry point, the statement you want to make in this particular piece of writing, may lead to a very different tone in one article than in another.


As in any other conversation, you begin by listening to what others say. You select reading based on topics, methods, or controversies related to your primary question. You identify key issues and important voices. If you are very fortunate, you might be able to engage a conversation not only metaphorically but also literally. Single reports the experience of a student who wrote to the author of an article and began a correspondence of great value.

Belcher suggests telling a friend about a debate you overheard, as a way to identify the main voices and arguments. You can also eavesdrop on an entire field by reviewing introductory texts Single as you consider where your own interest might fit into the conversation.

Of course, you will be polite! You will avoid insulting, belittling, gossiping, and complaining. Belcher makes us laugh when she says, “You wouldn’t walk into a room and portentously announce descriptive information (e.g., Midnight’s Children was published in 1981 or South African elections were held in 1994). Everyone in the room already knows this basic information.” 

Find Your Own Voice!

Reflect on your conversation strategies and consider:
  • What is your own argument? Why are you citing these particular sources? What questions do you anticipate the sources will answer?
  • What is the general tone of the conversation about your topic? Is it controversial, well-established, cross-disciplinary?
  • Who is making a point that you want to amplify in your own project?
  • What established sources are you building upon, questioning, or contradicting in this writing?
  • What methods will you be applying to your own project?
  • How does your analysis differ from that of another participant in the conversation?
As we always suggest, don’t try to make your literature review perfect the first time.  Free yourself up with this new conversational way of thinking, do some free writing and create your first rough draft, then edit, edit, edit.  Then you’ll be able to turn it into a dynamic, stimulating conversation!

Written by Susanne Morgan, Ph.D.


Single, Peg Boyle, Demystifying Dissertation Writing: A Streamlined Process from Choice of Topic to Final Text, Stylus, 2009

Belcher, Wendy Laura (Belcher, 2009), Writing Your Journal Article in Twelve Weeks:
A Guide to Academic Publishing Success, Sage Publications. 2009.