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.

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