Helping Graduate Students Develop Academic Voices
Alphabetical list of Handouts & Guides

Words of Wisdom

There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.

— Ernest Hemingway

by Candace Schaefer

A couple of weeks ago David Caldwell from poultry science asked if I could offer a workshop to their new graduate students on developing academic writing skills. I want to share what I did in that workshop, because instructors from any discipline can use the same activity to help their own graduate students.

Graduate students read multitudes of journal articles during their course of study, so in this workshop I showed them how to read a journal article not just for content, which is what they are used to doing, but also for style. In this way, students can teach themselves what they need to know about writing in their disciplines.

What follows is a short three-step activity that instructors can use with students to help them demystify graduate writing in their disciplines.

  1. Choose a representative journal article and make a copy for each student. Articles that employ some type of data analysis or empirical study work better than theoretical pieces.  For this workshop, David sent me an article from poultry science that was both representative and reflective of the field.
  2. Give students 15-25 minutes to skim the article and make notes. Ask the students to read the article and mark parts that indicate the following:

Structure. Look for the use of IMRAD (Introduction, Methods, Results, and Discussion) or other obvious ways of organizing the article. Identify individual sections of the article. Identify transitional markers that indicate relationships between ideas.

Point of View. Look for the use of “I” or “we” or “the researcher.” If there is no reference to the author directly, note that.

Voice. Identify passive/active voice constructions, particularly if there is no reference to the author. Passive: The hens were examined for disease. (The subject receives the action of the verb.) Active: The researchers examined the hens for disease. (The subject carries out the action of the verb.) Does the work primarily use the passive or active voice? If both are used, is there a reason for using one voice or the other in certain contexts?

Citations and Documentation. Examine the work for the use of summary, paraphrase, and/or quotation. If quotations are used, when and why are they used. Also, note the style used to refer to the literature. For example, is the author’s name used to introduce the material, or is most of the work summarized with a citation placed after the summary?

Verb Usage and Verb Tense. Examine the use of verbs, particularly in reference to literature citation and the presentation of results. In the social sciences, verbs such as “claim” and “argue” may be used, but in the life sciences, students may notice verbs such as “discover” or “conclude.” In addition, look at the use of verb tense—when is past tense used and when is present tense used?

  1.  Ask the students to discuss what they discovered.  And don’t worry—they will do most of the talking.

I’m always amazed at what the students see when they read the text and how this exercise generates so many questions regarding writing in the discipline. Some of us may take for granted how scholars in their field talk to each other, but for newly-minted grad students, this may be new and exciting information. For example, in my recent workshop, one student wanted to know why in one citation the author’s name was outside the parentheses and in the other it was inside. I asked the group to speculate on this. They talked about how citing the author’s name in the actual text emphasized the author. They suggested that the author’s work may have been influential on the field or on the problem being examined. The students were engaged with the text and with each other while discussing both the content and the style of the article.

I ended the workshop by advising students to apply what they learn from their reading to their writing.  I also told them that even within their field, styles may vary, but now they know how to teach themselves. Will the students make stylistic and grammatical errors? Of course. But if they find the answers in the texts they are already reading, then they become vested in the process. At first, the students may write more by imitation than by integration, but eventually their writing will more readily reflect the level of their disciplinary knowledge. And better yet, they will have taught themselves.