Despite the awkward state of my literature review’s grammar and spelling, (footnotebegin)My advisor strongly suggested I turn it in without the final proofread because she knew it would take me a week to closely read and correct the thing. And that I probably couldn’t leave it alone… (footnoteend) I am quite concerned with writing well. Being an academic is no excuse for being utterly boring. Says the cataloging teacher…

I am now writing my proposal and I noticed I am repeating words: summarize, describe, review. This reminded me I have been meaning to compile an academic writing cheat-sheet: lists of useful active verbs organized by relationship, lists of what not to do (common wordy phrases, favorite terms that I use too much), lists of commonly misused words, etc.

I found a good starting point for the first at University of Toronto Scarborough:
Verbs in academic writing [pdf]
Verbs for citing sources [pdf]
Adjectives and adverbs for academic writing [pdf]
Useful Sentence Stems for Summary and Critical Review [pdf]
Link Ideas in Your Sentences Effectively [pdf]

I want to plug another good resource for academic writing that I certainly never considered before a few months ago: the university writing center.

It felt utterly bizarre to start going to UNC’s Writing Center last spring. It was not my own idea. Honestly, I was highly resistant to the idea. I’ve always thought of myself as a good writer. I was that kid bored out of my skull in English class, doodling or surreptitiously reading a book. And then I made 100s on all the quizzes and got recommended for the school newspaper staff and literary club. Everyone seemed to expect that I would become a writer of some sort. When I switched my undergraduate major from English to Commercial Art, someone suggested I was disappointing God by not using the special gift he gave me. This same person years later learned about the concept of “paradigm” and suggested we lived in two different ones. I’ll say.

Why did I go to the writing center? I was clearly completely stalled on and overwhelmed by my literature review. Recently gained data clearly explained why all my old tricks weren’t working, why they wouldn’t ever work, and why I had such trouble following all the good academic writing advice out there. I needed help figuring out some new strategies.

Kim Abels at the Writing Center is absolutely wonderful. I met with her regularly for a few months. It was very helpful to discuss with her in detail my entire research writing process, from source identification through reading, note taking, outlining (or lack thereof), drafting, revising, and polishing. She immediately identified the pattern causing most of my trouble and gave me a range of practical strategies to experiment with counteracting that pattern.

The most helpful strategy for me was this:

  1. Identify how long you can work steadily (or in my case, how log to work before forcing yourself to take a break to actually move your legs, focus your eyes far away, and go to the bathroom). I settled on 50 minutes.
  2. Break the paper down into pieces you think you can complete in that period of time.
  3. Each piece should be a section, group of paragraphs, or even just one paragraph
  4. Make a list of sections, set a timer, and attack the first section. Desperately try to finish. Make it a game.
  5. When the timer rings, stop. Even if you are not done. (I was rarely done.)
  6. If you did not finish, add that section back to the end of your list.
  7. Take a break, then come back and take on the next section.
  8. Repeat as necessary

I later ran across this same sort of idea under the name “time boxing,” and yep, it addresses my main problem: the compulsive need to work on any project for all available time. It prevents realizing the day before it is due that you’ve only written the first quarter of a paper that you’ve been working on for three weeks. Yes, I’ve done that. But not any more…

So, the point of all this is if you are struggling with academic writing (there can be a million reasons why, and it is not always “butt not in chair”), most universities have valuable resources that can help you for free. Even for grad students. Even for faculty. Even if you are a Good Writer. Especially if you are a Good Writer, since most of us Good Writers have never had to stop and think about any part of our writing. And then we get to grad school…

If you have been spinning your wheels on writing, go to the writing center. The people there have read everything on writing (the research on the writing process, writing how-tos, etc) and they know a million strategies for helping with any writing problem.

Oh, and if you are in the social sciences, read Writing for Social Scientists: How to Start and Finish Your Thesis, Book, or Article by Howard S. Becker.

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