Orange graphic with computer and article title: 5 tips for writing a successful graduate-level paper
Feb 04, 2020 | Magdeleine Vandal

Writing is a challenge even for the best of writers, and for many graduate students it is their most daunting task. However, writing is a powerful tool in the learning process because it requires us to explore ideas, to think critically, and to apply what we have learned in new and meaningful ways.

Tip # 1: “Be proactive” and “Begin with the end in mind”

These concepts from Stephen Covey’s (1989) Seven Habits of Highly effective People are applicable to the writing process. Good writing begins with good thinking. Before you can begin to write, you have to understand the assignment, the instructor’s expectations, and the topic you plan to write about. Begin the project on the day it is assigned; break it down into its various components, and come up with a plan for how and when to complete each part.

“Be Proactive”

  • Understand the assignment. Get clarification from the instructor about process and expectations. Be sure you understand the requirements and follow directions.
  • Identify audience and purpose. Is the assignment formal or informal? Who will be reading the assignment? What is its purpose? Are you writing to inform, to explain a process, or to present an argument?
  • Plan ahead. Do not wait until just before the due date to begin writing.
  • Remember that writing is a recursive process and as you find information, you may find you have more questions; or different questions; or you may find you have gone in one direction only to find you have to backtrack to take a different position.
  • Have the tools you need – an APA Style Manual, access to library databases; word processing.

“Begin with the end in mind”

  • Think about the topic; let ideas ruminate in your head; think when you shower, walk, or drive, when you are lying in bed trying to fall asleep. Dream about the topic! Talk to others about your ideas or thoughts on the subject.
  • Begin with a research question – what do you want to know, what do you need to know?
  • Draw up a schedule for when you will work on each part of the writing process. Remember, you may have to adjust your plan as you go along.
  • Get information – research. Question what you read. Annotate and take notes. Talk to others about what you read.
  • Evaluate sources and keep an open mind. Look for sources on both sides of an issue. Do not dismiss an article just because you disagree with its premise.

Tip # 2 Organize and Draft

  • Once you have analyzed and thought about the information, formulate a plan to present the ideas. Then begin writing.
  • Write a thesis. Make a claim. Understand that you may have to adjust or change it as you write.
  • Organize: group related information. Create an outline or graphic organizer to see how ideas relate to one another.
  • Decide on order– will you present the most important ideas first or will you save them for last and build up to them?
  • Write a rough draft.
  • Clear your mind. Put the draft away for a day.

Tip # 3 Revise, revise, revise

This step is one of the most important in the writing process, and the most difficult because you have to be willing to make big changes or to let material and ideas you have become attached to, go; you may have to cut sentences and paragraphs you have worked so hard to construct; or you may have to eliminate quotes you love but that really do not support your claim. Approach this part of the process with a clear and critical mind. Ask yourself some basic questions: Have I proven my claim? Have I presented enough evidence in support of that claim? Is there anything here that does not directly relate to my claim?

Look at the big picture.

  • Have you proven your claim with logic and solid evidence? Do you need to add more specific examples or evidence? If you are writing an argument, have you included an opposing view and rebuttal?
  • Look for sentences and ideas that do not support the claim and delete them.
  • Begin each paragraph with a topic sentence that relates to the thesis and which tells the reader what the paragraph will be about.
  • Does the introduction provide enough background information about the topic? Does it explain the problem or provide context for the claim?
  • Does the conclusion offer a new perspective or insight on the topic? Does it offer an expanded thought and does it reiterate the key points of your argument without being repetitive?

Look at the smaller details

  • Have you included transition words, phrases, or sentences to link ideas and paragraphs?
  • Are the sentences clearly worded? If you have to read them more than once, they will probably be unclear to your reader.
  • Check for sentence fragments, comma splices, and run-ons.
  • Check sentences for conciseness. Eliminate unnecessary words, jargon, biased language or repetitive sentences.
  • Check for sentence variety; use a good mix of simple, compound, and complex sentences.
  • Check verbs – use active voice; substitute strong action verbs for weaker verbs.

Tip # 4 Use your resources

It is always helpful to get another perspective on something you have written. A fresh set of eyes can see things you may not be able to see because you are so close the material. You know what you want to say and what you are thinking, and you know what the research says on your topic, but the reader does not. Your writing has to be crystal clear, so it helps to have someone else read your work.

  • Have a friend or spouse read the paper to check for any unclear sentences or ideas.
  • Send your paper to the writing tutors at Smarthinking to get feedback.
  • Consult with librarians for help with research or APA formatting.

Tip 5 # Edit and proofread

As a final step, always edit the paper for grammar, punctuation, and mechanics; then proofread for missing or wrong words or misplaced commas. Check to see that you have met the requirements of the assignment. Check word count/page length; correct type and number of sources; in-text citations; references, cover page or other format requirements.

Check for some of these common errors:

Grammar

  • Subject-verb agreement
  • Tense shifts
  • Incorrect pronoun use
  • Mixed constructions or dangling modifiers

Punctuation

  • Commas
  • Colons and semi-colons
  • Quotation marks

Mechanics

  • Capitalization
  • Spelling
  • Numbers

Some final hints

  • Read the paper out loud to catch those mistakes your mind corrects automatically.
  • Try reading the paper backwards line by line to catch odd or incorrect words.
  • Take a break when revising and editing – step away – clear your mind; rest your eyes.
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