Managing graduate writing projects


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  • Today, I’m going to discuss the different stages of the writing process and how to manage the longer projects you as graduate students tend to do. I’ll share with you some tips that have helped other graduate students be successful. Writing strategies are personal, however, so some of my tips may work for you, and some may not. Just be open to trying some new things as you write, especially if you find that your approach isn’t working. I want to help you work smarter and not harder to achieve your goals.
  • So begin by considering what and why you are writing. Is it a specific question that you have to answer? Or are you supposed to develop your own topic? You might be working on a research proposal, an article manuscript, a book chapter, or a thesis or dissertation.

    Most graduate writing projects are longer and more self-directed than undergraduate assignments. For this reason, you need to be aware of how, when, and where you write best to be an efficient and self-disciplined writer. So you are at the beginning of this long (and daunting) process. How do you start? [See next slide.]
  • With any writing project, there are a few questions you need to consider before you start writing. Answering these questions before you begin will make your writing and revising process run significantly smoother.

    First, consider the purpose of your project and the audience that you are going to reach. What do you need to accomplish, and who needs to understand and/or use the end result? Second, what is the scope of your project? How narrow or broad can your topic be? And third, what are your deadlines? If someone has not set deadlines for you, how can you set your own deadlines AND hold yourself accountable to those deadlines?

    Let’s look a bit more in depth at these questions.
  • Your audience and purpose will change with each writing project. For these examples, let’s discuss who your audience and purpose might be. And for each, consider how the audience and purpose will affect the content, tone, and style of the writing. [Try to make this more of a discussion than a lecture.]

    Audience: your committee members of course– but you will especially want to be clear enough to be understood by an educated scholar in your field, but perhaps not familiar with the particulars of your research. So for example, you might need to define terms that are well-known in your sub-discipline but not theirs.
    Purpose: to demonstrate that you can conduct original research that somehow contributes to the wider body of scholarly literature; to show that you are worthy of being considered a peer by experts in your field. For example, if your purpose is to prove that you should be considered an academic peer, your tone needs to be academic and professional.
    Journal article
    Audience: will vary by journal. Science would have a more general audience: scientific researchers. Infection and Immunity would have a much more specific audience of experts.
    Purpose: to describe a research project that would be useful/interesting to your academic peers
    Each journal has specific style guidelines. Make sure you are aware of those guidelines before you begin writing. Read papers published in that journal and the author’s guidelines to become familiar with the language and tone used. The audience will influence how much detail you go into.
    Grant proposal
    Audience: will vary by type of grant—probably a mixture of experts and non-experts
    Purpose: to show that your project is necessary to fill in a gap in the existing body of scholarly research; to justify the use of an organization’s funds for your research
    Content-wise, you have a short amount space to justify your research. Be concise and to the point. Show the “big picture” contributions of your project (if non-experts will be reviewing your proposal). Style-wise, you will have explicit instructions. You’ve already made it past round one in the elimination process if you have followed directions.

  • After determining the audience and purpose of your project, you need to decide on an appropriate (and realistic) scope. Your scope will become narrower as you read through literature and see what others have done and said.

    You can use models to decide what a reasonable scope is for your writing project. For instance, if you are writing a thesis, you can read other theses from your field. Using the ProQuest Dissertations and Theses Database, you can even read theses/dissertations that your adviser has signed off on. [At this point or at the end of the presentation, you might show them how to access and search this database by topic/university/chair.] Consider what factors are limiting your scope: the time you have to research/write, the resources you have access to (money and equipment), and the type of study you plan to do (survey vs. case study vs. ethnography).

    Here’s an example of a possible dissertation topic (which was actually the dissertation topic of our associate director, Dr. Candace Schaefer). “Academic dishonesty” is way too broad of a scope, while “first-year student athletes plagiarizing in an English 104 class in 2009” is much too specific for a dissertation project of the type she was doing. (It might work for some qualitative or case study research.) She ended up narrowing her scope to “faculty perceptions of student plagiarism.”
  • Either before you write or early in the writing process, you should become aware of deadlines that you need to follow, or you need to set deadlines for yourself. This strategy will help you stay accountable and work ahead, and it will allow you break up your project into smaller, more manageable sections.

    One way you can create a timeline is to work backward from major deadlines. Start by determining the deadline. If you are writing for a conference, check the call for proposals. If you are writing for your committee, never assume the deadlines. Some chairs want two weeks to get around to reading your work, others want a month or a day. It’s not something you can predict, so ask for a deadline.

    Let’s say, as an example, you determine you need to send a draft of a chapter/article to your chair by October 1st. What is the last section that you plan to write or revise before that date, and how long will it take to complete? To know this, you have to know your writing habits. Maybe you plan to revise the entire article before submitting it to your chair, which—with work and that conference and your dad’s birthday in late September—will take you about two weeks. So you need to finish writing and begin revising around September 17th. And so on and so on.

    Pay close attention to the Office of Graduate Studies (OGS) and the Thesis Office deadlines. If you want to graduate in December, you will likely have to defend by mid-October. If you want to graduate in May, you will probably have to defend by mid-March. Also, if you are using human subjects in your research (including surveying or conducting interviews), allot time for IRB applications and turnaround time on approval.

    Remember to set reasonable deadlines for yourself. Knowing the pace at which you write is vital in the creation of your timeline. So is sticking to the timeline, and revising deadlines when absolutely necessary.
  • If you are planning to publish your writing project, be sure to review your target publication for style. Style does not only encompass format, though. A publication’s style will also be reflected in an article’s organization (IMRaD), language/tone, citations, and point of view (first person vs. third person). Which verb tense is used in each section? Are headings used? What type of figures are most common? Do they state the research questions/hypotheses in the introduction (or at all)?

    Becoming aware of your target publication’s style will make the revision process much simpler.

    Even if you are not planning to publish, examining a model (say, a friend's seminar paper from an earlier class), can help you understand your professor’s expectations. If you are writing a thesis or dissertation, examining a few of those to get the feel for the end product can be invaluable.
  • In order to truly be able to defend your research, you need to find other sources that can support your argument or demonstrate the need for your study. You will also establish your credibility by citing others who have done research on your topic. As you read through what past scholars have done/said, you will be able to continue narrowing and shaping your research topic.

    There are several ways to find sources that support your research:

    First, you can use the Library Databases. This brings academic articles to your fingertips and allows you to see what others are saying about your topic. You could also peruse the extensive collection of books at the TAMU Libraries. You could go through archives and find newspaper articles or magazine stories that relate to your topic.

    And you can go talk to your adviser or committee about your ideas. They usually can help you refine your topic and suggest useful sources.

  • The tips on this slide were taken from the library’s tutorial on search strategies.

    Here are a few tips for searching online catalogs and databases for relevant sources.

    First, be sure to use Boolean operators effectively. These include AND, OR and NOT. [Read example.]

    Be aware of truncation symbols and wildcard characters than could optimize your search. For instance, an asterisk placed at the end of a word will tell the search engine to include different endings to a word in the search (ex. child* = child, children, childhood, etc.). The question mark is a wildcard character. It replaces one letter in a word—telling the search engine to find results with possible variations in the word based on that letter (ex. wom?n = woman, women, womyn).

    If you are searching for a phrase rather than individual words, use quotation marks to tell the search engine to look for sources that use the whole phrase (ex. “magical realism” vs. magical realism).

    Consider setting up an appointment with your subject librarian for more help. Also, as I mentioned earlier, you can ask your chair/committee to suggest sources. You might also consider developing inclusion or exclusion criteria to limit your search (ex. I will not look at conference papers; I will only look at sources written in English; etc.).

  • Don’t forget to ask a librarian. Librarians are especially trained to help you find what you need, and they look forward to working with you. From the library’s main page, look for Subject Librarians.
  • Keep track of all your sources. I will describe more specific ways to do that later on in the presentation.

    And to avoid plagiarizing, be careful to make a distinction in your notes between direct quotes, summarization, and paraphrased information. [Describe the difference between quoting, summarizing, and paraphrasing if they don’t know.]

    Keep in mind that if you cite properly, you:
    Give credit to the author
    Protect intellectual property
    Allow readers to cross-reference sources
    Add credibility to your argument
  • So once you are done researching and/or creating an outline for yourself (if that is how you write best), how do you plan to use the background research that you have done? Will you use it in the introduction of an article? Are you using it to write a literature review for your dissertation?

    You might be keeping track of your sources by creating an annotated bibliography. How does that differ from a literature review?

    An annotated bibliography summarizes each work separately—it does not show connections between sources. A literature review, on the other hand, interweaves sources by topic, idea, or theory.
    An annotated bib. demonstrates your understanding of various texts, while a literature review shows your knowledge of literature and your critical understanding of a particular topic, idea, or theory.
    An annotated bib. is sometimes done as a prerequisite to a literature review. In the literature review, you will use the sources you have found to establish a need for your research based on some gap in the literature.
  • Keeping track of your citations is crucial in a long, scholarly work.

    Through Texas A&M, you can get a free RefWorks account. You can import citations and abstracts to RefWorks, upload PDFs of articles and book chapters, and organize your citations by project. You can also export bibliographies from RefWorks in a specific style, but be sure to double check the reference list yourself, too. Endnote is another citation manager (provided free by TAMU as well) that you can use.
    Keeping a spreadsheet can be a useful way to organize your citations. Some people still like to use notecards to keep up with their citations and summaries of sources.

    If you are worried that you are plagiarizing, OGS offers a free account for grad students working on their thesis/dissertation. One strategy might be to get a Turnitin account and then bring the report to the University Writing Center for an appointment. UWC consultants can help you read your report and make suggestions for revisions.
  • As I said before, looking at previous literature will help you refine your research topic. You will also be using previous works to show a gap in the literature or present the opportunity for additional research. How are you adding to the academic conversation? If you are lost, you might check out the book They Say, I Say by Gerald Graff.
  • So if you are searching for sources for your literature review, how do you know when to stop? There is so much information out there.

    You might be finding the same sources over and over again using every possible relevant search term. This means your research has reached a point of saturation, and you have probably exhausted most of the major sources on the topic.

    Often, it is tempting to go off on tangents. Try to avoid reading an article simply because it is interesting and somewhat related. If it is not within the scope of your research topic, move on.

    When you initially set up your timeline, consider setting a start date for writing. You can always go back and find more sources later if you need to. At some point, you need to stop searching and begin writing.

    Or you stop when your chair tells you to stop!
  • Some people begin writing without a basic skeleton or premeditated plan. Others use an outline to guide them as they write. If you are working on a long writing project, outlining could help you break up the project into smaller sections.

    In some disciplines, headings and subheadings are used to guide readers through a document. An outline can be useful for deciding how headings/subheadings should be organized and grouped together.

    Because your outline will break up your project into chapters, sections, or paragraphs, you can use these chunks to construct your timeline or make a daily/weekly to-do list. Instead of thinking, I need to write 200 pages by March 15, you can work by section: I need to write sections I and II of Chapter 3 between December 29th and January 6th.
  • As you are writing, make sure you are referring to all of your visuals (figures and tables) in the text, even if they are located in an appendix. Make sure their captions and labels follow your style guidelines. If you are writing your thesis/dissertation, pay close attention to the instructions given in the Thesis Manual. Also, know the style guidelines of your target publication.

    And be aware of copyright rules. If you take an image or a large amount of text from another publication for an article you want to publish, you will most likely need to get permission (even if it is a figure or table that YOU published—often, it belongs to the publisher). The Thesis Office has workshops and information on their website about this issue.
  • With longer writing projects, it is difficult to stay motivated to write and keep up your momentum. These are a few strategies that we recommend for graduate students.

    If you have taken a short hiatus from writing, it is a good idea to read some of what you have written before you write or revise more. That way, you are more likely to maintain the same style and tone, and you will avoid unnecessary repetition of your ideas.
    Try dividing your project into manageable chunks. Thinking about the project as a whole can be overwhelming; instead, break it up into smaller pieces.
    Some people are more motivated to write when they are held accountable by a group. Consider joining or forming a group that meets (either in person or online) to write weekly. You can even use the group to get feedback on your work.
    This strategy sounds pretty simple, but some benefit from actually setting aside time to write. When do you write best? When do you have free time? How many hours can you set aside to write each week? Mark your writing time on your calendar, and find a place to write where distractions won’t interfere with your writing time.
    Remember to reward yourself when you finish a section or make one of your deadlines. Buy yourself a pair of shoes. Go to the movies. Take a weekend off from writing. Don’t punish yourself if you miss a deadline, though—just don’t reward yourself for the deadlines you miss.
    Another way to keep yourself motivated and accountable is to make regular appointments at the Writing Center. Knowing that you have an appointment coming up might motivate you to write or revise, and talking about your writing in the appointment will keep your momentum going.
  • There is a handful of free software programs available to help you write more efficiently. For instance, the Pomodoro Technique gives you alternating segments of writing and break time (of varying lengths). This program benefits people who are more productive when they take short breaks during their writing time.

    FocusWriter and OmmWriter make your writing environment (on the computer) more conducive to writing by reducing the distractions on your computer screen.

    StoryBook, TreeSheets, and yWriter5 are programs that help you organize your writing projects. StoryBook and yWriter5 are geared toward novel writing, but they could be applicable to organizing any long writing project. TreeSheets could be more useful for brainstorming and keeping track of your deadlines.
  • The Writing Center offers several services specific to graduate students.

    We have a Dissertation and Thesis Jumpstart workshop offered once a year, which is for graduate students who are just past the proposal writing stage. This workshop gives students an introduction to services and strategies that will benefit students in the dissertation/thesis-writing process.
    We also run two to three weekly Graduate Writing Groups. The groups consist of about 6-10 graduate students working on their theses/dissertations. They last an hour and a half, and students sign up for 30-minute slots during which they present their work and receive feedback from the group.
    The DATA (Dissertation and Thesis Assistance) Program gives students ten sessions (plus one introductory session) to work with one experienced consultant at the Writing Center. The sessions can be online or in-person.
    Before the beginning of each semester, we hold a Dissertation and Thesis Writing Retreat. For one week, a space is reserved for graduate students to work on their thesis/diss. Snacks, drinks, and lunch are provided, and students have daily sessions with writing coaches who review and give feedback on their work.
    During the fall and spring semesters, we offer weekly International Student Workshops. These are topical sessions, focusing on issues that tend to concern international students.
    You can also simply make regular online and face-to-face appointments to get feedback on your work from our highly trained student workers and professional staff.

    Sign up for these services—which are all free—on our website under “For Students” and “Graduate Student Services.”
  • Revision is an important part of the writing process. Here are a few points to keep in mind when editing your work.
  • Be sure to allot ample time to revise your work. Take time to revise can be a productive break from writing.

    Even if you consider yourself to be a great writer, you still need to revise. Even professional writers have editors.

    The Thesis Office will give you revisions based on format and style. Your committee will probably give you mostly content-based revisions. The Writing Center can help you with the rest of your writing concerns—more global (organization and clarity) and local (grammar, word choice, sentence structure).
  • If you are having trouble knowing what to revise, ask someone to give you feedback.

    You can get feedback from your chair or committee members, a Writing Center consultant, or one of your peers.

    Based on feedback that others have given you, learn your strengths and weaknesses in writing. That way, you will learn to edit your own work more effectively. [Here, maybe give an example of a weakness in your writing and how you work to improve it or identify it when revising.]
  • Here are a few videos on our website that you might find useful in the writing process. Dr. Candace Schaefer gives advice on writing a literature review. Dr. Ginger Carney talks about scientific writing. Dr. Laura Hammons, from the Thesis Office, gives helpful tips to keep in mind while working on your thesis/diss.
  • Be sure to check out our website ( in order to book a face-to-face or online appointment. Our consultants specialize in providing constructive peer feedback to writers!
  • Managing graduate writing projects

    1. 1. Managing Graduate Writing Projects
    2. 2. Types of Projects • Research proposals • Articles for peer- reviewed journals • Thesis or dissertation • Literature reviews • Book chapters • Conference papers
    3. 3. Before Writing What is the purpose of your project? Who is your audience? What is your scope? (What can you realistically accomplish in the time given?) What are your deadlines? What does the final product look like? Consider the following questions:
    4. 4. Audience and Purpose For each project, who might the audience be, and what is the purpose? • Dissertation or thesis • Journal article • Grant proposal How do the audience and purpose affect the content, tone, and style of a writing project?
    5. 5. Scope of Topic Too big: Academic dishonesty Too narrow: First-year student athletes plagiarizing in an English 104 class in 2009 Just right: Faculty perceptions of student plagiarism at a single institution *Your scope will be limited by time, available resources, and study type. What might be an appropriate scope for a dissertation?
    6. 6. Develop a Timeline Divide the project into manageable sections. Work backward from the date the project needs to be completed. Finish screening articles Literature review draft Finalize literature review Finish methods section Finish results and discussion Send article draft to chair 10/01/139/17/138/31/138/22/137/31/137/15/13
    7. 7. Examine the End Product Review your target publication(s) for style. Structure Language and tone Citations Point of view Passive vs. active voice  Verb tense
    8. 8. Researching Library Databases There are thousands of academic articles located here. TAMU Libraries There is an extensive collection of books, newspaper articles, magazines, and journals.
    9. 9. Research Tips Use Boolean operators (AND, OR, NOT) effectively. Ex. Cowboys AND Texas NOT football Know truncation symbols and wildcard characters. Ex. wom?n = woman, women, womyn Search for phrases rather than individual words by using quotation marks. Ex. “magical realism” vs. magical realism Also consider asking your chair for suggested reading, developing inclusion/exclusion criteria (no conference papers, only papers written in English, etc.), and/or meeting with your subject librarian . Taken from
    10. 10. Whatever the subject, there’s a librarian for that. Each subject librarian has a contact page. You can use resources on their page or chat, email, or meet in person with them.
    11. 11. Take careful notes. Keep track of all of your sources. Avoid plagiarizing. Make a distinction between direct quotes and paraphrased information in your notes. Better yet, summarize the main points of the article in your own words.
    12. 12. Annotated Bibliography Summarizes each work separately Literature Review Interweaves sources by topic, idea, or theory Demonstrates your knowledge of literature and critical understanding of a topic, idea, or theory Is usually done as a prerequisite to a literature review Demonstrates your critical understanding of various texts *Establishes a need for your research Background Research
    13. 13. Managing Citations How can you keep track of your citations? • RefWorks  Free through TAMU • Endnote  Free through TAMU • Spreadsheet  Organized by publication date, author, etc. • Note cards  Summaries of sources with citation
    14. 14. Literature Review Looking at previous literature will help you refine your research topic. Purpose: Use previous works that address your research question to show a gap in the literature or present the opportunity for additional research. Demonstrate how you are adding to the academic conversation.
    15. 15. Literature Review How do I know when to stop? • Saturation You are finding the same sources using a variety of relevant search terms. • Tangents You are finding and reading sources outside of your project’s scope. • Timeline Because of time limitations, you need to stop searching and start writing. *Or your chair tells you to stop!
    16. 16. Outlining Outlining might help you break up the project into smaller sections. You can use headings and subheadings to organize your outline and your final product. Use your outline to construct a timeline or daily task list.
    17. 17. Visuals Refer to all figures and tables in the text, even if they are in the appendix. See the Thesis Manual and journal requirements for more guidance on captions/labels for figures and tables. Be aware of copyright guidelines.
    18. 18. Read what you have before you write or revise more. Divide your project into manageable chunks, and make a list of tasks to do each day/week. Join a writing group (in person or online). Schedule time to write. Reward yourself when you complete a section on time. Make regular appointments at the University Writing Center. Writing Strategies
    19. 19. • Pomodoro Technique® • FocusWriter • OmmWriter • TreeSheets • yWriter5 • StoryBook Experiment with Different Software
    20. 20. Writing Center Services • Dissertation and Thesis Jump Start Workshop • Graduate Writing Groups • The DATA (Dissertation and Thesis Assistance) Program • Dissertation and Thesis Writing Retreat • International Student Workshops • Online and face-to-face consultations
    21. 21. Revise “The first draft reveals the art; revision reveals the artist.” —Michael Lee
    22. 22. Revising Allot ample time to revise your work. Remember that even professional writers have editors. The Thesis Office will give you revisions based on format. Your committee will give you more content-based revisions. The Writing Center can help with the rest.
    23. 23. Receiving Feedback Where can you find feedback? • Chair/Committee • Writing Center consultant • Peers Learn your weaknesses so that you can more effectively edit your own work. Find graded writing projects and identify patterns in comments/markings.
    24. 24. Recommended Resources Get Lit: Writing Literature Reviews Dr. Candace Schaefer workshop-video/ Handouts, Videos, and More: Dissertations & Theses Tips from the Thesis Office Dr. Laura Hammons tips/thesis-office-presentation-spring-2009/
    25. 25. Make an appointment at the University Writing Center—we can help at any stage of the writing process! For Another Point of View…