As we start a new semester and a new year, I’ve found myself doing some reflecting. Just typical PhD student stuff, like how did I get here? Why am I doing this to myself? What do fresh organic vegetables taste like?
As I fondly reminisced about the days when I could regularly afford fresh produce, I realized that I started my academic journey 10 years ago. I did take a brief hiatus from formal education in between graduate degrees, but this was spent doing educational research. In universities.
I have been a cog in the academic wheel for 10 years.
During this time I have written and graded a lot of papers. Some good, some bad. Based on this experience, I’ve put together 10 tips for writing papers in university.
1) Read the Syllabus
Read it. Reread it. Then ask your professor and/or teaching assistant (TA) questions. 95% of all questions can be answered by reading the syllabus.
Sometimes there’s also a grading rubric in the syllabus. If so, keep the rubric in mind as you write your paper.
2) Follow the Instructions
Follow the instructions in the syllabus. I know I already mentioned reading the syllabus, but it bears repeating.
That being said, there is usually some flexibility in how you go about your assignment so long as you make sure you’re fulfilling all of the assignment objectives. I’ve used different paper formats and styles for my papers (including my infamous Fifty Shades of White literature review in my masters degree). I even did a painting as part of an assignment in my PhD. But in all of the instances I still made sure I accomplished the assignment objectives.
3) Ask Questions
Ask the professor or TA questions. Maybe something is unclear, or you want to take a slightly different direction with your paper.
Just read the syllabus first.
Librarians are also an amazing (and perhaps underused) resource that you have access to as a student. I highly recommend booking an appointment with your librarian if you have any questions about search strategies or identifying articles for your papers. Your university’s writing centre is also a great resource for improving your writing skills.
4) Correct Citation Style Done Correctly
Make sure you’re using the publication style that the syllabus asks for (so read the syllabus!) Using a different citation style isn’t necessarily the end of the world, but if the person marking your paper isn’t familiar with it they may deduct marks. Using the correct style is also good practice if you want to go into academia because journals and grant applications will have very specific instructions regarding the citation style and formatting.
And actually buy the publication manual. There are a lot of great online resources for APA (e.g. Purdue OWL), but they are not nearly as comprehensive as the publication manual.
5) Correct File Format
Please, please, please submit a Word document unless the syllabus says otherwise. Do not submit PDFs unless directed to. It’s much easier to correct grammar and APA in a Word Document, which will make the person grading your paper less cranky.
Now, some courses will want you to do something else; for example, my technology class involved sharing our work online as blog posts or videos. However, unless otherwise stated you should assume the prof wants a Word Doc.
6) Write on Something that Interests You
In grad school you typically have a lot of flexibility in what you write, so pick something that really interests you. If you’re passionate about your paper topic, it’ll come across in your writing. I love reading papers when I can tell the student was really interested in their topic! If you’re bored or disinterested in your topic, generally we will be too.
It may be helpful to think ahead to what you want to research in your thesis. I purposefully picked topics for my papers that would overlap with my comprehensive exam domains and what I want to investigate in my research. This drastically reduced the number of new readings I had to do for my comprehensive exams. Work smart, not hard (or the PhD version, “Work smart rather than make things overly difficult for yourself.” Less poetic, but more accurate.)
7) Know Your Audience
While you want to pick a topic that interests you, you also need to keep in mind who is grading your paper. Are they an expert in the area? Have they published on the topic? Do you know if they have a strong opinion on this issue?
When I TA’d a community health nursing class, one of the suggested paper topics was whether Ontario should implement a mandatory helmet law for all ages. I warned my students that I grew up in BC where helmets have been mandatory for adults for almost my entire life. This was a norm for me, and a paper arguing otherwise would have to be extremely well written and referenced.
8) Find a Writing Style that Works for You
I come from an applied sciences background, so I love to use tons of headings and subheadings in my papers. Typically I write an outline, and that outline becomes my headings. I find this makes it easier for me to write, and makes my papers very organized. I also love marking papers that have headings and subheadings because I can find things easily.
That being said, this writing style is difficult for some people. Many of my friends who have done their education firmly in the arts and humanities find more of a narrative/essay style to be easier for them. And that’s fine (unless the syllabus says otherwise. Have I mentioned reading the syllabus yet?) Just make sure it’s logically organized and isn’t rambling.
9) Paragraph Structure
Typically speaking, paragraphs should be about 6-10 sentences with an introductory sentence, body sentences, and a concluding sentence. Make sure each paragraph covers one concept, and each sentence covers just one idea. While there are always exceptions to this, it’s a good rule of thumb. If your paragraphs are shorter you may want to consider whether you’ve fully elaborated on your points, or if you should incorporate these ideas into a different paragraph that discusses the same concept. If your paragraphs are longer, perhaps you’re trying to include too many ideas into one paragraph or the sentences are repetitive.
Granted, I’m not good with this one. I am the worst self-editor. I used to just hand in my papers once I finished writing my conclusion.
One of my professors at Ryerson University used to say that not editing is like not putting on pants in the morning. You can put on a pressed shirt and be having the best hair day of your life, but you still aren’t wearing pants. The same goes with editing; you can present great ideas, but the person grading you can’t take you seriously because you aren’t wearing pants.
Reading your paper aloud can be a helpful editing technique. You can also get a peer or family member to look over your final draft. Those outside of your academic field are particularly helpful because they can let you know when something is unclear or if you’ve used too much jargon.
Editing should also include making sure your citations and reference list are correctly formatted. I use a reference manager for my papers (which I highly recommend), but they aren’t always 100% accurate. You still need to know the publication style so you can ensure everything is accurate (see tip 4). If you don’t use a reference manager, make sure everything cited actually appears in the reference list, and vice versa.