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Top Writing Tips For Graduate Students

I've been teaching in master's level programs for about eight years. In that time, I've taught 45+ unique courses, and I don't even know how many sections. Through these efforts I've encountered thousands of learners. I'm always amazed at the diversity in terms of background and perspective, and really embrace the idea that we can integrate all these different views into a single learning experience that creates more value for all those involved. It is a unique blend we almost never find at the undergraduate level, or even in corporate training environments.

Another place there is quite a bit of disparity is the degree to which students are prepared for graduate school. Some students come in with good undergraduate training, strong work experience and appropriate basic skills while others are much less prepared than they need to be. They may either lack the skills or the confidence to perform effectively at the graduate level.

One of the most common fears of graduate level students is writing. Nothing makes a grad school professor more nervous than when a learner says something like "I'm just not a very good writer." A large portion of your grade is based upon your ability to write clearly and effectively. This is particularly true for online programs where your grade is based not just on papers, but also on your ability to effectively participate in the online chat rooms, which are essentially mini-essays.

To help students who want some simple steps to improve their writing, I've come up with four writing tips that have proven to make a positive impact in this domain, and can help you become a better writer:

Writing Tip 1 - Learn to use Microsoft (MS) Word to its fullest ability

Most graduate programs require that assignments be submitted in MS Word. As such, it should be your default program. Some students will use OpenOffice and Google Docs, and they are OK, but there are a lot of features to MS Word that can make your writing projects much easier. The program has quite a few formatting tricks, including setting up your margins and headers, and running spelling and grammar checks. While some students can easily understand how to use a program like this from the manual, most need to see what is being done. There are classes that can be taken, or you can watch free videos on YouTube that clearly demonstrate how to use the different features of this program. If you set it up right it may do about 25 percent of the formatting and editing work for you.

Writing Tip 2 - Outline Your Work Before You Start Writing

I've found over the years that when most students say they are not good writers what they actually mean is they do not know process to follow. They sit down at the computer and take a train of thought approach and hope to be inspired to write their entire paper. This method doesn’t work for everyone. What I recommend students do first is to outline what they intend to write. This helps you make sure all the required components are present in your submissions and make sure you're not going off on any unnecessary tangents. You can expect to go through two or three revisions of your outline before you start writing. Once you create the outline, writing the details should be easier. In fact while this process seems to take longer up front, most students find it is actually faster once they get used to it.

Writing Tip 3 - Read Your Finished Product Out Loud To Yourself Once You're Done

I know this one sounds silly but hear me out. Two of the biggest issues with writing in grad school are typos and mis-phrasing. These issues happen because we know what we intend to say, but what comes out on the page is sometimes different. One way to catch a lot of these issues is to slowly read the papers out loud to yourself. While doing so, listen to the words carefully rather than the words that you think are on the page. As impractical as this might seem at first, it will usually catch about 70-80 percent of the misphrasings that one might miss on a regular proofread. To be honest I still do this for journal articles and important client reports.

Writing Tip 4 - Remember that in Grad School We Don't Just Say “What”

Writing in grad school is a very different type of writing than undergrad programs or business. We have to remember that at this level we don't just say “what”, but we have to talk about “how” and “why” as well. The reason for this difference is that at this level we are expected to demonstrate understanding and application of knowledge, not just show that we can absorb and regurgitate information. To illustrate this I like to use what I call the fire truck example... If we ask someone in an undergraduate program what color a fire truck is, they can say "red" and that is OK. If we were to ask someone in a graduate program to identify the color of a fire truck, they would need to not only say that it is red, but also discuss why it is red, why it isn't blue or green and how being red helps it do its job. This is how we demonstrate understanding and application.

Following these four writing tips will give you the basic tools to improve your writing with practice so that you can grow as you move through your graduate program. That improvement is an important part of personal growth and the graduate experience; more than the specific information we acquire.

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About the Author

Jimmy Brown, Ph.D. is a senior level management consultant with eighteen years of experience leading efforts to develop and implement practical strategies for business performance improvement. Dr. Brown has held senior level consulting positions at leading firms such as Booz-Allen & Hamilton, Accenture and Hewlett-Packard.

He can be reached at or via Twitter @jimmybrownphd