Write Like a Graduate Student

While talking with a friend recently about his writing, he confessed that he didn’t know any other way to write. He asked me to show him another way and I’ve decided to take him up on the challenge.

In thinking about his style, I realized that he was writing like a journalist; unfortunately he wasn’t a journalism student. When asked to write about a paper he read, he tended to give the who-what-where-when version of events:

Smith and his team at Harvard reported in their 1932 paper that pigs can indeed fly. Smith says that while watching airplanes taking off at the local aerodrome, they saw pigs flying overhead. He reports their shock at the sudden appearance. Johnson’s paper says they too found flying pigs in 1937.

In each sentence he wrote, the subject was the author or the author’s paper. I see this often in students’ writing and believe it happens because students are usually asked to read paper X by author Y and to write about it. That is, teachers make the mistake of asking students about the paper (“what did you think of the ‘Wombats eat Earth’ paper?”) or about the author (“what did you think of Smith?”), rather than about the ideas (“what is the common theme among this week’s readings and how is it reflected in each piece?”).

Strong academic writing more typically favors the statement of ideas, followed by evidence offered in support with attribution relegated to citations and footnotes:

Pigs were first observed flying near aerodromes almost 80 years ago (Smith, 1932). The buzzing of airplane turbines was later found to attract the flying animals (Johnson, 1937). Although no other sightings of flying pigs have been reported in respected academic journals, repeated analyses of photographs of those early observations have failed to find any evidence of tampering (Yu, 1975; Tau, 1983; Appleton, 1992).

The preferred general form, then, is: Claim -> Evidence -> Evidence -> Evidence -> Transition

Writing like a grad student means seeing beyond the obvious organization of topics (I read 3 papers, so I’ll write 3 summaries) to be able to see themes, relationships, weaknesses, and unexplored areas in the works.

(Note: All citations in this article are fictitious.)