I was born into a crowded family. Up until I turned 6, we had been living in a village in the southeastern part of our country where we cultivated our land and looked after our flock. The only language I knew was Bakhtiari, which is different from Farsi, the lingua franca of Iran.
I remember waking up to this beautiful country morning and based on my recollection of previous days, I thought I’d have lots of fun on that day as well. However, that was a short-lived wish as I was told to pack up as we were moving house to Ahvaz, which turned to be my birthplace! I had no recollection of the city whatsoever. However, I learned that Ahvaz is the capital of the oil-rich Khuzestan province, and it proved itself to be a lively city for sure. Cars and people were everywhere in abundance. I was mesmerized by the unknown.
After we had moved in and settled down, I was told that I was going to school along with my elder brothers. Little did I know about schools and homework. At school, I heard different languages that later on were deciphered to me as Farsi and Arabic. At the time, a considerable percentage of the population in Ahvaz was Arabic speakers. In other words, it was expected to hear Arabic at school as many of my schoolmates were Iranian Arabs who would interact with each other in Arabic. Just like many other places in the world, where education is conducted in a certain language, classes were taught in the standard Farsi, which was all Greek to me. However, as I found myself in this new context, I had to adapt and adopt, which fruited in my learning Farsi.
With this little synopsis of my background, I aim to say that it takes effort and persistence to master new endeavours. In my personal life, writing in an academic setting was hard for me. Although I am a teacher and am in love with reading, I found academic writing a challenge as I did not know how to approach it appropriately. That is why I always make sure that my students know about essay structure and paragraph development. As long as we start from there, the rest will be easier to do.
Similar to stories that have a setting, theme, and a central message, academic writing also has its own framework. Thus, to write acceptably in an academic setting, one should follow the rubrics of academic writing. That is how I learned to write in an academic context. I learned that every academic essay should have an introduction, body paragraphs, and a conclusion.
To write an introduction, one should break the ice to the reader with enough and not too much information. When the ice is broken and the reader’s attention is directed toward the message that the writer intends to convey, it is time to present a thesis statement. See? It is a fancy word for the central meaning in your essay. Your thesis statement is the main argument that you are presenting for or against another argument and in the form of some paragraphs, called body paragraphs. Each body paragraph has a topic sentence or a central meaning. These central messages help develop the argument in the thesis statement from one or two angles in a structured fashion. Every topic sentence is supported by sentences, which are explanations, other writers’ ideas, and references to previous findings on the topic. These sentences are connected through transition words. When the writer feels they have made an acceptable argument on the topic, they draw a conclusion, which is the final section in an academic essay. A conclusion is a brief recount of the thesis and the highlights of the arguments made throughout the essay.
With that being said, I believe the takeaway of this short anecdote-essay is, just like the time I adapted myself to my new life as a child and adopted its new rules to usher myself around, academic writing can and will bring you joy when you learn to adapt and apply its rules. It is at that time that you will feel at home.
Odivi is a Ph.D. student in Education at UVic with a concentration in Indigenous Language Revitalization. He is also a certified English Teacher in Canada. He wrote his MA thesis on the study of moves and steps in Farsi and English Academic Recommendation Letters. Odivi taught English in Iran for 12 years. Before he came to Canada, he lived in Turkey where he taught English and IELTS to Turkish and international students.
Welcome new graduate students and welcome back returning students!
Writing is a big part of your work as a graduate student. Frequently we write alone, and that can feel isolating. Now that we are keeping our physical distance from one another, this sense of isolation can be profound. A great way to break out of isolation and kick-start your writing is to connect with your peers and write together and/or share your writing. Wendy Belcher, editor, teacher, and the author of Writing Your Journal Article in 12 Weeks, is a proponent of making your writing social, whether through involvement in a writing group or with a writing partner. Writing with others can allay writer’s block and other forms of anxiety, make you more productive, and help you feel connected to others.
If you’d like to start your own writing group, The Thesis Whisperer has some tips on how to start your own “Shut up and write” group (you can modify to create online or socially distanced meetings). Another resource—this one developed here at UVic—is The Thesis Writing Starter Kit, which can also be modified for online meetings.
If starting a writing group isn’t your thing, or if you simply want a pre-made writing group, why not join our virtual writing room on Wednesday afternoons? It’s a great way to set and accomplish small goals while writing in the (virtual) company of others. No registration required, just drop in on Wednesday afternoons between 2 and 4 p.m. (September 9-December 4). You can come in for all or part of the session. A tutor from the Centre for Academic Communication will be there to answer any questions and facilitate.
The process I went through as a teacher in Brazil to become a PhD candidate in the faculty of Education at the University of Victoria involved a series of steps. Learning about the procedures and formalities related to applying for both admission and for a student visa were certainly the ones that required the greatest amount of time and effort. In this post, I will share my journey related to figuring those steps out and reflect on the role of writing in succeeding in them.
I lost count of the hours I spent on UVic’s website reading about the graduate programs offered in Education and the requisites I needed to meet for admission. I soon found out I would have to contact a prospective supervisor and have their support before I could officially apply. The technical pieces I should consider for that first approach by email were clear to me due to the genre in question. I knew I would have to be mindful of audience, objectives, and language use. I had been working as a language teacher before that, and determining those elements was like preparing a lesson on writing. However, the challenge was dealing with questions whose answers, by that time, were not clear to me – What are my research interests? Why UVic? Why am I the right person for the position? What I knew then was that I would not be able to answer those questions before thinking about them thoroughly.
While tackling those interrogations, I started looking into the requirements to obtain a student visa to come to Canada. Since I decided to do the whole process without the help of an agency, there were numerous hours of exploring and learning before I was able to start the application process. Not surprisingly, I realized there would be a great deal of writing involved in this step as well. Nevertheless, unlike the email to my supervisor, the hardship here was not related to not knowing what to include; it had to do with genres I had never worked with before, which included financial reports. Luckily, I had been working with writing long enough to know where to look for help, but mastering a new genre can be a difficult task even to a proficient writer, especially when your first try at it is, perhaps, your only shot.
The main lesson I learned from this endeavor is that form and content are intrinsically related when it comes to writing. When writing to my future supervisor, I knew exactly how I should present my words. However, what to include and what to leave out required much reflection. As for the reports I had to attach to my visa application, I learned that one is not likely to be successful if not using the appropriate format required by a specific genre, even though when knowing exactly what pieces to include. Comparing that email and visa application to the assignments I have to do today as a graduate student, I can see how they are closely related. When today I struggle to figure out how to express my ideas, it is a sign I have to be better acquainted with the genre in question. When I am not sure about what to include in a writing piece, it is telling me I might need to read and reflect more about the topic. In both cases, going after and accessing resources is crucial.
I am a second year PhD student in the department of Curriculum and Instruction in the Faculty of Education at Uvic. My research interests involve digital literacies in the field of teacher education. I have a master’s degree in Education and a bachelor’s degree in English teaching, both received in Brazil, my home country. I have worked as an EAL teacher for the last fifteen years, which often included university students seeking to improve their communication skills and academic writing practices. As a tutor at the Centre for Academic Communication at UVic, I work toward sharing my experience to contribute to the academic journey of other students.
In graduate school, students are expected to write skillfully in their disciplines, yet explicit writing instruction via academic writing courses is rare at the grad level. Moreover, instructors are not often able to provide the intensive mentorship many students require, and if they can, such supervision “is costly and time consuming” (Dunleavy, 2003, p. 4). Tutors at the Centre for Academic Communication help to close this gap in grad student support by providing regular meetings to talk about writing, help to plan writing, and work on specific writing issues.
Grad students benefit from CAC tutors’ knowledge of and experience in graduate academic writing. Additionally, graduate students appreciate the continuity of support we offer. For example, one MA student finds that meetings with her busy supervisor are sporadic, but she can count on a weekly meeting with a tutor to check in. Another Master’s student (EAL) saves questions throughout the week and uses his time with a tutor to check vocabulary, syntax, meaning, and organization of his thesis in computer science, questions he deems inappropriate to ask his supervisor.
Students also appreciate the encouraging, non-judgmental approach we take during tutoring sessions. Writing at the graduate level involves developing a new scholarly identity, and this process can be fraught with anxiety and self-doubt. Students often feel reassured after meeting with a tutor because they realize they are on the right track. They can set goals and talk about how to be more productive—topics their supervisors may not have time to discuss.
Graduate students number over 3,000 at UVic, and they need academic writing support. With faculty members supervising multiple graduate students in addition to their teaching, research, and service commitments, the role of the Centre for Academic Communication has never been so important. Connect with us by creating an account online and booking an appointment with a tutor. Check out our spring schedule for tutoring, workshops, and other services. Come to the Grad Writing Room, Library 151B on Fridays from 10 to 1, where you write in community with others. Or just drop by and say hello. We’re located on the main floor of the Mearns Centre for Learning – McPherson Library. We’d love to see you.
Dunleavy, P. (2003). Authoring a PhD: How to plan, draft, write and finish a doctoral thesis or dissertation. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan.
In my last post, I wrote about the importance of learning new collocations through reading and listening activities. Now, I am going to discuss how to record, practice, and learn those new collocations in a way that you can easily use them in your writing and speaking.
You all might have learned new words and collocations that you either forget after a while or seldom use in your writing and speaking. There are probably a group of words and collocations that you frequently see in different texts, and each time you see them, you wonder what exactly they mean. You might have a vague idea, but you are never a hundred percent sure. Or maybe you recognize and understand the word or collocation upon seeing them, but you don’t seem to remember to use them in similar situations when you write or speak. These are very common issues for many EAL writers and speakers, and in the following paragraphs I am going to introduce some simple strategies to help you learn new words and collocations at a level that they become part of your subconscious knowledge and you can effortlessly use them.
The first step is to create a list where you record the new collocations and words that you come across while reading and listening. Many of you might have attempted this in the past: to keep a list of the new words you learn. But has it helped you learn those words better and remember them more easily? Having an effective way of recording information about newly-learned items is the first step in learning them well. I have seen word lists that stretch like two parallel trains; one train is the new words and the one next to it is the translations. This way of keeping new words is not very helpful. Firstly because translations cannot fully capture the meaning of a word or collocation. We can’t always draw parallels between two languages, and translations do not account for the context in which a word or collocation is used. The second reason why keeping translations is not effective is that it does not provide a meaningful learning opportunity, and therefore it is easier to forget the new word after a while. We need something that offers a deeper understanding of the new collocations, and this is why I recommend keeping example sentences instead of translations or definitions. An example sentence features the new word or collocation in context and provides a much better opportunity to both learn and remember it better.
I recommend my students keep three example sentences for each new word or collocation that they add to their list. The first is the original sentence in which they saw that word or collocation for the first time. The second one is a dictionary example, and the last one is a sentence they make. Keeping these three sentences helps you both understand the meaning of the new item and remember it better. You can also keep a definition from an English-to-English dictionary if necessary.
Here is a sample entry:
Imagine you have a conversation with your friend, Doug, who has been running a hipster hangout downtown for the past few years. Unfortunately for Doug, business hasn’t been looking good lately with the population of people with thick rimmed glasses and messy shag cuts on the decline. (This, obviously, can’t be true so don’t take it as a fact! I am just making stuff up for my example.) Before getting into the red and losing money, Doug decides to go out of business while the profits and costs still balance out. This is when he tells you the historic sentence: “I decided to close the restaurant. It only broke even last year.” If you don’t know what “break even” means, this is your golden opportunity to learn it. Even if you know what it means, but you don’t use it yourself, you can still use the chance to make this collocation a part of your active vocabulary. Recording this sentence allows you to learn the meaning of this collocation in context. In addition, you will always remember it with the story of Doug and the decline of his watering hole that was once bustling with cool people in colourful socks and tight-fitted jeans.
Even if you don’t have a story that you can attach to a new collocation, you can make one. Just like what I did with the story of my imaginary friend, Doug.
Writing up a short paragraph gives you a chance to spend some quality time with your collocation, building a narrative around it, adding fun details to it, and in this way making it more memorable.
In that paragraph, you can also use some of the collocations you have learned before. Can you locate some of the collocations that I inserted into my paragraph about Doug’s restaurant?
Keeping a list, however, is never enough, even if it consists of made-up, real-life, and dictionary examples. To make sure these new items enter your long-term memory, you need to review and practice them, and not just randomly; I think to get the best results, it is important to have a system. One recommendation is to pledge a specific number of new items for each week when you can focus and work on those words and collocations. For example, you can decide that you read for 25 minutes every day and pick at least two useful collocations from every reading session (see my previous post on how to identify useful collocations in reading passages). In this way, you will have 14 new collocations by the end of the week. Then you can focus on reviewing those 14 new collocations the following week (while keeping reading and finding new items for the subsequent week). For reviewing, all you need to do is to remember the sentences in which the new words and collocations are used. If you can’t remember the sentence, you can look at your list and review by reading the example sentences. The reviewing part can also be a little organized. You can focus on the first sentence for all your 14 new collocations on the first two days of the week and then move on to the second and third sentences on the next four days. In this way, you will be reviewing your new items six times a week, going back to each item in a new sentence every two days. Finally, you can review all 14 items on the last day of the week.
This is not time-consuming at all, since you don’t have to set dedicated time aside for reviews. All you need to do is repeat the sentences in your head during the day. You can do it while taking a walk, waiting in line, or doing daily chores. If you don’t remember the sentence, you just need a glance to remind you of the sentence. Moreover, as you head into next weeks, keep an eye out for the items from previous weeks. If you keep reading regularly, you will encounter those words and collocations again in new texts. Every time you come across one of your old items, go back to your list and put a check mark next to the entry. Once you have at least three check marks next to your entry, you can be more confident that you will not forget it.
The next step is to insert the newly-learned words and collocations into your speaking and writing. Have a plan to write a short essay every two weeks and use the new items from the past weeks in it. Also, you can prepare a short speaking using the new collocations and present it during a one-on-one session at the CAC. Don’t wait for opportunities to reveal themselves to you; instead, create chances where you can use the new words and collocations deliberately.
It is also a good idea to review your whole list every month. You will find that there are still words or collocations that you do not have complete mastery over. Write them down on a separate piece of paper and stick it somewhere you can always see. Put it on your fridge or next to your monitor, and in this way, you can review these stubborn words and collocations every time you open the fridge or get a chance to use some of them as you are writing at your desk.
My final tip on this subject is about access: where should you keep your list for the most convenient access? What if you are waiting in line in Biblio and want to take a glance at your list to remember a sentence? In the past, I kept my lists in notebooks, which is not the most accessible format. I most probably won’t have my notebook with me when I am taking a walk or standing in line. For a while, I kept my lists in Word files, which was better, but still I had difficulty copying them from device to device. My final solution is to keep my lists on a cloud-based note-taking app. There are several such apps out there that allow you to keep, organize, and update your notes in a space that automatically uploads them to a cloud server. I use Evernote because I think it offers great options to organize your notes. On Evernote, you can create notebooks and keep several notes in the same notebook. You can also group notebooks together under a single topic. This is especially useful if you keep multiple lists, which I recommend. Based on where you find your new collocations, you can have different lists for formal, informal, and academic words and collocations. You can also keep collocations that you have seen before (but can’t quite use) in a separate notebook. Beside allowing you to organize your notes in different notebooks, Evernote synchronizes your data across different devices (you can install it on iOS, Android, and Windows), and you can also access them through your web browser on any device.
Of course, this is only one of many apps where you can keep your lists. Or maybe you want to go old school and stick to the good old paper notebooks. As long as you regularly add to, review, and use your new words and collocation, you will continue to learn and grow as a writer and speaker. In the end, I believe what is most important is that you have purpose, enthusiasm, and a clear plan to add to and expand your vocabulary. So let’s get started. What is the next new collocation you are learning?
Kaveh Tagharobi has two MA degrees in English, the second one completed at UVic in 2017 with a concentration in Cultural, Social, and Political Thought (CSPT). Before starting to work at the CAC in 2013, he was an ESL/EFL instructor for 10 years in Iran, teaching a variety of topics to high school, undergraduate, and graduate students. At the CAC, Kaveh works with both international and domestic students, helping them to plan their research, organize their writing, edit for grammar, and improve their reading and critical thinking skills.
Have you heard any of these complaints? Or rather, have you been making them yourself? If so, you are not alone. Many EAL (English as an Additional Language) and non-EAL students find themselves in situations where they feel their academic vocabulary is “just not enough.” Whether prompted by feedback received from instructors and peers or just driven by the desire to impress our readers, we always have this urge to use “different,” “more difficult,” or “more academic” words in our writing. English language is also inviting us to do so. According to the Oxford Dictionaries website, “there are, at the very least, a quarter of a million distinct English words,” and “if distinct senses were counted, the total would probably approach three quarters of a million.” This is more than almost any other language. These statistics alone put a huge pressure on student writers to expand their vocabulary and use a variety of words in their writing. But is this a reasonable expectation, and does using new words always lead to better academic writing?
Let’s consider the following sentence written by an EAL student:
“An illustration of this is the school system, which is one of the main sources of distributing cultural capital.”
At the Centre for Academic Communication, I often see sentences like this. At a first glance, such sentences can be confusing because of their word choice, but with a closer look, it becomes evident that the student has tried to replace a word with a synonym that does not quite work in this context. In the above sentence, the word “illustration” has replaced “example” to avoid repetition. Repetition is something many student writers are concerned about, and rightly so. Academic writing often puts us in situations where we have to repeat the same words over and over again. It is just natural that we prefer not to repeat the same words several times in a short chunk of writing. This reluctance is also enhanced by negative feedback most writers receive about repetition. Another reason words like “example” don’t always get much love is that they are thought to be “too simple.” But is there anything inherently “simple” about the word “example”? It could be that it is shorter than a word like “illustration” and is not an obvious derivative with a formal-sounding suffix. But in reality, what probably makes “example” look simple is the fact that we know it too well; we use it too commonly for it to qualify as a “hard” word, which brings us full circle to the issues of repetition and variety in writing.
But whether these poor “simple” words get discarded for the accusations of simplicity or repetition, what is certain is that many of our students identify the need to have more options when writing. What many student writers and especially EAL writers overlook, however, is that not all synonyms can be used interchangeably. In fact, many synonyms that can be found in thesauri or through MS Word are just similar words that cannot simply replace the original word in the sentence. In such situations, I recommend my students to stick with the words they know rather than trying to add variety to their writing. Common words are common for a reason: they are good words! And repetition is not always bad; it can be a way to consolidate meaning and create consistency. This can be a safe option, but what if they want to improve their writing by using a variety of sentence structures? This is a legitimate need, and there must be a way for it.
This is when I suggest learning academic phrases and sentence structures instead of learning new words.
As counterintuitive as it may sound, learning new “difficult” words is not a priority in improving your academic writing. In my opinion, learning “old” and “simple” word combinations is much more important.
While the previous statistic from OED estimates English words to be at about 750 thousand, other statistics show that of all these words, only a very small percentage are used in everyday writing. The general consensus is that only about 3000 words cover 95% of common texts like newspapers, blogs, and most books. That is only 0.4% of the number OED quotes as the total number of words in English. This means that in order to master the use of words in writing, learning new words like “contumacious” and “gasconading” is not as important as learning how to combine more familiar words such as “for,” “boastful,” “respect,” “in,” “lack,” and “manner.” (see the end for a fun quiz!) Or to return to our example, finding synonyms like “specimen” and “exemplar” (words that are listed as synonyms for “example”) does not necessarily help us with finding alternatives. It is the use of old words like “true” and “case” that makes the difference between intermediate and advanced level writing. Using these words, our student writer could have written the following sentence as a variation of their sentence:
“This is certainly true in the case of schools which are one of the main sources of distributing cultural capital.”
But where do these combinations come from? How can student writers learn such academic phrases and add them to their repertoire of active vocabulary? We certainly cannot just make new collocations ourselves. Learning a language is one of the very few areas of knowledge in which being inventive is not always a recipe for success. Surprisingly, here, imitation and copying are more fruitful ways of learning and improving. We have to have encountered a certain arrangement of words to be able to reproduce it in our writing.
Therefore, my first suggestion to learn new collocations is to look for them in other people’s texts. Instead of going to vocabulary books or resources that introduce phrases and collocations, you can look for, notice, and try to learn such collocations while reading and listening. Academic articles, books, lectures, and more general texts like news articles, podcasts, and even daily conversations are great sources to find and learn new collocations, phrases, and sentence structures. This can make learning new collocations part of your daily routine without the need for setting aside dedicated time for it. You can form a habit to treat your daily reading and listening activities as learning opportunities to expand your vocabulary circle.
But to do this, first you need to develop an eye for finding useful collocations in written and spoken texts. In other words, you have to learn how to identify word combinations that might look ordinary at the first glance but are in fact specific arrangements of words that you would not normally use in your writing. To give you an example, look at this short excerpt from an academic article on Digital Humanities:
“This essay traces some of the ways modernism and digital humanities have converged of late. It covers some of the key modes in which that convergence has so far found expression.”
They seem like a couple of normal-looking sentences with apparently no “difficult” or “fancy” words. However, with a closer look, you can notice that the authors have used the words “of” and “late” to mean “recently.” This is a very simple word combination; but despite its simplicity, it is an arrangement that an EAL writer would not necessarily know or use. Similarly, the words “found” and “expression”, two more seemingly “easy” words, have constituted a collocation that can replace words like “show,” “demonstrate,’ or “manifest,” all words that student writers overuse and would want to find synonyms for. With more attention, it becomes evident that the collocation “find expression” is used with the preposition “in” and is followed by a noun, but in this sentence, the preposition and the noun have moved before the verb. Therefore, the complete expression that we should extract from this sentence is “to find expression in something.” As you see, this requires attention and bit of experience, but with some practice, you can easily mine valuable collocations by just analyzing ordinary-looking sentences.
Finally, remember that the type and usage of the collocations you find will vary based on the sources where you find them. What you will find in a magazine article or a podcast can be fairly informal and suitable for daily situations. In the same way, if you review academic texts, like journal articles and books, you are more likely to find collocations that are useful for your academic writing.
So far, we discussed the ways to identify new collocations in others’ texts. In a next blog post, I will talk about developing a system to record, practice, and finally master the newly-learned collocations.
And now is the time for this post’s quick quiz. What sentences would you make with the “simple” words “for,” “boastful,” “respect,” “in,” “lack,” and “manner” I proposed to use instead of “contumacious” and “gasconading”? Comment on this post if you want to play!
 Fry, E. B., 1925, & Kress, J. E. (2006). The reading teacher’s book of lists (5th, 1st ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
 Ross, S., & Sayers, J. (2014). Modernism meets digital humanities. Literature Compass, 11(9), 625-633. doi:10.1111/lic3.12174
Credit for photo of books: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:Alborzagros#/media/File:English-English_and_English-Persian_dictionaries.JPG
Kaveh Tagharobi has two MA degrees in English, the second one completed at UVic in 2017 with a concentration in Cultural, Social, and Political Thought (CSPT). Before starting to work at the CAC in 2013, he was an ESL/EFL instructor for 10 years in Iran, teaching a variety of topics to high school, undergraduate, and graduate students. At the CAC, Kaveh works with both international and domestic students, helping them to plan their research, organize their writing, edit for grammar, and improve their reading and critical thinking skills.
Grammar not your strong suit? You’re not the only one. At the Centre for Academic Communication, almost half of those who use the centre identify “writing grammatically correct sentences” and editing their own work as a challenge, and some variation of “grammar help” or “grammar checking” is one of the most common requests our tutors receive.
With the rapid expansion of technology available, I wanted to know if there was a tool that could help writers identify their errors and fix them. I knew already, from over 10 years of teaching English as an additional language, that translation programs and other tools have come a long way, and I set out to find something that might at least act as a complement to the instruction and feedback that a tutor or instructor can provide. It’s not usually possible for a human to read and give feedback on an entire thesis, and the limit for tutoring at the CAC is 50 minutes per week. Might there be a miracle product out there that could alert writers to at least some of their most common mistakes, so that tutors and professors can focus on higher order concerns and content, instead of nit-picking at punctuation and missing plural “s” issues? I submitted a proposal about online grammar checkers for the Vancouver Island BCTEAL conference, and began my research. What follows is based on my conference presentation from February 2018.
First, I made a list of the most widely referenced grammar and writing checkers available, and eliminated any that weren’t free or suited to academic writing. My final list included Ginger (http://www.gingersoftware.com/grammarcheck), Scribens (https://www.scribens.com/), Virtual Writing Tutor (https://virtualwritingtutor.com/), PaperRater (https://www.paperrater.com/), and, of course, Grammarly (https://www.grammarly.com/). I also tested the advanced functions of Microsoft Word. In order to get an idea of the types of writing that might benefit from use of these tools, I tested them using two writing samples: one was a former student’s TOEFL writing test (good overall, with some grammatical issues), and one was my own proposal for the BCTEAL conference (graduate-level writing, I hope!).
Did I find what I was looking for? Well, yes and no. I did find a few useful features that I hadn’t previously known about, but I didn’t find anything that would accurately flag or correct a lot of the types of errors in grammar and punctuation that many writers tend to make. In high-level writing, too, the tools tended to introduce more new errors than they caught existing ones, which is a problem I had anticipated.
Among the most useful findings was Virtual Writing Tutor’s “Check Vocabulary” feature, which identifies and lists words that make your paper seem “academic” or “conversational.” This might be a good option if you’re struggling with finding an academic tone or your writing is too informal. The “Check Grammar” tool also caught a number of errors in the EAL student writing sample and suggested mostly accurate revisions, but could not distinguish between the word “style” as a verb and as a noun in my writing and offered a revision that would have been incorrect. I had high hopes for this tool’s “Paraphrase Checker,” but it was completely useless: two 100% identical sentences were only identified as being 68% the same.
Paper Rater also revealed a few interesting features: It can be adjusted for the type of writing you’re doing and for grade level, and gives a “grade” and some feedback. Although I wouldn’t recommend relying on this as an indicator of the grade a professor would assign, Paper Rater gave my writing 95% and my student’s writing 75%, and I thought these grades were more or less appropriate. Ignore the letter grades though! They don’t seem to correspond to any grading scale I’m familiar with. Paper Rater is also great for assessing the variety in your sentence beginnings, telling you if your vocabulary is “academic,” and reporting on use of the passive voice. Overall, I can see this tool being useful for high-level writers who want to get a sense of the general quality and patterns of their work.
As for the others, Ginger was pretty useless and introduced errors that weren’t there to begin with. It doesn’t do much if you don’t pay to upgrade it, and based on what I saw with the free version I wouldn’t recommend doing that. Scribens was able to do a few basic tasks, such as identify long sentences, but did the most ridiculous things with vocabulary suggestions. Should I change “communicate with different people and use modern technology” to “communicate with peculiar people and exploit modern technology”? These were options suggested, and I think this feature would be potentially catastrophic to writers without an unwaveringly confident grasp of English vocabulary and usage.
Grammarly is also available in a free and paid version. I used the free one and installed it in Word, and relied on Grammarist’s (http://grammarist.com/articles/grammarly-review/) review of the paid version as a comparison. Although Grammarly is probably the best-known and most widely used grammar checker available, both Grammarist and I found it limited for a number of reasons. Grammarly’s rigorous testing revealed a 72% accuracy with 43 items of grammar and style. It scored very highly for style, but not grammar, and I also found that it introduced errors and could not assess words that functioned as two different parts of speech, like “style.” Its plagiarism checker was also useless: although it knew that two identical pieces were identical, it gave the same paragraph a thumbs-up when just a few words were changed.
And finally, although I love Word’s ability to check (very accurately) for passive voice and long sentences, and to assess readability, it isn’t good for many grammatical issues. The advanced checking tools can be activated in “Proofing” options. Word’s default is usually to check only “grammar” and not “grammar and style,” which is easy to fix.
In the end, then, while I did find some options that I might recommend to students with specific issues (e.g., sentences beginning with “It is…”, non-academic tone, or overuse of passive voice), for many writers I think better options include peer review or a visit to the CAC for an assessment of most frequent errors. Once you know what you’re looking for, “Find and Replace” can work miracles! For writers who wish to improve their grammatical accuracy, some of these tools might be a good place to start, but be careful not to get overwhelmed. If you can, focus on just one or two types of errors at a time, and remember that good writing skills take time to cultivate and lots of dedicated practice and feedback.
Gillian is an English as an Additional Language Specialist at UVic and a PhD student in Education. Her background is in English literature, and she has been teaching English, first in South Korea and now in Canada, for over ten years.
Writing is a journey. It is an emotional, physical, and psychological journey graduate students have to be willing to take to get to that state of academic fulfillment. For many of us, it is one of the most difficult journeys to take, and we rarely experience true contentment with the final product, but still we press on. My life, like writing, is a journey, and a constant reference point of why I should write. After travelling thousands of miles with two toddlers to do my PhD, it is a journey I am now fully committed to whether I am ready or not! Writing my dissertation in a timely manner is the journey I must take that justifies uprooting my family to pursue a degree. I am among the myriad students who experience this crippling fear of giving up everything to move to another province or country to pursue higher education. But this blog post does not dwell on the challenges, rather on how to overcome these and move beyond the typical excuses of “why I can’t write” to actually writing. It looks at how we can carve out spaces in our very busy lives to meet the demands of writing as a graduate student and ultimately accomplish our goals.
On my journey as a writer, PhD candidate, tutor, and instructor, I have learned a few lessons, albeit not necessarily from academic scholars, that have supported my writing.
The first lesson I have learned is that we all need a supportive community of writers. We need colleagues who are experiencing similar challenges and successes to support us. I have two supportive communities for my writing. First, I meet monthly with a group of international students to share our graduate experiences including writing. Many of us within the group struggle to balance family and writing demands for projects, conferences, and journals. In these sessions, we share tips, sources, and strategies that are useful in helping us to achieve our writing targets for the month. The Centre for Academic Communication (CAC) is one resource we continually refer to as a strong support for our writing. This group is most useful in encouraging me to stay on track and reminds me I am not alone–which is key to graduate work that can be so isolating.
Another supportive writing community is the “Shut up and Write” sessions co-created by Linda Edworthy and myself. This is a concept originating from the San Francisco Bay area in which graduate students are encouraged to meet for two hours each week to simply write. Five minutes are allotted after each 25-minute writing session to engage your fellow writers in discussion. These intense writing sessions have been incredibly useful in getting me to really zone in on my research topic, build on original ideas, and synthesize content.
The second lesson that I have learned is to be fearless with your writing. Take risks–it will strengthen you as a writer. Surprisingly this revelation came from my older son whom I watch adapt to a new way of life in a different country with such zest and openness. While he struggled a bit with contextual differences and communicating, it never stopped him. He wakes up each day just as enthusiastic as the day before to learn and try new things, and soon I see him blossom into this confident, sociable, and thriving student. At this point, I think to myself, why not approach my writing with the same level of enthusiasm and fearlessness? So what if I fail at it sometimes? So what if I write an entire draft and someone says, “I don’t get it”? What does this mean for me? It means it is not a critique of me as a person, but my writing. It means I will have to be open to criticism and suggestions if I truly intend to grow as a writer. I will face rejection from journals and other institutions, but it is no excuse not to write. It is by writing that I will hone my skills. The moral of this, we should not burden ourselves with the thought of being perfect writers at all times. If you have a story or point of view to share, go ahead and share it. Your work is important, and your writing is your avenue to do that. Feeding into your fear will not only deprive you of the benefits of sharing your work, but your colleagues who would have profited from your insights. Many of my colleagues in my home country thought I was a bit crazy to move my family over 3000 miles to pursue a PhD. It may have been a crazy thought, but if there is one thing I have learned from this journey, it is you have to be willing to take risks. It was quite risky asking my husband to give up his flourishing career for five years to support my educational pursuits and most certainly risky moving with my two young sons not knowing how they will adjust to life in another country. But what is a journey without some risks? The same principle applies to writing; we have to take risks sometimes, put our writing out there for others to see what we are doing and not let our fears of the unknown cripple us. Often, we are so petrified at the thought of sharing our writing with others, we fail even to begin the process.
Writing this blog is certainly one way I am conquering my fear of sharing my writing. Here I am sharing my failures and triumphs with my own writing. I am hoping this will encourage you to break free from your own writing shackles.
Finally, I would say one of the most important lessons I have learned is to avoid the trap of complacency. While it has been difficult balancing family, school, and work, I have learned and am still learning that it is important to set aside time to write daily and commit to it. I have never missed one of the writing meetings with any of the groups. This commitment allows me to get some writing done, which is critical to my growth as a graduate student. I have also learned to be intentional about my writing and set goals so I am motivated to do so and not become complacent. I realize that the optimum time for me to write is at 10 pm when everyone is in bed. Hence, my goal each night is to commit at least 2 hours of writing to either my research or any publication I may be working on. Having these set targets force me to get the writing done, even when I would rather sleep. My constant reminder is that my journey is not mine alone, but that of my family as well.
Whatever your journey may be, you have to carve your own path to academic writing success. It does take work, but as is proven by many before us, it is achievable. While these are some of the strategies I use, there is a multiplicity of support systems for graduate students’ writing. It is important to find what works for you and commit yourself to doing it.
I am from the beautiful and welcoming island, Jamaica. I attained both my Bachelor in Education (Language & Literature) and Masters in Education (Language & Literacy) at the University of the West Indies, Jamaica. I have been a teacher of English and Literature for 14 years and Lecturer for over 6 years. I am currently a PhD student in the Faculty of Education, Department of Curriculum and Instruction with special interests in language and literacy. My research focuses on four Jamaican adolescent boys’ (from low income families) almost exclusive use of Jamaican Creole (JC) and the impact on their academic success in a selected school in Jamaica, a country that only recognizes English as its official language in spite of the fact that 92% of the population experience great difficulty speaking it and the same percentage are fluent JC speakers.
The word abstract is a bit confusing. When I looked up this word in the dictionary, I found the first definition is for the adjective, to do with “thought rather than matter, or in theory rather than practice; not tangible or concrete.” Thus an abstract concept, such as love, good, or evil, has no physical referent. The noun definition is “a summary of or statement of the contents of a book.” When you write an abstract for an article, thesis, or conference, you are “abstracting” (a rarely used verb form of the word, meaning to extract or pull out) some key bits from the whole. Yet contrary to the adjectival meaning of the word (non-concrete), it’s a good idea not to be too “abstract” when writing your abstract! An abstract abstract is likely to be ineffective because your goal is to deliver a clear picture of your research in your reader’s mind, and abstract language won’t do that. When you have only a few words to say a great deal, you had better be as concrete as possible in order to deliver your purpose to the reader directly.
I am a big fan of Thomson and Kamler’s four-move abstract described in Detox Your Writing: Strategies for Doctoral Researchers (available as an e-book in our library). Their model works well for all types of abstracts, and it can also be used to kick-start your writing. Thomson and Kamler write that the abstract is not a summary—it’s actually an “argument, writ small,” and it must contain your central argument in abstracted form. You might say, “Well mine is a computer science article—I don’t really have an argument.” I imagine T & K would respond that any piece of academic writing can be abstracted into an argument. You are trying to persuade the reader that your computer science finding/development/algorithm contributes to the research/makes a difference in some way. And that’s an argument. Here are Thomson and Kamler’s moves; please refer to the chapter “Learning to argue” (pp. 83–106) in Detox Your Writing for more information and samples of ineffective/effective abstracts.
LOCATE: this means placing your paper in the context of the discipline community and the field in general. Larger issues and debates are named and potentially problematized. In naming the location, you are creating a warrant for your contribution and its significance, as well as informing an international community of its relevance outside of its specific place of origin.
FOCUS: this means identifying the particular questions, issues or kinds of problems that your paper will explore, examine and/or investigate.
REPORT: this means outlining the research, sample and/or method of analysis in order to assure readers that your paper is credible and trustworthy, as well as the major findings that are pertinent to the argument to be made.
ARGUE: this means opening out the specific argument through offering an analysis. This will move beyond description and may well include a theorisation in order to explain findings. It may offer speculations, but will always have a point of view and take a stance. It returns to the opening Locate in order to demonstrate the specific contribution that was promised at the outset. (Thomson & Kamler, 2016, p. 92)
The authors encourage you to keep writing and rewriting your abstract throughout the broader writing process; each time, you will refine it further. Try preparing a draft abstract of your article/thesis, regardless of the stage you are at. You’ll be surprised at how it focuses your writing and cements your motivation. I’ve had more than one student tell me it worked to get them writing again after a dry spell.
Call for graduate student blog post writers!
A huge thank you to all of our student writers so far this year: Kaveh Tagharobi, Russell Campbell, Kate Ehle, Marta Bashovski, Cindy Quan, Jonathan Faerber, and Arash Isapour. Your writing resonated with so many of your fellow graduate students. Thank you for taking the time to craft wonderful posts and share your experience.
We need more student writers for the 2017/2018 academic year, so please consider writing for us. We need students from different disciplines and backgrounds and at various stages of study to volunteer to write for the blog. Your topic can be anything related to academic communication and graduate students; see the guidelines here. If you feel uncertain that your writing skills are sufficient to the task, please make an appointment with me email@example.com I’ll be happy to coach you on how to improve your draft until we are both happy with it. As Peter Elbow says, “Everybody can write.”
Additionally, we need some specific topics covered this year, and perhaps one of these attracts you:
The “thesis by publication” or article-based dissertation. This model, popular in the sciences and social sciences, requires that you write three or more “publishable” articles (plus weave them into a whole with intro/conclusion). Although the book-length dissertation is still with us, the article-based version is definitely a trend in our university, and I’d love somebody to write about it. Are you a student who is following this model or considering it?
Writing in different disciplines. Perhaps you are writing an interdisciplinary thesis, dissertation, or article and you need to negotiate with supervisors from various faculties. How’s that going for you? We would love to hear from you if you’ve had this experience or you have written in different disciplines (say, you did your MA or MSc in one area and are doing your PhD in a different one). What have you learned about disciplinary differences in writing?
Communicating with your supervisor. Okay, this may seem elementary, but some of us have struggled for hours to craft communication with supervisors or other professors. EAL students unfamiliar with the Canadian university context may find this especially difficult. Would you like to write about this challenge and some strategies that have worked for you?
Don’t want to write, but want to read about something in particular? Please email me to suggest a specific blog post topic: firstname.lastname@example.org.
We are taking a break for August, and the next post will be published in mid-September. Happy summer everybody, and thank you for reading the blog.
The moment I received my admission letter from UVic, I experienced a weird feeling of anxiety, which was a combination of happiness and stress. Right off the bat, I can continue my educational career at the Ph.D. level, but at the same time, this Ph.D. fella felt the duty to come to grips with his academic flaws which are gathered under one title: language.
As a Theatre History student, I am aware that everything I’m dealing with is under the shadow of my English language abilities, including academic and literary writing, reading (not just journals or mathematical articles), speaking (not just at parties or for dating but for being a part of the interaction in a methodology class), and listening (not to Roger Waters’ new album but to a fast speaking English professor whose tongue takes you to the 18th century). And by the way, language is not just language, it is considered as a conveyor of culture.
As you can see, during my first days at UVic, I encountered all the aforementioned challenges at the same time with not even an epsilon of exaggeration. It was not just at the university but everywhere else I went. The neighborhood I am living in looks like a Hobbit village (Oak Bay). Not only were the people smiling at me but also the dogs. In public places, from groceries to banks, from standing at bus stops to sitting in non-stopping buses, people started conversations, and what I gave back was a smile, pretending as if I deeply got what they said, but I did not. The interesting thing was that they were not surprised by seeing me speak like a Martian, in other words like E.T. So, unexpectedly, I saw myself plunged into all these states. My first class was a methodology course in which the sweet, energetic professor wanted us to read books and essays by critical thinkers from Frye to Nietzsche, from Freud to Kristeva, from Hegel to Marx (my beloved), from McLuhan to Fredric Jameson (The reader killer, even for English speaking folks). I not only had to read and grasp all these frameworks but also had to discuss my opinions on them in class, each session. For the first days, the phrase “HOLY SMOKES” kept playing in my mind. I started recording the prof’s voice in class and tried to talk during class, despite the fact that I knew most of my words would make no damn sense, and those people were really looking at me as if they were saying “What in heaven’s name is he talking about!?” My self-esteem started to tremble as “The Earth Trembles” (My favorite Italian Movie).
In this dilemma, I had to choose either the easy way—let it go to any direction it wants to like the wind—or the hard and better way—stand still and choose my own path even if it is against the stream. I might still be a successful Ph.D. student in the arts and humanities if I select the first, but I would definitely be a prosperous and industrious scholar from the beginning if I choose the second. In other words, when you find yourself in the uncomfortable zone, you either choose to surrender and pull back or challenge whatever jams you up. The first would be like a boring love story movie, and the second would be like an unpredictable romantic movie, such as “La La Land.”
So what I did was a bunch of silly sounding stuff that works:
I asked my sweet landlady to correct me whenever I speak, and she happily accepted to be my home teacher (which is free). And because she is from the 70s, I have learned a lot of nice expressions and am still learning. An example would be what people said when it was the first of May starting with “Hooray, hooray, it’s the first of May . . . . ” As you can see, I am learning a new culture, not just language in a technical way.
I carry a notebook with me wherever I go to write down whatever I hear from people in public places, see on the walls, hear from movies, TV series, and everything I need to learn while I’m reading something, from a book to an article, even if it is about my own country’s political and social news.
I make ten sentences with the new words to memorize them.
I read novels and stories in English that I have always wanted to read but never had time to. Now it has become a constant five-gold-star mandatory pleasure.
I go to the Centre for Academic Communication at the McPherson Library and try to learn everything I know about writing based on the papers I write. I share whatever I am confused about the language and ask as many questions as I need to ask, even if they make me look like a dummy, which might be cute.
I try not to meet too many people from my own nation, obliging me to speak English in order to keep the dynamic of my training zone. Remember, the more you are in the training zone, the more you improve in your career.
If you keep doing all these in an organized manner, gradually you will see yourself overcoming barriers. And you move to the next level of improvements. Yeah! It is exactly like a video game. But keep it steady and be patient. Some of these things are not new; you just have to deal with your daily jobs (e.g., reading news, watching movies, going out with friends), but you ought to use only the secondary language for all of these, except in one case: when you are speaking with your parents.
Arash Isapour arrived in Victoria in January 2017 from Tehran. He is a PhD student at UVic’s Phoenix Theatre. Besides being literature-crazy, he is a film buff, in other words a walking movie database.