Gillian, Nancy, and Madeline share one tip each. We hope you find them useful.
How to get started with a writing genre or assignment that’s new to you
If you’ve been asked to write an “annotated bibliography,” “summary,” or “critical analysis,” and these types of assignments are unfamiliar, there are TONS of resources and samples online to guide you. Search “how do I write a…” and choose sites that end in “.edu” (American universities) or that belong to Canadian or UK universities. YouTube can also be a great “how to” resource. Another option is to ask an AI tool, like ChatGPT to show you what that type of assignment looks like. It can’t access a lot of the information and sources that you can, and doesn’t have any critical thinking skills, but it can serve as a good starting point and show you what kind of language is standard for the genre and type of assignment.
How to write the final sentence of your paper
I struggle with writing the final sentence in the conclusion of a paper. Over time, I’ve learned a few strategies from observing other writers. Strategy #1: Make a prediction: Explain what might be gained or what might happen if your argument is heard or your solution is enacted. Strategy #2: Complete the circle. Return to the first sentence of your introduction and highlight the connection or show the impact of your discussion. If you began with a question, what is the answer? If you started with a gap in knowledge, what information has emerged? Strategy #3: Briefly comment on a broad implication or next step. Who could join the conversation? What small direction might the research take? Who knows? Maybe following these strategies will work for you, too.
How to ensure your language is inclusive, empowering, and respectful
Language is constantly evolving. We are aware of how language can oppress and marginalize, and we are committed to writing in a way that is respective and inclusive. Pronoun identification, people-first language around disability, inclusive vocabulary to describe people experiencing homelessness (instead of “the homeless”): These are just a few language shifts we’ve seen in recent years. If you are writing a paper, thesis, article, or dissertation and want to check that you are writing in a conscious style, you may want to consult this guide: https://consciousstyleguide.com/
For a very long time, writing a single book-length manuscript was the only way to complete a PhD. In the past few decades, however, the traditional manuscript-style dissertation has been recognized as somewhat of a “strange” and “ungeneralizable” genre: its audience is limited, and dissertation-writing skills are minimally transferable to the real world (Duke & Beck, 1999). The possibilities for variation in dissertation structures and genres has quietly expanded, and other options are becoming more acceptable and even preferred (see, for example, Anderson et al., 2020; Anderson & Okuda, 2021; Anderson et al., 2021; Dong, 1998; Paltridge, 2002; Paltridge and Starfield, 2020; Paltridge et al., 2012; Paré, 2019; Thomas et al., 2016).
You have options! One of those is the “article-based” dissertation, also known as the “manuscript-style” dissertation, or “dissertation by publication.” In the sciences, a lot of dissertations are now completed by publication—as many as 40%—and in the field of education, around 10–15% of dissertations might contain at least some published or publishable work.
Here, I’ll weigh some pros and cons of writing your dissertation in this genre and attempt to answer some questions you may have if you’re considering this structure. As always, you should consider which format best suits your research questions, methodology, and discipline, and consult with your supervisor about how to proceed.
What is an article-based dissertation?
An article-based dissertation consists of several articles (usually three or four, but I’ve heard of there being as many as nine) that either have already been published during the course of a student’s PhD studies, or are ready to publish. The PhD candidate should be the first author or first co-author, if co-authorship is permitted (but this varies across disciplines, so check with your supervisor first if you’re considering co-writing any parts of your dissertation). Each article should be a stand-alone document that can be understood independently from the rest of the dissertation, with its own introduction, literature review, methodology, results, and discussion sections, as applicable. In order for the final product to be a cohesive “dissertation,” though, it might also need sections or chapters that introduce the overarching research questions, topic, and methods, as well as “bridging” sections to link the articles.
Reasons to write one:
You want to continue on in academia, and having publications will help you get a job.
Your supervisor wrote one and will be good at helping you navigate writing your own.
Your topic and/or discipline lend themselves well to this type of structure.
It’s super cool to see your name in print and get notifications that your work has been cited by others in your field! Publishing is a great way to assess the impact of your work and to see your research grow and be appreciated by others.
Reasons not to:
Your supervisor did not write one, or isn’t very familiar with that genre, and would therefore not be comfortable guiding you through the process.
You want to finish. A single manuscript is the shortest route to completion. It’s familiar and will encounter minimal pushback from the faculty of graduate studies or committee members.
Your topic, research questions, methodology, etc. are better suited to another format.
You’re not planning to continue in academia, and publishing won’t benefit your career.
Your discipline and/or the intended audience or end user of the work doesn’t value publishing in academic journals as highly as sharing your work in other ways.
Anderson, T., Alexander, I., & Saunders, G. (2020). An examination of education-based dissertation macrostructures. Journal of English for Academic Purposes, 45, 1–12. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jeap.2020.100845
Dong, Y. R. (1998). Non-native speaker graduate students’ thesis/dissertation writing in science: Self-reports by students and their advisors from two U.S. institutions. English for Specific Purposes, 17(4), 369–390. https://doi.org/10.1016/s0889-4906(97)00054-9
Paltridge, B., & Starfield., S. (2020). Change and continuity in thesis and dissertation writing: The evolution of an academic genre. Journal of English for Academic Purposes, 48. 1–16, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jeap.2020.100910
Paltridge, B., Starfield, S., Ravelli, L. J., & Tuckwell, K. (2012). Change and stability: Examining the macrostructures of doctoral theses in the visual and performing arts. Journal of English for Academic Purposes, 11(4), 332e344. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jeap.2012.08.003.
Thomas, R. A., West, R. E., & Rich, P. (2016). Benefits, challenges, and perceptions of the multiple article dissertation format in instructional technology. Australasian Journal of Educational Technology, 32(2), 82–99. https://doi.org/10.14742/ajet.2573
I’ve been working at UVic as an English as an Additional Language Specialist in the Centre for Academic Communication since 2014, where I’ve helped hundreds of students in first-year academic writing and literature courses to become more skilled and confident writers. I have also taught English for academic purposes, English literature, business English, and TESOL in various contexts in Canada and abroad for many years.
I’m currently a PhD candidate in Curriculum and Instruction at UVic, writing an article-based dissertation, and my research focuses on the experiences of undergraduate students accessing and using different forms of academic writing support.
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.
“Are you a distance student”? If you’ve been on the CAC’s tutorial booking site, WCONLINE, in the past year, you might have noticed this question on the landing page. The CAC has been offering distance help for a few years now, but the procedure for booking has changed a bit recently, and “real time,” or “synchronous” options are also now available: you can now “meet” with a tutor via phone, Skype, or WCONLINE’s online meeting space. I’ve been the main distance tutor for over two years now, and it’s been an interesting journey and one of the most rewarding parts of my work at the CAC. What follows is a few details about distance tutoring, my experiences as the distance tutor, and some specific information on how the distance tutoring works.
When I was offered the opportunity to take over the Centre for Academic Communication’s distance tutoring two years ago, I didn’t hesitate. Working in my pajamas?! Yes, please! The number of students in distance programs is constantly growing, and I wanted to try a few new things. We decided to keep the email@example.com email account that we were currently using for quick questions and returning feedback, but moved bookings to https://uvic.mywconline.com/, and set up a schedule for synchronous meetings. At present, UVic is one of only a handful of Canadian universities to offer real-time options for distance tutoring.
In spite of common perceptions that email interactions with distance tutors are one-sided and limited in what they can accomplish, I’ve found mostly the opposite. Distance tutoring does, in some very useful ways, actually exceed some of the limitations of face-to-face sessions. With any of the real-time distance options, and also with the written feedback option, students have a record of their interaction with the tutor, whether it’s the chat interaction in WCONLINE or a recording of a phone or Skype conversation. I can recommend links to helpful resources and websites, and these can easily be revisited later at the student’s convenience.
Although we do try to limit the distance appointments to students who really can’t make it to campus to see one of our tutors in person, we feel strongly that academic communication support should be accessible to all, for whatever reason. Are you on co-op? Working during CAC hours? Have small children at home? Distance tutoring is here for you. There is also evidence that distance tutoring may be especially useful for students with writing anxiety or disabilities. Distance tutoring makes both the writer and the tutor “invisible,” to a certain extent. Perhaps there are some cases when it’s best to focus on the writing itself – to take the focus off the writer altogether and work on the product instead. I have worked with students with physical and mental health issues, learning disabilities, and vision impairment, and students calling from rural Alberta in the parking lot of a motel. I’ve also received writing from students that is intensely personal. Maybe you’d rather not work on a personal reflection piece about your experience with depression or sexual abuse with someone face-to-face? Distance tutoring is here for you, too.
If you do need to use our distance tutoring options, there are a couple of things you can do to get the most out of your session. First, if you’re requesting written feedback, picture a human on the receiving end of your appointment. Talk to me! You can use the comments function to ask questions in the margins of your work. Some common questions that might be easily resolved this way include, “Is this sentence too long?” “Do I need a transition here?” and “Does this information fit better in this paragraph or the previous one?” Next, include whatever instructions or guidelines you might have, and any relevant background that I might need in order to understand what you’re trying to accomplish. If you only need help with one section, highlight that section, or let me know that you haven’t written the introduction yet, so that I don’t wonder where that is. If you’ve received any previous feedback from an instructor and you’re working on improving a specific aspect of your writing, that’s useful to know, too. Keep in mind that appointments are meant to last as long as our face-to-face options: that’s 30 minutes for one slot, or 60 for two that are booked together.
Finally, give yourself enough time to make revisions and possibly get a second round of feedback, if necessary. Many students find it useful to get some written feedback first, make revisions, and then follow up with a phone or Skype appointment to get clarification, ask questions, and confirm revisions. If your assignment is due Friday, you’ll need to submit it by Tuesday afternoon in order to be guaranteed written feedback by the end of the day on Thursday. Don’t wait until the last minute! Revisions often take longer than you think they will. Remember that we’re not an editing or proofreading service, so no changes will be made for you. That doesn’t help you become a better writer or a more effective editor of your own work.
At the end of last term, I asked some of UVic’s distance students about their experiences using our distance services, and the feedback was overwhelmingly positive. Although most indicated that they would rather meet in person if this were possible, they also thought they had been able to get what they needed from the distance tutoring options. After having helped almost 200 students via our online tutoring options over the last year, up from almost 140 in the previous year, I can only imagine and hope that the number of distance tutoring users will continue to grow. Face-to-face and distance tutoring have the same goal of helping students to become better writers. Both methods can achieve this goal, I believe, if they are managed thoughtfully and used with a good understanding of their possibilities and limitations.
If you have any questions or concerns about distance tutoring and what it can do for you, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
It wasn’t so long ago when I found out that I didn’t really know how to use a comma. I mean, I knew how, but I didn’t really, really know. I could put them in the right place about 95% of the time, but not explain why I was adding them or choosing not to. Sound familiar?
I wasn’t a poor writer, making word salad with a careless handful of commas tossed in; I’d been admitted to a graduate program in English Language and Literature. And I didn’t know how to begin to fix this problem. At this point, the finer points of punctuation seemed mysterious and probably unlearnable.
As an English as an Additional Language Specialist at UVic’s Centre for Academic Communication and as an instructor, I meet a lot of students experiencing this same frustration. Writers who learned English as an additional language may be at an advantage: for the most part, they have been “taught” a lot of what they need to know to be able to master the use of commas and other fun and useful things like colons and semicolons with relative ease. In order to know whether you need a comma in any given situation, you need a functional range of metalanguage: relative clause, dependent clause, conjunctive adverb, etc. Native English speakers under a certain age, however, were mostly just told to throw a comma in when they “felt like they needed a pause,” which, unfortunately, isn’t a real rule of comma usage. As adults pursuing graduate degrees, not having been taught real rules isn’t doing us any good now. In fact, it’s kind of embarrassing.
“What am I supposed to do about it now?” you might be wondering. Here’s the abridged version of how I’ve filled my own vacancies in the punctuation and grammar puzzle: first and foremost, my education is in a very reading- and writing-heavy field. I studied writing and linguistics with some very inspiring and knowledgeable instructors, and then I started teaching grammar and composition myself. At that point, I had to learn everything there was to know, or else risk being shown up by students who had mastered not only their own first languages, but mine as well, and better than I had. I completed a Certificate in Editing by distance. I read books like Michael Swan’s Practical English Usage, Strunk and White’s classic The Elements of Style, and everything by Kate Turabian and Diana Hacker. I Googled. A lot. “Which vs. that?” “What is an appositive?” I tugged at the knots of obscure grammar forum threads until I was satisfied that I could explain when and why you need a comma before “such as.” I started reading my work, and the work I edited, aloud, with verbalized punctuation: “The semicolon has two main uses COLON it separates long items in a list COMMA which may also contain commas COMMA and it joins two independent clauses that are closely related PERIOD.” I questioned my identity as a writer, as a native English speaker, and in other areas of my life. Had I also been singing the wrong words to my favourite songs at the top of my lungs in the car all along? (I had.)
Learning the “right way” to use punctuation (and the correct lyrics to all my favourite 80s and 90s songs) clearly took time and the kind of dedication that may not be available to you when your literature review is due next week. Thankfully, there are other options available. First, get a diagnosis from someone who knows a lot about these things. Maybe you’re guilty of conjunctive adverb abuse because you’ve got them confused with subordinating conjunctions. Maybe you’ve never thought about restrictive and non-restrictive clauses. Half the battle is just knowing what to Google.
It may seem painful at first, but picture yourself at some point in the future when it pays off: your perfectly punctuated cover letter just got you your dream job. You didn’t have to hire an editor before you submitted your article for publication. You’ve met the girl of your dreams online; her profile said she only dated people who texted with correct punctuation, and she really meant it. Good punctuation matters to a lot of people, more than you might think, but at the end of the day it’s up to you how accurate you need your writing to be and how much you are prepared to invest in your writing practice. Like doing yoga or learning how to knit a sweater, it takes time and dedication to develop the skills and ability you need in order to have a practice you’re satisfied with. A good practice requires a good instructor that you trust, clear instructions, the ability to detect errors, the skills to be able to fix them, the confidence to take risks, and the humility to ask for help when you’re not sure what you’re doing. Who can you ask? The CAC. We’re here to help!
Gillian is an English as an Additional Language Specialist and Business English and Communications instructor at UVic, and has taught in Canada and South Korea. In her spare time she can be found reading about grammar and English language teaching and patting herself on the back for not pointing out every single writing error she encounters during her day.