Whether this is your first week in a graduate program or you are a seasoned grad student, we welcome you.
The Centre for Academic Communication (CAC) offers a wide range of services to grad students: from one-to-one tutoring and coaching to workshops and English conversation café. However, in this brief post, I’ll focus on just two of the services we offer: our Brightspace self-enrolling resource hub, called CAC Online, and our weekly Grad Writing Room.
CAC Online in Brightspace
We’ve created an online version of the CAC that you can access 24/7. Our CAC Online Brightspace is self-enrolling—once you are signed into UVic Brightspace, go to “Discover” in the top menu and find “CAC online.” Once you are in the site, explore multimodal material about all types of academic communication plus resources just for graduate students on how read critically, write strategically, present effectively, and publish your work.
Grad Writing Room
Writing can be a lonely enterprise. Would you like quiet companionship as you think and write? Sometimes, just sitting next to other students who are also on the graduate school journey can make you feel part of a community. Our weekly grad writing room makes the solitary act social. We’re all in this together!
On Wednesdays from 1 to 3 p.m., meet other grad students at the CAC grad writing room. Bring your laptop or pen and paper. We’ll work on our individual writing projects alone, but we’ll be together for solidarity. A CAC tutor will be available for consultation from 1 to 2 p.m. No registration required.
We’re located in the McPherson Library. Walk down the main hallway and turn right just after Classroom 130; we’re at the end of the Learning Commons. On the map you’ll see CAC staff members’ offices marked with hearts. Can’t wait to meet you!
Tip of the day: Did you know the CAC now offers appointments in time management? When making an appointment (first, create an account), select the schedule, “Time Management + more.”
What is “voice” in writing? Is it some magical, authentic quality that captures and conveys the author’s identity? Well, sometimes it seems that way. Just as babies can pick out their mother’s particular timbre and register from a cacophony of female voices, we recognize the writing of our favourite writers before we even see the byline that identifies them.
Yet there is nothing mysterious or magical about “voice” if we consider it to be the combined effect on the reader of features a writer chooses from (deliberately or not). That package of features comprises a writer’s style or voice and thereby make it possible to imitate them.
Think of a fiction writer with a unique voice or style, such as Ernest Hemingway. He is famous for using few adjectives and employing lots of repetition. He was also a great fan of “and” and what’s known as polysyndeton (using lots of coordinating conjunctions between clauses). Here’s an excerpt from his short story, “After the Storm.”
I said, “Who killed him?” and he said, “I don’t know who killed him but he’s dead all right,” and it was dark and there was water standing in the street and no lights and windows broke and boats all up in the town and trees blown down and everything all blown and I got a skiff and went out and found my boat where I had her inside Mango Key and she was all right only she was full of water.
These recognizable features of Hemingway’s writing—few adjectives, repetition, and polysyndeton, among others—mean that it’s easy to imitate and even parody his writing.
Over the past 50 years, research on authorial voice has shifted from thinking of voice as the property of the individual to voice as a societal phenomenon (our society, in part, writes us), and finally, to the “dialogic” view where the freedom of the individual voice is in tension with the constraints of society (Mhilli, 2023). The “dialogic” view on voice captures the push-pull of many academic writers—I want to write like this (in my voice), but academic genres constrain me; I must write in a standardized style determined by my discipline.
These constraints do indeed exist, but there are academic writers who push against them. It depends on the discipline, of course. There is more leeway in the humanities and social sciences to infuse writing with personal style, whereas scientific and technical writing often—but not always—demand an impersonal style. And graduate students, of course, have many more writing-style-gatekeepers than do faculty members and independent researchers.
In her book Stylish Academic Writing (2012), Helen Sword argues that academic writing can be engaging and stylish, and she gives numerous examples where authorial voice is clear and identifiable, whether through humour, detail, vocabulary choice, or syntax or a combination of all of these. And no, use of first person isn’t required to convey voice. For example, Sword writes,
Some authors, especially in the humanities, craft third-person prose that is nonetheless imbued with subjectivity and character: “Settled by an extraordinarily literate people and long privileged by the American history establishment, colonial New England’s every square inch has been seriously scrutinized. Or so the conventional wisdom has it. Consider this: Scholars have missed only 100,000 square miles, more or less, of terrain known intimately to seventeenth- and eighteenth- century villagers—the coastal ocean and its seafloor. The irony is superb, for the area seaward of the shore was the first part of the northwest Atlantic reconnoitered by Europeans.” [History] (p. 42)
What about your academic writing voice? Do you have one? Where does it reside? Take a couple of pages of academic text you’ve written and analyze it. What sentence structures do you use? Take note of vocabulary. Do you have writing “tics,” for example, the same transition or phrase (“in other words,” or “moreover”) used over and over? Do you have favourite punctuation marks that you employ frequently, for example double em dashes? These elements are the features that make up your academic voice / style, and you can manipulate them if you wish. Think about the choices available to you. Are you constrained by disciplinary expectations? Could you experiment? Do you want to?
You are invited to a workshop on Writer’s Voice to share your ideas on this topic:
Voice is a contested notion in writing studies. Do you have an authentic voice, or does society prescribe how you write? We are socially constructed beings, but at the same time, we can create voices that bring our personalities to the page. During this workshop, we’ll talk about what it means to write in your own academic voice. Contact Madeline (email@example.com) for more information.
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/
By Madeline Walker, EAL Specialist, Centre for Academic Communication
Did you know that the Anti PowerPoint Party (APPP) is the eighth largest political party in Switzerland? Their platform has one message: Stop using presentation software because it wastes time and money. Instead, the party “advocates the use of flip-charts for all presentations. Compared to PowerPoint (PowerPoint is always mentioned as the representative of all presentation software), the use of flip-charts creates a multiple effect for the audience in terms of impact, excitement, and comprehensibility. This is not a hypothetical assumption but can immediately be proven through comparisons.”
The APPP claims that PPT presentations not only waste time and money, they also bore the audience, block energy flow, impede emotion, encourage writers to turn vivid verbs into inert nouns, and destroy motivation. The APPP are calling for a national referendum for a law prohibiting PowerPoint during presentations. Sounds wacky, but it’s true.
Members of the APPP are not the only ones protesting PowerPoint. Designer Edward Tufte has long argued that PowerPoint presentations are the wrong medium for serious technical reports. He uses the destruction of the Columbia Space Shuttle as an example of crucial technical information being lost on a PowerPoint slide—you can read his fascinating report. He recommends serious presentations start with the audience silently reading a six page narrative (no bullet points). As a result of Tufte’s work, Amazon stopped using PowerPoint and started using his method and say it’s a “miracle in communication”
Perhaps you’re not a PowerPoint fan either. But the expectation of your supervisor or department is that you use it for your presentations. Well, if you can’t use flipcharts (APPP) or have your audience read six pages (Tufte), you might consider this compromise: prepare an Assertion -Evidence (AE) talk. There are three basic principles of an AE talk: (1) build your talk on messages or assertions (not topics); (2) support these messages with visual evidence (not bullet lists); and (3) explain this evidence by fashioning words on the spot.
This method, developed by Michael Alley at Pennsylvania State University, has two advantages. First, although it takes more effort to build an AE talk than a conventional PPT talk, you will feel and project confidence as you speak to the visual content on the slides and “show ownership” of the material. Second, tests of audience comprehension show this approach leads to the audience understanding and remembering more than they would in a conventional PowerPoint presentation.
Although this method was developed specifically for engineers and scientists, I think it could be effective in any discipline. If textual material is essential to your talk, you can use Tufte’s idea of distributing a handout before the talk for a few minutes of silent reading.
The next time you present, consider exploring the AE method. Avoid those mind-numbing bullet lists and slides loaded with too much text. Engage your inner public speaker, fashioning words on the spot in response to the assertions and evidence on each carefully crafted slide. Who knows, it could become your new way of presenting!
And don’t forget to book an appointment with a tutor to create your slides and practice your talk. We are here to support you on your university journey.
Our last post was way back in March. I was going to write about some time management and productivity apps and tools to complement Emily’s wonderful post, but fittingly, I procrastinated about that. And here it is, the end of May, and I am finally tackling this task! I think I need one of these apps. . .
My colleagues at the Centre for Academic Communication told me about some productivity tools and apps they use or have had recommended to them. Today, I am checking out a few.
Some apps are about sticking to the task at hand by shutting out distractions. If you are a Mac user, this free application, SelfControl, will “let you block your own access to distracting websites.” The skull image scared me a little—I might die if I can’t access my mail for half an hour!
Calmly Writer and Forest apps also give you the “distraction-free” writing experience; as with many of these apps, you can get a free trial then will have to pay.
Kaveh swears by the kitchen timer: “I find the simple technique of dividing your working time to rotating minutes for work and a break (at a ratio of 5:1 or 4:1) the most effective. If a kitchen timer does the magic for you, then you can call it the Pomodoro Technique (but it doesn’t have to be). You can simply use any timer.”
Are you a list maker? You might like Toodledo, a listing app that helps you organize life and work. The claim is that it will “increase your productivity,” providing a place to “write long notes, make custom lists, create structure outlines and track your habits.”
Finally, two intriguing apps have to do with making commitments in order to increase your productivity.
stickk is a “commitment platform with the tools to help you achieve your goals.” When you sign up with stickk, you make a commitment contract, for example, I will write five times a week for 12 weeks. The makers claim the difference between having a goal to achieving that goal is to make a binding agreement with yourself. Additionally, you can put money on the line by committing to pay a certain amount if you do NOT reach your goal. They even suggest promising to donate to an organization with values antithetical to your own in order to motivate you to stick to your commitment. I thought of promising $100 to the National Rifle Association if I fail to meet my goal of walking four times a week, but then I backed out.
With the app called focusmate, you sign up to be part of a “community of doers.” You arrange to work in tandem silence with a “live peer accountability partner” for 50 minutes of distraction-free writing (or some other task), up to three times a week. The app claims that it can help you eliminate procrastination and commit to “blasting excuses and get important work done.” When you are accountable to another person, you show up.
Sounds a bit like our Graduate Writing Room, 2-4 PST Wednesday afternoons: Join us and get ‘er done:
Welcome back. I hope you had a good break. We all needed a rest after an exhausting and challenging semester in the midst of a pandemic. Would you like to join me in starting 2021 with a resolution to exhume “zombie nouns” from your writing? In this humorous video, Helen Sword contends that when we turn other parts of speech (verbs, adjectives) into nouns by adding a suffix, we create “zombie nouns” or nominalizations that suck the life out of our writing, making it more abstract and difficult to read.
I’ll take Sword’s example: “The proliferation of nominalizations in a discursive formation may be an indication of a tendency towards pomposity and abstraction” contains seven nominalizations and doesn’t leave us with a clear idea of who is doing what. Several of the bolded words started as lively verbs (proliferate, form, indicate, tend) and others started as adjectives (pompous, abstract), but they life drained from each of them with the added suffixes, which added unnecessary complexity.
Reanimated, this sentence becomes “Writers who overload their sentences with nominalizations tend to sound pompous and abstract.” Note that a human (the writer) was added for clarity. So much better!
Sword also created The Writer’s Diet, a tool that measures words and constructions that weaken writing, for example be-verbs and zombie nouns. I tested a paragraph of a recently published article*, and zombie nouns were off the chart! Academics tend to use many nominalizations. Indeed, you may think of nominalizations as a required feature of formal writing, and perhaps you’ve even added nominalizations to make your writing sound more “academic.” But as Sword says, nominalizations obscure meaning, and you want to communicate important ideas and research as transparently as possible. I invite you to join me in analyzing your writing this year to see if you can enliven and clarify your sentences by reducing nominalizations.
Would you like to write for the blog? We welcome ideas and blog posts from graduate students, staff members, and instructors. Please send your query or post to Madeline Walker, Editor, at firstname.lastname@example.org
Before you write, please consider the following:
We love content relevant to academic communication (reading, writing, presenting) and graduate students. We value
a unique point of view,
posts reflecting the diversity of UVic students,
stories that illustrate difficulties and vulnerabilities,
posts with practical tips and ideas,
content specific to UVic,
and motivating and inspirational themes.
Posts should be between 250-750 words and may be edited for clarity, grammar, and punctuation.
If your post is accepted for publication, please provide a good-quality jpeg photo of yourself (not a selfie) and a short (2-3 sentence) biography.
* This is the recently published article where I obtained the excerpt: Nils Dahl, Alex Ross & Paul Ong (2020) Self-Neglect in Older Populations: A Description and Analysis of Current Approaches, Journal of Aging & Social Policy, 32:6, 537-558, DOI: 10.1080/08959420.2018.1500858
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.
Are you a graduate student in Business or the Social Sciences, such as Psychology, Linguistics, Sociology, or Economics? Have you bought your new edition of the APA Style Manual? No? Well, to be honest, neither have I. Officially published earlier this year, the entrance of the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association’s Seventh Edition was overshadowed by the chaos accompanying the Covid-19 pandemic. I have just had a chance to review the changes from the sixth to the seventh edition, summarized in this document, and I’d like to tell you about five changes that stood out for me. I’m sure you’ll have your own favourites.
First, The 7th edition acknowledges the difference between preparing a professional paper for publication and a student paper for a course. In Chapter 2, they provide a sample professional paper and a sample student paper (p. 1). In 2.18, they note different page header elements for the professional paper and the student paper (professionals: page number and running head; students: page number only). (Yay! Finally, we’re getting real—no running heads for student papers!) In 2.3, they describe a title page for a student paper v. a professional paper—also reflecting the reality of the classroom (why do you need an author’s note for your unpublished class assignment?). These changes come as a relief to many instructors who have spent years struggling to modify the professional guidelines to suit the classroom: Finally, it’s been done for you!
Second, I was thrilled to see in Chapter 4, on writing style and grammar, that APA has endorsed the singular use of “they,” explained in this blog post on the APA style blog. You can safely banish the awkward “he or she” and the dreaded “s/he” from your writing. With APA’s blessing, you can use “they” in those instances, as this pronoun is inclusive of all people and helps to avoid making assumptions about gender. When to use “they” as a singular pronoun? Chelsea Lee (2019) explains that “Writers should use the singular “they” in two main cases: (a) when referring to a generic person whose gender is unknown or irrelevant to the context and (b) when referring to a specific, known person who uses “they” as their pronoun.”
Third, all of the old-school “two spaces after a period” folks who started their typing life on typewriters (including me) can embrace the new rule: “Use one space after a period (or other punctuation) at the end of a sentence” (p. 4) (from Chapter 6, Mechanics of Style).
Fourth, Chapter 8 has some guidance about how to cite recorded or unrecorded Traditional Knowledge and Oral Traditions of Indigenous Peoples (see Section 8.9). This guidance is a much needed addition to the style guide, as post-secondary libraries decolonize and researchers draw on Indigenous knowledge. Also in this chapter is new guidance on how to format quotations from research participants (see Section 8.36). I’ve worked with so many students doing qualitative research using some form of narrative inquiry—now there are guidelines about how to work with the rich data from their participants’ voices.
And finally, I am delighted to see that the font-mantra—”you must use Times New Roman 12”—has been relaxed with this edition, with an emphasis on accessibility rather than homogeneity: “Font guidelines are more flexible. This revised section notes that ‘APA Style papers should be written in a font that is accessible to all users.’ Section 2.19 provides the following font recommendations: a sans serif font such as 11-point Calibri, 11-point Arial, or 10-point Lucida Sans Unicode or a serif font such as 12-point Times New Roman, 11-point Georgia, or normal (10-point) Computer Modern (the latter is the default font for LaTeX)” (p. 2). According to Wikipedia (I know, not a definitive source), for the first time, APA Style’s team worked with accessibility experts to ensure accessibility in APA writing/reading (shortened in-text citations are another change).
These are just a few of the exciting transformations the APA Style Manual has undergone to keep pace with our rapidly changing world. I am looking forward to owning my own copy of the 7th edition. (And no, I’m not kidding.)
Finally, if you don’t have a copy of the manual yet or don’t plan on buying one, the APA style blog continues to be a great resource for answering your APA questions:
Hello. Coming back to the Centre for Academic Communication (CAC) after a year away feels strange. Rather than stepping back into the familiar, welcoming halls of the library and sharing laughs with students and tutors, I navigate through the disorienting cyber-space of Zoom meetings and online communication. It’s hard to get my footing here. I feel like an astronaut floating far away from the mother ship. I miss you. But it’s great to be back, and I hope to see you in person soon.
Call for blog posts
Please write a post for the blog! This is your community, and we want to hear your voice, your opinions, and your ideas. You can write on anything to do with the experience of graduate student research and writing. Perhaps you could share how graduate research and writing has changed for you since the onset of the pandemic. How have you coped? What do you miss most? Have you discovered any unexpected treasures? Or perhaps you’d like to voice some thoughts on developing an academic identity, writing for publication, or attending conferences. Maybe you’d like to review a useful book that helped you with your writing or research. Please browse previous posts to get an idea of the range of writing.
Blog posts should be between 250 and 750 words. Use plain English—make your post accessible. I encourage you to
provide hyperlinks to resources
include a catchy title
check out this template (yes, it’s from a marketing perspective, but the guidelines are sound)
Writing a guest post for the Graduate Student Writers’ Community blog might stimulate you to start your own blog.
Pat Thomson, academic blogger extraordinaire, claims that blogging has many benefits for the graduate student researcher/writer. Writing blog posts can help you set a regular writing routine, develop authoritative voice in your writing, and practise writing in a conversational style (Thomson & Kamler, Detox your writing, p. 120). She writes that blogging is a “productive way of performing your research for a wider public” (p. 118). If you would like to start your own blog, UVic’s instance of WordPress, the Online Academic Community, is free for UVic students. Attend a how-to workshop and start blogging!
New Online Resources for Graduate Students at the CAC
The capable team at the CAC have been developing many online resources in the past four months, including CAC Online, a self-enrolling CourseSpaces site (You must be loggged into UVic to access the link). In particular, I draw your attention to the valuable resources for grad students housed there, including videos by Emily and Kaveh about reading, writing, and publishing your research.
P.S. Pat Thomson and Barbara Kamler’s excellent book on doctoral research and writing, Detox your writing: Strategies for doctoral researchers, is available from our library as an e-book.
David Evans, Paul Gruba, and Justin Zobel. (2014). How to Write a Better Thesis, 3rd edition. [e-book]. Springer. 173 pages.
When you hit a snag or are feeling lost in writing your thesis, reading a “how to” book can be just what you need. Such a book might give you a new perspective, a fresh idea, great advice, or motivation to continue. I recommend you have a look at the e-book How to Write a Better Thesis, free and easily accessible in UVic’s library. Writing in a friendly and knowledgeable collective voice, Evans, Gruba, and Zobel cover every stage of the thesis-writing journey. Surprisingly, they recommend you start by exploring the end-point. Look up institutional expectations for the finished thesis (get guidelines from your department). Then, read theses in your field (this is easy for UVic students; just access UVicSpace and search). These investigations will orient you to thesis-writing’s big picture.
Part of big picture thinking is recognizing that dissertation writing is not a logical, linear journey. Evans et al. (2014) acknowledge that this journey involves both the left and the right sides of our brains: “the process of research is often not entirely rational. . . . Research is a mixture of inspiration (hypothesis generation, musing over the odd and surprising, finding lines of attack on difficult problems) and rational thinking (design and execution of crucial experiments, analysis of results in terms of existing theory) . . . without the creative part, no real research would be done, no new insights would be gained, and no new theories would be formulated” (p. 10, emphasis added). This claim resonates with my own experience of writing the dissertation: moments of serendipity and light-bulb flashes punctuating long periods of reading, research, and painstaking writing.
Another example of how these writers home in on the big picture is their discussion of aim and scope, where they show how writers sometimes conflate research methods with aims. Using a cogent example of a student named Alistair, they quote what Alistair has identified as the aim of his thesis about attitudes toward a marginal group in Japanese society called the burakumin:
The aim of the research is to establish which groups of mainstream Japanese continue to harbour anti-burakumin attitudes, analyze what those attitudes are and why they have remained extant, and to investigate which political measures are needed to solve the problem. (p. 64)
Evans et al. (2014) rightly ask, “what was the real aim?” and go on to show that Alistair has crammed four aims into one sentence:
to establish which group has attitudes,
to analyze attitudes,
to determine why they persist,
and to investigate measures to solve the problem.
According to Evans et al. (2014), the first three “aims” should not appear in the intro chapter, but in the research design chapter. They go on to explain that a common problem for graduate students is that they have too many aims and should identify only one aim that follows as a “logical consequence of the problem statement” (p. 65). Finally, the conclusion should respond to this aim. So, in a nutshell, they say “stick to a single paramount aim” (p. 65, emphasis in original). This is simple but excellent advice. Less is more.
This book has many strengths:
The book is well organized, with introductory chapters on structure and mechanics followed by chapters on each section of the dissertation.
The authors are practical and sensible on mechanics; for example, if you are wondering what style is permissible in your writing, “go to the top five journals in your field and determine what style is used. Look, too, at the use of voice to see if it is first person singular, active (‘I investigate’) or perhaps third person passive (‘the event was investigated’). If your work is cross-disciplinary, settle on a single style so that your work is consistent” (p. 29).
They provide a comprehensive final checklist, “Dotting the ‘I’s and Crossing the ‘t’s” to review before you submit (pp. 129-136).
Summaries are provided at the end of each chapter, so it’s easy to dip in and out of the book and choose only what is relevant to your thesis-writing journey.
Although the authors write from an Australian perspective and they claim their book is suitable mostly for students in the physical, biomedical, mathematical, and social sciences, I believe this book has nuggets of good advice for all thesis writers.
Note: “Thesis” in this book is an umbrella term covering both the master’s thesis and the doctoral dissertation.
Madeline Walker is the Coordinator of the Centre for Academic Communication. She has a PhD in English and enjoys helping students to engage fully with their writing. She loves red and purple, colours of the heart.