Writing Like an Expert
When you wrote your first essays, all you had to do was write like someone who knew the basics:
• Take a stand.
• Prove your point.
• Sum up what to remember.Covering the Basics
If you were really sophisticated, you took these basic elements of thesis, body, and conclusion a step further. Besides presenting evidence for your opinion, you also presented evidence against the other side.
Now you’re expected to do more than develop an argument. You’re supposed to write like a graduate student.
Does that mean that most of the words in your paper should have five or six syllables? No, although you will use terms like “andragogy” or “performance improvement” that are part of the vocabulary of your field. Your graduate papers will also follow the same basic structure as those you’ve already written for your undergraduate work.
What makes graduate papers different? You and your audience are supposed to know the basic information about your topic. A paper proving that Malcolm Knowles believed that adults are self-directed learners isn’t worth writing. Your readers already know that, and anyone who’s taken an introductory ALPD course should too.
At the graduate level, your paper is expected to contribute something new to what’s already been said about a topic. Fortunately, you don’t have to go as far as Knowles, who developed a new model of adult learning. To go beyond the basics, you might
• compare Knowles’ model of adult learning to a different model
• apply his ideas to a problem at your workplace
• argue for or against Knowles’ ideas about self-directed learning
• review what’s been written about self-directed learning and evaluate Knowles’ contribution to this area
• test Knowles’ theory in a research projectJoining the Conversation
Your previous writing assignments might have had only one reader: your teacher. The main purpose of your paper might have been to show that you knew how to write it. When you got your grade, that was probably the end of the dialogue.
In graduate school, your paper is part of an ongoing conversation with people who share your interest in the topic. Some of those people are no longer living, but their ideas still influence the conversation.
For example, a Chinese general named Sun Tzu, who wrote The Art of War around 500 bce, is widely quoted by today’s military strategists, diplomats, and management gurus. Anyone writing about strategy would be expected to be familiar with Sun Tzu’s ideas. They are already part of the discussion, just as Kirkpatrick’s levels of evaluation or Knowles’ theory of andragogy are part of the discussion about adult learning.Making an Original Contribution
What can you contribute to a conversation that started long before you joined it? Perhaps you can add an original insight or a unique perspective. For example, how could Sun Tzu’s ideas about strategy help today’s workers survive mergers and layoffs? What could women learn from his strategic approach?
If the conversation has been long or intense, you might serve as a moderator. Suppose your topic is Sun Tzu’s influence on current thinking about management. You need to summarize the general’s key ideas and those of any contemporary gurus you discuss. What’s original about that?
Your contribution is your judgment about which concepts and which thinkers are important. For example, in Sun Tzu and the Art of Business, Mark McNeilly distills the 13 chapters of the Chinese general’s class text into six principles. His judgment about the strategist is reflected in his thesis: “Because business by definition deals with competition, Sun Tzu's principles are ideally suited to competitive business situations.”
On his website (http://www.suntzu1.com/business/book.shtml ), McNeilly explains that he wrote Sun Tzu and the Art of Business because the general’s ideas were valuable, but hard for most people to apply to business. His title acknowledges that his book is based on Sun Tzu’s earlier work. However, McNeilly advances the conversation about strategy by
• making Sun Tzu’s strategies available to more people
• organizing the general’s ideas into principles that are easy to understand
• giving examples of how Sun Tzu’s strategies can be applied todayMeeting Graduate Standards
When you begin writing, the most important thing is to get your ideas down on paper. Some people think of drafts as “brain dumps.” They focus on getting the ideas in their head onto a page as quickly as possible. Then they go back and revise what they’ve written to be sure it’s complete and easy for a reader to follow.
The Academic Writing Rubric defines the standards by which your paper will be graded. The left-hand column identifies several key performance elements. The other columns explain the quality standards that will be used to evaluate each element. Each quality standard is illustrated by an example.
You can use the rubric at two points during the writing process:
• before you begin
• as you revise your draft
Before you write, you can read over the performance elements and examples to get an idea of the level of writing that’s expected in a graduate paper. Then you will have a mental model of what you want to achieve.
However, the main purpose of the rubric is to help you identify things you need to improve. As you revise, use the criteria to judge your paper from a reader’s perspective. For example, ask yourself, “Does my thesis statement clearly define my paper’s scope and purpose?” If the answer is yes, go on to the next criterion. If your thesis is a sweeping generalization like “Throughout history, leaders have motivated their followers in different ways,” look for ways to narrow it.Getting Help
Many guides to academic writing are available in print and on the Web. These selected resources will give you more in-depth information about particular topics.
Online Writing Labs (OWLs)
Proving Your Point