Posted tagged ‘grad school writing’

The Pages Were Red With Ink: On Feedback

June 27, 2013

You’ve always been an all-star student.  In third grade, your teachers talked about you in the teacher’s lounge, “She used a word I had to look up.  I don’t even know what vacillate means and she used it in a sentence…”  You were the top of your high school class.  College felt a breeze.  When your favorite professor said you should consider grad school, you smiled and rattled off the top programs you were already contemplating.  He loved your work.  You always got As.  You were destined for greatness.Red Ink

Then you arrived at grad school… and everything seems to have changed.

You receive feedback on your first… maybe second paper… and it’s full of red ink.  There are abbreviations for errors you don’t even understand.  What have I done?  Who has failed me?  Why do I keep writing in the passive voice?

Graduate school is meant to be a humbling experience.  What most students master at the undergrad level is how to speak the language of the professor.  “Oh I know Jones… he loves when I connect the Civil War to theology and reference Mark Noll.  I do that in every paper!”  Then the students replicate the winning formula with every subsequent paper, affirming self-fulfilling prophecies.  Then when students try to do that kind of thing in graduate school, they quickly realize the goal is not to say what the professor wants to hear, but rather write something the professor him/herself has never even thought about.  The goal of graduate school is innovative, unique, and powerful thinking.  This does not happen over night.

I will not pretend to be the expert on this.  I’m still working on my doctoral work, but what I do have to say is to take heart.  A page full of red marks means that the professor believes there is hope in “fixing” your writing.  Let it influence you.  Take in the comments and learn from them.  Not all professors agree on good writing.  Every year committees argue over the Pulitzer and the Bancroft because no one can agree on the best research and writing.  Fortunately your first seminar paper in grad school is not up for a Pulitzer.  So, learn from the red ink.

I will finish with this advice.  Visit the professor not out of a concern for the grad, but to learn more about how to think.  Teachers face students all the time who are concerned with grades.  GPAs, of course, in our market economy can determine all sorts of quality of life issues.  In short, for undergrads, the difference of a few letter grades can determine a $10,000 grant or not.  That’s a huge deal.  But what professors want to hear is a genuine concern for learning.  Grad school, as expensive as it can be, should not just be about your grades.  Rather, focus on learning.  “I see your comments here about this awkward sentence.  Can you explain to me how to write it more clearly?  How can I improve the way I’m thinking about this historical time period?”  Those questions will go a long way in establishing your relationship with instructors, as well as your own intellectual progress.

Take a few red marks on the chin.  Don’t argue with the grade, but always learn from criticism.  Remember that when you get out of grad school (if you stay in the academic world), there will be editors, peer reviewers, and still more red ink to fix.  Revision is part of the writing process.  It doesn’t mean you’re not an all-star student any more; it just means you’ve made the all-star team and the coaches here intend to push you harder.


Top 5 Common Mistakes of New Grad Students

November 8, 2010

It is now halfway through the fall semester, so most graduate students have caught their stride.  Papers, readings, all turned in and performance is not too bad.  This isn’t so hard, you’re thinking.  This is just 17th grade!

Here are a few of the common mistakes that graduate students make:

1)      Reading every page of every book

-New graduate students tend to feel the immense pressure of graduate school and desire to impress their new advisors, instructors, and colleagues.  As a result, when preparing for classes, despite the unbelievable number of pages to read in a given week, new graduate students feel the need to read every page of every book.  Here’s a little secret about everyone else.  Most students do not read every page of every book.  There is no human way to keep up with the volume required in graduate school.  Read strategically.  Get the argument and think intelligently about it.  Then, go back to the book to read the parts of the book that will help you better understand that key argument.

2)      Writing with passive voice

-Graduate students let things happen TO them.  This is part of how we write.  “The soldiers were shot by the bad guys.”  Okay, so that may not be the most sophisticated example, but it’s an easy illustration of the problem of passive voice.  Just make the idea active.  “The bad guys shot the soldiers.”  This simple change greatly improves clarity, flow, and quality of writing.  Find a friend who can easily identify passive voice and work, often, on fixing it in your writing.

3)      Putting the intellectual above the spiritual and physical

-People live life differently.  This is part of the point of a free will life.  However, when new graduates enter the academy, far too often they focus all of their energy on reading every page (see #1), thinking every minute, and telling everyone about this new, exciting adventure.  While these are undoubtedly good pursuits, they should be balanced with both the spiritual and the physical.  Stay connected with faith-minded friends both inside and outside of academe.  Make a point to go to the gym, once, three, or five times a week.  Even if you are not a “go to the gym” kind of person, make a point to meditate or do yoga.  Keep mind, soul, and body all under consideration or you will certainly be exhausted before the long papers at the end of the semester.

4)      Finding voice in graduate classes

-One of the things that scares new graduate students is the fear of rejection in classes.  There’s a basic fact to encounter here: all graduate students were new and had trepidations at some point.  We all found our voice.  Some speak more than others by nature, but you must find your voice in graduate class.  Do not be afraid to express your thoughts about a book.  Of course some of you do not find it difficult to come up with something to say.  For some, the problem is knowing how to keep comments to yourself.  In this case, remember to yield to others, take copious notes, and if necessary, meet with the professor after class or on another day to further develop the ideas you did not have time to share in class.

5)      “Trashing” every book

-The last common mistake of new graduate students is to “trash” every book.  One of the first skills that graduate students learn is to refine their “critical” or “analytical” eye.  It becomes a knife, more butcher knife than scalpel, used to carve up the arguments of several important works of scholarship.  Instead of feeling the need to undermine these fantastic works, perhaps it might be useful to consider why the professor assigned the book in the first place.  Often, it seems, professors choose examples of excellent scholarship, rather than terrible books.  With that in mind, develop a style of positive critiques.  Ask yourself, “what did I learn from this book?” and make sure to answer that question in an equally “critical” way as the books that you completely demolish.

Feel free to comment or add to this list.  If you are a new graduate student and have questions the rest of us may be able to help.  Please post questions, or if you’d prefer, email me at and I will relay the question to others.

Stay the course!  The semester will be over before you know it.