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Avoiding Bias in Capstone Writing

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Learning how to avoid bias in one’s writing is as just as important to writers in the social sciences as developing proficiency with APA style, research methods, and writing mechanics. Establishing scholarly voice, having your work be viewed as credible and ethical by others, and engaging readers all depend upon writing in as unbiased a manner as possible.

But, avoiding bias in social scientific writing is much less straightforward than other areas of writing such as grammar, argumentation, and citation, which have more clear-cut rules. Today, I want to discuss the critical issue of bias (specifically, how to avoid it) in scholarly writing, especially in dissertations and doctoral studies.
Avoiding Bias in Capstone Writing

According to standpoint theorists, we all have a standpoint, which is based on our identity and standing within our social order. This standpoint shapes what we see and know and what we think of as normal and abnormal. A capstone writer may not give a second thought to writing “our schools” or “America” when referring to U.S. schools or the United States. His or her readers may be confused or offended by this terminology, however. For this reason, APA guidelines call for limiting use of the “editorial we” and only using it when you have co-authored a paper and are writing from that perspective. APA guidelines also call for being as precise as possible when referring to countries and regions (e.g., using “United States”).

For capstone writers, who typically work on their documents for several years, avoiding bias may be especially challenging. Over time, they may become desensitized to the terms, abbreviations, and phrases that have become a part of their core vocabulary. Problematic language is very commonplace. Consider the use of the phrase “at risk” as an adjective. A capstone writer whose topic concerns youth who are homeless may encounter this term repeatedly in mainstream media, research literature, personal communication, and data collection. It could easily become part of her or her lexicon to say “at-risk youth.” A researcher studying a different topic might start to use the word “borderline” in the same way, having been immersed in the literature that defines the term in a specific way. But, as noted in APA 3.11, these terms are “loaded with innuendo unless properly explained” (p. 71). That is why it is much better to write “youth at risk of homelessness” or “individuals with borderline personality disorder.”

Also, during the long time of research conceptualization, data collection and analysis, and writing, language and cultural conventions often change, giving new meanings and understandings to existing terminology as well as leading to new vocabulary and ways of viewing and discussing social phenomena. For example, criticism of the notion of a gender binary (i.e., viewing gender in terms of two categories, male and female) has increased in recent years. Some people wish to view gender as a continuum while others wish to dispense with the category in its entirety. The use of "they" as a singular pronoun has become more and more common as a way to address these issues. As language changes, and it always does, past usages can lead to the perception of bias in otherwise objective writing. 

Please note that APA recommends using "they" as a singular pronoun when a participant prefers that term. In other cases, the organization recommends rephrasing sentences (e.g., replace a singular pronoun with a plural noun or pronoun or rephrase the sentence using both male and female pronouns) to maintain appropriately formal and grammatical sentence construction. You can find a lot of good guidelines, both general and by topic, in the current APA manual in print (see pp. 70-77) and online. No matter what your topic, I strongly encourage every dissertation and doctoral capstone writer to review these official guidelines.

My other tips for avoiding bias in capstone writing include the following:

be as concrete as possible. Writing in this manner and avoiding superlatives and excessive or unnecessary descriptors will help you immensely in establishing and maintaining a neutral tone. It will also help ensure that your readers take away your intended meaning, as my colleague Claire Helakoski recently noted on the Blog.

avoid totalizing language. This can happen when a writer represents someone’s essence based on one attribute of his or her self. For instance, the description “John, a disabled participant…” might convey to some readers that disability status is the most important part of John’s identity and life experience, when, in fact, it is only one part. The description might suggest a second-class status to other readers. Writing “John, a participant who identifies as disabled” conveys that John is a participant (i.e., who is like other participants) and, at the same time, acknowledges difference.

mention differences only when relevantStefanie at the APA Style Blog advises writers to “mention differences only when relevant.” I think that is great advice. You would not want to point out John’s disability status unless it was genuinely important to note based on your study focus or findings. The same thing with language such as “male nurse” and “female athlete.” I am not saying that you should not use these terms at all. But, if you do so, do so conscientiously and critically, ask yourself why you are marking such differences, and think about the implications (e.g., reinforcing perceptions of what is normal and natural).

call people what they want to be called. Stefanie goes on in her post to recommend that writers “call people what they want to be called.” As APA 3.16 notes, some readers may sense disapproval or contempt in the use of adjectives such as elderly and senior. Using older adults or giving specific age ranges is preferable. Also, think carefully about using “homosexual” as a noun or adjective. Although this term might be accurate, it is offensive to many readers because of its use to mark individuals who identified as nonheterosexual as deviant and unnatural. Use lesbian, gay men, and bisexual men or bisexual women, instead. Also, if a female participant refers to her wife, you should do the same.

be careful when putting people into groups. Even phrases such as the Latino population, LGBT community, and the Black race are problematic because they subtly convey that all members of these groups are a monolith. With regard to “the Latino population,” consider writing something like “Latino/a residents of New Orleans” to be more specific.

Avoiding bias in capstone writing can be challenging, but I hope that these tips and resources are helpful. Do check out our other resources aimed at helping you learn to avoid unintentional bias in your writing.

And please return to The Walden University Writing Center Blog regularly for more writing instruction geared specifically for writers completing their capstone studies. You (and your committee) will be glad you did.   

Tara Kachgal
  is a dissertation editor in the Walden University Writing Center. She has a Ph.D. in mass communication from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and teaches for the School of Government's online MPA@UNC program. She resides in Chapel Hill and, in her spare time, serves as a mentor for her local running store's training program.

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Thursday Thoughts: September in Sight

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While the globe spins us into a new season, the Writing Center also shifts gears, with a webinar schedule set to satisfy the needs of new and returning students alike. If you took a break from classes this summer, we missed you! Welcome back. If you were taking classes during the summer in-between summer activities and family reunions, we tip our hats to you. Whatever your schedule was like this summer, we are happy you're joining us this fall, and we hope you'll join us, too, for our series of September webinars.

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Next month, we'll be talking about abstracts and how to write them, common grammar errors and how to fix them, APA guidelines and how you can abide by them, and instructor comments and how to use them. Click on the links below for more information and to register! 

Feel free, as well, to check out our entire Webinar Recording Library here! We can't wait to see you there! 

The Walden Writing Center offers to Walden students 1:1 writing support and offers to students and non-students alike all the writing expertise, tips, and information a writer could want.

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On Fishing and Writing

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Last summer, I had the opportunity to go fishing with my father up in northern Minnesota.  As we sat in the boat, mindfully casting out our lures and occasionally pulling in Northern Pike, I was struck: Writing and fishing have a lot in common!
How are fishing and writing alike? Read on!
It’s a process. 
Experienced fishermen and women take time to prepare for the day of fishing. As I watched my dad spend 30 minutes loading the boat, sorting through the tackle boxes, securing the straps around the trailer, planning our route, and filling water bottles, I was reminded that effective writers take time to prepare too.  When writing, remember that it’s a process and that taking time to prepare (through critical reading, outlining,drafting) can help make the process go more smoothly.

You can’t keep them all. 
When fishing, sometimes the fish you catch seem perfect as you bring in the net, but then you measure or weigh them and realize that they’re too big or too small to keep.  Sometimes it’s hard to throw back the fish after they’ve been caught, but you must. It’s the law.  With writing, the same rule applies.  Sometimes you write beautiful sentences or paragraphs, but when you go to revise, you realize they’re too long or too short. So, you have to cut them.

Sometimes you don’t make progress. 
It doesn’t happen often in northern Minnesota since fish in the lakes are bountiful, but every once in a while, you don’t catch any fish.  It can be tempting to stay out longer and spend more hours trying to get that elusive fish, but it’s important to remember that there’s more to life than just fishing, and sometimes it’s okay to go home empty handed.  Occasionally, the same thing may happen with writing.  You may sit and try to write for a few hours without making progress.  Rather than being upset about this, go ahead and call it a day and come back to it tomorrow.  Maybe things will be different then.

The rewards at the end of the day are great.
Fishing is laborious and requires a lot of hard work and concentration. At the end of the day, it’s all worth it because you’ve caught your own dinner and spent some quality time outdoors.  Like fishing, writing can sometimes be really challenging and can require a lot of focus and concentration.  However, at the end of the day, when you’ve met your writing goal or completed your course assignment or dissertation chapter, the rewards are so strong.

Thanks for reading!  Do you have any other ideas for how fishing and writing are alike? If so, let us know in the comment box below.

Jes Philbrook is a Writing Instructor in the Walden University Writing Center. She’s taught and tutored writing for the last nine years. When not working, Jes can be found outdoors, likely walking, canoeing, fishing, reading a book in a hammock, or playing with her adorable nieces and nephews.

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Thursday Thoughts: Your Cat Can Inspire Great Writing

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This week, in deliberation about the Thursday Thoughts post, I was trying to think of a catchy acronym that would allow me to share with the world a picture of my beautiful cat, Lucy, and I realized: Writing well requires care, attention, time, and space... or: Writing well requires C (care) A (attention) T (time) S (space). That's right, writing well requires cats.

Having a pet cat requires your care, attention, time, and space. Likewise, writing well requires care, attention, time, and space. If you have questions about what I mean, like I hope you do, read more below!  

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Writing requires care, in that - when given the opportunity - you should always choose to write about something you care about. Chances are, if you're seeking a degree at Walden, you are enrolled in a program because you care about it, so this should be easy. Audiences of your writing will be able to tell whether you care about your topic. Your audience includes your professors, your partner, your classmates, and your friends. Your audience is bigger than you might think, and trust me, they will be more likely to care about your topic if it shows that you care about it, too. To read more about how to demonstrate care in your writing and let your audience know you care, checkout this blog post titled, "Reading the Room: Adjusting Your Writing to Engage Your Audience." 

Writing well requires attention to detail. I've been the student who writes a 10-page paper the day before the paper is due... don't get me wrong. However, that writing process made me feel really scattered and disorganized. I couldn't pay proper attention to all the moving pieces of my paper, and I lost track of important details that would have otherwise strengthened my text. So, my argument is that any attention given to your paper should be focused attention, and this begins first with organizing your galaxy of articles and quotes and ideas into clear, easy-to-navigate notes. Lucky for you, we have some great resources on how you can organize your ideas so that you can begin writing with a good foundation. Beginning from a foundation of organized details is likely to result in a piece of writing that feels stronger overall. 

As I've written long and longer pieces of writing, I've learned that writing well requires a timeline and clear goals. My cat, for instance, loves snuggling with me when she wakes up in the morning and, later in the afternoon, she loves to charge around the house from bedroom to bedroom. She has a timeline for each and every day, one that is unique to her and her preferences, and I think that a piece of writing, too, should be approached with the same ideas in mind. Writing, in and of itself, takes time... choosing a topic you care to write about, organizing your ideas about that topic, and sitting down at the computer to begin your introduction are all part of the writing timeline. The step in this timeline where you actually begin writing your paper is discussed here, in our blog post titled, "Don't Just Write a Paper: Take a Trip." This blog post can help you to set up your writing timeline.

Taking space away from your writing can be a means of self-care. As a writer, you are used to looking at the same words on a screen for hours at a time, and sometimes, after so many hours, those words can begin to feel jumbled. To negate this feeling, my suggestion is to take a break. Grant yourself the ability to create some space between yourself and your writing. Do something you love. Pick up a sweet treat from your local cafe; go for a run; watch an episode of your favorite guilty pleasure TV show. Whatever you do, let go of paper pressure during that time. Creating this space to practice self-care should calm you and allow you to return to your paper feeling refreshed. More ideas to create space and practice self-care can be found here, with tips and tricks from fellow Walden students. As a writer, who will likely be writing for years to come, this practice will benefit you long-term. 

Now, I hope it's clear: You do need CATS to write well. Maybe you don't need a cuddly kitten charging around your house to write well, but it will benefit you as a writer to care for your writing by paying attention, making time, and taking space. If you have any questions about these tips or the resources provided within this blog post, feel free to send us an email at writingsupport@waldenu.edu. Until next Thursday, happy writing!

The Walden Writing Center offers to Walden students 1:1 writing support and offers to students and non-students alike all the writing expertise, tips, and information a writer could want.

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The Writing Center's Top 10 Tips for Writing Useful Topic Sentences

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We've spent a lot of time lately discussing topic sentences on this blog lately because this concept is one of the most important elements of writing sound, coherent paragraphs in your academic writing. So to add a few layers to our discussion, check out these top 10 tips for writing useful topic sentences.  

In academic writing, as well as most other forms, well-developed topic sentences will ensure that your reader understands the exact focus of that specific section or paragraph.  In understanding the importance of their placement, as well as the detail needed to make them targeted and specific, you have the ability to frame your argument in a way that is more easily understood and retained by your reader.  These short but important sentences also provide a structure to your writing that makes revising and editing much easier and less time consuming.  So without further introduction, I would like to invite you to read of my 10 quick and dirty tips and tricks for writing strong topic sentences!

Tip #1: Make sure each topic sentence works hand-in-hand with your thesis statement.
The topic sentence will inform the reader of the main point of the paragraph and essay, which should easily connect with the thesis statement of the overall essay. As the thesis provides detailed information about the overall argument of the paper, the topic sentence gives the reader a more focused understanding of this material.  A good way to see if this connection is made successfully is to read only the thesis statement  in your introduction and the topic sentences of your body paragraphs. If you are able to connect the broad idea of the paper with each topic sentence through the thesis statement, then you have written a well-crafted topic sentence and a detailed thesis!

Tip #2: Avoid using a direct quote or paraphrase for your topic sentence.
In academic writing you want to avoid using direct quotes in the first sentence of your paragraph.  Instead, the material in this position should be your contribution to the argument. In using your own original thoughts and ideas for these instances you are showing the reader that you fully understand the materials, and you are using the research of others to supplement the reader’s understanding of the materials you are presenting.  This way the reader understands that you are an expert on this material, and are providing them research from other sources to further their understanding.

Tip #3: Read your topic sentence out loud to make sure that it transitions smoothly into the next sentence.
Reading out loud is one of the most powerful ways writers can revise their work, and it is especially important for topic sentences!  It allows you to make sure that your writing is attention grabbing, fluid, and that it transitions into the rest of your writing smoothly.

Tip #4: Avoid introducing multiple authors or topics within a single topic sentence.
Often when we include too many authors or topics in a first sentence, the reader will become confused and lose focus on the important ideas you are presenting to them in your paragraph. 

Tip #5: Read the last sentence of the previous paragraph to make sure you have included enough information to make a seamless transition into your next paragraph.
Think of the topic sentence of your body paragraph as the chorus of a catchy song.  If you don’t have good lyrics leading into the chorus it isn’t as effective, and you might night start humming along when you get to it.  With a strong conclusive statement in the paragraph before you can set up your next topic sentence to be even more powerful— just as powerful as a chorus or jingle that gets stuck in your head!    

Tip #6: Read the topic sentences of an author or professor you admire.
One of the best ways to become a stronger writer is to read, read, read!  Reading the work of respected scholars in your field allows you to absorb different writing techniques and apply them to your own work!

Tip #7: Read the topic sentences in the publications to which you plan to submit your academic writing.
Often times you are able to see, and mimic, the expectations of the publication by reading through previously published work.  Not only will this make your writing stronger, but it will increase your chances of a submission getting accepted by that publication.

Tip #8: Avoid repeating phrases, subject-specific terms, author’s names, articles or any key concepts more than once in a topic sentence.
Have you ever started to read a book or story where the author introduced so many characters you lost track of who they were and gave up on reading it?  Me too! The same thing can happen with academic writing, so you want to be sure that you introduce terms, articles and names with purpose.

Tip #9: Make sure the establishing sentence that you use for your conclusion sets up the closing remark you make in the last sentence of your assignment.
The first sentence for your conclusion will need to support the last sentence, or conclusive statement of your paper.  A strong first sentence will reaffirm the importance of your topic, and when paired with a strong conclusive statement you will be able to make a valid and poignant argument that will stick with your reader long after they have finished your paper!

Tip #10: Have fun!

Writing doesn’t have to seem like work!  Use your passion and excitement for the topic you are writing about to craft topic sentences that get the reader just as excited as you are! 

Meghan Barnes
is an instructor and writer based in the South. She has two dogs, and a handful of composting worms  that she enjoys feeding scraps to. When she is not writing, editing, or reading, she enjoys playing kickball, softball, and other active sports. 

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