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Walden University Writing Center

Where instructors and editors talk writing.

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A Good Text is Hard to Find: Beware of Emulating Models of Academic Writing

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We’ve learned to write, over time, based on what and how much we’ve been taught, heard, spoken, and read. The higher the quality, the greater the learning. By now you’ve read hundreds of articles in your discipline and learned much—both about your subject and the mechanics of writing. Chances are good that your writing now imitates that of published writers. This makes sense and it’s basically a good thing.

However, just because a research study gets published—even when written by a respected researcher and published in a peer-reviewed journal—don’t presume that it represents a high level of academic writing and thus bears emulation. Even peer-reviewed articles can have writing issues.

Stacks of cones indicating 'Beware'!

To avoid these issues, pay close attention to what you're reading; be aware of, and cautious about, what you emulate; and actively seek critiques of what you’ve written. All writers need friendly, supportive readers who can respectfully point to errors that we’re just too close to see. We need this type of support, perhaps, even more than we need models to emulate.

As you know, writing is not easy and errors are natural. This is why some writers claim that the nature of writing is rewriting. But despite an author’s careful revisions, there are several reasons why writing errors persist into print (whether paper or online).
  • Social scientists are trained to be scientists, not writers. It’s just assumed that writing skills will develop. (This is a big assumption. Should academic writing be taught in any social science curriculum?)
  • Even for those who have published, writing may not come easily.
  • All writers can be blind to their errors at times.
  • The academic publishing process has limitations. For example, time (deadlines), money, and editorial priorities factor into publication decisions. And the author, significance, and timeliness of a piece of scholarship under review can also influence what gets published by whom. 

Therefore, it’s important to recognize strong writing from weak writing. Otherwise, you may unknowingly perpetuate errors. Here’s a short list of writing issues that can show up in academic writing. Now that you see them here, perhaps you’ll see them more readily in your reading and, of course, in your own writing.

  • Excessive use of the passive voice (leaving readers wondering just who did what)
  • Long and/or complex sentences (forcing readers to re-read them out of confusion)
  • Excessive use of nouns or prepositional phrases (causing the narrative to become abstract, confusing, and perhaps too dense)
  • Limited variation in sentence length (causing readers to lose attention )
  • Overuse of jargon, beyond what is necessary in a discipline (creating inaccessible prose)
  • Bureaucratic phrasings, e.g., regarding, involving, concerning, related to, with respect to, in the area of, with regard to (yielding verbose, overblown sentences)

To avoid these issues, you might have a look at this handful of journals whose articles you can emulate. Each of these set very high editorial standards. The quality of the prose is not second to the quality of the research:

No matter the field—psychology, nursing, business, or education—good writing is critical to the transmission of knowledge. Isn't this the purpose of scholarly writing after all? 

Tim McIndoo
 is a Senior Dissertation Editor in the Walden Writing Center. He came to Walden University in 2007 with over 30 years of editorial experience, including work as translator and photographer. He lives in Minneapolis with four cats.

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Writecast Episode 30: A Philosophical (and Practical) Look at Self-Plagiarism

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Hey writers! We hope you're enjoying your first month of the quarter. This week, we were thinking about all of the great ideas you've included in past papers, and what you need to do when/if you'd like to include those same ideas in future papers. Beth and Brittany, in the 30th episode of WriteCast, discuss this very topic. 

Citing yourself should happen for good reason, and there are a number of tips and tricks that you need to keep in mind to avoid self-plagiarism. Yes! Self-plagiarism is a thing, and the consequences of self-plagiarism can be just as serious as plagiarism itself. To make sure you're on track, hit play below.  


For a list of all of our WriteCast episodes, visit the Writing Center website for Interactive and Multimedia writing resources. Here, you can also access download information and transcripts for each of our podcast episodes. 

Happy Listening, WriteCasters!

WriteCast is a monthly podcast written, produced, and published by staff in the Walden University Writing Center.  WriteCast: A Casual Conversation for Serious Writers offers listeners the chance to sit in on a dialogue between two experienced and trained writing instructors. Possible episode topics will always be considered from listeners, just let us know in the comments. 

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Writing as Scholar, Writing as Practitioner: Nursing as a Case Study in Flexibility

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This post is dedicated to all the Walden DNP students who are heading to Dallas, TX for their Capstone Intensive retreat this week. You can learn much more by checking out the Walden Capstone Intensive homepage by following this link.
Title picture for this blog post. A nurse entering medical records

An old adage states, “Practice makes perfect.” The concept is simple: If you perform an action many times, you get better at it. If you do an exercise many times, you get stronger at it. If you frequently write in a specific way, you get better at writing in that specific way.

Most people practice writing the same way that they practice walking: They just do it without thinking about it. Do you write a lot of emails? That’s practice writing. Text messages? Same thing. Reports? Poems? Medical charts? When you do a type of writing regularly, you get a lot of practice writing in that specific genre and in that specific style. If you start writing in a different genre, like academic writing, it’s very important to understand how your writing style might need to change based on the needs of your reader.

Let’s take nurses as an example. No other profession exemplifies Walden's mission of creating scholar/practitioners quite like this one. In the Writing Center, we see lots of nurses working on advanced degrees like the MSN and the DNP, and many times these students have years of experience writing as a nursing professional. Hospital nurses write a lot: Each patient has a chart that’s updated with information such as
  • observations,
  • diagnoses,
  • measurements,
  • test results,
  • medications that have prescribed (including dosage), and
  • medications that have been given to the patient (also including dosage).

Hospital nurses write in this form with a specific audience in mind: the future nurse assigned to this patient. To make the future audience's job easier, medical charts are usually written in a special shorthand with lots of short statements like 
  • “No fever.” Translation: “The patient did not have a fever.”
  • “Sipped juice” Translation: “The patient drank a small amount of juice.”
  • “330 sleeping” Translation: “The patient was asleep when I checked on them at 3:30 AM.”
  • “Pain 3 out of 10” Translation: “The patient rated their pain as a ‘3’ on a scale of 1 to 10, 10 being highest.”

These abbreviations may be confusing to an outside reader, but they make perfect sense to the other medical professionals who read them because they’re familiar with the abbreviations, the style, and how to fill in the gaps.

Writing in Academic American English using APA style can seem very different from writing in a medical chart. The basic idea, however, is the same: You want to tell the reader exactly what they need to know without confusing them.

Here are some of the key differences when writing in APA vs. writing as a nurse on the job. In APA, you need to

Just like writing in a medical chart, however, you shouldn’t include information that’s not relevant. For example, the color of a patient’s shirt isn’t relevant while they’re in the hospital – so that kind of detail shouldn’t be written in their chart or described in a paper where you’re discussing the patient’s health. The thickness of a patient’s shirt might be important if they report being hot or cold, but it should always be clear why you’re mentioning the information that you do.

Here’s an example of text in a medical chart:

Alert, awake, oriented to person and situation. Confused as to time and place. Stated name and asked to go home. Was reoriented to time and place. Skin warm, dry, pale but without pallor or cyanosis. Asked again about time and place. Applied skin lotion.

When you switch to writing this information in a scholarly way, you must make different choices about your writing. Depending on what you want your reader to focus on – the purpose of your writing – some of these details should stay and some should be commented on. For example:

[Paragraph focusing on mental state] Patient X was alert and awake, and recognized their own name and that they were ill. However, they did not know what day it was or recognize that they were in a hospital. After being reoriented, they did not retain memories of the time or place. These symptoms are associated with mild neurocognitive disorder (American Psychiatric Association, 2013).

[Paragraph focusing on skin condition] Patient X’s skin was pale but without showing an ill pallor or cyanosis. I applied a skin lotion due to the dryness of their skin, as recommended by Smith (2015).

As you can see, the details that are transferred to the academic paper version depend on the purpose of that specific paragraph. There will always be more information that you could write about, but what you should do is focus on describing, explaining, and supporting the argument that you are making in an appropriate way for your reader.

So as you are filling out your charts, remember, practice makes perfect. Many of the skills you develop on the job can transfer over into your coursework here at Walden U. Your responsibility as the skillful writer is to understand your new audience and make choices depending on its needs. 

Basil Considine
 is a Dissertation Editor and Contributing Faculty in the Walden University Academic Skills Center and School of Management. Outside of Walden, Basil is the artistic director of Really Spicy Opera, a chamber opera company specializing in new musical works for the theatrical stage.

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Thursday Thoughts: International and Multilingual Student Support Live Webinar Today!

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Did you know? Over 150 countries are represented among Walden students, and the Walden University Writing Center has a number of unique, first-hand experiences with the languages presented by these 150 countries on a daily basis. Sometimes, we have the answers right here in house, and other times, we tap into any number of other Walden University support services, including the Academic Skills Center, the Career Services Center, and the Walden Library.

Within the Writing Center, among our very own staff, are a dynamic duo who lead International and Multilingual Student Writing Support. This duo is made up of Amy Bakke and Dayna Herrington.  They are the biggest supporters of Walden's diverse student population and are constantly busy creating resources specially designed with this group in mind. 

Among the numerous hand-picked and crafted resources from Amy and Dayna are:
  1. 1. Resources to help you understand academic writing in the U.S. 
  2. 2. Resources to help you succeed in your academic writing endeavors
  3. 3. Resources to help you further master the English language

With these resources, you can prepare yourself for success as you journey through your coursework at Walden. Today, Amy and Dayna will lead a live, interactive webinar, titled Grammar for Academic Writers: Identifying Common Errors, and you can join them today from 12pm-1pm Est. 

We hope 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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Grammar for Academic Writers: Creating Scholarly Tone with Strategic Verb Choice

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Many international, multilingual, and native English speaking students come to Walden with highly proficient English language skills, but the truth is that it takes a lot of time (and we mean a lot - some researchers say 7-10 years beyond basic communicative proficiency for language learners) to master the complex vocabulary and language use norms of American Academic English.

Title image for today's blog post. Polish Scrabble, anyone?

Vocabulary Choice and Scholarly Tone
One common challenge area that many people experience when gaining proficiency in a new language and in academic English is understanding what vocabulary and wording to use in which contexts. Some textbooks or sources might refer to this topic as register or formality. To better understand what we’re talking about, think about the language and phrasing you use when talking to different people. For example, consider how you talk to a course instructor, grandparent, best friend, police officer, or child. Chances are that you use different vocabulary, tone, sentence structures, and levels of formality with these individuals. You might also think about how your communication would be different if you were communicating with them in writing instead of speech.

Of course, there will be variation from person to person and culture to culture about the formality expected when communicating with different groups of people or in different contexts. There may also be significant differences between oral communication and academic writing, so noticing and understanding the expectations in an American academic writing context will help ensure success in your coursework and writing at Walden.

Verb Choice
With that, let’s take a look at a strategy to create an appropriate academic tone in academic English writing:

  • Avoid or reduce the use of phrasal verbs (sometimes called multi-word verbs), which are often accompanied by prepositions such as for, on, up, into, at, etc.
  • Favor English or Latin-based verbs, which are typically single-word verbs

Here are some examples of how avoiding phrasal verbs creates a more scholarly tone in your writing:

Informal: For the interviews, the participants and I will meet up at a local library. (meet up = phrasal verb)
Better: For the interviews, the participants and I will meet at a local library. (meet = single-word verb)

Informal: The patient got better quickly after receiving the injection. (got better = phrasal verb)
Better:  The patient recovered quickly after receiving the injection. (recovered = single-word verb)

Informal: For this assignment, students need to look into a topic of their choice. (look into = phrasal verb)
Better: For this assignment, students need to investigate a topic of their choice. (investigate = single-word verb)

Choosing English or Latin-based verbs not only helps academic writers be more concise by reducing wordiness (which is highly valued by APA), but it also helps to be more precise. These verbs often have a more specific meaning than their phrasal verb counterparts. You can see some examples of how phrasal verbs can have various meanings, depending on the context, whereas English and Latin-based verbs typically have more precise meanings on our page on Scholarly Voice: Verb Choice.

Speaking of learning the norms of American Academic English, did you know that the Walden University Writing Center has various resources for international and multilingual writers learning the norms of academic writing at Walden? Some of them include webpages with grammar tutorials, webinars on grammar and mechanics, and information about U.S. academic writing norms on the "For Multilingual Students" section of the Writing Center website. After checking these resources out, let us know if you noticed any topics or resources about academic writing in English that we’re missing in the comments section below.

Editor's Note: Amy B. will be co-presenting a brand new Live Webinar on Thursday, September 15th at 12pm Est. Join her for "Grammar for Academic Writers: Identifying Common Errors" to broaden your understanding English grammar. The Live Webinar will feature expert instruction and plenty of opportunities to practice these skills. Register for this event by following this link to our Webinars homepage. See you there! 

Amy Bakke
 is a Writing Instructor and one of the Coordinators of International and Multilingual Student Writing Support at the Walden University Writing Center. She has been teaching English to speakers of other languages (ESOL) and academic writing since 2008. When not working, she enjoys sewing and spending a lot of time with her family and dog.

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