Today I am editing a graduate student’s prospectus. This student is in the 3rd year, and I am editing what I know is their 3 or 4th draft. I know that their advisor has already put in a lot of commentary and some editing in to at least one of those drafts, but I’m wondering how much the graduate student heeded the comments. Doing this is making me think about how I was judged on my writing skill at the stage, how I learned to improve my writing, and what graduate schools do to help their students. . .
Students – very few graduate programs offer a writing classes, and even fewer will require you to take one. My suggestion to you is to find one and take one. If there isn’t one to be found, approach your grad program about starting a class or even an informal seminar on writing. The best classes will have you write something relevant to your research and/or graduate requirements, and then have you trade that paper for several of your classmates to read and discuss. This enables you to get feed back from the instructor(s) and peers, while learning what makes or breaks a document by reading the papers of your peers. It also helps to have various profs rotate through discussing their tips and tricks on writing, and what they think makes a good document. The later will vary, but it will help you develop your own style.
Other options include attending a more generalized writing or grant course. The former will help with clarity, grammar, and probably will give you good tips on style. However, there are few subject specific writing courses available outside grad programs. They are good at helping to teach you how to effectively present a ‘story’. This can be a huge help in learning to organize and present your grants. Grant courses can often be found generally offered on campus for free or cheap compared to a generalized writing course. If you are at a smaller university, look into what is going on at larger campuses nearby. Often they will let you take advantage of their classes/seminars, and departments can put you on listservs that inform you of upcoming opportunities for classes/seminars. One multi-week grant seminars i took was open to people from 4 different campuses in my area, but it was hard to find information about it if you weren’t on the campus it was taught on.
Get out there and find a class!!! You’ll impress someone!
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Look for a writing center on your campus. This can provide one on one help with writing and editing. Same warning applies – there often isn’t a wide variety of subject specific councilors. Most of them are English majors or similar, but you might luck out. Again, go even if there isn’t someone subject specific. Grammar is grammar, and they will help you will flow and clarity. HOWEVER, remind them that (non-pop) science writing is supposed to be dry (but hopefully interesting), fluff is not a science writer’s friend.