Yale Center for Teaching and Learning

National Day on Writing 2017

Celebrate National Day on Writing with Us (October 20th)

Graduate Literacy Narratives are a way for Yale graduate students to talk about their evolving relationship with reading, writing, and communicating. To help celebrate this year’s National Day on Writing, we asked current Yale graduate students and faculty and staff who were graduate students recently to give us snippets of their journeys through the perilous, rigorous, unique, and joyful aspects of graduate study. Some writers tag their entries with their names, and some choose to keep them anonymous. Below are our first inspiring and thought-provoking entries. Add your graduate literacy narrative here!

Asking Holistic Questions

As someone who was often quite anxious about my work as an undergraduate, I learned to love––and think more deliberately–– about the academic writing process during my master’s degree studies. Not only did I gain the confidence to form stronger research questions, but professors in my discipline and in composition alike taught me to always keep the exigency of my research questions in mind: why are these, and why now? How will you clearly communicate the stakes of your work? These holistic questions not only ground me in my research projects––I often find that revisiting them give me the drive I need when I am stuck. I am indebted to the people who have taught me to ask them, and use them when framing advice for fellow students in the Graduate Writing Lab––as well as undergraduates in the classroom.

— Maryam Parhizkar, Ph.D. student, African American Studies and American Studies, Graduate Writing Consultant

From Poet to Academic

I came to graduate academic writing as a practicing poet, so I had the dedication to editing and sharing my work in the collaborative writing process. But oh, wow, was I unprepared for the genre conventions of academic writing at the graduate level! I did a lot of modeling of my friends’ papers to get through class. I still thought that 7-line sentences were what sounded “smart.” I only began to rethink the art of the academic sentence recently. I feel more in control of writing now because I see that it really is building blocks from the very ground up. I’d like to even say I’m starting to enjoy academic writing now. I so, so wish I had gone through the experience of this kind of training during the course of my graduate study. I’m all for demystifying the process!

— Julia Istomina, Assistant Director of the Graduate Writing Lab

Graduate Writing Is Like a Forest

Graduate Writing is like a forest populated by a variety of different species of trees representing various genres of writing. Some of the species are more common, growing in groups or standing separately, but they all make the forest rich and purposeful.

Those cute balsam fir trees, which are aromatic and grow well in different zones, are fellowship and grant applications. These trees are the most popular Christmas trees in North America; they symbolize the beginning of a New Year and are accompanied by presents and festivities. Just as balsam firs, fellowship applications allow new projects, bring money to their recipients, and are reasons for many celebrations.

White oaks are research articles. These trees are majestic trees with all-purpose wood. Their acorns provide food to about 180 types of animals and birds. Just as white oaks, research papers are the foundation and the product of scholarship in each field. They are highly respected and cited.

Lodgepole pines are dissertations. They are grotesque, shape the outline of the forest and are scenic for viewers. They are used for paneling, framing, utility poles, and high-quality lumber. However, pines take years to grow. Similar to pines, dissertations are never-ending projects; when written and defended they shape fields and disciplines with their profound research and impressive results. They have multi-purpose uses and make up respectable citations.

Red maples are conference abstracts. They are the most common tree in the U.S. They grow everywhere and adapt to any conditions, including swamps and dry soils. They are frequently used for maple syrup and medium quality lumber. Just as red maples, abstracts are the most common genre of academic writing. They exist in various forms and formats and are accessible to all.

Next time you sit down to write in a graduate writing genre, think of what tree this genre represents. Is this tree common or not? Who likes this tree? What soil does it prefer? How long does it take to grow this tree? How can you compare this tree to other trees in the forest? Most importantly, do not forget to take a good care of this tree.

— Elena Kallestinova, Director of the Graduate Writing Lab

Our Own Unique Scholarly Voices

I love the feeling of reading something and thinking, “Yes, that’s exactly the question I have!” And when a writer manages not only to anticipate questions but to string them together into a compelling story, I am totally hooked. Of course, the experience I’m describing is a highly individual one, and not every book or article will connect to every person. (And as writers, we don’t know who will connect to our work!) But I keep writing because if even one person reads something I wrote and feels that exhilaration, it will be worth it.

With most new skills, repetition and imitation are the best ways to learn, and style and technique come later. What makes graduate writing different is the expectation that we develop our own unique scholarly voices even while we are learning how to be scholars. That’s why I have loved working at the Graduate Writing Lab during my time at Yale. Naming these writing moves demystifies academic writing, but also enables students to be confident and assured in their own voices.

— Pratima Gopalakrishnan, Ph.D. student, Religious Studies and Judaic Studies

Never Boring!

Graduate writing – whether for an audience of your peers, your professors, or (in the case of published material) both – is at times demoralizing, frustrating, time-consuming, interesting, exciting, rewarding, and exhilarating. I have almost never found it boring.

From Knowledge Consumer to Producer

As a graduate student, you shift from knowledge consumer to producer. Writing is the main channel by which you communicate your work, which usually lives in your head or a computer, to a broader community. It forces you to place your graduate experience in a larger context, acknowledging the history of your field, your peers and future implications of your work. Finding those connections is what keeps me writing.

I Used to Obsess over Every Comma

I used to obsess over every comma in every footnote (and there’s still a part of me that does this); but I’ve come to see, with time, that often I took a “trees instead of the forest” approach because I wasn’t entirely sure what the forest was, that is, what I really wanted to say, in terms of the bigger picture; and so I got all myopic with the tree bark. As a graduate student now, who has been writing, and writing, and writing, and writing – for journals, for blogs, for magazines, and for class – for years, I do feel that I have some more perspective. I know my areas; I know the trends in the literature; I know what’s worth getting into and what can be left unsaid. And this has freed me up to an extent. I no longer get bogged down in each word or bit of punctuation (except, perhaps, during the final check-over before submission). Instead, I trust myself to keep going, let it out, say what I want to say, and come back later to finesse the details.

— Brian D. Earp, Ph.D. student, Philosophy & Psychology

Lonely and Inspiring (at Times)

graduate writing is lonely and its inherent endless editing frustrating… but inspiring at times!

A More Artful Eye

Shocking is the only word I can use to describe my second foray to graduate school.

I earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration then a master’s in business administration. I went into the journalism program thinking I would breeze through because I earned one master’s degree. What’s one more?

I quickly found the formulaic writing I used for my business school education was not in any way preparatory for the task at hand.

Writing marketing plans, business plans, and collecting research on best practices or employee attitudes and performance was nothing at all like the storytelling required of me. Instead of the cut-and-dry, factual reports I wrote for six years, I needed to consider a new audience and a new purpose for my writing. I needed to reach beyond just who, what, when, where, why, and how and instead weave these elements together into a tapestry, offering a full and interesting story for my readers.

I needed a complete tear-down of everything I knew about writing, so I could start rebuilding.

I began by doing what any writer would do. I procrastinated and read a lot. I read and reread, On Writing Well, The Elements of Style, and Bird-by-bird, until I started to think about the methods taught by these authors.

I began really analyzing my work.

Did I need that word there? Could I say that in a simpler way? Can a clarify this statement? I hate how that sentence sounds, can I make it better?

It wasn’t easy to leave behind my years of business training, but one assignment at a time the feedback rolled in and I tried to implement it in each revision.

It was difficult at first to plug into that creative side of my brain, but gradually, over time and with persistence, I started to look at who, what, when, where, why, and how with a more artful eye. I began to understand the processes of revising and writing more creatively.

I can’t say it was easy, but I can say it was worthwhile.

— Stacey Bonet, Program Coordinator, Graduate Writing Lab and College Writing 

Appropriate Scope

I don’t think I learned to write a proper graduate term paper until about my fourth year in grad school. Everything before that was three times longer and more complicated than it was supposed to be, and I generally got good grades, but it’s not generally what’s expected of a graduate term paper. But by my fourth year, I finally figured how to pick a topic of appropriate scope so that it could be the length of paper that was expected of me.

— Yale Assistant Professor

Different Types of Literature, Different Languages!

One thing that is challenging about graduating writing is that you have to deal with different types of literature in different languages.

— Julia Martin, Ph.D. student, Spanish and Portuguese

A One-to-One-to-One Ratio

My experience in my undergrad lab left me with an impression that writing is instrumental to a successful career in scientific research. While I was an undergrad research assistant, I applied for research fellowships, prepared abstracts for conferences, and even helped with manuscripts and NIH grant applications.

However, graduate writing at Yale takes everything to a whole new level. I was taken aback by both the amount of writing we have to do and the sophistication required for each writing project. Looking back at the past three years, I don’t think a month has ever gone by without me working on some form of writing. Thus, I feel an important part of graduate writing is to actually find time to write and start writing. Balancing writing with lab work can seem especially difficult since there is always more data to be collected. More than once I found myself thinking “Oh, I just need to do this ONE experiment to generate this ONE piece of data to support this ONE point. And THEN I’ll start writing.” So maybe the key is to accept that a piece of writing may not be perfect, but it is the best it can be given the circumstances. And every piece of great writing has to start somewhere, right?

— Xiuqi “Jade” Li, Ph.D. Student, Experimental Pathology

If I Just Engaged

I vividly remember the day that Mr. Wilson pulled me aside after class my junior year of high school. I was taking his AP English Comp course, though I had little interest in writing. I just wanted some more APs on my college applications, and he knew it. That day I was being an obnoxious teenage boy, and he snapped at me (deservedly) for interrupting his lecture. At my locker a half hour later he told me he was most disappointed because he thought I might be a good writer if I just engaged. No one had ever told me that before.

Writing, to me, is a craft. And as such, it involves a certain kind of apprenticeship. Mr. Wilson came and went in my life, but since then I have met numerous kind souls who have taken me under their wing: patiently marking up my papers, delicately telling me where I’m wrong, or just saying they liked what I said.

Writing requires confidence. Confidence allows for creative experimentation and bold, articulate prose. In my experience, confidence has resulted from talking with other writers, trading constructive criticism, and giving positive affirmation. For as solitary an act as writing can feel, I only have a sense of who I am as a writer after having a few conversations about it. And that is what Mr. Wilson taught me that day, that I could be a good writer if I just engaged: with the craft, with my fellow writers, and with the world around me.

— Taylor Rose, Ph.D. Student, History