Graduate Student Development

Why are grad students sometimes reluctant to ask for practical help regarding writing?

In this part-one of a two part series, I examine why grad students are often reluctant to ask for practical help regarding writing. In part two, I examine why profs may sometimes be poor at giving practical help and what graduate students and professors can do to help develop scholarly writing skills in graduate students. 

So… Why are grad students sometimes reluctant to ask for practical help regarding writing?

Those of us who are graduate students can agree that writing and writing well is important if one is to succeed in graduate school and beyond. Writing is the primary mean with which we communicate the significance of our work to others. With a limited labour market, the pressure to publish early is never more important. Yet many of us struggle over writing–what to write, how to write, when to write, and even why we write!  It would seem logical that we ask for help when help is needed. Yet, many of us don’t.

Here are some reasons to why I think graduate students may be reluctant to ask for practical help regarding writing.

It takes time to get used to writing scholarly. Scholarly writing is a genre of writing that comes with its own sets of conventions, style, rules, and practices. Expressing complex ideas in ways that make them comprehensible to others can be a challenging task (let alone attending to formatting, citation rules, and style). Writing ought to be succinct, precise, and parsimonious. Clarity is most important when you are communicating complex ideas. The best piece of advice I’ve been given is this: Don’t let the language get in the way of your ideas. Because scholarly writing is a genre of writing few of us get any exposure to or practice in until we begin our graduate education, it can be difficult to pick up these implicit, invisible rules about convention and practices.

Admission of Guilt.  Being able to read and write have traditionally been associated with intelligence and academic success. Afterall, one of the many goals of public education is to prepare a literate citizenry. Since graduate students are not anything but those who have mastered schooling, seeking help may sometimes be construed as an admission of inadequacies, when in fact, it should be viewed as a sign of strength.

Getting it right. Years of schooling have ill-conditioned students into thinking that writing ought to be done right—at the first go. Writing, then, becomes an exercise of precision. While that is an important outcome of writing, writing (i.e., communicating) well requires time be spent to refine the message and in choosing the right diction and sentence structure. Yet, that is not what is taught in school. Graduate students may sometimes carry this notion that a piece of writing is to be subjected to a summative judgement of its quality when submitted to a professor, when in fact, it should be judged formatively to identify areas of improvement.

You don’t know what you don’t know. The body of research on expertise tells us that one of that ways in which novices differ from experts is that experts have a wealth of strategies and patterns accumulated experientially from engaging in disciplined deliberate practice. Novices lack these patterns, or schemas, and thus are not attuned to the task in ways like experts do. This can be quite debilitating comes time to write.

To think is to write, and to write is to think. This is one of the hardest lesson to learn as a graduate student. Do you find that, first drafts are often replete with mistakes, half-completed thoughts, and generally take the most effort to write; subsequent draft often times do not get any easier. Why? It is because  the quality of writing is dependent on the quality of thinking. It is only after thinking is clarified, connections made strong, and you’ve experienced those ah-ha moments, can you clearly articulate your ideas. Paradoxically, one of best ways to clarify thinking is to write.

To sum up, it is prudent upon the graduate student to recognize scholarly writing as an integral component of graduate education. Though, this is complicated when a graduate student may not be aware of the deficiency simply because he/she lacks the capacity to recognize it in the first place. In this case, professors ought to create a supportive environment to help the student improve. More on that in part two.


This blog comes at the suggestion of Susan (@GradSchoolNinja), who I met over twitter quite serendipitously. She blogs about graduate student success over at She suggested the following topic for me:

By Chi Yan Lam

Dr. Chi Yan Lam is a Credentialed Evaluator and an Adjunct Assistant Professor of evaluation at the Faculty of Education and the Faculty of Health Sciences, Queen’s University; he is also a full-time evaluator practicing in public service. He specializes in evaluating large-scale, complex programs and incorporates multi-, mixed- and design methods in his evaluations to answer questions of importance to program administrators and policy makers working on educational and social programs. His articles on evaluation have been published in peer-reviewed journals, including the American Journal of Evaluation and the Canadian Journal of Program Evaluation. He has been a holder of the professional designation in evaluation since 2014.

One reply on “Why are grad students sometimes reluctant to ask for practical help regarding writing?”

Chi, I am so happy that you have focussed on this topic! I for one continue to struggle with writing, even after three years of graduate study. I am happy to say that I feel some progress has been made, and undertaking an academic writing course certainly contributed to that. What has helped most for me though is a growing awareness that I am not alone, and some invaluable advice from a wise mentor who said “don’t get it right…get it written” after all, until you have a draft you have nothing to improve.
I agree with you that there is a stigma attached to admitting you struggle with writing which is a shame, as much improvement can also be gained through the sharing and receiving of feedback on your written contributions. I look forward to hearing more from you on this topic!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s