Sandra Collins

As you begin your graduate professional training, in whatever discipline, you will find a great deal of emphasis placed on learning to communicate effectively. Your verbal and nonverbal communication skills are foundational tools for building solid working relationships with your clients, your colleagues, and your professional community. Many students enter graduate studies believing that they have mastered these skills through their undergraduate courses or through their life and work experiences. However, this assumes that your learning environments have purposefully modeled effective communication skills. It is possible that you have developed writing habits that you now want to improve. The intent of this e-book is to build on your earlier learning by focusing on areas for improvement and fine-tuning your strengths.

There is also a qualitative difference in the professional writing expectations for students in graduate programs, compared to undergraduate programs. For example, you will be expected to develop your own voice and engage in more in-depth critical thinking and analysis. You may have gone through your entire undergraduate program without having to take a personal stand and articulate your own opinion. You may have cited sources for your papers but may not have engaged in systematic critical reflection on the credibility of your sources, the context of their ideas and their relationship to other perspectives, or the themes that emerged through synthesis and analysis across sources. In the chapters ahead, you will move from thinking about a topic from a critical perspective to choosing a particular position, building effective arguments, drawing on appropriate literature to support those arguments, and pulling together relevant implications and conclusions.

Written communication is one of the primary means of assessing how well students have mastered the competencies targeted in any graduate program. Your success will depend, in part, on how well you can present your point of view and effectively communicate your ideas in written form, whether in course assignments, postings to online discussion forums, email correspondence, or your thesis. These are all opportunities to demonstrate your preparedness to participate effectively in the professional community, where you will be expected to apply these skills to writing client or patient records, inter-professional communications, report writing, policy development, and so on.

The importance of professional writing is well-recognized. In addition to discipline-specific competencies, graduates of all masters programs from Canadian universities are expected to be able to demonstrate certain foundational cross-disciplinary competencies (Canadian Institutes of Health Research, Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council and the Social Sciences, and Humanities Research Council, 2007; Council of Ministers of Education, 2007; Polziehn, 2011). I did an analysis of some of these national documents to create a list of meta-competencies (e.g., competencies that any graduate student in Canada is expected to master). These form some of the learning outcomes for this e-book.

Critically evaluate and integrate knowledge from a range of scholarly sources and disciplines.

  • Demonstrate systematic and critical analysis of the breadth and depth of knowledge in the field, including emergent trends.
  • Acknowledge the complexity of knowledge and of the potential contributions of other worldviews, interpretations, methods, and disciplines.
  • Select appropriate information sources and critically evaluate the quality of current research and scholarship.

Critically analyze, synthesize, and competently apply knowledge to academic and professional tasks and roles.

  • Demonstrate critical reading, thinking, and writing.
  • Demonstrate original and creative thinking and writing.
  • Integrate, critique, and synthesize the professional literature.
  • Articulate and support an original thesis and a sustained and well-reasoned argument.
  • Demonstrate critical analysis, application, and generalization of knowledge to new questions, problems, or contexts.

Communicate and share knowledge effectively, professionally, honestly, and with integrity.

  • Communicate ideas clearly, succinctly, and effectively to interdisciplinary, specialist, and non-specialist audiences.
  • Synthesize, organize, and distribute knowledge to make it available for other users.
  • Consistently apply academic and professional writing principles and standards.
  • Demonstrate intellectual honesty and scholarly integrity, in particular, the accurate attribution of ideas to their sources.

Model respect, professionalism, and socially responsible leadership in relationships with individuals and systems.

  • Value, respect, and be responsive to cultural diversity.
  • Conduct yourself in a professional manner across settings and situations.
  • Take action to safeguard the welfare of others and to promote social justice.
You may wonder how the respect, professionalism, and socially responsible leadership relates to professional writing. Consider the following statement: It is quite unlikely that chronic depressives will ever have it in them to move past the psychological and emotional roller coaster of their lives. Now compare it to the following: There is an increased risk of recurrence for persons who have experienced depression for ten or more years. Although the overt meaning of the two statements may be similar, the first statement labels clients/patients in a way that does not separate them from their health experiences and uses pejorative language that characterizes them in a negative light.

Professional writing standards have been adopted by various professions to enhance the likelihood that meaning is effectively communicated in both verbal and written contexts. There are a number of different professional standards. I focus on the American Psychological Association (APA) standards in this e-book. My intent is not to duplicate the current Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association (2009), hereafter simply the APA Manual.  My intent is to summarize the important information for graduate students and to introduce you to the key concepts that provide a foundation for using the manual effectively. I will refer you to the APA Manual for more detailed information in some areas. Please be sure that you are using the most current edition of the APA Manual as earlier editions contain guidelines that no longer apply. I will also draw on other resources to elucidate overall professional writing expectations.

This e-book covers two different components of effective graduate writing:

  • Writing style refers to strategies and techniques for effectively communicating your message (e.g., articulating a thesis and arguments or writing clear and concise sentences).
  • Editorial style involves specific guidelines for formatting your writing to ensure consistency within the profession (e.g., standard punctuation or heading structure).

The APA Manual contains some information on writing style; however, it is predominantly an editorial style manual. You may question the logic of some of the rules in the APA Manual. However, it does not really matter what the rule is; the point of the rule is that everyone who uses it understands what it means and, therefore, understands one another.

There are a number of other competencies addressed in this e-book that focus on editorial style (rather than writing style). These form the fifth cluster of learning outcomes:

Apply APA style accurately and effectively to support clear and consistent communication of ideas.

  • Follow grammatical and spelling guidelines in the APA Manual.
  • Effectively and accurately integrate quotations, as appropriate, to support your key points.
  • Use the correct format for within-text citations to accurately indicate the source of your ideas.
  • Organize the paper into a clear, sequential, and logical progression of ideas and mirror that organizational structure through the effective use of headings.
  • Prepare a comprehensive and accurate list of references and follow the format guidelines in the APA Manual.
  • Structure the paper to reflect professional presentation style and meet formatting guidelines.

This e-book will provide you with practical strategies and tools, as well as exercises and activities, for increasing the effectiveness of your writing. I encourage you to make optimal use of the resources provided. Mastering these skills early will facilitate your successful completion of your graduate program and increase the likelihood of employment.



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