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Mastering Graduate-Level Writing Skills

Writing master’s level papers takes an extra level of skill. Luckily, with these tips and resources, you can boost your writing competency and be grad school ready before you know it.

Even the most proficient undergraduate writers find that graduate classes require next-level writing skills. While undergraduate writing demonstrates understanding of the material, graduate-level writing often requires more thorough analysis and depth on the topic. Writing at a graduate level involves adopting an unbiased, scholarly tone absent of slang and focused on literature reviews, critical analysis, and proper citation. Graduate-level papers may even require graphs, images, and appendixes to make an argument, and you’ll need to properly cite these sources.

This guide focuses on advanced writing skills for master’s students. It discusses the differences between undergraduate and graduate-level writing and reveals the specific writing skills you need to be a successful graduate student. With tips and resources for crafting a high-level graduate-level paper, this guide helps you take the steps needed toward graduate-level thinking and writing.

10 Tips for Developing Master’s Level Writing Skills

Developing master’s level writing skills involves practice along with applying tips proven to help students advance their writing skills. The 10 tips below can help you hone your master’s level writing skills in less time. To avoid overwhelm, focus on developing one or two skills at a time before applying additional tips. With diligence and practice, your writing will not only improve but result in work you and your professors will be proud of.

  1. Use a Scholarly Voice

    An important hallmark of graduate-level writing is a scholarly voice. It’s a more formal in tone than that used in other types of writing. A scholarly voice is unbiased, evidence-based, and uses third-person pronouns rather than first or second. A scholarly voice also eschews contractions, slang, and other informal phrases.

  2. Adapt to the Needs of Your Audience or the Assignment

    In undergraduate writing, it’s common to define terms and acronyms when using technical language. In graduate-level writing, however, you’ll use more field-specific language. If a term is common in your field, you don’t need to define it. Likewise, if there’s background material your readers should already know, there’s no need to include it.

  3. Research Your Topic Well

    Undergraduate writing requires research, but master’s level writing takes it to a whole new level. As you perform your research, you won’t have time to read every word you come across. Understand the main points and questions in an article or book by reading the introductions and chapter summaries and skimming subheadings. Always keep your hypothesis in mind when deciding how a piece of research might move your work forward. This guide on Reading and Research Skills for Grad Students can help you with the research process.

  4. Think Independently and Critically

    To present your own analysis and thoughts on the research, you must be an independent, critical thinker. While an undergraduate may simply present researched information, a graduate student must critically analyze the research of others and make decisions about the strength or weakness of those arguments. Develop these advanced thinking skills by asking unique questions and connecting your field to other disciplines in ways that allow you to further the work and research in your field.

  5. Use Proper Syntax and Punctuation

    Usually dictated by your school or professor, syntax and punctuation rules beyond the basics are largely defined by a specific stylebook (e.g., APA, MLA, CMS). Beyond these guidelines, pay attention to how your words come together in a sentence. Make sure your ideas are clear and understandable and follow the conventions set forth by your field.

  6. Be Concise as Well as Descriptive

    You don’t need to be overly verbose to sound professional and authoritative. Aim for an active versus passive voice and use third-person pronouns. When discussing main ideas and questions, express them in separate sentences instead of combining too much information into one thought. You can do a ton of research, but your peers won’t benefit from it unless you can clearly describe and discuss what you’ve learned.

  7. Include References and Cite Them Properly

    As a graduate student, it’s important to pay special attention to intellectual property, both your own and the work of others. Properly cite sources whether you’re summarizing research or using direct quotes. The stylebooks discussed above include instructions on how to handle almost every type of source you might use. If you’re unsure, ask an expert since plagiarism, even if unintended, is a violation with serious consequences. When collaborating with others, decide at the start of the project how each person will receive credit for the work.

  8. Focus on Critical Analysis Rather Than Direct Citation

    Quotations have their place, but critical analysis of resources is the emphasis in graduate-level writing. Rather than regurgitating information, question arguments. Do they make sense? Are there flaws? What new observations can you make? Can you refute anything you’ve come across? Always ask what you can add to the conversation.

  9. Organize Main Points After Conducting Thorough Research

    Look for connections among ideas and back up your arguments with sources. Support your ideas with examples, graphs, and images. Use quality research from peer-reviewed sources and look for sources both within and outside of your field. The main points are much easier to discern after you’ve completed significant research from quality sources.

  10. Proofread and Edit Thoroughly

    Computer programs with spelling and grammar checkers are helpful, but they often miss the nuances in writing only humans can see. In addition to developing your own consistent revision process, rely on peers and professors to help you make final edits. As much as improving your writing requires practice, even more so does proofreading and editing.

How to Craft an A+ Graduate Paper

At first, graduate-level writing assignments are overwhelming, and it’s true, they do take a lot of work. First you will need to start by researching your topic and forming your thesis. You can find all of our best reading and research tips in our Reading & Research Skills for Master’s Students Guide. Then, you’ll begin crafting you’re A+ paper use these tips:

  1. Begin by Crafting a Thesis Statement

    Your thesis should guide you through every step of the writing process by giving you a focal point. While you may alter it as you develop your paper, it should always provide the boundaries you need to write a focused paper. The thesis needs to be stated early in your paper, too, so readers don’t have to wade through multiple paragraphs before they know your focus. By the end of the introduction, your reader should have a summary of your argument and the conclusions you’ve developed. All of these connect naturally with your thesis and are backed up with research and data in the body of your paper.

  2. Create an Overview and Outline

    After you’ve done your research and know your thesis, think about the arguments you’ll make and how you’ll structure them. Consider creating an introduction that includes your thesis followed by subheadings for each of your points. Some assignments also require a literature review, tables, and/or graphs. An outline with an overview creates a high-level picture that then allows you to approach your paper in smaller sections that feel less daunting. You might move sections around or delete some altogether as you write, but creating an overview and rough outline is always a good way to start the crafting process.

  3. Identify Concrete Examples to Prove Your Thesis

    After you clearly state your purpose, it’s time to use concrete examples to support your main arguments. Incorporate what you’ve learned from other published work and case studies, and use images, graphs, and figures to support your argument. Use evidence to convince your reader that your argument is sound. Integrate concrete, research-based examples throughout your paper, making sure you properly cite your sources.

  4. Keep Tone in Mind as You Write

    By this point, you have your thesis, an overview, an outline, and solid examples to support your main points. As you fill in your paper further, think about how the tone for graduate-level writing should be scholarly. Remember to use professional language (i.e., no slang or colloquialisms), unbiased arguments, and evidence as support. A scholarly voice also uses third-person pronouns and generally avoids contractions. If you use technical language common to your field, you don’t necessarily need to define it. Remember who your audience is and cater the content of your paper to their background and what might be familiar or unfamiliar to them.

  5. Remember to Create a Solid Structure as You Write

    Use your thesis and outline to remind you of the arguments you want to make and the questions you want to answer. Talk about your thesis statement and main findings in the introduction, and give readers a roadmap of what to expect (e.g., “First I will discuss X, then I will show how Y, and finally I will explain Z.”) Most graduate level papers need subheadings for structure and to keep your arguments focused, and these usually reflect the roadmap you’ve given. This structure also keeps you focused as you fill in your arguments and expand on the points in your outline.

  6. Leave Plenty of Time for the Revision Process

    After you’ve finished writing, it’s time to edit and proofread your paper. Make sure you have time to let the paper sit for a couple of days after you finish writing, so you can step away from it and return with fresh eyes. Then, read each section carefully first for making sure your argument is strong, clearly developed, and supported and then for following your department’s preferred citation and formatting rules. Next, read it through a couple of times to check for typos. Consider seeking out a peer to review your paper and offer feedback. Critique can be difficult to receive sometimes, but it can be immensely helpful for making your writing better, especially if it’s constructive.

Why a Master’s Degree Requires Higher Level Skills

Writing assignments in your undergraduate studies provided you with opportunities to develop your critical thinking, analysis, and writing skills. While doing well on these assignments certainly created a skillset you can pull from in graduate school, you’ll need to further hone those skills to be successful in graduate school. Let’s consider the major differences between undergraduate and graduate-level writing.

  1. You are more likely to be driving the ship. Undergraduate papers typically focus on a specific prompt or guidelines provided by a professor, while graduate students must ask and answer unique research questions that they often develop themselves. Graduate students must also write with an expert point of view using a scholarly voice. Also, while both undergraduate and graduate-level writing requires research, more in-depth research and a higher level of synthesis are expected for master’s programs. For example, direct quotes are acceptable for undergraduate writing when pulling in research, but graduate writing focuses more on paraphrasing and summarizing scholarly sources.
  2. You are writing for a more expert audience. An undergraduate paper i usually written for a general audience with minimal use of technical terms. Conversely, graduate work focuses on fellow experts as its audience. If industry terms are used, not much time (if any) time is spent on definitions. A graduate-level paper also receives significantly more time during the revision process. After assembling your content, you need to make sure your argument is clear and organized and that sources are properly cited, no small task considering graduate papers are usually much longer than those written for undergraduate classes.
  3. You will be expected to bring a unique voice perspective to the table. A graduate-level paper should contribute to your field of study, ask unique questions, and compare previous research in new ways. Making the shift from undergraduate-level writing to graduate-level writing means taking your research, writing, and citation habits to the next level.

Hopefully now you understand the importance of applying the tips above and are ready to get started. Check out the resources below for more help with refining your writing skills.

Writing Resources for Grad Students

Whether you need help with the research process or are stuck on properly citing your sources, there’s likely an online resource that can help. Most universities have online and in-person writing centers that offer tips and advice on strengthening writing skills. The following writing resources can also help you take your writing to the next level academically.

APA Style Missing Reference Information: Even if you’ve diligently kept track of all the required information for a proper citation, sometimes a piece is missing. Whether you’re without an author’s name, a title, a date, or all three, this APA guide gives you advice on what to do.

Common Errors in English Usage from Professor Paul Brians: Washington State University professor Paul Brians put together an exhaustive A-Z list of the most common errors in the English language. Even if you think you’re a good writer, we guarantee you’ve been stumped by a few of these usage errors.

Educational Resources Information Center (ERIC): ERIC is an online index that allows students to search academic journals and high-quality research sources from federal agencies, universities, nonprofits, and more.

Excelsior Online Writing Lab: This resource takes you step by step through the writing process with tons of graphics, videos, and helpful tips. Whether you need help with idea creation, building an argument, or avoiding plagiarism, this site has a resource for it.

Google Scholar: When you’re ready to research, Google Scholar cuts out all the celebrity gossip and fluff sites. Its specialized search engine focuses on articles, books, dissertations, legal opinions, and more published by universities, professional societies, and academic publishers.

Grammarly: A peer or professor’s review always trumps artificial intelligence, but cloud-based Grammarly provides a first pass for fine-tuning spelling and grammar. The free version offers basic writing suggestions, but there’s a premium option that does more advanced analysis and checks for plagiarism.

NC State’s Overview of Literature Reviews: This 10-minute video and transcript are one of the best resources for graduate students embarking on a literature review. It describes what one is, discusses its purpose in research, and gives tips on the process for writing one.

MIT’s Guide to Avoiding Plagiarism: This resource defines the different ways of attributing credit (e.g., quotations, paraphrasing, and summarizing) and discusses some common ways writers might unintentionally plagiarize.

Open Dissertation Database by EBSCO: This free, searchable database contains data on over 170,000 published theses and dissertations accepted at American Universities. If you’re wondering what has already been published in your field of study, this is a great place to begin.

Purdue Online Writing Lab: This free resource offers a specific section for graduate writers but also has content for remote learning, job search writing, and more. Don’t miss their excellent guide on APA style and formatting!

The Writing Center – University of North Carolina: In addition to over a dozen graduate-specific handouts covering topics such as goal setting and dissertation writing, this site also offers a robust tips and tools page to help with just about any writing-related topic.

UCLA Graduate Writing Center: This is a great resource with ideas and advice for every step of the writing process. Along with the usual advice on citations and grammar, the site also touches on topics like productivity and mindfulness and provides writing advice for specific disciplines and professions.

University of Louisiana at Lafayette – Comparing Citation Managers: Whether you’re writing your first graduate-level paper or embarking on a dissertation, this comparison document helps you decide which citation manager you should use. Forget the days of copying down citations with a pen and paper, today’s programs make citing your sources as easy as drag and drop or just clicking.

University of Pittsburgh Library Citation Styles Guide: This guide covers the three main citation styles (i.e., APA, MLA, and CMS) and offers samples of both in-text citation and bibliographic citation.

Yale University’s Poorvu Center – Graduate Writing Resources: The downloadable guides for graduate students make this an essential tool whether you’re looking for help with writing a prospectus or need advice on publishing in an academic journal. The guides are easy to navigate and contain a wealth of information, too.

Interview With a Graduate Writing Expert

Emily Walker

Emily Walker Heady is Partner & Chief Academic Officer at Magellan Learning Solutions. Before this, she served as the Associate Vice President of Admissions & Retention at Longwood University and as Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education at Liberty University, where she also directed the Graduate Writing Center. Emily holds a PhD in Victorian Literature from Indiana University and has published and presented widely in that field and on larger issues within higher education.

Q. What are some common mistakes you see graduate students make in their writing?

The mistakes I see in graduate students’ writing really aren’t any different from those I see in undergraduate writing, but grad students hide them better! On a sentence level, I think the most common thing that happens to more advanced students is that they get tangled up in their own thoughts, and that leads to any number of odd grammatical constructions such as run-on sentences, errors in subordination, creative comma and semicolon usage, and an overall lack of conciseness. On the level of the paper as a whole, the biggest problem is almost always organization; the bigger the paper, the sturdier the frame has to be.

Q. What are the biggest differences between undergraduate and graduate-level writing?

Graduate-level writing is typically about engaging in high-level conversations and even making/reporting on new knowledge. Grad students shouldn’t just un-critically use terms, accept the results of studies, or report findings; they should question, reframe, and analyze. Undergraduates can get away with summarizing or reporting without much critical thought; grad students cannot.

Q. If a student is feeling stuck with the writing process, any advice on getting started?

I like to start papers in the middle. Introductions and conclusions are the hardest parts to write. Literature reviews, paragraphs that help to locate your own work in relation to the conversation in the scholarly field, etc., are much easier. Start there! Then a writer is just entering a dialog rather than making something all new. Any writer will probably have to rewrite a serious piece of work several times, so for the first draft, the important thing is to write SOMETHING.

Q. Is there anything incoming students can do to prepare for writing at the graduate level?

They should try to read a lot in their discipline (e.g., articles, books, etc.) and note the typical moves that authors, especially those with university affiliations, make. How is the work organized? What is their language like? Then make notes that will become a sort of style guide for later.

Q. Do you have any time management tips for writing larger papers like a dissertation?

My dissertation director told me that “the only good dissertation is a done dissertation.” That’s my advice: just do it. Chunk the project up into bits (e.g., five chapters, etc. with subparts for each chapter, including multiple drafts, all the reading you need to do, etc.), then put it on a master calendar. Then just do it. I read eight articles or one to two books a day, and I wrote eight pages each for the first and second drafts of chapters, then 16 for the third, and a whole chapter thereafter. It was hard work, but I got it done on time.