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Graduate Matters

How to start the process of enhancing your writing versatility

In the second of this two-part series, the author gives grad students some concrete steps to enhance writing versatility.


Part one of this series addressed the importance of enhancing writing versatility for graduate students interested in pursuing careers outside of academia. Part two contains an overview of conceptual and concrete considerations to help them start the process.

You could start the process of enhancing your writing versatility by taking a closer look at how the basic components of style might differ between the academic style you have developed and the style common in your chosen profession(s).

  • What differences do you see in how balance is treated? Balance indicates the amount of information given to a topic in a sentence or paragraph and how information is prioritized and sequenced.
  • What differences do you see in how emphasis is treated? Emphasis indicates how information is foregrounded by repetition or emphatic linkers.
  • What differences do you see in how register is treated? Register indicates the degree of formality used.
  • What differences do you see in how tone is treated? Tone indicates the degree of flow or abruptness.

It might be helpful to see how this assessment might work in practice. The sample sentence below is from the classic guidebook Style: The Basics of Clarity and Grace. While the author focuses solely on improving the clarity and directness of the sentence, his revision still dovetails with the stylistic elements mentioned above.

Original sentence: The Federalists’ argument in regard to the destabilization of the government by popular democracy was based on their belief in the tendency of factions to further their self-interest at the expense of the common good.


Revised sentence: The Federalists argued that popular democracy destabilized government, because they believed that factions tended to further their self-interest at the expense of the common good.

To perform an assessment of the revision, we could isolate the stylistic components and reflect on how each affects the revised sentence.

Balance: The author changed the sentence’s balance by replacing the noun argument with an active verb argued. This alters the sequence of ideas and thus prioritizes the sentence’s central idea about what popular democracy does to government (according to the Federalists).

Emphasis: The author used the linker because which foregrounds the cause-and-effect relationship between the two parts of the sentence (choosing self-interest over the common good results in destabilized governments).

Register: The author avoided relying on nominalization/abstractions such as argument, destabilization, belief, and tendency (a common feature of academic writing). Instead, he revised the sentence by opting for conjugated verbs such as argued, destabilized, believed, and tended (a feature of less formal writing).

Tone: The author eliminated the phrases in regard to, was based, and tendency of, as they interrupted the flow of the original sentence and distracted from its main idea.

This example demonstrates how you could break down a form of writing into discrete elements before making a deliberate comparison of how each element you isolate affects the text. You could do this at the level of individual sentences or follow the same process to perform an assessment of entire documents where you would go beyond local, stylistic issues and address rhetorical patterns, discursive and analytical modes, or even the overall structure.

Concrete considerations

In addition to becoming accustomed to the conceptual elements common in various writing forms, you could also take concrete steps to enhance your writing versatility :

  • Read guidebooks to learn about techniques used in workplace writing. Once you identify the genre or format you want to learn, talk to a librarian at your institution about locating relevant guidebooks.
  • Gain familiarity with the formats commonly used in the professional areas you might explore in the future: business reports, grant proposals, briefing notes, policy briefs, newsletters, executive summaries, instruction manuals, etc.
  • Attend professional writing workshops offered by your institution, professional associations, and nonprofit organizations. If you are an engineer, for instance, you could attend workshops offered by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE). Find out which professional associations are relevant to your discipline. Graduate students from all disciplines may attend workshops offered by Mitacs. You could also check whether your institution has a subscription to LinkedIn Learning where you will find a wide variety of writing courses.
  • Seek opportunities to publish in non-academic venues. There are many possibilities here, but you might start by pitching an article to publications such as The Conversation or University Affairs!
  • Practice disseminating your research using plain language with the aim of making your academic work accessible to a broader audience (knowledge mobilization).

The key to the advice outlined above is exposure — in both senses of the word. Expose yourself to different forms of writing and seek opportunities to expose your writing to audiences beyond academia. Enhancing your writing versatility is a slow, incremental process. Start early, be deliberate, and always be on the lookout for opportunities to practice new forms of writing.

Karim Abuawad is coordinator of graduate professional development at Carleton University, a role which includes developing and delivering writing supports to graduate students.
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