Degree In Sight

APAGS member-at-large Karen Kersting earned a bachelor's degree in journalism and edited the school paper. She worked at Bloomberg News and National Geographic. She was a reporter for the Monitor on Psychology and gradPSYCH. All that writing experience serves her well now that she's a second-year master's student in the University of Minnesota's counseling and student personnel psychology program.

"My background taught me how to organize my thoughts and break information down while still having narrative flow," she says. "That's training people generally don't get."

But you don't have to become a journalist to improve your writing. Kersting and others offer tips for taking yours from good to great:

  • Read good writing. People sometimes think that "good" academic writing shouldn't include humor, lovely language and a nice flow, says Kersting. That's just not true, she says. Learn by example by reading works by social scientists like Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, PhD, or Jon Kabat-Zinn, PhD, she suggests. While you're reading, she says, note how they use a fluid writing style to write about hard science. Others recommend how-tos like Stephen King's "On Writing" (Pocket Books, 2000) or William Zinsser's "On Writing Well, 30th Anniversary Edition" (Collins, 2006).

  • Visit the writing center. Most universities have centers staffed by friendly peer consultants, says Jon Olson, PhD, past president of the International Writing Centers Association and director of Penn State's Center for Excellence in Writing. "It's so helpful to have another set of eyes," says Olson, noting that students' top concerns are organization, grammar and style. Don't expect consultants to fix a paper for you, he warns. Instead, come with questions and expect a slow process that will improve specific projects and also your writing skills overall.

  • Form a writing group. Interdisciplinary writing groups provide a chance to get nonthreatening feedback on everything from ideas to finished drafts from peers with fresh perspectives, says Angela B. Ginorio, PhD, an adjunct associate psychology professor and associate women's studies professor at Seattle's University of Washington. Committing to sharing your work also keeps you on track.

"Without deadlines," says Ginorio, "it's easy to put writing on the back burner."

-R.A. Clay