Success Tips

Academic Reading

  • Set yourself a reading schedule and devote a brief period of time each day to read.
  • Invest in a dictionary and a Sociology dictionary (which explains terms like “paradigm” in detail).
  • The first time you read a difficult text, read it through like a newspaper article, even though you do not understand everything.
  • A day or so later, read it through a second time, this time jotting down unfamiliar words to look up – if you are still unclear about the meaning, bring these to class with you.
  • With extremely difficult readings (ie. Habermas) you may have to read the text three or four times. By rotating between secondary sources (that summarized points), primary sources (theorists the author draws upon) and original text, it eventually makes sense.
  • At the end of a chapter or article make a short set of notes (five or six sentences) that summarizes the key concepts/ideas and keep this in a paper and/or electronic file.
  • You may want to select out one or two quotes that may be useful for a paper (either for this course or your project or thesis) – be sure to include page numbers and full A.P.A. reference information so you can find this again.
  • If you have a busy schedule, always have an article or two that you can use as your “light” (as in physically  – not necessarily mentally) reading to bring with you to read while waiting in the doctor’s office or at the soccer field while the kids are warming up.

Academic Writing

Brainstorming Ideas

Start early – brainstorm a number of ideas that interest you, and then try writing one sentence that summarizes the main argument of the paper. Here are some examples:

  • Teaching literacy skills is most successful when learners are motivated because they want to improve their personal lives.
  • Feminism is still necessary because young women need to learn that they still face inequities in being socially expected to do unpaid labour.
  • University education is less critical today because of the expectation that degrees will be connected to the needs of the marketplace.

Write an Outline

Once you have narrowed down your topic, expand this into an introductory paragraph that overviews the main points to be discussed in your paper. Develop an outline that gives subheadings for each of the main points you will take up in your discussion.

Doing Research

Under each of the subheadings, jot down the key words that may inform your discussion. Using these start to do some research. You can usually draw upon some of the articles/texts you have used thus far in the program, but you will also need to find new sources. Get familiar with EBSCOE, the electronic database you have access to as a student at MSVU. Ask a librarian to help you if you have difficulty locating articles that are relevant.

Write a Draft (and then make another one!)

In your undergraduate degree you may have been able to write one draft before submitting a paper still obtained a decent mark. Once you are a graduate student, the expectations are higher. Faculty who publish papers in journals often write a dozen versions of a paper before it gets published, so they expect that you will take time to do careful revisions.

Start by jotting notes under each of your subheadings. Gradually your paper should start to emerge. Continue to add to it, making notes about points you need to continue to research (either because you are unclear about them or do not have sufficient evidence to make your point). Date your drafts when you save the document so that you do not get different versions confused.

Using Quotes

Quotes are intended to support your discussion – not replace it. Make sure that you have a sentence leading into the quote so that the reader understands the context in which you are using it, and it often is helpful to have a sentence after the quote so the reader knows how you are connecting it to your own discussion. Do not assume that a reader will look at a quote and interpret its significance in the same way as you do. Be sure to review your A.P.A. guidelines carefully so you know how to format your paper when using quotations. For students new to writing papers, a general guideline I suggest is that you should probably not use more than two quotes to a page, and your quotes should usually be less than 40 words in length. This way your paper will be primarily based on your own discussion rather than on someone else’s work.


This is often the most difficult stage of writing. Here are a few tips:

  • Read your paper out loud, preferably to someone else, but even if you read it to yourself you will pick up on a number of errors.
  • Read your paper backwards – one paragraph at a time, starting with your last paragraph.
  • Go through your paper carefully and beside each paragraph summarize main point in 2 or 3 words. Check to see if your points develop your argument in an orderly sequence, and if there are parts where you have repeated yourself so you need to merge the points.
  • Make every word count – one of the most common mistakes people make is that they fail to be concise – cut out phrases such as “as you can see, another point to consider, therefore this leads one to think that, along the same lines, I believe that.”
  • Carefully check your A.P.A. guidelines and be sure that all of your references are accurate – be clear about which points are taken from other sources.
  • It is always easier to edit a paper with fresh eyes – aim to finish your paper a week before it is due, set it aside for three or four days and then look at it – the errors will leap off the page at you! This also eliminates much of the stress of paper writing since procrastination inevitably leads to higher levels of anxiety as deadlines loom closer.

Additional Writing Hints

  • Always have a back-up copy of your paper. You can email it to yourself when it is a draft so it will be saved on the university server.
  • Include a basic cover page that has all the relevant information (name, title, course, date). Do not add pictures or use dramatic fonts.
  • You may want to find a study partner or group where you can workshop (critique) each other’s writing – it’s often a good way to improve your skills.
  • Plagiarism – a serious academic offence as is outlined in the university calendar – be sure you understand how to accurately reference other people’s work.
  • Writing usually gets better with constructive feedback – if you are not happy with a mark, it does not mean that your writing will never improve.
  • Faculty evaluate differently and it is a good idea to talk to a professor to make sure that you are clear as to what her/his expectations are
  • Ultimately, writing papers is a way to engage with new ideas and concepts to make these meaningful to yourself and others. Pick a topic that interests you, as the experience of writing will then be much more rewarding.