Category Archives: Resources for Graduate Students

Self-Help for Graduate Students Part 2: Summary of “Write a First Draft to Find Your Story”

Publishing Info: Dufresne, John. “Write a First Draft to Find Your Story.” The Writer. September 2007, pages 22-23.

Time Investment: Two pages in a popular (as opposed to scholarly) publication

“You have nothing to prove in the first draft, nothing to defend, everything to imagine.”

According to Dufresne, beginning writers often make the mistake of being too critical while writing the first draft, becoming discouraged if they can’t realize their dream for the finished manuscript right away. First drafts are a place for spontaneity and surprise, and so the writer should not focus on the form or content of the story.

“Do not try to write beyond what the first draft is meant to accomplish: Do not demand or expect a finished manuscript in one draft.”

Defresne suggests free-writing, brainstorming, or free-associating if stuck while writing a first draft. The most important thing is to keep writing through the feelings of confusion: “If you’re having trouble, that means you’re thinking.”

“Trust in the writing process . . . none of it is wasted.”

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Self-Help For Graduate Students, Part 1: Review of They Say, I Say

Publishing Info: Graff, Gerald and Birkenstein, Cathy. They Say, I Say: The Moves That Matter in Academic Writing. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 2006.

Time Investment: 135 pages, written for high school or undergraduate audience

They Say, I Say is a tutorial on entering an academic conversation—a crucial, basic component of writing a dissertation or scholarly article. They offer simple explanations of summarizing, quoting, answering potential objections to your ideas, and meta-commenting.

To teach these skills, the authors rely on templates. For example, here is one template for introducing an ongoing debate:

“In discussions of X, one controversial issue has been _________. On the one hand, _____ argues _____. On the other hand, _____ contends ______. Others even maintain ________. My own view is _______.”

If this seems an overly simple way to begin an essay, perhaps you’ve never struggled, as I have, to explain the main ideas of your dissertation in brief. The authors do not suggest every paper should begin with a variation on that sentence, but they do offer simple starting points for expressing your main argument. I can imagine beginning a chapter draft in this way, just to have a clear point to come back to when my mind is muddied up with details. In the final draft, one could always begin with something snappier.

Clarity is something that most writers strive for—and clarity becomes even more important when our purpose is to teach or convince others of specific claims. They Say, I Say helps writers clarify their purpose in writing and communicate that purpose to others.