Advice for Academic Writing from Wendy Laura Belcher

If there is one book I wish I read at the beginning of my graduate studies it is Writing Your Journal Article in 12 Weeks by Wendy Laura Belcher. Although Belcher provides a detailed plan for completing and submitting an academic article, she also offers honest, useful, and more importantly, realistic advice which is applicable for other sorts of writing such as seminar papers, notes for comprehensive exams, dissertations, and even creative endeavors. Belcher acknowledges that scientific writing generally has other parameters, so she mainly addresses scholars in fields such as the Humanities and the Social Sciences.

Here are some of my favorite suggestions from the book:

  • Identify your feelings about writing.
    • Are you experiencing guilt, fear of failure, impostor syndrome? It is actually very common to have negative feelings about writing. It is important to acknowledge these feelings and even talk about them rather than repress them.
  • Prepare a realistic writing schedule.
    • Work on a writing schedule and anticipate weeks when you might not be able to write.
    • Pick a time of day that works with your other responsibilities and habits. Consider if you are a morning or an evening person before deciding on the best time to write.
    • If you cannot write at the same time every day, try to come up with a regular pattern for your schedule.
  • Make writing social.
    • Writing does not require isolation. In fact, it should be done in community. Join a writing group or attend a writing class. A good conversation about your manuscript will help you think further about your argument and will teach you how to respond to feedback and criticism.
  • Write every day.
  • Do not wait to write. Do not wait for:
    • Inspiration
    • The last minute
    • Big blocks of time.
  • Do not wait until all of your research is done to start writing.
    • It is not possible to read every book which might be related to our topic.
    • Start writing and this will help you determine what information you actually need.
    • Leave holes in your manuscript. These can be filled up later.
    • Approach writing and thinking as simultaneous tasks.
  • Persist!
    • Rejection is common, do not take it as a measure of your worth. The best writers get rejections as well, but they persist.  

Overall, Belcher’s book encourages graduates students to persevere, even when we feel we do not have the time to write. She also offers practical solutions to common internal and external obstacles. If you would like to know more about her approach or if you are interested in following her 12-week plan, you can find her book at the Hesburgh Library. (The Spanish edition is also available for online access).

Did you enjoy Belcher’s book? Do you have any more questions about it? Ask the Salmon! Submit your questions to gradlife@nd.edu or go to the Ask a Question tab at the top of this page.

Back to School with Ask the Salmon

School is back in session for the fall! For some of us, classes have begun again; for others, we are getting back to our school-year research schedules. Campus is crowded and coffee lines are long once more, and football season will soon be in full swing. It may take a little longer for all of us to settle into a regular schedule for the semester (it usually takes me a few weeks), but now the real work of graduate student life begins.

With the onset of a new semester, Ask the Salmon will be introducing two new blog series geared toward grad students, to be published on alternating Fridays. The first will be a series on the performing arts and entertainment, and will feature various venues for attending concerts, plays, and other shows, as well as for viewing art on campus, in South Bend, and in Chicago. Special note will be made of opportunities to purchase discounted student tickets.

The second series will be called Living Cheap in the Bend, and will feature tips, tricks, deals, and must-knows for living life on a graduate student budget. Although it’s much easier to live well on a low income in South Bend than in most other parts of the country, it can still be tricky. Fortunately, Notre Dame and Michiana offer an abundance of ways to cut costs if you are willing to do a bit of looking around.

As always, of course, feel free to submit your own questions and look for our answers on the blog. In the meantime, may the beginning of your fall semester be propitious!

Best places for a Cup of Joe (or tea)

Need a little caffeine boost or a change of scenery? As you figure out your workflow this semester, consider integrating an occasional, or maybe even frequent, visit to some of these awesome local coffee shops. Most of these places have no problem with grad students coming in and setting up shop for a few hours (or more than a few…)

Here are some that took me a while to discover:

  • Zen Cafe – With a cool industrial vibe, this local roaster has a huge space perfect for spreading out and studying.
  • Top Heavy Cafe (Niles) – Just a quick drive north of campus, this extremely modern cafe features hipster quality drinks with minimalist design features. There is also a delicious pizza place just up the street from Top Heavy. They are also open on Sundays!
  • Electric Brew (Elkhart and Goshen locations) – This cafe has a great eclectic vibe complete with bikes hanging from the ceiling and burlap bags hanging on the walls. The coffee is great and they are also open on Sundays.
  • Union Coffee House (Buchanan, MI) – This bright little coffee house features both tables and couches to study in maximal comfort. They have both vegetarian and vegan eats as well!
  • Cafe Tosi (St. Joe, MI) – About 45 minutes from South Bend, this beautiful beach town has a charming French style cafe with delicious (seriously delicious) eats and endless cups of Joe. I love driving up to St. Joe on the weekend and working in some research time at this charming cafe after a dip in Lake Michigan.

And here is the classic list:

  • Chicory Cafe – A favorite among grad students, Chicory is the only New Orleans themed cafe in South Bend. They have a wide range of caffeinated options, as well as excellent Mac N Cheese and Po Boys.
  • Chocolate Cafe – A South Bend classic, this cafe seems to have it all – ice cream, cake, caffinee, a wide variety of sweets, and hearty food as well! You haven’t really been to South Bend if you haven’t visited the Chocolate Cafe
  • Starbucks – Several locations to check out. If you want to use the rewards program (i.e. free refills), you will want to go to a stand alone location. My favorites for studying are the one north of campus just past the toll road, the one on South Bend Ave right by school (although this one can be crazy during exam time), and the one south of school on Ireland road.

3 things I wish I’d known during my first week at Notre Dame

The first week of grad school can be both exciting and stressful. Not only are you jumping into a full load of coursework, research, and/or teaching, but you’re also learning to navigate a new campus. Even simple tasks can become a pain when you’re trying to figure out where things are located or how the system works. So, with only two more weeks (!!) until the semester begins, I thought now would be a good time to share a few bits of knowledge that would have made my life a little easier during those first few weeks on campus.

  1. You can check out an umbrella from the library! After being caught without a rain jacket or umbrella during the torrential downpour that occurred during last year’s orientation, I will pass on this key piece of information that might have saved me from a very soggy trip home. If you find yourself stranded on campus during a downpour, head for the circulation desk at Hesburgh Library and ask to check out an umbrella–all you’ll need is your ID card. Bonus fact: the Library also lets you borrow other handy equipment including phone chargers, laptop stands, and international outlet converters!
  2. Time your coffee runs carefully. If you’re taking classes, there may be times when you have just 15 minutes to get from one building to another and refuel with some precious caffeine. Unfortunately, the same holds true for most of the students campus. Waddicks (on the first floor of O’Shaughnessy Hall) and Starbucks (in LaFortune student center) are notorious for ridiculously long lines between classes. So if you’re not constrained to a class schedule, it’s best to avoid the rush-hour headache altogether. But if you’re in a time crunch and you really need that boost to get you through your next class, it pays to familiarize yourself with the options along your route—you can scope out some of them in advance on this page (the listings under “Express Locations” are all possible options for caffeine on-the-go).
  3. How to print on campus. I’m a little embarrassed to say that it took me several days to figure this one out . . . I was coming from a university with a totally different system for graduate student printing so I foolishly ignored the PrintND signs posted all around campus. At Notre Dame, graduate students can print anywhere on campus using personal laptops, mobile devices, or campus computers. If you’re using a laptop, you’ll need to download the correct drive from the OIT website in order to get started. After that, you can simply hit print and then locate a nearby printer (they can be found in most buildings on campus). You’ll just need your student ID card to access your print queue. All grad students receive a yearly $35 printing credit that is automatically linked to your account. Click here for detailed step-by-step instructions on how to set up your devices and print your documents. You’ll also find instructions posted above most campus printers.

Summer in South Bend: To the Library!

One of the great achievements of American culture is, undoubtedly, the public library. Many of us have childhood memories of checking out books from our own local library (or bookmobile!), picking out a video to watch at home, or participating in a summer reading challenge. When I was growing up, libraries still stamped due dates on book covers, audio-books were called “books on tape,” and only the morally corrupt didn’t rewind their movies before returning them. These days, the American tradition of public libraries is still strong, though they now offer the use of computers, Wi-Fi, DVDs, and even online streaming. Libraries still serve as a shared space in which worlds of knowledge and culture are open to all who come in the door, where anyone with a card can enjoy a small space of quiet delight in something for its own sake.

St. Joseph County Public Libraries

South Bend’s public library fully lives up to this great tradition. Ranked in the top ten libraries in the nation for medium-sized towns, the St. Joseph County Public Library is the product of a great deal of care and investment on the part of the community. There are ten branches throughout St. Joseph County, eight of which are in the city of South Bend, including the Main Library downtown (304 S. Main Street). All of the locations have numerous books and other materials, but the Main Library is the branch with the most extensive collection. Here, there are three floors of books and magazines of all sorts, housed in a quiet and pleasant facility with plenty of space for sitting and a large room devoted to children’s books, where you can also check out toys and games.

Movies and Videos

You’ll find, however, that books are only the beginning of this library’s resources. On the third floor of the Main Library, there is a collection of audio-books, movies, and video games, as well as a small sitting area with a television for viewing DVDs. The collection of movies at this library is impressive: there are numerous copies of most new releases and a plenitude of movies from all eras of cinema. All of these can be checked out for only 50 cents a day, a combination of price and selection that cannot be beat by any rental service in town (or online, for that matter!). Many films and videos of all genres are also freely available for check-out via online streaming.

Museum and Park Passes

But that’s not all. The library also has passes available for check-out that provide free admission to local museums, such as the Studebaker National Museum, the Oliver Mansion and History Museum, and the Wellfield Botanical Gardens in Elkhart. These passes can be checked out for free for a week at a time. Additionally, you can check out (also for a week) an Indiana State Parks Pass, which will waive the entry fee at all Indiana state parks, including the nearby Potato Creek State Park and Indiana Dunes State Park.

Audio-Visual Equipment

At the Main Library, teenagers and adults over the age of 14 can also utilize Studio 304, where all manner of equipment for print, audio, and video projects is available, including recording rooms, printers and scanners, an assortment of high-tech cameras, and computers with design software. For 10 cents per gram, you can even use the library’s own 3-D printer.

Events

As if all this were not enough, the library also hosts exhibits and events for all ages, including LEGO building sessions, story-times and activities for children and toddlers, monthly game tournaments for teens and adults, a summer reading challenge for all ages, and various other free events. In August, for instance, they will have an exhibit on Alexander Hamilton, an Intro to Tea, and a viewing party for the upcoming solar eclipse on August 21. The library also has many online resources and databases, including access to Consumer Reports online, guides to home improvement and legal forms, and resources for researching local history and family ancestry. Many of these can be accessed at home through a library account and all can be used on one of the many library computers, laptops, and iPads available for check-out.

How to Get a Card

All of this is made available free of cost to those with a library card. Notre Dame students can get their own library card at the Hesburgh Library circulation desk and can have books from the public library delivered there for pick-up. Family members will need to visit one of the St. Joseph Public Library locations in order to receive their cards. Note that, at the public library, you will need to present a photo ID and proof of residency in St. Joseph County. But where else can you get all this for free?

All of which only confirms what we were taught years ago:

Things I Wish I Knew: A Letter to Incoming Students

I graduate in one week with a MA in Peace Studies from Notre Dame. The two-year program has provided amazing opportunities to grow intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually. Yet, there are things I wish I knew before coming to the program. I hope they help you in your journey as an incoming student.

  1. Your department or cohort is who you will spend the majority of your time with. The downside is that you do not have as many opportunities to get to know others in different departments. The upside is that you often become very close to those in your program. For an extrovert like me, I tried to overcome this by attending events for graduate students and meeting undergrads at football games and other campus-sponsored events. I also happened to have a few classes with undergrads and enjoyed conversation over coffee and lunch. Additionally, I contacted different professors, faculty, and administrators who I thought would be interesting to get to know and asked them out for coffee.
  2. Sometimes you will feel overwhelmed by the amount of readings, assignments, and papers you have to do. During my first semester, my professors assigned about 500-700 pages of readings each week. Remember to take a deep breath and prioritize your to-do items. Eventually you’ll develop tactics to manage your assignments.
  3. There are a lot of free events, lectures, activities, and food giveaways on campus. I discovered this fairly quickly upon arrival, but think it is important to share. Notre Dame brings in amazing speakers, ranging from Heads of State to activists. While you may be tempted to skip out on certain events because you have a lot of work, consider attending some of these each year. It is also a great way to meet other people and take a break from work.
  4. There are a lot of wonderful resources on campus-from the Rec Sports fitness facilities to the Hesburgh Library and the Center for the Study of Languages and Cultures (CSLC). Take advantage of the resources they offer, from kickboxing class and Kung Fu, to foreign language support.
  5. Notre Dame offers a variety of funding opportunities for research and presenting at conferences. Although MA students are not eligible for the same opportunities as Ph.D. students, I was able to secure funding to present at conferences in Italy and Spain. Consider looking at the Graduate School, Nanovic Institute, Institute for Scholarship and Liberal Studies (ISLA), and your home department.
  6. While academics are an important part of your grad school experience, don’t forget to enjoy your time on campus. Because Notre Dame’s academic programs are rigorous, it’s easy to focus all of your attention on maintaining a high GPA. While there is nothing wrong with striving for academic excellence, remember to keep things in perspective. You will develop life-long friends, be mentored by amazing faculty, and get to spend several years at one of the foremost universities in the nation. Remember to enjoy the sun after all the snow has finally fallen, meet new friends, and grow as a person.

Enjoy your time learning, growing, and experiencing all the wonderful opportunities Notre Dame offers.

Go Irish!

Tamara Shaya