By Sarah Dimick
Sarah is a Ph.D. candidate in literary studies at UW-Madison, and has taught at the Writing Center since 2013. Before coming to Madison, she received an MFA in poetry from New York University.
Last winter, during a late afternoon appointment, a graduate student in the history department asked me how he might make the final chapter of his dissertation more compelling.1 We’d already discussed what I think of as skeletal concerns: the order of his paragraphs, the clarity of his topic sentences. We’d already examined his thesis and his conclusion for coherence. I asked if he was concerned that the intellectual contribution of this chapter wasn’t sufficiently groundbreaking, that other scholars in his discipline might not feel he was making a substantial intervention. “My argument’s brilliant,” he told me, “but this chapter is totally dry inside. I want to write the kind of history that makes people turn pages, to write a story where the characters come alive. How do you do that?”
A few weeks later, I met with an undergraduate student in an advanced physics course who was trying to condense the caption beneath one of the figures in her lab report. “The challenge,” she explained, “is that I’m trying to say so much in so few words. It’s like writing a haiku about a gravitational field. Each word has to be so precise.”
And this past fall, a senior applying to medical school pulled three crumpled pages of paper out of her backpack. She spread them on the table in front of us, each one containing a different opening paragraph to her personal statement. “My academic advisor said the first paragraph needs to give the admissions committee a sense of my voice,” she said. “But after writing all of these, I’m not sure any of them are me yet. And I’m worried my voice isn’t the kind of voice med schools like anyway. I guess what I’m saying is that I need to find a voice. Really soon. Before this is due on Tuesday.” Continue reading