It’s the writing that teaches you: affordable writing resources for grad students

It’s the writing that teaches you: affordable writing resources for grad students

“It’s the writing that teaches you.” ~ Isaac Asimov

For the sake of transparency, let me be clear: I’m making three assumptions about you as a grad student. You’re busy, you’re writing a lot, and you’re on a budget. So here are some tools for students who want to brush up on academic writing skills, need quick citation help, wrestle with writer’s block, or could simply use some inspiration. An added bonus: they will neither take up a great deal of your time nor make much of a dent in your wallet.


They Say I SayGraff, G., & Birkenstein, C. (2010). They Say / I Say: The Moves that Matter in Academic Writing. New York: W.W. Norton & Co.

One of the highly scientific benchmarks I use to judge a book is, “Will it fit in my purse?” They Say / I Say – what you might call a pocket guidebook for writing – meets that standard and many more. The authors approach their subject as a means of entering academic conversations. In entering those conversations, students must first cultivate awareness of, and acknowledge, what has already been said (“they say”) to effectively frame their own arguments (“I say”). Graff and Birkenstein employ a variety of templates to scaffold readers through these and other key rhetorical moves in persuasive writing, maintaining a sense of transparency regarding the assumptions underlying the book’s strategies. Informed by the authors’ teaching experience, the template strategy enhances (rather than hinders) creativity, providing a launching pad for effective writing practices. The key rhetorical moves are illustrated through a series of examples drawing from a variety of disciplines, and the book also includes a helpful repository of words and phrases for transitions, ideas for capturing authorial action, and suggestions on how to entertain objections. But this book isn’t just about explanations of writing rules (they’re more like guidelines, anyway): it’s also about how and when to subvert those rules for impact.

Cost: less than $10 to buy your own copy (I found a used copy of the second edition for $6). Also available at the MSU library (call # PE1431 .G73 2010).

Writing Down the BonesGoldberg, N. (1986). Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within. Boston: Shambhala.

As a graduate student, most of your writing will likely be research-oriented and relatively formal in nature.  This can feel a bit stifling at times. Some professors are more open to imaginative approaches than others, but even if you aren’t able to get too crazy with your academic assignments, it’s important to flex those creative writing muscles from time to time.

Writing Down the Bones is like “writing yoga.” I use it to strengthen my core. Just as strength training results in benefits for the entire body, the effects of Goldberg’s exercises and inspiration will have a positive, lasting impact on all of your writing, whether you’re able to implement them into your academic writing now (peer reviewers will thank you), later in your career, or in your spare time as a slam poet or songwriter.

Cost: less than $10 (as inexpensive as $4 on eBay) to buy your own, or free at the MSU library (call # PN145 .G64 1986).


The Purdue Online Writing Lab (OWL)

OWL was my go-to website for MLA formatting help when I was an undergraduate, and has become equally invaluable as an APA resource during doctoral study. Need to know how to format a citation for a piece of software, a film, or a piece of clip art?  Boom.

Bookmark it. Just trust me.

Cost: free.

70 Useful Sentences for Academic Writing and Academic Word List

Similar to They Say / I Say, the suggestions on these sites may help to jump start your writing – particularly when you feel stuck. Sometimes a little boost is all you need to get that pen moving (or that keyboard clacking)!

Cost: both free.


WorldCat hosts a vast online network of library resources – you can use it to find physical copies of print and media near you, explore digital content, and obtain research assistance from librarians. I also use it as a quick citation tool: just search for a specific title, then click the Cite/Export link to copy its citation in the appropriate format (or export to your citation manager of choice).  There’s no need to log in (although you can set up a free account), and with such a huge catalog, WorldCat has just about everything.

*It goes without saying that the MSU Library’s online catalog is an equally useful resource. WorldCat just has a slight lifehacking edge in terms of speed and success rate when I need to quickly find a properly formatted citation.

Cost: free. Account optional.

MSU Libraries Selected Ebooks

I’m a big fan of the Ebrary and EBSCOhost ebook collections. They’re free (although you do have to make an account) and have a surprisingly large selection of academic books available to either view through your web browser or temporarily check out using a client like Adobe Digital Editions. Some ebooks even allow you to export chapters and selections to PDF.

Cost: free. MSU account and separate Ebrary or EBSCOhost accounts required. The Adobe Digital Editions client is available free for download.

Thumbnail images are employed in this post, without monetary gain, under fair use.