Today is National Pie Day! If you knew o

Today is National Pie Day! If you knew our tutors, you would know that we LOVE pie! Pumpkin, coconut, pizza, key lime, and so on! What is your favorite pie flavor?


“The Death of Helvetica and the Rise of

“The Death of Helvetica and the Rise of the Bespoke Font” is an eye catching title to an article about a trend in the font world. How about some Thursday morning visual rhetoric?

Conditional Sentences

User’s Guide for Dave’s ESL Café Grammar Lessons

Dave Sperling’s website is an established and wonderfully detailed source of information for international writers, and it can also be very useful for academic writers of all kinds. Sometimes we’re unsure of the more obscure grammatical constructions, and other times we may feel pretty confident about our grammar but unsure of the rules that underlie it.

Dave provides a wealth of lessons, but it can be bewildering to locate the ones that answer our specific questions, so this post series is designed to guide you towards answers to some of the issues we’ve noticed with our clients here at the GSWC.

You can find “Grammar Lessons” under the heading “Stuff for Students” on the left-hand column of the Café’s main page.  Selecting that link takes you to


Today, we’ll look at Dave’s second group of grammar lessons, about sentences that start with “If.” This particular kind of English sentence leads to a surprising amount of confusion, especially regarding what verb forms to use.

Check out the corresponding lessons if you are confused about any of the following sticky questions:

  • What’s the difference in meaning between “If she studies, she gets good grades” and “If she studies, she’ll get good grades”?  (See Lessons #1 and #2 for the distinction between known and possible real conditionals.)
  • Why is it correct to write “If she’ll study, she’ll get good grades” but incorrect to write “If they’ll have extra money, they’ll put it in their savings account”?  (See Lesson #2 for the important concept of “willingness.”)
  • How can we make sense of using “were” with “I”?— for example, in “If I were rich, I’d travel around the world.” (See Lesson #3 for unreal conditionals.)
  • Why use a past tense verb when you’re not referring to the past?  “If you asked him, he’d help you out.”  (See Lesson #3.)
  • How can we make sense of these verb forms?! “If I had had enough money, I would have helped you.”  (See Lesson #4 for unreal conditionals for past time.)
  • What does “should” mean when it’s used with “if”?— for example, in “If I should see him, I’ll tell him” or “If the baby should wake up, we’ll feed her.” (See Lesson #8.)
  • How can it be correct to start a sentence with “had” or “should”?  And what do these kinds of sentences mean?— “Had we known about the meeting, we would have attended” or “Should you need anything, please call me.”  (See Lesson #9 for “shortened” conditional sentences.)

As you work on revising your writing for grammatical correctness, you may begin to notice the questions that arise most often for you.  By noticing what these are and learning where to find answers, you can begin to understand and correct your own personal pattern of errors, thus taking a big step towards writing more fluently.

You should keep in mind that although it is very useful to gain clarity about the complicated rules of English grammar, it’s best to keep grammatical revision for the end of your writing process, after you have fully addressed issues of content, organization, and development.  What you say and how you say it creates the core value of a piece of writing, and the main point of grammatical correctness is to allow readers to easily access this value.

For assistance with all kinds of revision, do consider coming in to visit with our friendly tutors.  Visit us in in person in the Basement of the Admin building, online at, or give us a call at 806.742.2476, ext. 1.

Writing (and Surviving) Your Dissertation: Advice from a Ph.D.

If you are reading this informal blog post, then chances are surviving the dissertation-writing process interests you. Perhaps you are a pre-quals Ph.D. student preparing for the next step in your doctoral career. Maybe you are a post-quals Ph.D. candidate starting the dissertation process. Whatever your graduate academic level is, keep this in mind: the proverbial light is indeed at the end of the tunnel. You will finish your dissertation and graduate with your doctorate in hand.

For readers who have not yet started their dissertation, I have written the following section primarily for you. Even if coursework or qualifying exams still demand your attention, start thinking about your dissertation proposal now. Your committee will likely want your dissertation proposal either before or soon after quals, so have an idea of your research focus. Clearly your research interests have already influenced the direction of past and current seminar and conference papers. Therefore, you should have an all-purpose idea of your dissertation topic. Consider past literature (published within the last five years) you have read about your research interest. What have authors written about the topic? What unique arguments have researchers made? How have research findings influence current discourses about the topic? Next, think about how you will expand on past research. How will you maneuver into the academic conversation about your research topic? What do you want to say about the topic and why does your argument matter? Thinking about and answering the aforementioned questions will serve as a strong foundation for your dissertation proposal.

For post-quals readers who either started or will start the dissertation process, this section will not cover the “how to” of dissertation writing because, while the conventions of analytical writing for the dissertation are quite definitive, there is no formulaic way to organize a dissertation. Much of the work depends on the contexts of your field, research topic, and committee expectations. Therefore, I will discuss (1) issues I encountered while writing my dissertation and (2) concerns clients discuss with me during writing consultations.

The first all-too-common problem that I and other PhD candidates faced was the inability to write. You have the overwhelming, oftentimes fear-provoking, yet remarkable responsibility to produce a 200-page-plus document almost out of nowhere. What happens if you write the first few pages of the introduction or a chapter and become stricken with a bad case of writer’s block? Not finding the inspiration or motivation to write is something all dissertation writers have experienced and will continue to experience. Writing a dissertation is hard; if it were easy, everyone would do it. Therefore, here are a few techniques I implemented when writing my dissertation:

  1. Set up a schedule and reserve times for daily writing (even if for short periods). Having a daily writing schedule can keep you motivated and help you persevere through unexpected moments of writer’s block.
  2. If you do experience writer’s block, take a break. Then, when you are ready to start writing again, identify where you left off and/or gaps in your writing. Next, briefly write about anything related to the project that comes to mind (about 15 minutes).
  3. If you need to devote more time for writing (i.e. you have a forthcoming deadline), select a time of day to write for 45 minutes followed by a 15-minute break and write down ideas when not at your computer.

I recommend you apply the same methods during your own dissertation writing. Remember, writing occurs incrementally. Therefore, establishing reachable goals can help your dissertation writing succeed over the long term. Finally, if one or more of the above techniques do not work for you, decide what does works for you. Experiment with new or variations of existing writing methods.

Similar to issues of writing, two concerns several dissertation-writing clients have shared with me during past tutorials are effective time management and revision techniques. In a post-quals, pre-defense life, establishing a definitive writing schedule seems like an impossible task. While personal and professional responsibilities often interrupt writing time, I recommend the following strategies:

  1. Try writing at the start of each day for at least 15 minutes. If your schedule allows it, write for 15 minutes every hour. Writing in small amounts can help move your dissertation forward while dividing it into more manageable pieces of work.

2) Draft sections of your dissertation chapters freehand on paper. Oftentimes, sitting in front of a computer screen for hours on end is not conducive to the writing process. Find a quiet and comfortable place to work and write down ideas, chapter outlines, and entire paragraphs on paper before typing them onto a Word document. Writing freehand provides a new way for thinking about and visualizing ideas and content.

3) When finished with a chapter, devote additional time for revision and revise at least two complete pages per day. Revision allows us to re-see, re-think, and refine our writing from a fresh critical perspective. In addition, try reading your work aloud, which can help you identify issues with higher- and lower-order concerns.

Hopefully the above strategies will help you during the dissertation-writing process. If you have any questions about writing and revising strategies, please contact the GSWC and make an appointment for either an onsite or online writing consultation.

-Dr. Luke

Mini Workshop: Literature Review

Literature reviews are complex research papers (or sections of research papers) which require academics to walk a fine line between summary and synthesis. The author of a literature review essentially provides an objectively written synopsis of current research on a specific topic and shows the relationships among relevant studies. Literature reviews often also identify gaps in existing research. Keep in mind that literature reviews are not unconnected summaries of individual works. Rather, think of literature reviews as scholarly narratives; they offer readers descriptions of a research topic’s relevant literature. Therefore, consider how your source material relates. Do any common themes, trends, or debates connect the literature reviewed?  

When you are ready to start your literature review, draft an outline first. Remember: literature reviews demand organization. In your outline, consider how you will organize the relevant literature.  You can incorporate subheaders as an organizational strategy; subheaders, coupled with an effective topic and transition sentences, help direct the focus of both author and reader. Next, consider how you will introduce the research topic of your literature review and how you will construct the objective thesis statement. For your thesis, you may identify the central controlling theme of the research (i.e. what relationship have you inferred between the relevant literature?). As well, your thesis should answer the “so what?” question. In other words: why should your reader care about the research topic and your review? 

What are some effective strategies for writing your literature review? Relevant literature contains a lot of important information, so the overall length and breadth of a review usually depends on a narrow focus of the research topic. Most academic writers wonder: what do I include and what do I exclude in my literature review? I recommended focusing primarily on how the relevant literature addresses your own research question. Focusing on how researchers address specific aspects of your research question can make it easier to summarize and synthesize specific parts of the source material. Thinking about how scholarly literature addresses your research question can also help you exclude unimportant details that may not pertain to your own research project. As the author of a literature review, you must show a direct relationship between source materials and help readers see connections within the literature. 

A final issue writers have with literature reviews is the conclusion. I personally find conclusions the most difficult part of any research paper because it is often difficult to wrap up my discussion in a coherent, concise, and nuanced way. For the conclusion of your literature review, I first recommend restating your thesis and providing at least three main takeaways from the review. You should remind your reader of the research topic and how the relevant literature addresses that topic. Next, you may include what academics call a “forward-thinking moment.” The “forward-thinking moment” effectively makes the case for future research based on any gaps or shortcomings you found in the literature. As a scholar, you can accept your own call for future research and help bridge the gap in a thesis, dissertation, conference paper, or article.  

-Luke I.

Tutor Spotlight: Brian

Tutor Brian Spreng

Today’s tutor in the spotlight is Brian.

Brian earned his Bachelor’s in Philosophy and Psychology from The University of Virginia in 2005, and he earned his Master’s in Philosophy and Master’s in English from Texas Tech in 2014 and 2015, respectively. While pursuing his Master’s degrees, he taught courses in general philosophy, ethics, and rhetoric and tutored for the University Writing Center and the Health Sciences Center Writing Center. Brian began tutoring for the Graduate Student Writing Center in the summer of 2015. He also offers private editing services to graduate students and faculty.

Throughout his education, Brian struggled with perfectionism in writing. Because he did not feel comfortable committing to paper any phrase that did not precisely express his meaning, he forced himself to carefully consider every possible way to say what he meant before he wrote anything down. Doing so taxed his mental resources unnecessarily and made writing very difficult for him. As Brian began to tutor others, however, he learned to take his own advice: when writing rough drafts, he started writing down the first thing that came into his mind. As he did so, he realized that turning something poorly written into something well written is infinitely easier than writing something perfect in your head.

Are you similarly a perfectionist in your writing? Just want to give a shout-out to Brian? Comment below!