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The Cycle of Reading and Writing

The road to a finished academic text is hard, but the University of Freiburg offers several services that can make it easier

Freiburg, Dec 09, 2019

The Cycle of Reading and Writing

Illustration: Svenja Kirsch

Look up some information on Google, plug in a few quotes from an essay and voilà, your paper is finished. Sure, that works, but you could also do a better, more professional job. The University of Freiburg helps undergraduate, graduate, and PhD students with writing academic texts – from doing the research, to writing and referencing, all the way to proofreading.

Illustration: Svenja Kirsch

We’ve all been there: the closer the due date for a paper is, the more you’d rather vacuum, wash dishes, or do laundry: housework instead of homework. You’re convinced that you haven’t found (and read) the right essay yet, and writing the first sentence seems like a huge feat. This phenomenon is called procrastination and sounds like a disease. It makes you want to avoid things you know you should do and that may even make you feel overwhelmed.


Dr. Ralf Ohlhoff from the University Library (UB) of the University of Freiburg says it’s best to keep calm in such situations and to keep the context in mind: Expectations are different if you’re trying to write a term paper for an introductory course, or if you’re working on your final thesis. Ohlhoff is the UB’s specialist for general issues, Oriental studies, and religious studies, and he is also head of its User and Information Services.

“If I had only known that earlier” is something Ohlhoff and his colleague Christine Schneider hear often. Schneider is deputy head of the Campus Library Division, head of the Economics Library, and the UB’s specialist for political science, sociology, and economics. She and Ohlhoff offer the course “Digital Literacy für Studium und Beruf” (Digital Literacy for Studies and Work) at the University’s Center for Key Qualifications (Zentrum für Schlüsselqualifikationen).

Of course, it’s possible to write a paper using your course reading list and an internet search engine, but there’s also a more professional and academic way to do it. Ohlhoff, Schneider, and their colleagues at the UB educate people about the tools of academic research at different stages of their academic studies (it’s different for each field of study). While students in the humanities, cultural studies, and social sciences approach the specialized librarians on their own initiative, economics students, for example, attend a mandatory course in academic research and writing that covers how to research literature, manage information, and present findings.

The history program also offers the module “Foundations of Library Research,” which is taught by Dr. Marcus Schröter and has been a part of the introductory lecture for beginning students for some time now. “Students get an idea about how to approach research,” says Schröter, who is also the UB’s specialist for history and bibliology. A second mandatory element in the history program is a two-hour advanced course at the UB in which students become familiar with how to use specialized bibliographies and data bases. If they still have questions after this, the specialized librarians can provide further assistance.


“The quality of research affects the quality of written and oral presentation,” says Schröter. In fact, the different types of academic work are closely connected. “Research, reading, and writing should rather be understood as a cycle: One of the main goals of any research project is to process what you find, reflect on what you read, and transform this into writing,” he adds.

Even before the Long Night Against Procrastination came to Germany and became organized as the “Lange Nacht der aufgeschobenen Hausarbeiten” all over the country, university libraries were attractive places to write papers. The writing event has also taken place several times in the University of Freiburg’s UB – first, when it was temporarily housed in the old Stadthalle (civic center), and since then in the new UB building. It is now called “From Topic to Text” (Vom Thema zum Text), and the Writing Center of the University of Education is involved as well. Although the University of Freiburg does not have a writing center of its own, the specialized librarians at the UB help students by drawing on their own experience writing academic papers and on the knowledge they’ve gained from special training courses in writing coaching.

How closely research and writing are intertwined can be seen in the issue of incorrect references and plagiarism. This is a question of literature management, says Ohlhoff. If you use a quote, you need to know where it’s from. That’s why he and Schneider also work with students to practice how to cite sources correctly. Incorrect citations can lead to lower grades and, in the worst case, can even get you expelled.


“We’re always happy to see how a student’s language skills are improving,” says Christina Nurawar Sani. She and her colleague Carla Vlad offer proofreading services for international PhD students at the International Graduate Academy, which is part of the Freiburg Research Services. Vlad has been doing this since 2010, Nurawar Sani since 2015. The German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) supports the service with funding from the German Foreign Office. The service isn’t about doing all the work for the PhD students, however: Learning success is the goal. That’s why Nurawar Sani advises students not to wait too long and to let mistakes become a habit, but to come to the proofreaders at the beginning of their PhD studies, if possible. “That way, PhD students can ensure that they are expressing their ideas and thoughts adequately,” says Vlad.

An average of 26 international PhD students take advantage of this service every year. The proofreaders always correct roughly ten pages of academic writing. These can be German excerpts from a thesis, a talk for a conference, or a paper. The ten-page formula has proven to be very successful, because it gives the proofreaders a good impression of what students’ weaknesses are. As part of the service, they write up a summary of their corrections, thereby systematizing students’ most common mistakes, while also offering suggestions for how to improve style. Usually, they also meet with the students to discuss any questions they might have. It’s Nurawar Sani and Vlad’s goal to help the students broaden their vocabulary and improve their grammar. They also provide tips for academic writing and how to proofread texts on their own in the future. Finally, they convey the importance of using a coherent writing style.

The international PhD students often use the service several times. Nurawar Sani confirms that it’s a good idea for them to come often, because the goal is to help them be able to write on their own. That’s why the proofreaders don’t correct content or review the facts related to a student’s topic – that isn’t the purpose of the service. “Many PhD students bring us texts throughout their entire PhD studies, and in the end all of them are very grateful,” says Nurawar Sani.

Annette Hoffmann


Digital Literacy

Support for academic research

Proofreading services