Pictures make words

Pictures make words

Max Adams

Image credit: Kona Macphee / RLF

During workshops with undergraduate, graduate or doctoral students, I use images – anything from films to works of art – to help them to develop their sense of story and visualise its shape.

In great art, as in good writing, there is always tension. Take a look at Joseph Wright of Derby’s marvellous allegory of the Age of Enlightenment, An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump of 1768.

The ten figures, portrayed in a room lit only by the light of a pale moon through the window and a candle behind a glass of liquid, are in a state of maximum tension; they are wondering if the scientist will let the bird die, each trying to process their own reactions. It is a moment of great drama. One figure is the protagonist — the character who will make the most profound emotional journey in the unfolding drama. But who is it? By exploring the web of tensions within and between the actors on stage, we are working out what is important to the story. How did this scene come about; what drives the action and characters; how is the narrative structured; what happens next?

The viewer must be emotionally or intellectually engaged in order to care. Will the bird survive? Will the tearful girl be traumatised for life? Above all – and this is the point of view of the protagonist – where will it all end, this toying with nature?

The drama is carefully structured, so that we know there is a past, present and future. For the academic writer, that past might be a literature review or introduction — and it’s vital that writers load these elements with sufficient tension that readers care about what happens next. Each character might represent a structural element (a theory or point of view) in a thesis or journal article. The experimental core of this painting’s story maps particularly well on to academic writing.

Good writers find a source of tension and raise the stakes (like the painter using techniques such as dramatic lighting) by suggesting a conflict or problem that must, somehow, find resolution. The props (for the painter, the costumes, furniture and landscape) are your data, which you need to manipulate to sustain the tension until you resolve them and satisfy the reader. In occasional instances, the tension is unresolved; this is a prompt for thinking or taking action.

All good academic writing needs these elements, and using art or film to visualise them can be extremely helpful in finding and structuring a narrative.

Have you spotted the protagonist in the painting yet?

An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump 1768

Image credit: National Gallery and Wikimedia Commons

11 April 2019
Inspiration plus perspiration

Inspiration plus perspiration

Doug Johnstone

Image credit: Chris Scott

Doug Johnstone

I write gritty crime novels and also have a PhD in nuclear physics — people frequently have trouble getting their head around this combination of facts. They ask how I made the giant leap from science to the arts, but that’s a misguided question; I feel deeply that the adversarial idea of science versus art is a false dichotomy.

Creative writing involves a modicum of inspiration, but it’s mostly hard graft, trying to fit the pieces of a puzzle together. And on the other side, science can be utterly creative and drawn from inspiration. I don’t know of a more creative piece of thinking than Einstein’s theory of relativity, in which he realised that time could be relative.

Inspiration and logical thinking combine in both science and the arts, and that’s true when writing about them too. Last summer, my RLF Consultant Fellow colleague Cherise Saywell and I ran an immersive writing ‘bootcamp’ for PhD students at Heriot Watt University. All were science or technology students, and the objective of the workshops was to help them with their theses, using narrative techniques from creative writing.

It quickly became clear that hardly any of them thought of themselves as creative people, yet when we got them to talk about their work, they each described moments of inspiration combined with huge amounts of legwork, just as when I write my novels. They all had the raw material for a fascinating story – fracking problems, 3D printing or revolutionary textile production – but they struggled to see the bigger picture, the compelling narrative in their work.

One of the most effective exercises was also one of the simplest: an icebreaker at the beginning of the day. When the students arrived, we had a table laid out with an assortment of random items – toys, trinkets, a compass, binoculars – and told them to pick one that spoke to them. Then we asked them to write without stopping about how the item related to their PhD. It’s a version of free writing or writing to a prompt that Cherise and I often use; it always results in wonderfully creative writing and frequently contains a compelling narrative. On this occasion, one chemical engineering student eloquently used the shell of a small organism living millions of years ago as the starting point to discuss how shale oil is created, moving on to talk about the current problems associated with its extraction.

By the end of three days, we had encouraged the researchers to view their work and writing differently, as a blend of science and art, storytelling and logistics, inspiration plus perspiration.

28 March 2019
Think in points

Think in points

Image credit: Anna Barker

Anna Barker

Recently, while working with some undergraduate students, we discussed what happens when they receive their essay assignment. Most said they immediately started thinking about the content they needed to include. They would then write an essay that they felt ticked all the boxes, including details about the subject the essay question had asked them to explore. Unfortunately, these students sometimes received feedback that their writing was too descriptive; it lacked critical analysis. How can you make sure that your essay contains critical analysis as well as the right content?

When you are planning your essay, it helps to get yourself into a critical frame of mind. You are setting out not just to describe what others in your field have said, but also to offer a line of reasoning, an argument, an analysis of the current research and thinking. Consider which points – or statements – you can make that will answer the question and deliver your argument. Points usually begin new paragraphs. Think of a paragraph as a container for a point. It might look a bit like this:

I – Identify one point or statement in your argument that relates to your essay question. (1–2 sentences)

D – Define or add detail to your point. (1–2 sentences)

E – Give evidence that underpins the point. What proof can you provide to substantiate what you have said? A study? Some statistics from a journal article? (3–4 sentences)

A – Analyse the evidence — explain the significance of your point. How does it contribute to your overall argument? What might the limitations be? Are there any other reliable sources that present a different view? (3–4 sentences. If your paragraph is becoming long, begin your analysis in a new paragraph).

Thinking about points you can make in your essay puts you in a critical frame of mind right from the beginning. Describing evidence will get you marks, but presenting a point that you underpin with critical evaluation of the evidence will be marked higher. When you are planning your next assignment, start with an open mind, do some reading and think about which points you can make.

You can find out more about thinking in points in Step 3 of the RLF’s free essay-writing tool, ALEX.

https://alexessaytool.com/

14 March 2019
Managing feelings about feedback

Managing feelings about feedback

Anne Wilson

Anne Wilson

Feedback – on writing and in general – can arouse strong emotions, from relief, to delight, to incandescent rage. To enjoy praise and to feel defensive when criticised are both very human responses. Our reactions to feedback, including comments on our writing, can tap into childhood experiences of approval and disapproval. Every professional writer knows what it’s like to have their prose picked apart, but they also know the satisfaction of improving their writing through constructive criticism. So how can we clamber over the hurdle of our feelings and use feedback to improve the way we write? Here are some tips that I share with postgraduate students in my workshops on feedback.

The first step is to acknowledge how you feel and give it space. Are you furious that your supervisor hates your chapter? That’s understandable, so punch a pillow, have a rant, work it out at the gym. Maybe think about what exactly is upsetting you. Is it about your relationship with that person? Are you taking the comments personally? Do you feel particularly fragile at the moment? Identifying the source of your feelings helps to separate the personal from the professional, the emotional from the intellectual. When you’ve cooled down, take another look at the chapter. The chances are that your supervisor doesn’t hate it entirely, but has singled out certain aspects for criticism. In the cold light of day, you may think some of the criticisms are fair. But there may be other points on which you completely disagree.

Start with the points you think are fair and consider how to edit to accommodate them. Then, consciously choose which points are worth defending and develop a cogent counter-argument about why they should stay in. How you manage this depends, of course, on your relationship with the person giving you feedback and on the power differential between you. But even if, in the end, you edit your work to please them, you will feel better having stated your case.

If you are passionately involved in your topic and believe in your own arguments, it’s natural to feel disappointed by negative feedback. But if you can name your feelings and articulate their source, you are less likely to let them swamp your intellect. Improving your writing by using feedback will make your writing stronger and give you the tools to keep improving.

28 February 2019
Communicate and collaborate

Communicate and collaborate

Lucy English

IMG_7200_Lucy_Portraits

Image credit: Simon Goldstein

As PhD students and researchers, communicating with people outside our discipline can open our minds, expand our horizons and help to develop our thinking. It can also lead to fruitful collaboration.

In a session for PhD researchers about communicating research, I put the participants into pairs with someone from another discipline and asked them to describe their work to each other. They had to avoid jargon and were encouraged to listen carefully to the questions they were asked. Somebody from a Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) subject might ask an artist, ‘Why are you doing this?’ — just as an arts student might ask a scientist, ‘Please explain it simply’. The researchers found it instructive to communicate the vision of their project to a non-specialist.

Communicating with others outside my own specialism led to a collaborative project for my practice-based PhD. I am making short films with film-makers for an online poetry film project. Previously, I hadn’t thought about how my ideas would translate to the moving image, but I’ve learnt a lot by collaborating with people from the visual arts. Interpreting a poem in a film is not how I thought it would be. For example, for my poem ‘Daisy Chain’, where I link daisies in the grass with the nature of transience, my film-maker used images of a snowy landscape. The words of the poem, about summer meadows and blossom, are in stark contrast to the snow and frost, but capture beautifully the essence of the poem, where daisies and youth will eventually fade.

Why not see if you can communicate your research to people outside your field and find a collaborator from another discipline? Funding opportunities exist for collaborative bids from PhD students and researchers for inter-disciplinary work, particularly between the arts and sciences or social sciences. PhD forums within universities are a good place to start looking. Working with someone with a different perspective can be a humbling experience as you accept your ignorance about their field and adopt an open mind, prepared to learn. Removing the blinkers of your discipline can spark off ideas and take your research in a fresh direction.

14 February 2019
Think around your research question

Think around your research question

Image credit: Anna Barker

Anna Barker

On a writing retreat recently with students from the Arts and Humanities, we were talking about how research is about finding answers. You start – typically after much deliberation – with a research question, and everything that follows is about discovering answers. It seems simple enough, although of course it’s rarely that straightforward. The research takes you on a journey down rabbit holes, around blind bends, up steep cliff faces, and every now and then you can feel like you’ve hit a wall: obstacles, unexpected deviations, surprises. Suddenly, what you’ve got in front of you seems a long way from answering your research question. Unsettling as this might be, it’s all part of the research story.

When your research journey hits a wall, it can be useful to take a step back and forget for a moment that you are searching for answers. Instead, dig for more questions. This not only helps you to recalibrate your research question, but it can also open new doors and push your thinking into new, previously unexplored territory.

The technique works well for essays. Having received your essay question, you might set off immediately to answer it. But by taking some time to think of additional related questions, you can work out what you know about the subject already and where you might focus your thinking and reading. Take this essay question as an example:

Critically evaluate the suggestion that problems of overcrowding, bullying and poor conditions have always been, and will continue to be, of concern to penal reformers.

  • What is the extent of overcrowding and bullying in prisons — facts, figures?
  • What is meant by ‘poor conditions’ and what are the causes?
  • What has contributed to this situation — has it become worse over time, and why?
  • What are the reasons overcrowding might concern penal reformers — it leads to less time for penal education/other activities that encourage rehabilitation of inmates?
  • Examples of other activities?
  • Evidence that education/other activities enable rehabilitation?
  • Opposing views?

Once you have a list of additional questions, you can begin reading and note down some possible answers. Your notes might even prompt you to ask further questions. Best of all, you’ll have focused your reading time and begun to get some words on the page that can later be used to shape a first draft.

31 January 2019
Where’s the conflict?

Where’s the conflict?

Image credit: Kona Macphee

Heather Dyer

When I’m writing fiction, I only recognise what a story is really about when it’s very near completion. Only then does it become clear that it’s about ‘control versus letting go’, for example, or ‘security versus freedom’. I realise I need to go back and find the places in the text where these tensions arise, and explore them more deeply.

This can apply in academic writing in the arts, humanities and social sciences, too. Try the following exercise with your essay, dissertation or thesis. Identifying opposing elements in your work can expose underlying conflicts and reveal potential themes.

  1. In two columns, list at least five pairs of ‘opposites’ within your project. You might identify opposing elements in relation to size, space or time — or personality, habitat or temperature, for example.
  2. Freewrite to reflect on the relationships between these pairs of opposites. (Freewriting is writing steadily without stopping and without knowing where you’re going.)
  3. Identify places in your work where you may want to consider these relationships further or make the conflicts more apparent.

I used this exercise on my own doctoral thesis, which explores parallels between the mythic archetype – or classic story arc – and the creative process. I quickly noted down the following ‘opposites’ in these paradigms:

Female Male
Starting out Returning
Conscious Unconscious
Not-knowing Insight
Surrender Questing
Heroine Hero

 

Studying the list, I noticed that these opposites might be further aligned by the typical qualities of masculine and feminine, or yin and yang:

Masculine Feminine
Male Female
Starting out Returning
Conscious Unconscious
Insight Not-knowing
Questing Surrender
Hero Heroine

 

I realised that the protagonist’s journey through a story and an individual’s creative process both swung between these two poles. This informed the conclusion of my thesis.

At a writing workshop for artists and writers, I asked them to consider opposites within their own work in progress. Participants identified contrasts they hadn’t previously been aware of: movement and stasis; smooth and rough; child and adult. These tensions triggered ideas that enabled them to develop the central theme of their work.

If you try this exercise, it might help you identify hidden tensions that reveal a theme. You may then want to ensure that you have highlighted these tensions within the work itself.

17 January 2019
Reading as a writer

Reading as a writer

Cherise Saywell

Image credit: Brodie Leven

Sometimes when I run a workshop, I ask participants to bring along a sample of some writing they like. I don’t make this compulsory, but the response is usually an indicator of how they read. Around half will contribute something, and of these just a few will articulate why they like it.

In her book, Stylish Academic Writing, Helen Sword says that ‘A carefully crafted sentence welcomes its reader like a comfortable rocking chair, bears its reader across chasms like a suspension bridge, and helps its reader navigate tricky terrain like a well-hewn walking stick.’ I tell participants that in order to achieve this in their own work, they need to learn to read as writers. Those who can identify work they admire – and explain why – are already beginning to engage in this process. It’s a vital step that a lot of students seem to bypass. They read to harvest ideas, theories and evidence, and to deepen their knowledge. But not to develop their writing.

At one workshop, a participant contributed an abstract from a scientific journal. When I asked what he liked about the writing, he answered that he found it clear and logical. It flowed, and he felt it spoke to him. To such a response, my next question is always, how? Identify how it flows, and what makes it clear. Concrete images? Strong verbs? What makes that voice assertive, or remarkable? Sentences can function like music, using rhythm and balance to build and sustain pace; taking them apart can reveal how this is achieved. Conversely, if the writing seems deficient in some way, I’d suggest identifying why — it’s not enough to simply declare that a piece is poorly written.

I’d like to develop this aspect of my workshops further. Engaging physically – with pen and paper, with highlighters, reading aloud – can help us to understand how text is composed. I plan to distribute samples of writing and have participants work together in groups to identify the strengths in each piece, copying sentences down, highlighting phrases that demonstrate well-crafted prose, reading sections out loud. Such practices are central to the discipline of reading as a writer.

13 December 2018
Solvitur Ambulando

Solvitur Ambulando

Amanda Swift

‘It is solved by walking’ is the literal meaning of this Latin phrase, attributed both to Saint Augustine and Diogenes of Sinope. Many writers have sung the praises of walking, including the French author and political theorist Jean-Jacques Rousseau: ‘I can only meditate when I am walking. When I stop, I cease to think; my mind works only with my legs.’ The image of the writer pacing up and down the room, wrestling with a writing problem, is a common one.

Writing problems are better solved if you keep pacing, but do it outside. It is common knowledge that walking is beneficial to both physical and mental health. I find it is also useful for problem-solving, be it creative or academic. As you walk, the changes in your surroundings that you notice, even subliminally, can trigger changes in your thinking. New connections between ideas can be made, and it is this process that is key to academic and creative thinking.

If you’re a student, walking to a workplace outside the home, such as a library or café, can be so much better than going straight from your bed to your desk. As you walk, you usually notice other people who may be struggling with different and greater pressures; this experience offers a sobering sense of perspective that can be harder to find at home.

Going for a walk also makes an excellent break during writing. In my workshops, students sometimes tell me that they spend hours at their desk because they are stressed about meeting a deadline, but they get little done. I suggest they take a break and go for a short walk to clear their mind, focusing on the sights, sounds and smells around them. When they return to their desk, they will hopefully have relaxed and be able to work more effectively.

Walking doesn’t cost anything but time, which you will regain afterwards when you progress through your work faster. You can even write while walking. Apparently, the philosopher Thomas Hobbes had an inkhorn built into his walking stick so that he could note down any interesting thoughts on his daily walk. I prefer to make notes on my phone, but that’s not essential. The only things that you really need for this writing technique are a pair of shoes and an open door.

28 November 2018
Finding the nugget of gold

Finding the nugget of gold

Image credit: Anna Barker

Anna Barker

I recently wrote a story for a collection I’m working on at the moment. It was going well — so well, in fact, that the short story grew and became a novella. I got to around 22,000 words, which seemed to be the end. I’d written the climax scene and it all hung together. Great, I thought . . . and yet. There was a ‘but’, a niggle. Something didn’t feel right. The theme – the heart of the story – wasn’t quite working, and without it everything else didn’t really gel.

Yet there was something there: a surprise, a nugget of gold. Small, buried, but it was there. It was actually what had been sitting in my unconscious since I first dreamed up the story, only I hadn’t realised it and I hadn’t foreseen it in any of my advance planning. I needed to redraft or do some freewriting (writing in a free-flowing way, without worrying about accuracy) to think about this nugget some more and then refine what I’d found.

Sometimes, even if you have a detailed plan, it is only through the act of writing that you discover what you have really been trying to say. When I’m working with PhD students, I encourage them to make a detailed plan, but I also remind them that it’s OK to amend it once they start writing. It’s about staying open to new connections and possibilities in the work, and these are much more likely to happen when you get into the flow of the writing itself.

Earlier this year, I asked my students on a writing retreat how they approached a new project. Some did a plan on screen, some on the floor with paper and sticky notes; others started writing straight away to see where it took them. None of these are wrong, and different approaches suit different people. For me, the writing process is a combination of planning, freewriting, writing and redrafting. I often revisit these stages, in any order, several times during a single project. For example, I might need to revise my plan after I have started writing, or I might get stuck and do some freewriting to work through whatever is blocking the way before I get back to the writing itself. The best work comes when I keep things creative and use a range of different techniques. It’s this combination of different writing – and thinking techniques – that helps the students I work with to develop their writing processes and, hopefully, find nuggets of gold in their own work.

15 November 2018