How to stay motivated

How to stay motivated

Lucy English

IMG_7200_Lucy_Portraits

Image credit: Simon Goldstein

So you’re embarking on a Master’s dissertation or PhD in the Arts or Humanities. It can be exciting at the beginning but how do you maintain your enthusiasm throughout such a long project? When I was working on  my doctoral thesis, my attitude changed throughout the different phases.

I like to compare the process to growing vegetables. After planting the seeds comes a long period of tending your crops until you eventually harvest them. Your dissertation or thesis is like a crop that requires constant attention to ensure you reap the rewards.

Sowing the seeds
At the start, record your thoughts about why you are undertaking the project, describing your feelings and what you want to find out. Consider what you will be adding to the body of knowledge about your subject and how it will help others in the future.

The seeds are sprouting
The research period can be enjoyable as you explore your field, seeing what comes up. Check in with your supervisor and ask for feedback on your developing ideas; you may need to adjust the focus of your work. Share your research with other students and academics through papers and conferences, so you are not working alone.

Full bloom, but messy!
To present your research effectively, you need to create a clear, consistent narrative. I’d advise you to break down the work into manageable chunks, treating each chapter like a separate mini-project and rewarding yourself when you complete it. At this stage you may find that you go through moments of disengagement and even be tempted to give up. If this happens, try to reconnect with your passion for the subject. Why did you want to do it in the first place? Read the notes you made at the start to rediscover that early enthusiasm and get back on track to complete your draft.

Weeding
After you draft each chapter, you will return to edit it, probably several times. I don’t enjoy editing and I find referencing tortuous, but I know both need to be done. My strategy is to create an editing timetable with hourly sessions; in each one, I give a section my full attention. Even if the process seems tough, you will have the satisfaction of seeing progress. After a final proofread, the fruits of your labour will be ready to present to the world.

5 December 2019
Freeing your writing

Freeing your writing

Trevor Day

I have been running writing workshops in research-intensive UK universities for more than a decade now. When working with academics or doctoral students, one of the activities that tops their ‘most beneficial’ list is freewriting.

Freewriting is the process of writing as a stream of consciousness, without worrying about the normal conventions of proper sentences, grammar, punctuation and so on. There are many approaches to freewriting, but the one I’ll emphasise here is freewriting just before you get down to serious writing.

In my workshops, I often ask participants to write down what they ‘think and feel’ about writing their thesis, paper or other major writing task. I give them up to 10 minutes to handwrite, not stopping to analyse their writing.

Whatever the discipline of the participants, the majority find the activity unexpectedly revealing. Freewriting shortens the distance between thinking and writing. Without the normal constraints of worrying about the audience, the purpose, and the conventions of ‘good’ writing, the participants can freely express what they think and feel. This could be an outburst of emotion, a free-wheeling exploration of potential solutions to a problem, stepping back from a situation and seeing it from a new perspective, or something else. Thoughts tumble out in a haphazard way, without the need for them to be organised. Often, new connections are made.

Reading their freewriting afterwards, people often discover useful insights. At the very least, they tend to feel better having expressed something that had been concerning them.

When I follow up with the academics or students several weeks after a workshop, I sometimes ask them how and when they use freewriting. The most frequent response is ‘just before I have to write something serious’. Typically, they spend 10 minutes or so writing their stream of consciousness. Some use it to ‘clear the mind’ and get their ‘writing muscles’ working. Others use it to explore the piece of writing they’re about to do: ‘What do I think and feel about this paper?’ or ‘Why am I so resistant to writing this paper?’ They tell me it makes them think more holistically about the task and the process, stepping back from what they’re trying to do. A few say that by making new connections, they end up writing the paper more creatively, without the headings and structures they habitually use. It helps breathe life into their academic writing. They find their formal writing becomes more expressive, without losing its rigour.

Freewriting is a marvellous complement to academic writing, and the benefits far outweigh the little time it takes. Try it next time you have something important to write.

21 November 2019


Treat it like a day job

Treat it like a day job

Image credit: Ben Smith

Writing of any kind can be overwhelming. One reason is that as writers we care about what we are writing: we want to communicate, to share, to be understood. Writing for many is not a day job, it is a vocation. As such, it can be wonderfully fulfilling, but it can also be deeply depressing.

I used to let work take over and I was miserable. I worked all day and night, and fell asleep at my desk. The deadlines felt terrifying and impossible. Writing took over my life, getting into every fibre of my being and affecting my sleep, my appetite, my relationships and my mood. I couldn’t switch it off and it affected me 24/7. It certainly was not a day job.

This is precisely why I decided it should be treated like a day job. Nowadays, I try to write only between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. on weekdays. In this way, I am putting some boundaries around my work and exerting some control over the effect it has on my life. Of course, I still think about it during evenings and weekends, but doing other activities at these times helps me relax and gain some perspective on my work. Boundaries even help me solve problems with the writing when I return to my desk. I’m fresh and re-energised.

Of course not everyone is free to write from 9 until 5, but whatever the time available, I suggest limiting it in a similar way. If you can only write at the weekend, then you might work on Saturday and have Sunday off. You may feel you will achieve less but I believe you will achieve more.

Sometimes, despite such timetabling, the writing takes longer than planned and deadlines seem unattainable. Then it is tempting to let the work bleed back into every area of your life. In this situation, I might decide to expand my working week, but only temporarily. So for a month I’ll work on Saturdays, but then revert to my usual schedule. The key is not to let the work take over.

Writing used to feel like being imprisoned; now it feels like I’ve been set free.

7 November 2019


The point of no return

The point of no return

Image credit: Debbie Toksvig

You’ve started writing an essay, Masters dissertation or PhD thesis. In my case, it’s a new novel. Somebody asks how it’s going, so I ask myself ‘Am I beyond the point of no return?’

Academic work involves a variety of points of no return. In a 1,500-word essay for which you’ve chosen a line of argument and three themes, it might be when you’ve covered two of those themes. You’ve drafted your introduction, written 800 words (400 for each theme) and your argument is working. For practical dissertations, you may reach the point of no return when you discover whether your data analysis confirms your hypothesis. For PhD students, it may be your upgrade from MPhil or writing a Year 2 progress report and research plan charting the road towards completion.

It’s important to celebrate these points of no return. Firstly, writing can be a lonely business, full of moments of self-doubt. A point of no return marks a milestone achieved. Secondly, passing a point of no return is the moment to switch from looking backwards, worrying ‘should I have started from there?’, to looking forwards towards the end. There will, of course, still be problems to overcome, but your commitment to going forward is built on solid foundations.

My point of no return is roughly 25,000 words into my historical novel. If my characters are lively, their dialogue unforced and my notebook abandoned, I’m over the point of no return and the book will be finished. Finishing is no guarantee of success but, like pressing ‘pay’ on a non-refundable holiday, the course is set.

Ah, you may be asking, but what happens if at 25,000 words the course isn’t set, the characters aren’t breathing, the dialogue is stodgy and I’m glued to my notebook of ideas? Setting a point of no return is the best way to prepare for such a possibility. It will force you to stop, take an objective look at your work and spot any wrong turns before you go any further.

In one-to-ones with PhD students during writing retreats, we discuss wrong turns, with ‘why didn’t I spot that earlier?’ a shared writerly torment. It’s good to discuss how to deal with that sick feeling of ‘wasted’ work. My colleague Lucy English has good advice about text recycling[1], and once you’re back on course it’s a comfort that even deleted work has its uses.

A point of return is a good friend. After you’ve either changed or confirmed your course, when somebody asks how the writing is going, you can reply with complete confidence ‘I’m beyond the point of no return’ and know that every writer from every age is cheering you on.

[1] Lucy English, ‘Don’t waste – recycle’ https://rlfconsultants.com/dont-waste-recycle/

24 October 2019
Writing training for different stages of a PhD

Writing training for different stages of a PhD

Anne Wilson

Academic writing interventions for PhD students seem to be more effective if they are tailored to specific stages of the PhD. I run two-day writing retreats with RLF Consultant Fellow Katie Grant for Humanities PhD students, and we use different formats and approaches for Years 1, 2 and 3. In feedback, participants confirm the benefits of sharing experiences with others at a similar stage and they appreciate activities that focus on the type of writing they are doing at that time.

Year 1, we find, is about uncertainty — about the boundaries and nature of the project and the quality of writing expected at this level. Many Year 1 students lack confidence and carry baggage about themselves as writers. We give these students permission to go back to basics and ask fundamental questions like ‘What is academic writing?’ and ‘Why do we write in this way about research?’ We give them time to reflect on what constitutes ‘good’ academic writing in their discipline, and how to identify their own place and value as an academic writer. We reassure students that ambiguity and confusion are normal in a creative process. Although it feels uncomfortable, uncertainty allows us to keep an open mind and explore new avenues of enquiry.

Year 2 is about choice. Having done the groundwork, students see multiple possibilities. Many students come to this retreat feeling overwhelmed by too much material, unable to see the wood for the trees. Getting them to draw their emotional journey as a timeline, road or graph clears the air and helps them to assess their intellectual progress more dispassionately. We encourage them to write ‘elevator pitches’ for their project and summaries of their argument. Students who said they felt ‘daunted, intimidated and overwhelmed’ before the retreat were ‘calmer, more confident’ and ‘ready to write’ after it.

The Year 3 retreat is about developing good writing habits and improving productivity. Students at this stage tend to want focused and individualised support. They know their writing strengths and weaknesses by now; they need encouragement for the final sprint to the finish. We structure 45-minute writing sessions in a calm, supportive atmosphere and show them techniques to tackle writer’s block.

It’s possible, of course, to design writing training relevant to all PhD students, but differentiating between the years enables a more sophisticated learning experience. Some students organise their own writing groups following the retreat — a development we welcome and encourage.

10 October 2019

Orwellian versus stained-glass window prose

Susan Barker

Image credit: Larry D. Moore, CC BY-SA 4.0

George Orwell once said, ‘Good prose should be transparent, like a window pane.’ In other words, writing shouldn’t draw attention to itself and instead should be a clear medium for conveying meaning. The opposite of clear Orwellian prose would be ‘stained-glass window’ writing — flowery and ornate, and obscuring what it means to convey. And while complex, convoluted sentences can be creative and intellectually stimulating, they are inappropriate in some contexts.

I facilitate workshops on writing with clarity and conciseness for non-academic staff. We focus on writing emails, social media, blog posts and newsletters, as it’s disconcerting to see how these swift, digital methods of communication can be used to obscure the messages themselves.

It often comes down to a battle between writer and message. For example, an email should communicate directly to its intended reader, but is the writer stepping in front of Orwell’s transparent window and acting as a barrier? Perhaps the writer is using unnecessary obscure vocabulary in an attempt to appear more important — why use ‘adumbrate’ when ‘outline’ is simpler? The same can be said for an over-reliance on long, complex sentences that may look very business-like, but the resulting blocks of text run the risk of losing or alienating the reader.

Confusion may arise when the writer knows what they have to say, but is nervous of saying it. Perhaps the message will be unpopular with the intended audience, for instance, a reduction in overtime. It may be tempting to embed crucial information in long-winded preambles and apologies that not only obscure vital material, but also doubly infuriate the recipients who have to sift through them.

In these cases, it is essential that the writer makes sure critical information is first and foremost. This can be achieved by writing in short paragraphs and using bullet points for key messages. If the writer combines this approach with simple vocabulary that has a touch of warmth and sympathy to it – after all, being succinct does not have to mean being cold – the reader’s focus will be on content of the message, not the message itself.

In our workshops, participants are encouraged to take a step back from what they are writing to focus on getting key information across as clearly and concisely as possible. Miscommunication is one of the biggest sources of conflict between colleagues, but by keeping Orwell’s window in mind, we can make the workplace a more harmonious place to be.

6 June 2019
How writing starts to happen

How writing starts to happen

Image credit: Sophie Kandaouroff

I was recently working with a group of registered nurses who were starting a one-year Master’s degree in specialist public health nursing. I had been briefed that they were academically able but tended to be anxious about writing critically. ‘The minute critical writing is mentioned, they write a nice descriptive account,’ said their tutor.

What did they most need? Solid practical advice, certainly, plus an understanding of how critical writing – about theory, policy and their own practice – could be useful to them. But I felt neither of those things would be much use if we didn’t try to deal with their anxiety. I sensed from experience, both the students’ and mine as a writer, that anxiety started with a dearth of confidence about beginning to write. What do your tutors want? Where do you start? How does composing a piece of writing start to happen?

I called the session ‘Critical, But Not Life-Threatening’. They saw the joke, and I can vouch for the pleasure you’ll get when you make 50 nurses laugh. I told them about two kinds of criticism: the critical evaluation of ideas that’s central to academic writing, and the self-criticism that can sap your confidence.

To succeed at one you have to overcome the other. As Peter Elbow brilliantly said, ‘Writing calls on two skills that are so different they usually conflict with each other: creating and criticising’. If we let our conscious critical mind judge us, it can stop us getting started with the composing process. We become prone to telling ourselves that we, in the form of our sentences, are inadequate or useless.

We do better if we save the criticism for later by writing a first draft relatively quickly and not trying to solve every problem as we go. We can help to feed our unconscious creative mind by doing something associated with writing every day — a short activity such as re-reading our notes.

The session became lively. Hands went up; students admitted their anxiety. One volunteered that she felt more relaxed at the thought of writing like this, and another, an experienced nurse, summed up very well how this sort of composing can become a sequence of activities we can all learn.

‘I really didn’t know you could break down the process of writing into steps like that,’ she said. I like to think I could hear her confidence growing.

23 May 2019
Building a framework for writing

Building a framework for writing

As a non-fiction writer, I’ve taught myself never to start writing until I have a comprehensive plan in place. This approach is partly dictated by the publishing industry — a commissioning editor has to approve my plan before giving me the go-ahead to write the book. But I’ve also found it saves enormously on time and effort.

Over the course of delivering more than 100 books, I’ve developed a method that works well for me. I start big and then fill in the detail, stage by stage.

After some initial research, my first step is to draft the chapter headings for a book. Then I test my basic framework for strength. Does the order work logically and are there any gaps? Do some chapters cover too little or too much? When I’m happy with the structure, I move on.

The second stage is to decide the main headings within each chapter. Once again, I test how well they flow before moving on. Finally, I write the subheadings.

As the framework fills out, I make adjustments; some chapters may need to be divided into two, or I may need to rethink the overall structure. While I’m planning, I do more research to fill any gaps in my structure.

Building a sturdy framework takes time and effort, but it’s the most important part of the writing process. Once I’ve come up with a plan that I’m happy with, for me, the hardest task is over. To stretch the building metaphor a little further, filling in the words feels like pouring concrete into a mould.

I’ve also used this approach in writing workshops to help others get to grips with structuring their text. How can my planning method be applied to undergraduate essays, doctoral theses and academic papers? As in my work, it’s a step-by-step process:

1. Create the main framework: the section headings of an essay or report, or the chapter headings of a dissertation.
2. Fill in the next level: the point for each paragraph in an essay or headings within dissertation chapters.
3. Add more levels if needed: subheadings within chapters of a dissertation, then the point for each paragraph.

Keep your plan simple and always hold your overall structure in mind. Once you have a clear framework for your ideas, much of the stress can be taken out of writing, and you may even find yourself enjoying the process.

9 May 2019
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