You before me: prioritising the reader

You before me: prioritising the reader

Katie Grant

Image credit: Debbie Toksvig

When writing the first draft of a novel, I don’t think much about the reader, if at all. The reader would distract from the world I’m creating. When I plan, I plan for the characters, for their relationships with each other and for what happens to those relationships. During first creation, it’s ‘me (the writer) before you (the reader)’.

For doctoral students writing a thesis, the priorities are precisely the opposite. Even at first draft, the thesis writer has to think carefully about what the reader needs to know at any given point. Likåe a novel, a doctoral thesis can surprise or shock, but while readers of novels can be bamboozled and even, if the novelist wishes, hoodwinked, the reader of a doctoral thesis should never be bamboozled, and hoodwinking is out of the question. From the start of a thesis to the end, it’s ‘you (the reader) before me (the writer)’.

Running an academic writing retreat this summer, it was clear that while doctoral students understand ‘you before me’ in theory, it’s not easy in practice. Unsurprisingly, doctoral students at the writing-up stage want to show off their research, their academic insights and discernments, their original thinking, their argument. And so they should. But research, insights, discernments, original thinking and, most importantly, the force of an argument are all diminished if the thesis writer has prioritised what they want to say above what they have prepared the reader to absorb.

So how do you prepare the reader? First, you must decide who the reader is. Doctoral students should rightly focus on their supervisors and examiners as readers, but sponsors and research partners might also need to be taken into account. The readability of their text should be discussed with their supervisor, as well as perennial worries, such as how much explanation is required for discipline-specific terms.

But whoever the reader, the persuasive power of a thesis lies in the writer shepherding them smoothly from point to point, making sure each point builds on the one before. One useful technique is the ‘nine-point thesis’. This involves identifying up to nine critical points in your thesis – for example, when there is a shift in argument or an approach from a new angle – and listing these points (a sentence or two) in the order you will present them. Any disconnect or jolt between points should spring out at you, and you may need to tweak the order.

At this summer’s retreat, my fellow facilitator and I asked participants to practise the nine-point thesis using a fairy tale familiar from their childhood. From the Western tradition, Little Red Riding Hood in nine points! From other traditions, other stories. It’s a fun task, and demonstrates the linear structure from which most theses benefit. The students can play about with their nine points, too. If they change the order in their tale, what difference does it make to the story? They return to their theses with readerly eyes, ready, if necessary, to adjust the order of the points they are making, and with a technique to help them do so.

A novelist, too, cannot ignore the reader forever. For me, the morphing of ‘me before you’ into ‘you before me’ is part of the editing process. That’s the novelist’s privilege. It’s not a privilege a thesis writer enjoys. For doctoral students aiming for maximum impact, it has to be ‘you before me’ all the way from first draft to viva.

18 October 2018
What should I do when I get stuck?

What should I do when I get stuck?

This is a common question I get asked by university students and staff alike. At some time or other, many of us experience writer’s block. When we sit down to write, nothing comes out.

There is no one simple solution to the problem because the causes of writer’s block vary. You might be exhausted or in the wrong state of mind. Perhaps you haven’t done enough preparation or you’re not clear about what you’re trying to do. Sometimes, just taking a break is enough.

But if writer’s block is more than temporary, try free-writing. When I’m stuck, I walk away from the computer, grab a pad of paper and a pen, step outside, find a quiet place to sit and write ‘I’m stuck!’ on the top of a sheet. I then write for 5 to 15 minutes, responding to the statement as a stream of consciousness. I don’t worry about grammar or punctuation or even writing proper sentences. I let go of being self-critical. I might draw a flow diagram or a mind map. One way or another, I dump my thoughts on paper. In doing so, I invariably find a way forward.

When I use free-writing with doctoral students in the sciences or social sciences who have writer’s block, various issues surface. Often, they have not done enough background reading, thinking and planning to be ready to write. They think that starting writing will force them to do the required reading. But trying to read papers as you write is usually a recipe for slow, piecemeal, turgid writing. You need to put in the groundwork beforehand.

Another common issue arises when you sit down to write, and your unconscious mind sees a problem coming up several paragraphs ahead that prevents you even starting. This is nowhere near as serious as it sounds. Do some free-writing, and you will usually discover the problem; for example, you’ve got a gap in your argument or you don’t have enough supporting citations to bolster your argument. You can either get on with writing, ‘jump’ past the tricky part, and return to it later, or you can try to sort it out before you write. I tend to go for the first option because I don’t want to procrastinate.

An emotional block can also cause writer’s block. When you sit down to write, feelings start to well up. Perhaps you’re concerned about what others will think about your work or you recall recent criticism from a supervisor and it immobilises you. Again, use free-writing to help identify the issue and find the solution. The act of writing allows you to see the problem on paper, outside of yourself, and lessens its power. You can move beyond it.

Although it is not academic writing, free-writing helps with the process of academic writing. The act of expressing your thoughts less self-consciously helps to reduce tension and encourages you to get on with it. The more you practise writing as a daily ritual, the less likely you are to be troubled by writer’s block. You become accustomed to sitting down to write and getting on with it. You might like to do that now!

4 October 2018
Writing journal articles: an interactive approach

Writing journal articles: an interactive approach

As universities compete for students and research funding, the pressure to publish is growing. For today’s academics, it’s no longer enough to be an inspirational teacher or an outstanding researcher. The shadow of the Research Excellence Framework looms over all departments, and staff are hired for the quantity and quality of their journal articles.

In this highly competitive environment, academics face a major challenge. How can they write articles that meet the standards of the journals in which they wish to be published? How can they make their article stand out from all the other submissions? And how can they convince both their academic referees and the journal editors that here is a piece of work that combines academic rigour with a clear and compelling voice?

In response to this situation, Royal Literary Fund Consultant Fellows lead a variety of interventions on writing journal articles. Recently, Duncan Forbes and I ran a two-day immersive workshop for academics from a range of disciplines, including Nursing, Dance, Education, Business and Social Work. Some had already been published in academic journals, while others were embarking on their first major article, but all were seeking help on how to translate their research into a well-structured and cogent piece.

Duncan and I led activities on planning an article (introductions, arguments and conclusions), style and editing, aiming to make the sessions as interactive as possible. We hoped that participants would learn as much from each other as from us, and would leave the immersive with the core of a new article.

During the workshop sessions, participants worked in pairs and groups. Several sessions began with a paired interview, in which each participant refined their thoughts through discussion with a partner. After the initial discussion stage, participants felt ready to produce a written statement, and this working document was then discussed with a partner.

Participants found the paired work especially effective in our opening activity, in which they responded to prompts to help them produce a ‘statement of intent’ (see below).

WHAT’S MY ARTICLE ABOUT?

(Paired activity in three parts: interview, write, respond)

* What are you aiming to do in your article?

(What question are you aiming to address?)

   * How does your article relate to what’s been written before?

    * Why is it important?

The use of interviews and discussion as the first step in the process proved very helpful in clarifying ideas. Participants reported that they appreciated the interactive style, which ‘provided inspiration and motivation’.

13 June 2018
Let’s talk about procrastination

Let’s talk about procrastination

Katie Grant

Image credit: Debbie Toksvig

Historical novelists are world-class procrastinators. We spend days putting off the moment of writing by telling ourselves, and others, that we’re busy researching. Of course research is important. It’s also easier than writing, particularly on those occasions when scanning library shelves or scrolling through web pages spins off in fascinating and undreamed of directions. I once spent three days researching the pay of an 18th-century hangman — well, half a day’s research, and two and a half days of astonishment, horror and thrill at clickbait discoveries that had nothing to do with my hangman’s pay.In academic writing workshops with Humanities PhD students at the writing-up stage, procrastination often surfaces as a problem. They are concerned that although their research is supposed to be almost completed, just beyond the horizon lies the tiny discovery, the crucial fact, the key that’s going to turn their thesis into gold. A perennial question from students is ‘how do you know when it’s a horizon too far’?

It’s a hard question to answer, but just as successful gold panners can’t sieve every stream, successful writers can’t consult every source. If, when you’re supposed to be writing, you compile new lists of websites or research papers and open several online journals, you’re setting yourself up to procrastinate. Students already know this, but hearing that similar procrastination is also a problem for professional writers often relieves the worry that ‘it’s just me’, and we discuss the problem together.

We also discuss timing. In my view, at the writing-up stage, research for queries that suddenly surface should take up no more than a third of the writing time allotted for the day, and should always be preceded by writing. In other words, writing something in the body of your Work in Progress (WiP) should be the first task of the day, coming before answering any of the previous day’s queries. Why? Could it be because if you don’t start the day by getting words onto the screen, you may never get the words down at all?

30 May 2018
Pick an item, any item

Pick an item, any item

Trevor Day

I am lucky enough to lead the Royal Literary Fund Consultant Fellows programme, which trains professional writers to facilitate learning activities in universities. Each year I have the opportunity to observe colleagues demonstrate inventive ways of engaging with students and staff and their writing. Here is one example.

A colleague, Marina Benjamin, originally introduced me to this approach, which she called the ‘grab bag’. I have adapted it over the years, and it has served me well. The premise of the activity is that by introducing a quirky physical object, you trigger unconscious processes that reveal insight. It is an enjoyable process, which invariably prompts a creative response. I used it on a recent university staff development day working with a team of learning developers. Here’s how it works.

I give each person a brown paper bag in which I have placed at least seven objects, from which they choose one. The bag I’m looking at right now contains a pine cone, a polished stone, a padlock, a tiny bag containing worry dolls, a tea bag, a miniature magnifying glass, a plastic charity donation card and a short piece of string.

To introduce the activity, I explain that the participants will be writing a paragraph or two stimulated by the object they have chosen. If working with doctoral students, I might prompt them with the instruction ‘My thesis is like [the object]’. They then write a response. In this case, because they were learning developers, I suggested ‘A one-to-one session with a student is like [the object]’.

This exercise was unlike the habitual writing they were used to, and the use of a simile – the object – brought a fresh perspective. One likened the one-to-one session to a tea bag. Working with the student, they infuse them with ways of thinking and writing for undertaking an assignment. The tutor is modelling the activities and thought processes that the student will later be doing for him- or herself. Two other staff members likened the one-to-one session to a bag. What is displayed on the outside of the bag may not reveal what is inside it. Quite often, what a student brings to a session ‘on the surface’ leads in unexpected directions when you start working with them.

Using the grab bag is a great way of freeing up thinking and writing.

16 May 2018
Sharing students’ concerns

Sharing students’ concerns

Miranda Miller

My RLF Consultant Fellow colleague, Amanda Swift, and I have been running academic writing workshops at the University of East London to help postgraduate students and research staff whose first language isn’t English. When I introduce myself at the beginning of each workshop, I always mention that I’ve taught English in Italy, Libya and Japan. Although my spoken Italian is fluent, I still find it difficult to write a simple Italian letter without making silly mistakes. When I say this I watch the students’ faces relax. I think it’s important for tutors to recognise that international students are being asked to carry out a difficult task; the level of English needed to write a Masters dissertation or PhD thesis is advanced.

Another way in which I try to empathise with students is by confiding my own struggles with completing the final draft of a novel. I always feel anxious about handing my work over to someone else to read and have developed techniques to ensure that it is as good as it can be before submission. I advise students to take a break of at least 24 hours from their work. Just like novel writers, they’ve been looking at their own writing for so long that they might find it hard to notice mistakes. I also suggest that students print out their assignment: it’s difficult to spot details such as incorrect punctuation on a computer screen. From the printed text, they can read their work aloud — a useful way of identifying awkward sentence constructions. Russian students, for example, often seem to write very long sentences and can make their writing in English clearer by breaking long sentences into two or more shorter ones. I admit that the process of finalising an assignment is not painless. At this point I sense the students’ relief that their problems as writers are shared. A group discussion about helpful strategies for overcoming anxieties follows naturally on.

2 May 2018
The story of your research

The story of your research

As a storyteller, I see stories everywhere. We all do this to some extent. In fact, we only ‘exist’ in the context of our stories: who we are, how we came to be here, where we’re going and why. We ‘story’ our existence because we want to understand how things fit and what will happen.

Stories aren’t a random series of events, though; they have a pattern. Typically, a hero ventures out into the unknown, faces challenges and defeats, and invariably has to let go of a false belief or flawed thinking in order to learn something new. Even following a cake recipe is a story of sorts: you want to achieve something, you begin, you carry out challenging steps, then you entrust the cake mixture to the oven, hoping the result will satisfy your guests. Even if the recipe doesn’t work out, maybe you’ll learn something.

The principles of storytelling can be applied to academic writing, too. When students are struggling to shape their research into a dissertation or thesis, I ask them the same sort of questions I’d ask a creative-writing student about their novel:

• What was the status quo before you began?
• What are you trying to achieve? What problem are you trying to overcome?
• Why is this important? What are the stakes?
• What do people believe? Does this need to change?
• How are you going to get to where you want to go?
• What are the difficulties?
• Does your journey have a high point? A low point?
• What have you found? What do you think you’ll find?
• What’s the significance of your findings?
• How will they change things? What will happen now?

Finding the narrative of your research can help you write a powerful abstract, case study, press release or funding application. It will make the story of your research more compelling. Being able to tell this story in a few sentences can also be helpful when you’re networking at conferences or trying to explain what you do to people outside your area of expertise.

18 April 2018
Embrace low-tech working

Embrace low-tech working

Anna Barker

Image credit: Royal Literary Fund

PhD students often tell me that one of the most intimidating aspects of writing a thesis is the sheer size of it. It’s longer than anything they’ve attempted to write before. What are they going to include? What do they leave out? What does the reader need to know and in what order do they need to know it?

As a novelist I can sympathise: I need to sustain my readers’ interest over as many as 40 chapters, or around 80,000 words. Deciding what goes where is an important part of ensuring that I’ve got a story that flows and is enjoyable to read. What techniques can you use to get to grips with the structure of a large body of work?

Planning is essential, and for me it takes place off screen. I’m surprised when students tell me their plans consist of lists saved in documents on their computer or sometimes as notes inside the draft thesis document itself. In order to ‘see’ the structure of a work as long as a novel or thesis, it can be helpful to step away from the computer and draw out the structure on paper.

I take a large roll of brown paper and, armed with sticky notes, I write summaries of the plot threads in my novel. The sticky notes are handy because I can move them around; an incident that I thought fitted in chapter two might work better in chapter nine. I might see threads I’ve introduced but not continued, as well as the spine of my novel — I see my story as it unfolds through the entire length of the book. For a thesis, this would be your argument.

Students who have tried this low-tech way of working in my sessions have had some great results. Getting off screen for a while allows them to engage with their research in a creative and illuminating way. Several have solved structural problems they’d been battling with for months, merely by taking this step back.

You can try this technique at any point in the writing process. And you can get as detailed as you like. Try it with all your chapters to see how you might improve the flow of your argument, or work on just one chapter, summarising the points and then playing around with the order. When you return to your screen, you may find you have a fresh perspective on the structure of your thesis and are able to move forward more confidently.

4 April 2018
Get cracking, keep cracking on

Get cracking, keep cracking on

Katie Grant

Image credit: Debbie Toksvig

Is the following experience familiar to you? During the night, or while cooking or walking or working on something else, you know exactly how to continue your work-in-progress (WiP). But when you sit down, all prepared and ready, and open up the WiP, you freeze. When I admit to this problem at workshops for undergraduates, postgraduates or staff, I’m always surprised by how many participants think it’s an issue peculiar to them, and that better preparation is the answer. Clearly, it’s a shared problem, and over the years, I’ve found that it’s not better preparation but different preparation that’s the answer.

For most activities, from going on holiday to going to bed, preparation helps. Writing is different. Preparation – making the coffee, opening the laptop, angling the light, setting out materials – can do the opposite. To use a diving analogy, prep can be like slowly climbing the steps to the high board and shuffling along, pretending you’re gearing up to dive in, when actually, the only way you’ll manage the dive is to run up the steps and pitch directly over.

Writing preparation can be that slow climb up those diving-board steps. We kid ourselves that each step is necessary. We have our routine, and who hasn’t made an entire morning disappear writing emails we ‘must’ answer before we get cracking on our own writing? Well, I suggest a new way that works when I practise it myself. Firstly, don’t think about preparation, still less about ‘settling down’ to write. Don’t even sit down. At the time you’ve designated for writing, open your laptop, turn off the Wifi, bring up the WiP, then go for a brisk walk and when you return, without taking your coat off, lean over your chair and start typing.

Just as it doesn’t matter if that first practice dive isn’t perfect, it doesn’t matter if your first typing isn’t great. The point of this typing is to break the freeze before it’s had time to solidify. If you find it hard to type without thought, try leaving sentences in the WiP unfinished so when you lean over the chair, you’ve got something to start on. Once you’ve started, you’ll be on your way. On a good day, you may find it’s an hour or so before you’ve taken off your coat, and when you finally do make coffee, you’ve earned it.

14 March 2018
A writer as facilitator

A writer as facilitator

Cath Senker

Image credit: Fran Tegg

After a recent planning and structuring workshop, an undergraduate student commented that the most useful element was ‘Hearing other people’s ideas which I may not have thought of originally.’ I’m no egotist, and I don’t mind that sharing suggestions with peers proved more important to this student than my pearls of wisdom. In fact, this is a very positive result. Research and development by Dr Wendy Maples at the University of Sussex, who has investigated the value of peer assessment, shows that students frequently learn a lot from interacting with their peers. ‘I’ve always felt that students can learn as much if not more from each other than they can from some teachers,’ noted one participant in her study.

In my planning and structuring workshop, the students start by discussing how well they plan at the moment. Many say they create only a skeleton plan and don’t really know how to go about creating a detailed structure. My task is to facilitate a discussion about how to do this.

As the students talk in small groups, a range of techniques for planning and structuring emerge. They then share them with the whole group. We collate the ideas and I add mine. I talk about how I’ve developed a process through years of writing children’s non-fiction books and we talk about how different writers work in different ways. It’s a matter of finding an approach that suits you, whether it’s mind mapping, storyboarding with pictures, concept maps[1], using sticky notes or a more linear approach, listing bullet points. The students sometimes know of new software programs or apps that I haven’t heard of, so I learn something too.

This process indicates to the students that they are not the only ones struggling with organising their essays and reports. It also demonstrates that they know more than they think they do. Some report that having dreaded the writing process before, they now look forward to writing their assignments; for one undergraduate, the planning and structuring session ‘helped to just give me more confidence about what I need to do and how to be a writer’. When I read feedback like that, I feel I have done my job.

[1] For further information on concept maps see: http://cmap.ihmc.us/docs/theory-of-concept-maps

28 February 2018
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