Evidence for eyes and ears: teaching sentence style online

Evidence for eyes and ears: teaching sentence style online

Cherise Saywell

Image credit: Brodie Leven

When re-designing workshops for online delivery, I include more demonstrating than in face-to-face teaching, and I try to exploit the auditory and visual potential of the platform to enhance what I’m communicating. Participants will be ‘plugged in’ to the experience, probably wearing headsets, and almost certainly sitting close to the screen. I want their learning experience to be rich and layered. Reading aloud can be very effective in this environment. It’s an opportunity to ‘perform’ the writing, to bring it to life. Visuals are important too, with the learner experiencing the session up close.  Simplicity is my guiding principle. I keep layouts straightforward, and text readable — no fussy fonts, and minimal use of capital letters. But while I keep slides to a minimum, it makes sense to use these slides more deeply.

These principles worked very well in a recent workshop for PhD candidates, where I discussed the benefits of varying sentence length. In Stylish Academic Writing, Helen Sword cites a marvellous example: an excerpt from a piece by Gillian Beer.[1] After a short assertion, Beer moves from a couple of medium-length sentences to a punchy six-word line right in the middle of the paragraph. Then she delivers a long sentence with wonderful build. I shared this on screen and read it out:

Most major scientific theories rebuff common sense. They call on evidence beyond the reach of our senses and overturn the observable world. They disturb assumed relationships and shift what has been substantial into metaphor. The earth now only seems immovable. Such major theories tax, affront, and exhilarate those who first encounter them, although in fifty years or so they will be taken for granted, part of the apparently common-sense set of beliefs which instructs us that the earth revolves around the sun whatever our eyes may suggest.

It’s lovely to read — it’s rhythmic and slips off the tongue. I thought it would be useful to go a little further, so I presented a slide with an edited version. I didn’t alter Beer’s meaning, but I made all the sentences a similar length:

Most major scientific theories rebuff common sense because they call on evidence beyond the reach of our senses in order to overturn the observable world. They disturb assumed relationships and shift what has been substantial into metaphor so that the earth only seems immovable. Theories that engage in this way tax, affront, and exhilarate those who first encounter them, but in fifty years or so it is likely that they will be taken for granted. They will be part of the apparently common-sense set of beliefs which instructs us that the earth revolves around the sun whatever our eyes may suggest.

The text looks quite similar to the original. I moved between the two versions to emphasise this. But when I read the edited version aloud, participants commented on how different it sounded. It wasn’t awful — not at all. But the varied sentence lengths added drama and build, helping Beer to emphasise her point. Without this variation, something was lost.

I suggested that participants try the technique on their own work. One student said that she liked working with words she’d already written; she had the raw material there on the page, but a new way of thinking about it. Another observed how useful it was to see the passages close up, and then hear them read aloud — evidence for their eyes and ears of how sentence style matters. Exactly what I’d hoped to achieve.

[1] Sword, H. Stylish Academic Writing, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2012, p. 50

30 July 2020
Using Zoom to encourage peer learning

Using Zoom to encourage peer learning

Anne Wilson

Silence is awkward on Zoom — questions left hanging in the digital void; the dead pause before someone un-mutes themselves; the uncomfortable delay between saying goodbye and disappearing. It’s tempting to fill the gaps with words to maintain momentum, but if we keep talking, how are the participants to learn from each other? Where is the space for dialogue, for sharing experiences, for building relationships with others facing the same challenges? The past few weeks have taught me that it’s important to relax and accept the moments of quiet. This takes confidence and trust that learners will step up, but we can also encourage peer learning by using Zoom functions to maximum effect.

An instant poll is a quick, efficient way for learners to share feelings anonymously and for the facilitator to read the Zoom room. Polls work best when you know enough about your learners to guess likely answers. For example, when running ‘writing for visual thinkers’ for PhD researchers, I ask ‘How do you feel about writing?’, followed by statements such as ‘I often find writing frustrating’, ‘My writing doesn’t do justice to my ideas’ and ‘Feedback suggests my ideas are creative and original.’ The poll results, shared with the group, show common ground, and the extra checkbox ‘I have other feelings about writing’ provides a jumping-off point for discussion.

I use the chat function to get ideas buzzing and (by stealth) increase participants’ confidence as they acknowledge strengths. For example, when I am focusing on note-making, I write ‘note-making’ in the chat box, then ask people to type in their top tips to share with colleagues. I wait, enduring the silence, until the chat comes alive with ideas, gathers speed and elicits enthusiastic responses such as ‘Great idea! I must try that.’

Finally, breakout rooms are where Zoom comes into its own, encouraging the more reticent to speak out and creating a less intense space for informal chat. I give groups of up to four people a task that’s clear, relevant and achievable, and I repeat the instructions in a broadcast to all groups. I might ask them to compare two versions of a text and decide which works better, and why. Feedback suggests that breakout rooms are popular and that researchers speak more freely here than in the main session. For the facilitator, it’s another opportunity to sit in silence, enjoy the break and resist the urge to press ‘join’ too soon.

16 July 2020
Writing a journal article: bouncing back from rejection

Writing a journal article: bouncing back from rejection

Trevor Day

In my career as a writing advisor I’ve seen a fair number of doctoral students and early-career academics struggle to get their latest journal paper published. They may have been advised by their supervisor or manager to go for the highest-ranking journals in their discipline. But several months after submitting their article, they find it rejected and have to start again. Meanwhile, their supervisor says ‘It’s all good practice. Learn from the feedback and we’ll rewrite it and submit it to a slightly lower-ranking journal.’ When this cycle is repeated, the researcher’s confidence might well be shattered. Around this time, I may get an email from this distressed staff member, postdoc or student.

By this stage there are two imperatives: boosting that person’s confidence and getting the paper published. So, where do we start? A common first step is to rekindle the individual’s passion for their research. Why is it important to them? What have they found out? What do they really want to share with other researchers or practitioners?

Next step, which are the journals in their discipline they really like? These may well not be the highest-ranking ones. Why specifically do they like them? For the third step I ask: ‘Think of the story you’re trying to tell. Which journal do you think is the best match for that story? Have you enough material? Do you have a strong case to make this a publishable paper for that journal? And who are your specific target readers anyway?’

By this stage, the person might well be visualising their ‘article-to-be’ sitting in the pages of that journal. The final step, before writing the article, is to convince their supervisor or manager. By now, they’ve had one or two rejections, so their supervisor is probably only too keen to get the work published — provided it is in a reputable journal. It is the individual’s job to persuade their supervisor that the chosen journal is the best match.

This approach depends on harnessing intrinsic motivation — the individual’s inherent interest, curiosity and passion for the research they’re doing. When working with doctoral students or staff members I’ve had good success with this tactic because tapping into their enthusiasm improves the quality and vitality of the writing. So, if you or one of your students or colleagues has faced rejection, help them harness their intrinsic motivation to get back in the saddle.

2 July 2020

Keeping up the energy

Keeping up the energy

Image credit: Debbie Toksvig

One thing has become clear over the Covid-19 lockdown: learning and teaching online isn’t just about moving a face-to-face workshop to Zoom. With many students sharing space and bandwidth with others, I condense my one-day workshop into a much shorter timeframe.

But there’s another reason for condensing: online energy is different from face-to-face energy. When we share a physical space, body language keeps us alert and flexible. Online energy is flatter and stiffer. So how best to harness it?

Online energy is boosted by clarity over timing. Knowing what’s happening in each ten-minute chunk of a two-hour workshop drives momentum for both participant and facilitator. Providing a detailed timetable to participants in advance was crucial to the success of my first online academic writing workshop for PhD students because it injected the idea of movement into a static physical environment. Clear timings also reduce anxiety over unanticipated breaks in Wifi. If you’ve shared the timetable, when participants reconnect there’s no need to break the momentum to explain what you’ve been doing.

I mentioned a two-hour workshop. Two hours isn’t arbitrary. My own experience, plus speaking to participants, has taught me that two hours is optimum for online energy. Two hours, with a ten-minute break in the middle, hits participants’ adrenaline button perfectly. From the start they can see the end, so concentration is high.

On the other hand, for facilitators tasked with condensing longer workshops, two hours can seem too short. What to leave out? But that’s to misunderstand the nature of the online beast. A high-energy online workshop isn’t only about condensing, it’s also about re-imagining.

In face-to-face editing workshops for arts and humanities doctoral students, I offer a collaborative editing task, with participants often sharing their own work. The success of this task relies on the atmosphere of trust generated when we’re all in the same room. Online, without the nuances of facial expression, tiny shifts in physical position and subliminal sounds of assent or dissent, it’s likely to sap energy and even generate despondency. Instead, I provide a text, asking participants to edit for specific features, taking the text apart and putting together again; as a subsequent task, they look at their own writing in the same way. Feedback indicates that this has worked well, and energy remains high for the rest of the workshop.

It amuses me that one of the most popular workshop delivery platforms is Zoom, a name designed, I imagine, to conjure up a high-energy experience. Online workshops certainly can be high-energy, but to Zoom without crashing needs thoughtful preparation.

18 June 2020

Working with your word limit

Working with your word limit

Cherise Saywell

Image credit: Brodie Leven

When coaching students nervous about the blank page, I’ve often used the word limit as a technique for getting started. A big project, such as a PhD thesis, is less intimidating once you break it down. For example, at the start of a literature review chapter of 20,000 words in a social science thesis, I advise allocating words to the different sections. Allowing 2,500 to 3,000 words for an introduction and conclusion means the main body can be shaped into perhaps four sections of 4,000 to 4,500 words. Now what seemed like a mammoth task is a series of smaller ones.

Engaging with the word limit can be useful towards the end of a project too, although the emphasis is different. I was thinking about this recently after a one-to-one session with a PhD candidate who was deep into her final draft. She’d asked me for advice on line-by-line editing techniques. Her word limit was 80,000 to 100,000 words — 20,000 words is a lot of leeway, I thought. But her supervisor had offered some sensible advice. Why make your markers read 100,000 words, she said, when 80,000 will do the job just as well? You’re not doing your reader any favours by making them read more, unless more words are absolutely necessary.

When nearing completion of a project, it’s tempting to count the words to judge whether your work is almost done. But while editing, it can be better to banish reminders of the word count for a while. In Microsoft Word, you can hide the status bar to do this. Click View, then Focus. Now the document is placed against a black background, with no word count or any other distractions. It’s a great view for a line-by-line edit. If, after a close edit, the work is significantly shy of the word limit, the argument may need more attention. Is the analysis as rounded as it could be? Perhaps more detailed examples are required. Now you are engaging productively with the word limit as part of your editorial discipline.

The word limit can be a useful tool if you engage with it appropriately at different stages of a project. Embrace it at the start, lean on it, use it as a crutch; but towards the end, give it just an occasional nod from a safe distance.

4 June 2020
Writing a paper? Be aware of your reader

Writing a paper? Be aware of your reader

Anne Wilson

When I ask researchers how they read journal articles, most say they read the title, abstract and possibly the first sentence or two. Then they skip to whatever has drawn them to the topic. It might be the results, the discussion, or a methodology that is relevant to their own interests. When I ask how they write an article for publication, a strange thing happens: they describe structuring their research story in a logical fashion, with no mention of what their readers need and want. Most don’t connect their own time-pressured ‘hop, skip and jump’ reading with how their own article will be read, or use this insight to decide how to frame their story. Yet being aware of how you read academic journals can improve immeasurably the way you write.

I worked with a scientist whose first draft was well written and structured logically. But when I asked her what readers would look for, she said it was her innovative methodology. I pointed out that she had not flagged this up in either the title or the abstract. The methodology section took up less space than the introduction, which was so long and rambling she admitted most readers would skip it. Focusing on her readers led the scientist to include her methodology in the title, describe it as ‘innovative’ in the abstract and refer to it several times in a shortened introduction. She used the extra space to put more detail in the methodology section itself.

Another common mistake is not paying enough attention to the journal’s submission guidelines. By this, I don’t just mean word count, headings and referencing format, although these are important. Most academic journals give a clear, succinct description of their readership, scope and criteria for acceptance; ignoring these can waste time and effort. The first question I ask a researcher is, ‘What is the remit of your target journal and who reads it?’ The scope might be a cliché, such as the environmental science journal that ‘seeks to publish papers that are particularly significant and original’. Yet this is an important clue to getting your proposal accepted. If you struggle to pinpoint how your research is significant and original, you may be submitting to the wrong journal. If, however, you feel this is the right journal, write an abstract that states confidently why your work is important and how it will impact on the world, so the editor can see immediately that it’s a good fit.

Above all, remember that writing for an academic journal is communicating to a specific readership. Only by considering what, and how, your target audience reads can you ensure that your messages hit home.

21 May 2020
Parts of speech – the pictorial way

Parts of speech – the pictorial way

Amanda Mitchison

It’s helpful for undergraduates to understand how the different parts of speech affect their writing style, and I have found an accessible and enjoyable way to teach them.

Active verbs

I start by introducing the students to active verbs. These colourful little creatures are doing something. Active verbs can help make your writing lively and colourful, and keep the sentences short. For example, ‘My friend cooked dinner.’


Passive verbs

I move on to passive verbs; these are grey, sleeping versions of the active verbs. For example, ‘Dinner was cooked by my friend.’ Continually using passive verbs can make your writing less energetic and greyer – less clear.

passive verbs


After providing a few examples of active and passive verbs, I introduce nouns. Concrete nouns – ‘dog, ball, oven’ – are useful. But using lots of abstract nouns together (concepts such as freedom, goodness, belief) can clog up your writing, making it hard to understand. Nouns are represented as grey blobs.



Then I come on to nominalisations – verbs or adjectives that have been turned into nouns, for example, ‘to consider’ becomes ‘consideration’. Nominalisations may sound rather grand (hence the bow ties and the top hats) but they are still nouns. Like abstract nouns, some are necessary, but using too many will clog up your writing.



I give the students an old extract by Professor Judith Butler:

The move from a structuralist account in which capital is understood to structure relations in relatively homologous ways to a view of hegemony in which power relations are subject to repetition, convergence and rearticulation…

I ask them what they think of the extract. After a moment of uncertainty, there is general agreement that the writing is unclear. (In fact, Butler no longer writes in this manner.) Now I give them picture counters to label the active and passive verbs, nouns and nominalisations.

Once they’ve finished, I provide the answers.

The move from a structuralist account in which capital is understood to structure relations in relatively homologous ways to a view of hegemony in which power relations are subject to repetition, convergence and rearticulation...

We discuss the piece, noting the large number of grey blobs and no active verbs. The students repeat the exercise with a short extract from George Orwell:

If a man cannot enjoy the return of spring, why should he be happy in a labour-saving Utopia? What will he do with the leisure that the machine will give him? I have always suspected that…

If a man cannot enjoy the return of Spring, why should he be happy in a labour-saving Utopia? What will he do with the leisure that the machine will give him? I have always suspected…

Students notice the rather old-fashioned emphasis on the male. Beyond that, we talk about the differences between the two extracts – the proliferation of active verbs in Orwell and absence of nominalisations. The students agree that Orwell is much clearer. With a greater understanding of the parts of speech, they can now apply the ‘blob test’ to their own writing.

7 May 2020

Who is the protagonist?

Who is the protagonist?

Trevor Day

Several years ago, my writer colleague Max Adams introduced me to the idea of the ‘protagonist’ in non-fiction writing. I have been playing with this idea since, especially when working with doctoral students and academic staff.

Drawn from the world of creative writing – plays, novels, radio and film – the protagonist is the person, usually a central character, who is most changed during the course of the story. In James Cameron’s film Titanic, Rose (played by Kate Winslet) is the protagonist. Through her encounter with steerage passenger and aspiring artist Jack (Leonardo diCaprio), and their experiences before and after the sinking of the Titanic, she rejects her upper-class origins and goes on to lead a life of independence and adventure.

How does the notion of the protagonist play out in non-fiction writing? Here, a protagonist could be a person, a group, an idea or an object. Imagine this scenario. In a remote part of the world, a World Health Organisation representative arrives and discovers a high incidence of malaria among the population, as yet undocumented. She returns to base and puts out a tender for a team to research and devise an effective response. Your research team wins the tender. The solution involves a bottom-up approach, drawing upon the insight and practices of the local population. Stakeholders, from regional to international, are involved in dialogue and decision-making, drawing upon best practice at all levels. The project is a success. After five years, the incidence of malaria has plummeted. If you were writing a report documenting the project’s triumph, who or what would you choose as the protagonist? Would it be your research team? The local community who were actively involved and benefited? The mosquito that transmits the malaria and is thwarted by the new practices? You choose your protagonist to match your purpose and audience.

Deciding who is the protagonist helps you tell your story with greatest impact. Thinking about the protagonist can help you write an essay, a report, a dissertation or a thesis. In reflective writing, you may be the protagonist. And here is a radical thought. Think of your reader as the protagonist. After all, it is him or her you are trying to convince – perhaps even to change or to take action.

23 April 2020

Reading aloud for a sense of distance

Reading aloud for a sense of distance

Amanda Mitchison

For three years, I have been advising students to edit an essay by printing it out and reading it aloud to somebody while marking the bits that don’t work. I tell them that I have someone I read all my work to. She is a novelist in her eighties. Sometimes I read out a sentence that seemed perfectly reasonable when I was writing it, but when I say it out loud it’s a horror. It might be clunky, ill-judged, out of character or lose the dramatic tension in a scene. Usually my friend doesn’t say anything—she doesn’t need to. When I glance up, she is just looking at me over her glasses.

Until now, I thought this ‘reading aloud’ technique – which so many RLF Consultant Fellows recommend – was merely about gaining distance from your work. Of course, your listener will point out when a part doesn’t make sense or is repetitive or boring. But 90 per cent of the work is done by you, hearing yourself read your own piece. I advise my students to read to someone else because it is weird to read out loud to an empty room, and if you do so, your voice will fizzle away to nothing after a couple of paragraphs. You need that little element of performance.

Recently, while reading a new book to my friend, I realised something deeper and subtler is also going on. Yes, you as the reader are doing most of the work, and the process of reading aloud does give you an extra notch of distance away from your own writing. But I now believe that a type of imaginative transference is also taking place. When you read aloud to somebody else, you put yourself in their shoes. You enter a slightly different cast of consciousness, listening in sympathy with them and hearing your work as they would hear it. For once, you are truly outside your own writing. You have, in effect, become your own best critic.

19 March 2020

Reflection as a writing tool

Reflection as a writing tool

Cherise Saywell

Image credit: Brodie Leven

Recently, I ran a workshop on reflective writing for PhD candidates from various disciplines, including sociology, education, computing and engineering. The participants were required to produce a series of reflective essays as part of their research and development programme. For many it was a completely new task — writing in the first person felt strange, and the idea of being their own subject was challenging. The students planned to reflect on different aspects of their practice; for example, as interviewers and teachers, presenting conference papers, and the difficulties encountered in the various phases of fieldwork.

As well as in these aspects of academic work, reflective practices can be useful in students’ development as writers. When I talk to postgraduates about their writing, we tend to address practical issues and techniques for improvement, but frequently they have other concerns, often to do with confidence and identity. Even after publishing, many postgraduate students seem cautious about thinking of themselves as writers.

Observing and reflecting on writerly practices can be extremely productive in these situations. One PhD candidate recently said to me that she hated the sound of her voice in her academic work. As we discussed it, she realised that her voice didn’t feel authentic. Considering this in a reflective framework, I’d say she’d identified an issue, and the reason behind it. The next stage in addressing the matter would be writerly — trying to find a voice that sounds academic while retaining her own distinctive form of expression.

It’s not difficult or time-consuming to build reflection into your writing practice. Simply pause in your work to jot down a few sentences about what you’ve written and how it felt, identifying any difficulties and what you might do about them. You’ll begin to see where you get stuck and why, and you might find new ways to get going again. In this respect, reflection can be both therapeutic and developmental.

5 March 2020