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
Connections

Connections

Image credit: Kona Macphee

Heather Dyer

You’ve done the research for your project, collected your data and you have an idea of where it’s all going. Perhaps you’ve even written a draft and are happy with the structure and the argument. But can you see the ‘big picture’ as clearly as you would like to?

Remember join-the-dot pictures? With each new connection, more of the picture is revealed. While you were researching and writing, you will have made many new connections: connections between sentences, paragraphs and different aspects of your project. But often, potential links remain unrealised. The more connections you’re aware of, the more clearly you will see the big picture.

The following exercise can help bring previously hidden connections into your awareness. Try it for your essay, thesis or even for creative writing.

1. Quite quickly write down 20 words associated with your project, dotted across a blank piece of paper,
2. Now circle pairs of words that may have a relationship and draw lines to link them. If you don’t see any obvious relationships, that’s fine; make pairs anyway.
3. Write quickly and roughly for two or three minutes about each pair of words, looking for the connections between them.

Recently, at a writing retreat for PhD students, I asked the participants to do this exercise. Several students volunteered to explain the new connections they’d made. A student writing a thesis on the history of dance had connected the words ‘dance’ and ‘movement’. She said that freewriting about these words had made her fully consider the difference between them for the first time. ‘Dance’ was shaped by history and convention, whereas ‘movement’ was expansive and more fluid. She decided that she needed to define these terms more carefully and reconsider their application in her thesis. Another student was writing a thesis on a poet. She connected the words ‘shadow’ and ‘line’. The links between ‘shadow’ and ‘line’ gave her a way to describe the impression of a line of poetry and connect it to the ‘shadow’ cast by the poet’s work.

See if this exercise reveals connections that have been lurking in your unconscious mind but have not yet emerged in your writing. Once these connections emerge, the big picture is so much clearer.

1 November 2018
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