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.
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.
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.
As a Reader in Creative Writing, a novelist and poet, I have always been comfortable with the creative side of writing and teaching. But when it came to developing the critical component of my own PhD, I felt terrified. I had to remind myself why I was undertaking the project: enjoyment of my research into combining spoken word with film. I simply had to put my fears aside and keep going.
I found the best way to do this was to participate in my academic community. PhD students might feel they are locked in their own little world, trapped within the minutiae of their own project. But there is no need to study alone; you can reach out to the community of doctoral students and other researchers in your field. You may worry that you are not qualified to participate in academic debate, but be reassured — you do already have some expertise. As soon as you create a PhD proposal, you become a member of the academic community, with ideas to share and discuss. You can join specialist Facebook groups focusing on your topic or follow Twitter threads on the subject. If there are no Facebook groups available, why not start one up and invite people to discuss your topic?
As a doctoral student, you are also part of a broader community that will be responsive to your ideas; perhaps other researchers — or in my case, poets and film-makers. You may discover there are many more interested people than you originally thought. I recently led workshops for PhD students and early-career academics with my RLF Consultant Fellow colleague Heather Dyer that focused on how to increase the impact of their research. We advised them to create opportunities to talk about the progress of their work, joining relevant forums and social media platforms to give regular updates and looking out for conferences where they can present on their subject. It’s not necessary to have completed the research — it’s fine to present on ongoing work in a practical session, and during the Q&A you can gain helpful feedback from the audience. Taking part in debates with academics and others in the wider community helps students locate their work within the field and prove the relevance of their research. And it makes studying far more enjoyable. So my advice to PhD students is this: don’t shut yourself away — get out there and start talking! You’re more likely to persevere with your PhD in company.
One-day workshops for PhD students can be heavy-going when you are trying to pack them full of writing know-how. So I like to intersperse challenging tasks with exercises that feel like fun, but the lessons they impart are extremely valuable. A favourite exercise of mine is book blurbing.
Composing jacket copy is an extremely useful activity, since it serves the vital function of getting to the core of the purpose of the work, while at the same time selling it to readers. The blurb has to summarise, convince, beguile, describe and entertain, all at once.
If you simply ask students to write a blurb for their own thesis, the danger is that you will paralyse them; the task of summarising their work artfully is no small one. It is far better to approach the task obliquely. I bring in a novel, with the back-cover blurb taped over. I summarise what the novel is about, who it’s aimed at, and what the writer might be trying to achieve. I pass the novel round the room, get the students to talk about their casual impressions as they flip through its pages, and allow those who might know the writer’s work to characterise it for their peers.
Then I ask the students to take their best and most creative shot at approximating the blurb that I’ve hidden. All of their attempts at writing an alluring blurb go into a hat, from which I then invite each student to pick one blurb at random. Going round the group, reading out the newly minted blurbs, usually generates great hilarity. At this point, I inform the students that I’ve sneakily added the genuine blurb to their offerings in the hat, and that I’d like them to vote on which blurb they think is the real one.
The intention behind this exercise is for students to get to the heart of how they might like their PhDs to be read. What is the best ‘sell’ they can imagine composing for their own work? And what will someone gain by reading it? If a student comes away from this exercise feeling that they’ve learnt what is really at stake in their work, the exercise will have succeeded.