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?
Feedback – on writing and in general – can arouse strong emotions, from relief, to delight, to incandescent rage. To enjoy praise and to feel defensive when criticised are both very human responses. Our reactions to feedback, including comments on our writing, can tap into childhood experiences of approval and disapproval. Every professional writer knows what it’s like to have their prose picked apart, but they also know the satisfaction of improving their writing through constructive criticism. So how can we clamber over the hurdle of our feelings and use feedback to improve the way we write? Here are some tips that I share with postgraduate students in my workshops on feedback.
The first step is to acknowledge how you feel and give it space. Are you furious that your supervisor hates your chapter? That’s understandable, so punch a pillow, have a rant, work it out at the gym. Maybe think about what exactly is upsetting you. Is it about your relationship with that person? Are you taking the comments personally? Do you feel particularly fragile at the moment? Identifying the source of your feelings helps to separate the personal from the professional, the emotional from the intellectual. When you’ve cooled down, take another look at the chapter. The chances are that your supervisor doesn’t hate it entirely, but has singled out certain aspects for criticism. In the cold light of day, you may think some of the criticisms are fair. But there may be other points on which you completely disagree.
Start with the points you think are fair and consider how to edit to accommodate them. Then, consciously choose which points are worth defending and develop a cogent counter-argument about why they should stay in. How you manage this depends, of course, on your relationship with the person giving you feedback and on the power differential between you. But even if, in the end, you edit your work to please them, you will feel better having stated your case.
If you are passionately involved in your topic and believe in your own arguments, it’s natural to feel disappointed by negative feedback. But if you can name your feelings and articulate their source, you are less likely to let them swamp your intellect. Improving your writing by using feedback will make your writing stronger and give you the tools to keep improving.
As PhD students and researchers, communicating with people outside our discipline can open our minds, expand our horizons and help to develop our thinking. It can also lead to fruitful collaboration.
In a session for PhD researchers about communicating research, I put the participants into pairs with someone from another discipline and asked them to describe their work to each other. They had to avoid jargon and were encouraged to listen carefully to the questions they were asked. Somebody from a Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) subject might ask an artist, ‘Why are you doing this?’ — just as an arts student might ask a scientist, ‘Please explain it simply’. The researchers found it instructive to communicate the vision of their project to a non-specialist.
Communicating with others outside my own specialism led to a collaborative project for my practice-based PhD. I am making short films with film-makers for an online poetry film project. Previously, I hadn’t thought about how my ideas would translate to the moving image, but I’ve learnt a lot by collaborating with people from the visual arts. Interpreting a poem in a film is not how I thought it would be. For example, for my poem ‘Daisy Chain’, where I link daisies in the grass with the nature of transience, my film-maker used images of a snowy landscape. The words of the poem, about summer meadows and blossom, are in stark contrast to the snow and frost, but capture beautifully the essence of the poem, where daisies and youth will eventually fade.
Why not see if you can communicate your research to people outside your field and find a collaborator from another discipline? Funding opportunities exist for collaborative bids from PhD students and researchers for inter-disciplinary work, particularly between the arts and sciences or social sciences. PhD forums within universities are a good place to start looking. Working with someone with a different perspective can be a humbling experience as you accept your ignorance about their field and adopt an open mind, prepared to learn. Removing the blinkers of your discipline can spark off ideas and take your research in a fresh direction.