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
Persevering with your PhD

Persevering with your PhD

Lucy English

IMG_7200_Lucy_Portraits

Image credit: Simon Goldstein

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.

14 February 2018
Blurbing is a serious business

Blurbing is a serious business

Image credit: Soren Levy Sands

Image credit: Soren Levy Sands

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.

31 January 2018
How is academic writing like writing for children?

How is academic writing like writing for children?

I am an academic writer and a children’s author. On the face of it, these two forms of writing are at opposite ends of the spectrum. But actually, they have a lot in common.

• They’re both about communicating ideas.
• They need to make complex ideas accessible.
• They tell a story.
• They aspire to effect change.
When I teach academic writing skills, I tell workshop participants that their writing will be more effective when it adheres to some of the constraints required in writing for children.

Audience awareness
What’s the point of writing if not to communicate? Communicating requires you to empathise with your audience. How much does your audience already understand? Why are they reading? What’s in it for them? Keeping both the aspirations and the experience of your audience in mind will make your writing accessible and engaging. It will make your readers feel ‘seen’. Your readers will return this favour by paying more attention. This is particularly important if you want to share your ideas beyond the tight circle of your own research community.

Clarity
Explaining something clearly requires you to think harder and dig deeper. The struggle to articulate a complex idea in simple terms forces us to make previously abstract thoughts concrete. It can reveal gaps in our own knowledge, or foggy thinking. Albert Einstein once said: ‘If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.’ In workshops, I ask participants to explain their research to a child they know, or a family member who knows nothing about their subject.

Brevity
They say children have short attention spans. But don’t we all? Good writing – like any good design – has no redundant parts. Every word should be indispensable to the whole. Getting to the point is another way of empathising with your readers. As an exercise in brevity, I ask workshop participants to describe their projects in 50 words or fewer.

Story
I once heard a child say of a book he couldn’t put down that it had ‘an urging flow.’ What a wonderful description of narrative! Narrative drive is what keeps a reader hooked. If you can recognise a narrative in your research, you’ll be able to describe it in a more engaging way. Interrogate your work in the same way a children’s author does. What was the situation before you started out? What was the ‘inciting incident’ that began your quest? Why is this important? How did you reach where you are now? Were there difficulties and setbacks? Finally, what did you learn and how might it change the world? A story – like research – recounts a process through which new knowledge is attained. We describe a journey, not just a destination.

17 January 2018