One of the frustrations that writing consultants and PhD students alike share at the end of a high-energy workshop, when everyone is feeling thrilled with the progress made and insights gained, is how to keep the momentum going. Specifically, how do you embed best practice when the writing consultant disappears back into their own world and the students are alone again, faced with having to write tens of thousands of words? They will have plenty in the way of critique to guide them, but perhaps little writing support.
Over the past two years, alongside Dr Sarabajaya Kumar, who until recently was head of PhD development at the London School of Economics (LSE), I have been pioneering lunchtime workshops designed to create Writing Coaching Groups among the research student population. Ideally, each group should number four to five students, preferably from different disciplines (so as to minimise departmental griping and maximise communication across disciplines), and run for the course of an academic year. We encourage students to meet monthly, creating a peer-supported space in which they can review each other’s work.
I have come to think of launching these writing groups as rather like setting boats off over the calm blue sea from the shore. I give them life-rafts and provisions in the form of writer’s group etiquette; writing guides; tips about how often to meet; how large a writing sample to exchange, and so on.
In terms of etiquette, the key message is that students providing feedback should not approach the task as if they were undertaking a critique of each other’s work. Instead, I recommend a three-step process. First, they need to express empathy. After all, they are all in the same boat, trying to convey a logical argument in an engaging manner: they need to say, ‘I understand what you’re trying to do here’. Then I task them to come up with an appreciation. This involves celebrating how well the writer has achieved what they set out to do. It helps a student enormously to understand where their own strengths lie. Finally, I encourage the feedback group to articulate the struggles they had in understanding the writing sample. The aim is to alert the writer to the need to express themselves more effectively.
One of the groups we launched in this way at the LSE bonded so well and finished their PhDs in so timely a manner that we decided to interview them in detail about how and why it worked for them. We then invited them to promote the Writing Coaching idea to a fresh intake of third-year PhD students.
As an RLF Consultant Fellow, I specialise in giving workshops on dissertation writing to third-year undergraduates and to postgraduates. These sessions pull together and help embed the skills needed to write what is the most ambitious assignment of a student’s career.
For students who are well advanced in the writing process, my favourite exercise is the ‘elevator pitch’. This is designed to help students refine their argument and also write the abstract. I introduce the scenario, asking students to imagine they find themselves alone in a lift with their head of department. It has recently been announced that a highly lucrative grant is available for just one student from their year to continue their studies as a doctorate. As the elevator doors close, they have one minute with the tutor to introduce themselves and their research topic with a view to winning the grant.
I give students four minutes to prepare their ‘sales pitch’, with key questions as a prompt. What is their research topic and why is it important? What does it add to the knowledge/debate within their field? The students work in pairs. I then time them as one student delivers his/her pitch to their partner in exactly one minute. The partner is asked to listen carefully and has time afterwards to question the speaker if anything was unclear, and jot down notes. The listener then has 30 seconds to précis the pitch back to the original speaker. Did the speaker manage to put their key points across? Can they give any tips on making the pitch more persuasive? Then it’s the second student’s turn.
From the hubbub that rises as the minute starts each time, it’s clear the students find this exercise energising. The response is overwhelmingly positive, with some students relishing the chance to shine while others enjoy the challenge of martialling their argument. Feedback suggests that the elevator pitch helps students summarise what’s important about their thesis, while some report using their scribbled notes to write their abstract.
Interlocking plastic bricks, modelling clay, coloured card and sparkly pipe cleaners — can playing with craft supplies and children’s construction toys really help improve your academic writing? I think it can. I use them in my workshops – even with senior academic staff – with surprising results. In a session to help Occupational Therapy staff develop creative approaches to support student writing, I asked the participants to construct a plastic-brick model to answer the question: ‘How does the social model of disability relate to the practice of occupational therapists?’ This was an undergraduate assignment that I knew their students found difficult and I wanted the staff to explore their expectations of how the essay should be structured. They found it challenging to ‘write’ the essay in a medium other than words, but their models – and the way they explained the models to their peers – was illuminating. The participants said they found the conversations the exercise triggered both stimulating and thought provoking. This simple kinaesthetic task helped them to express their thoughts about how the essay should be structured and to see how their approach differed from their colleagues’. It also helped them to appreciate some of the challenges faced by their students.
I believe that a successful workshop should be engaging, participative and should cater to a range of learning styles. Learning by touching, making and doing does not suit everyone, but by tapping into a different part of the brain, it can help you overcome some of those knotty problems that get in the way of writing. It can be a powerful tool for understanding key concepts, organising ideas and planning the structure of an academic essay, dissertation or article. I find that the sight of colourful construction pieces in a serious academic workshop lightens the mood and makes people feel that the workshop promises to be exciting and fun. And when high-achieving academics throw themselves into a construction task, it often lives up to that promise.
When I was a Writing Fellow at the University of Bath, sometimes a doctoral student would arrive for their 50-minute one-to-one session with a glum expression on their face. They’d say something like, ‘I’m writing up my thesis and each day seems the same. I’m spending the whole day writing and it’s getting me down. Can you help?’ My response, after reassuring them that everything was OK, was to find out what exactly they did in their working day.
I’m aware that most academics and professional writers don’t sit down and write all day. Writing is an intensive and challenging activity. Most professional writers write for a few hours in the morning or evening and do other writing-related activities at other times — finding sources, reading, planning, and checking their writing. And thinking.
In my book about successful academic writing, I summarise the writing process like this:
The arrows show that writing does not flow smoothly forward. It is typical, particularly in academic writing, to backtrack and do further reading and research based on what you discover when you start writing.
The activities that make up the overall writing process can all be managed. When you’re writing your thesis, the working day can be split among different activities. I suggest you don’t do any of them for more than half of the day. Mix and match them according to your preferences.
Nowadays, I run thesis-writing workshops at several universities. When I unravel what a doctoral student does, I often find that they’re not very aware of their writing process. They don’t manage it well, wasting time with distractions and interruptions. I discover they have preferences about when to compose. Most prefer to compose in the morning or evening.
My advice? Find out what your preferences are, and work to them. Find a good place to compose. Set yourself targets, write in bite-sized chunks of an hour or so, and deal with emails and texts during breaks. Don’t waste time on distractions and interruptions. If you stay focused you can achieve a lot in three or four hours of writing a day. Then you can spend the rest of the time on other activities.
Writing a thesis is a marvellous opportunity, not only to improve the quality of your writing but also the way you manage your writing. These are skills that will stand you in good stead for the rest of your life.
Feedback is an important learning tool, and because we all use it, we imagine we know how it works. Yet if we learn anything from the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF), the evolving scheme for rating undergraduate teaching in the UK, it’s that feedback isn’t working. As calculated by WonkHE, even some TEF gold-rated universities fell ‘significantly short’ in their undergraduate feedback. In writing workshops I’ve found that dissatisfaction with feedback also emerges as a key issue for academic staff. They may question the value both of the feedback they give students and the feedback they themselves receive, particularly on papers submitted to academic journals.
Years of wearing multiple writing hats – newspaper columnist, novelist, RLF Fellow and Consultant Fellow – have taught me that successful feedback combines two elements: from the giver, clarity; and for the receiver, emotional resilience, since feedback, however well-intentioned, can often feel like a punch in the guts.
With my own guts still aching from a recent punch, I’ll take the emotional side first. As I try to impress on academics and students in the workshops I run as a Consultant Fellow, key to emotional recovery is understanding that feedback isn’t personal. The editor/tutor is not focussed on you, the writer, but on the reader. Will the reader find logical gaps? A dearth of evidence? A grating tone? Once you’ve removed the personal, it’s easier to accept the feedback. Still, the best thing is to read it once, then close it and go for a brisk walk. When you return, read it again slowly. It’s this slow reading which often reveals that what, in your first anxious hurry, you read as negatively undermining is, in truth, positively improving.
On the practical side, feedback needs to be instantly comprehensible. The receiver should never have to ask ‘what does this feedback mean’? Three basic questions guide good practical feedback. What, exactly, needs looking at? Why, exactly, does it need looking at? How, precisely, might a solution be approached? For gold-standard feedback, detailed answers to these three questions are vital.
Years ago, in response to a first draft of my first novel, I received gold-standard feedback. The memory still kicks me in the guts. But ten novels, an academic writing website and countless newspaper columns later, it’s been incomparably valuable for my own work, and for my ability to help others give and receive the kind of transformative feedback that unlocks a writer’s full potential and presents a piece to its best advantage.