Put your unconscious to work

Put your unconscious to work

Allow time between finishing your research and starting to write. That way, you give your unconscious time to assimilate the information and work out your own response to the topic, which then informs your argument.

I do my non-fiction writing in the early morning, having researched the topic the afternoon before. Just before I down tools, I have a think. How do I want to tell this particular story? I make a little mini-plan of the next day’s writing, listing the headings in the order that makes sense to me, and assign a word count to each section. Having organised and set myself the task in this way, I let my unconscious work on it overnight. This may or may not modify my ‘take’ on the subject, but either way, the next morning I have only to glance at my mini-plan and the writing almost always begins to flow.

Jen Green
6 December 2018

Show or tell?

Show or tell?

Starting a piece of writing can be the most difficult bit. The way I see it, there are two possible approaches: start big or start small. A ‘big beginning’ tells the reader something. A big beginning says: ‘The Juan de Fuca fault line could present the greatest geophysical hazard to Western Canada.’ There’s nothing wrong with a big beginning. But sometimes, a small beginning can be effective. A small beginning shows the reader something: a scene, a process, a case study. A small beginning says: ‘Fifty miles from Victoria, British Columbia, the earth is splitting. Steam shoots out of fissures in the sea bed and heats the surrounding seawater to over 400°C.’ A big beginning packs a punch, while having something concrete to visualize helps convey the significance of your ideas.

Heather Dyer
22 November 2018

Make your text more readable

Make your text more readable

According to Dr Alison Yeung Yam Wah at the University of Surrey, who researches the writing strategies of academics, ‘readability’ is one of the key ingredients of successful academic papers.

Yet academic writers frequently make their text hard to read by seeding it liberally with abstract nouns. These are nouns that express an idea, quality or state rather than an object you experience with your senses. ‘Transportation’ is an abstract noun. ‘Buses, coaches and cars’ are concrete nouns; you can touch, see, hear and smell them – I haven’t tried tasting.

Here’s an example:
The deposition of fish scales in the geological record over the last 1,600 years shows that sardine populations off the US West Coast have exhibited fluctuation – natural cycles of abundance each lasting some 50–70 years.

If we turn the abstract nouns into verbs, the sentence becomes shorter, more readable and no less convincing:

Fish scales deposited in the geological record over the last 1,600 years show that sardine populations off the US West Coast have fluctuated in natural cycles of abundance each lasting some 50–70 years.

Replacing abstract nouns with their equivalent verbs often injects energy into a sentence and usually makes it more readable. Why not try this when you next edit your work?

Trevor Day
8 November 2018

Swat the flies

Swat the flies

So you’ve finished a draft of your essay. It’s time for another look. Try squinting your eyes. Weird, I know. But it helps you see any places where there are lots of short words. There’s nothing wrong with short words, of course, but when lots of them gather together like flies on a horse’s back, it is sometimes a clue that your writing needs cleaning up. Look for words such as of, in, on, for, to, as and by. Search for it, this, that and which. Look for be, is, has and was. Your sentence may be contorting itself in over-complicated ways: ‘It is clear that the transformation of this policy in new ways that worked for the poor was one of the goals of this government, on which it hoped that it would be reelected.’ Now swat those flies: ‘The government’s changes in policy were targeted at helping the poor, and at being reelected.’ Cleaner and clearer, no?

James McConnachie
25 October 2018

A timetable you can stick to

A timetable you can stick to

Whether you’re a first year or a veteran undergraduate, good time management means more fun, less stress. It’s best approached at two levels: macro and micro. Macro focuses on the big picture: work, sport, social activities, chilling out, admin; micro on specific tasks.

For both macro and micro, wallcharts or screen timetables are excellent tools, but only if they’re based on reality, not an ideal scenario. For a realistic timetable, use the first couple of weeks of the new term to note down how long things actually take. For example, timetabling 20 minutes for laundry is optimistic, and four consecutive hours reading in the library equally so. And we all underestimate the time we waste browsing online. So don’t guess. Time your laundry. For assignments, note the time you spend researching, writing, re-writing, editing and proofreading. Of course no two tasks, either domestic or academic, are exactly the same, but with real-time information to hand, you’ll have a much better chance of creating timetables you can stick to.

Katie Grant
11 October 2018