Searching for inspiration

Searching for inspiration

Image credit: Fran Tegg

Students at my Masters writing workshops say that one of the hardest tasks is coming up with an original angle for their assignments. It’s particularly important when it comes to selecting a topic for a dissertation. I always advise students to read widely to gain a broad understanding of the field and to identify any possible gaps in the research that could be filled. We talk about applying previous research to a new problem; comparing and contrasting materials that have never been compared before; or applying grand theories such as feminism or Marxism.

In small groups, the students discuss their strategies for developing a fresh perspective. They often come up with thought-provoking ideas. One student proposed reading an author you totally disagree with to help to clarify your own position, while another said she searched for the viewpoint of the underdog. A valuable strategy is to mull on the issue overnight or use freewriting — allowing the unconscious mind to assist creativity (as RLF Consultant Fellow Heather Dyer explains here

The search for inspiration is familiar to me. As a children’s non-fiction writer, I’m usually commissioned to write a specific book; it’s like being given the essay title. A couple of years ago, I decided to embark on writing adult non-fiction but struggled to find my subject. For me, it was a case of reading voraciously as always and keeping my mind and eyes open to stories from any source. In the end, inspiration came from an art installation related to the Six-Day War in 1967. Bringing my project to fruition in time for the 50th anniversary of the conflict has involved using many of the techniques described in this blog series, including time management, working on voice and tone, getting distance from my writing and eliciting quality feedback. I hope that this year’s blogs have proved as useful to students, academics and other writers as they have to me.

This is the last of this year’s series of Top Tips and What’s Happening? blogs but they will remain available on the RLF Consultant Fellows site. A new series of blogs is planned for autumn 2017.

7 June 2017
Finding connections between ideas

Finding connections between ideas

Image credit: Anna Barker

Recently I partnered with Tina Pepler, another Royal Literary Fund Consultant Fellow, to deliver a five-day writing retreat for third-year doctoral students. Students were at the writing-up stage of their research and grappling with a large amount of material. As writers, we know all too well the muddle you can sometimes get into when working out the structure of a long piece of writing. There’s a familiar tension between being close to the detail but also needing to be able to zoom out and see the piece as a whole. You can sometimes feel lost in the fog. It’s often difficult to see the connections between ideas, the links that would provide a cohesive structure.

Every morning at the start of our sessions, we asked our students to practise freewriting. Freewriting is the act of writing continuously, not stopping to correct errors, or even really to think that much. It engages the unconscious mind, that place where the mulling over of problems ordinarily takes place. (See Heather Dyer’s blog post You can write using a prompt such as, ‘What am I trying to achieve with this chapter?’ Alternatively, you can simply begin writing and see what comes out. When you feel you having nothing to write, you just fill in the blanks with ‘blah, blah, blah’ until another thought kicks you off again. It’s a terrific way of engaging the creative side of your brain.

Once you have been writing for 15 minutes, stop, and read through what you have written. You might like to circle or underline things that leap out at you as interesting. And keep the routine going; do it every morning. I’m always surprised by what comes out when I’m freewriting and indeed I’m doing a lot of it just at the moment as ideas for a new novel take shape. Our students at the retreat found it very helpful in making connections in the structure of their thesis. It also allowed them to slip off the cloak of academic writing, to write freely and to explore how they thought and felt about the material they were working with.

24 May 2017
Seeing the obstacle as a gift

Seeing the obstacle as a gift

I think of obstacles as friends in the process of writing.

I have often found that when I’ve stumbled upon a problem when writing a play, that very obstacle has turned out to be a gift. In finding the solution, I’ve pushed the play into directions and dimensions I hadn’t thought of when I first had the idea, allowing it to achieve its greatest potential, and giving me a key to unlock my own deeper motivations for writing the piece. Here’s just one example.

Years ago, I was writing a radio play about the relationship between a young woman who had recently been paralysed and a capuchin monkey being trained to be her aide and companion. How do you give a voice to a monkey, a voice that isn’t Disney, and isn’t simplistically anthropomorphic? By chance, I discovered that the capuchin monkeys being trained in this way come from a part of the Amazon rainforest where a people called the Bororos live. The Bororos believe that monkeys are human children who died in childhood and were born again as monkeys, so I used the mythology of the Bororos to find a child/monkey voice for the character of Jacu. Along the way, the play took off in several unplanned directions, and became much more layered, exploring how we connect with nature, with animals, and with our mothers, and how missionaries sometimes colluded with the persecution of the Bororos by prospectors and developers.

In my work as an RLF Consultant Fellow, I’ve shared this idea about obstacles with students and academics, and they have almost always been able to run with it. One senior lecturer in Pharmacology wanted to argue the case for giving pharmacologists a more active role with patients in these days of acute stress within the NHS, but kept tripping over memories of her father’s work as an old-style pharmacist. To her, such personal recollections seemed out of place in an academic study. I suggested that she could embrace the apparent obstacle and write her paper partly as a memoir, to include vignettes from her childhood. Thus she could foreground the central role a pharmacist once held in communities in Britain, as a powerful contrast to the current situation.

The effect was immediate: her writing became much more compelling — as if it had been set free. Afterwards, she said of the process: ‘I found a narrative voice I didn’t know I had, and changed my research question very radically as a result.’ For her, as for me, the obstacle had been a gift, and it had given her a more personal connection to the work — with no loss of academic rigour.

10 May 2017
A page, a paragraph, a sentence: keeping your focus

A page, a paragraph, a sentence: keeping your focus

Cherise Saywell

Image credit: Brodie Leven

I participated in several intensive writing courses while becoming a writer and I’ve always been a great believer in the benefits of the immersive experience. Apart from the sustained focus on my writing, I loved working closely with the course leaders — novelists, short-story writers, poets and memoirists. Sometimes they showed me things I was doing already. This was reassuring — I’m doing the right thing, I’d think. I just need to keep going. Sometimes they showed me something completely new. Each time, I came away fizzing with purpose. Of course, the creative high couldn’t last, but one of the most beneficial things I took home with me each time was how to achieve an aerial view of my project — an overview of what I am trying to say.

I’m in the process of setting up my first immersive writing workshop. My participants will be fourth-year undergraduates about to embark on their dissertations. I’m going to show them a useful way to achieve that aerial view. It involves taking a break from writing and researching, and producing a synopsis as if you were telling a story — a summary of what will happen. The approach is helpful for other forms of writing too. This is how it works:

Participants take a blank piece of paper. ‘What is your dissertation about?’ I ask. ‘What is the answer to the question you’re asking?’ First, I suggest that they scribble it down on a blank page — roughly 300 words. The first draft is written quickly, and by hand. Then, on a separate page, they summarise what they’ve written in a paragraph of up to 150 words. I emphasise that the important thing is to distil rather than simply extract. So they aren’t just cutting, they are re-thinking, re-working, re-wording. Finally, they produce a summary in a sentence — no more than 25 words. This is the essence of the dissertation.

In each instance, when they finish a draft, they slow down. They edit what they’ve written. Then they read it out loud. The aim is to produce something that is coherent and complete, although brief. This approach helps you to stay on track and remained focused on the topic. I still do this exercise in my own work. I find it boosts my confidence, whatever I’m working on. It puts me back on track if I’m flagging. It’s a way of telling yourself you can do it, and then explaining how it’ll be done.

26 April 2017
How to read a scientific research paper

How to read a scientific research paper

Recently, I was lead author of a University of Bath online resource called Evaluating Scientific Research Literature. Aimed at helping science undergraduates read academic papers more critically, we involved postgraduates in designing it and undergraduates in testing it. I interviewed the authors of academic papers to reveal their motivations for writing them, and to offer guidance to students on how best to read them. Our project team learnt a great deal, and I gained insights that will help me write the second edition of my book on academic writing.

Our key insight? There is no single good way to read a scientific research paper. It depends why you’re reading it, your level of familiarity with the content, and your reading preferences.

If you’re a first-year undergraduate writing an essay, and you are using the paper as one of many information sources, you might focus on the introduction and conclusion, perhaps studying any figures or tables in the results section and reading the discussion. If you’re a final-year student designing your own research project, you might pay particular attention to the method section, to inform your practice. The emphasis of your reading changes depending on your level of knowledge and what you’re seeking to do.

One thing we advise all students to do if they’re thinking of reading a paper is to skim it first. This means going through the paper at speed, to gain an overview — a mental map if you will. Pay attention to the beginnings and ends – of the paper as a whole (title, abstract, introduction and conclusion), the sections (key paragraphs near the beginning and end of sections) and of the paragraphs themselves. Briefly study any figures and tables. As you go through, you can note important parts that you will need to read in greater detail.

Something we all agreed on: do not simply read a paper once slowly all the way through. That is very inefficient. You end up reading everything at a similar speed, whether it is relevant or not. Much better is to decide why you’re reading the paper before or after skimming it, and then read it to meet that purpose. You might not read the whole paper but just the parts that are relevant to your task. You may wish to read those important parts two or three times, while annotating and/or making notes, to make sure you’ve got everything you need. That way, you will meet your purpose and most likely gain a good grasp of the paper.

A final word: as an undergraduate it is unrealistic to expect to understand everything you read. One of the project’s professors talked about still not understanding some papers and he’s been researching for more than 20 years!

12 April 2017
Storyboarding: using pictures to unlock words

Storyboarding: using pictures to unlock words

As a writer of information books, I work with words and pictures. Sometimes, when I’m planning a book, I even plot the pictures before the words. I find that thinking in pictures can be liberating, and I believe all kinds of people can benefit from a more visual approach to their writing, especially when they’re feeling trapped in a web of words.

I recently worked with a group of social workers who were writing case studies. Some of them had stalled on their introduction. Others had run aground in a morass of detail. It was clear they all needed a fresh approach.

I suggested they could storyboard their case studies. This meant approaching each study rather like a director plans a film: creating an opening shot to set the scene, a sequence of acts in logical order, and a strong conclusion. I equipped the group with large sheets of paper and handfuls of coloured pens, and set them to work in pairs on a shared case study. Each pair worked together to select key points and to decide on the best order in which to present them. Then they went on to sketch out a series of scenes that explained their ‘story’ to the group. Somehow, thinking visually enabled the participants to master their material and freed them from anxiety over choosing the right words. Even those who claimed to be completely non-visual found they could recognise when a sequence worked, and everyone agreed that this approach to creating a synopsis had made the whole process of planning much easier and more manageable than before.

The storyboarding approach can be used successfully for planning essays and dissertations, either in a workshop or on your own. To work out the order of your points, you can also draw pictures – or write down the points – on a set of cards, then move the cards around until you find the best and most logical sequence.
Storyboarding may not turn you into the next Scorsese, but it could help you through the essay-planning blues.

29 March 2017
Voice and tone

Voice and tone

As Anna Barker has so eloquently pointed out (Finding your voice, November 2016), an author’s voice is their most important attribute, although this doesn’t mean it should be constantly in the reader’s ear. It’s there, though. Just as habitual listeners are unlikely to mistake Rachmaninov for Mozart, so habitual readers will immediately recognise, for example, Jane Austen, James Joyce or Martin Amis. When I write a newspaper column, I want readers to know it’s me without looking at my byline. Without voice, authors might as well be robots.

Academic writing is, of course, different. It’s vital to find your own voice, but for doctoral theses and journal articles, that voice must be tempered by academic conventions. Postgraduates find this a challenge. During immersive writing sessions at the University of Glasgow, my co-facilitator and I asked doctoral students to describe their feelings about academic tone. ‘Prison’ was a favourite description. For staff and postgraduates at the Glasgow School of Art’s Institute of Design Innovation, tone was also a daunting hurdle. Their work involves living people and living landscapes. Academic tone seemed to drain all the life away.

Historical novelists face the same problem. Dialogue written in the style of the novel’s era is a real life-drainer. ‘Zounds, sirrah, prithee hie for the apothecary’ is Blackadder territory. Serious authors must discover how to evoke the period without strangling their story. Hilary Mantel is an excellent tutor. ‘Cromwell has the skin of a lily,’ she has the king say near the start of Bring Up the Bodies, ‘the only particular in which he resembles that or any other blossom.’ The tone is not 21st century: we might say ‘skin like a lily’ or ‘lily-like skin’; ‘the only particular’ would be ‘the only way’; ‘flower’ is now preferred to ‘blossom’. Nevertheless, we get the joke. Far from tone being a constraint, in Mantel’s hands, it’s fuel.

A historical novelist myself, I particularly empathise with students struggling with tone. One successful strategy for both novelist and student is to be punctilious with punctuation. Inserting every comma, every full stop, every semi-colon and colon, injects formality. Another is to study in detail the tonal technique of authors you admire – words, phrases, sentence and paragraph structure – until you understand how tone actually works. It takes time but not one second is wasted.

As for robot authors, they are already with us. Many media outlets now use software to write data-heavy stories. Some predict that a machine will one day win a Pulitzer Prize. On that day, forget voice and tone. Unless they’ve got shares in the software, the only sound will be human authors shrieking.

15 March 2017
What is an argument?

What is an argument?

While researching for a new poem sequence, I was reading Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. I found myself constructing an argument for a possible essay or article. Why did Victor Frankenstein end up creating a monster? What part was played by his education? Later, preparing writing workshops for MA Literature students and looking back over essays from previous years, the problem of argument recurred frequently in a sample of markers’ comments. Students were advised to ‘argue rather than illustrate’ or were told: ‘Your paragraphs and arguments don’t have a clear discursive shape’. Not being clear about the basic outline of the argument means that an essay lacks direction, with consequences for the quality of the writing.

Alerted to this problem, I went back to Frankenstein. Could I retrace my steps? Victor’s studies began at home in his early teens with alchemy, investigating works by Cornelius Agrippa and Paracelsus. Entering the university at Ingolstadt, in Bavaria, Germany, his tutors introduced him to ‘natural philosophy’.

Constructing an argument involves identifying its main concepts, establishing their exact meaning, where they occur, their provenance and background, plus any further relevant research. This information can be presented as a concept grid.

A concept grid works well for humanities students at any level. Visualising the material helps us discover connections, oppositions, pathways and links, out of which a complex argument can emerge. The grid below is just a simplified version of what could be a spreadsheet or a message-board in an incident room. As you define your concepts and see where they lead, you will be able to take your reader with you. Under Alchemy: Content, we might enter ‘transmutation of metals, elixir of life, philosopher’s stone’, all of which are consistent with a belief in magic. ‘Natural philosophy’ – what we would now call science – would have exposed the young Frankenstein to a whole new set of procedures based upon experiment, observation and probability. Victor’s problem was not to progress from one form of knowledge to another, but to embrace them both. He had to find a way to transmute mortality, and used modern science as his means.

So what went wrong at Ingolstadt? The last two sentences above could serve as an attempt to frame the argument, with further questions to follow. An argument is a vehicle able to carry you far into your topic, opening up new spaces for exploration. Concepts clarified in detail stimulate research, generate insight, and bring to writing a ‘clear, discursive shape’.

Title: What part did Victor Frankenstein’s education play in the creation of his monster?


1 March 2017
Creative insight

Creative insight

After publishing four books, I hit writer’s block. I couldn’t understand it. I could still put sentences and paragraphs together, but I was no longer able to intuit a plot. Eventually, after struggling with one book for nearly five years, I was forced to accept that knowing how to write was only half the battle. Writing is part technique and part creative insight.

What’s creative insight? It could be the sudden realisation that X leads to Y or the awareness that two things you thought were separate are actually related. Insight is the making of a new connection. It’s a timid little bird that tends to fly away when grasped but will alight upon an open hand. Consequently, insights often surprise us when we least expect them — when we’re stepping off a bus or getting out of the shower or dropping off to sleep. Why?

For new insights to occur we need to momentarily let go. We need to stop focusing on what we already know in order to allow our unconscious to realise new connections. If you are stuck for a solution to a problem, try freewriting. Freewriting is writing steadily without stopping and without knowing where you’re going. If you feel a resistance to trying this, consider that your unconscious may already know the answer to your problem. Freewriting can give your unconscious a chance to reveal it.

Why not try it out? Write down a problem or a question that you’d like to resolve. Then try freewriting for five minutes on one of the following prompts and see what arises.

• Write a paragraph on what the solution isn’t.
• Describe what would happen if you changed one aspect of your particular situation/problem. What if you changed the colour? The material? The method? The place? What can be made larger? Smaller? Divided? Rearranged?
• Write a paragraph or two describing the situation from a different perspective. How does it look from outside? From above? From the point of view of an object, or a forgotten voice?
• Try describing how you feel about this situation.
I tested these exercises at a writers’ workshop last month, and several people reported that freewriting had allowed them to see their problem in a new light or had enabled them to make progress towards a solution. When we write without knowing where we’re going, our unconscious sometimes gets the chance to provide new insights.

15 February 2017
How to be your own editor

How to be your own editor

Image credit: Fran Tegg

I have a strange confession to make: I love editing. Before I was a writer, I was a children’s non-fiction book editor. I spent several years restructuring, rewriting and tidying up other people’s work.

When I started writing books myself, I wanted to incorporate my editorial skills. But it’s hard to edit your own work. How can you achieve a feeling of separation from your own writing and look at it objectively? I like to think of my first draft as a terrible manuscript sent in by an author; it’s down to me to knock it into publishable shape. The text goes through several versions, the process taking far longer than cobbling together the original draft. Gradually, I transform it from a scrambled mess into readable prose.

Although I enjoy editing, my students seem to hate it. In a workshop entitled ‘How can I improve my grade?’ I asked the group of undergraduates and postgraduates from various disciplines to write on a sticky note how they felt about editing their essays. Apart from one participant, who joyously wrote ‘eager’, the rest expressed such sentiments as ‘anxious’, ‘stressed’, ‘fed up’ and ‘prefer to avoid it’.

The trick to making the editing process less fearful is to break it down into manageable chunks. You can’t simply read your essay passively, hoping that mistakes will leap out at you. I advise dividing the work into two main stages and drawing up a checklist of tasks so you focus on one at a time.

First, examine what you are saying. Are you answering the question? Is your structure clear? Make sure your argument flows through the essay and that you have a good topic sentence at the start of each paragraph to make your point. Then review how you are expressing yourself: divide any over-long sentences and cut unnecessary words and phrases. Ensure your grammar and punctuation are correct, that you have used terms consistently, and check your spelling. Finally, make sure your assignment is laid out in the correct format, with accurate referencing.

What’s the clincher to persuade you this lengthy process is worth the effort? Every editorial task you carry out will help you to improve your grade. Good writing is all in the editing. It’s as true for students as it is for academics and professional writers.

1 February 2017