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
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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
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Paragraphs: stepping stones through your argument

Paragraphs: stepping stones through your argument

Image credit: Christopher Collins

When I’m talking with students about how paragraphs function within an argument I sometimes use the metaphor of stepping stones across or along a river. I like to offer a local image when I can. Last year, teaching at the University of the Free State in South Africa, I found some great pictures of the Orange River. This year, at a business conference at the University of Bath, I used photos of the River Avon (or the ‘Riv Raven’ as we West Country folk call it) to illustrate my point.

The metaphor is flexible. Sometimes the stepping stones/paragraphs take the reader across the flow of water – the raw material out of which the essay is created – to the far bank. Sometimes the reader will step from one paragraph to the next to follow the flow of the argument down the river to the sea.

Recently, my own writing has thrown up more river metaphors. I’m writing a biography of three people who were in Africa at the time of the Anglo–Boer War. It wasn’t until I was revising my first draft that I appreciated how important a role rivers play in their stories. One of my subjects writes about sabotaged rail bridges, and having to push train carriages one by one across a narrow wooden bridge built to take ox wagons. Another describes a river choked with human corpses and animal carcasses. Both of these, I realised, work as metaphors for various stages in my own laborious writing process.

The process always involves a struggle across broken bridges and through carcass-choked rivers to produce a seamless final draft, which appears as a sweeping onward flow or a clear path of dry stepping stones. This finished stage is illustrated by the third subject of my biography, who writes of the joy and exhilaration of paddling a canoe down a moonlit river in West Africa, swooping past the menacing tree- and liana-crowded banks on either side. Now that’s an image I’d like to find and share with students in my next workshop.

18 January 2017
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Keep It Simple, Stupid!

Keep It Simple, Stupid!

In my day job as a ghostwriter, I’ve worked with half a dozen SAS men over the years and I soon discovered one of their favourite acronyms: KISS – Keep It Simple, Stupid. They use it in relation to planning active-service operations, but it’s good advice for undergraduates too. I’m not suggesting that it will enable you to kill silently in 93 different ways or carry a 50-kilogram Bergen military rucksack up and down Welsh mountains at top speed. (If that’s your aim, you’d better drop out of university and join the SAS instead.) But it will help you produce written work that is clear and concise, with an argument that is readily apparent — earning you high marks and the undying gratitude of your tutors.

Many undergraduates – and indeed, some academics – appear to believe that academic writing should consist of complex, convoluted sentences, littered with polysyllabic words and obscure concepts, and so jargon-laden that even the experts struggle to understand it. Even promotional writing can suffer from the same flaws as academic writing, as in this example (rendered anonymous to spare the writer’s blushes): ‘T*** H***** exercises synergies in a multi-platform social media paradigm that creates a new creative cultural space for blue-sky thinking. He leverages best-in-class solutions to communicate key performance metrics in a distributed yet centralised real-time goal-oriented proprietary methodology.’ Can anybody understand this?

Sometimes I’ll challenge undergraduates to tell me what a particular sentence they’ve written means and they’ll say, ‘I don’t know, I thought it sounded impressive.’ It doesn’t. If you don’t understand your own argument, how do you expect anyone else to? The solution is not to sound as if you’ve swallowed a thesaurus, with a dictionary for dessert, but to write in a way that is simple, direct and comprehensible, so that your argument shines through.

Even better, once you’ve acquired the habit of straightforward writing, you’ll find it useful in all sorts of other contexts: writing a CV, a personal statement, a job application or even a love letter. Give it a try — you’ll find that keeping it simple makes sense.

4 January 2017
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Writing with empathy

Writing with empathy

anne-wilson-profile-picA rough-looking man took us to the caravan, leading a frisky horse and surrounded by barking dogs. His eyes were muted with mistrust. It had taken an education liaison worker several weeks to gain the Travellers’ trust and negotiate our meeting. Once inside the spacious, spotless interior of the caravan, I was mesmerised by cabinets full of Royal Crown Derby bone china, hand-finished in 22-carat gold. I learned later that this china is highly prized by Traveller women and displayed as a sign of wealth.

My job was to write a script for a film that would persuade the Traveller community to send more of their children to secondary school, my task that day to listen: to imagine myself in the shoes of parents who fear that their children will be victimised, vilified and bullied; their daughters corrupted and their sons led astray.

Empathy is crucial to the type of writing I do. I help people to communicate – online, in film, in print, in person – by balancing the story they want to tell with the interests and concerns of their audience. Our film would only convince Traveller parents of the value of school education if the content, style and structure of my script addressed their feelings and anxieties. As writers, though we often have an equally clear story to tell – about our research, for example – it’s easy to forget that readers’ own knowledge, perspective and expectations are not the same as ours, which can prevent them from hearing our message.

When I work with students and staff in universities, I challenge them to imagine all their various readers, to define what is most important to each and guess how long an individual will spend reading what they write. I encourage academics to put themselves in the shoes of an overloaded reader on a rainy Monday morning and to write in a way that connects strongly to their audience’s interests. Empathy helps us to understand and engage our readers; it breaks down barriers and allows them to hear what we have to say. Identify what drives your audience, speak to it — and you will have your readers in the palm of your hand.

7 December 2016
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Learning never stops

Learning never stops

chris-simms_pete-kelly

Image credit: Pete Kelly

I’ve just finished writing my new novel. The story involves people trying to assassinate a member of the Royal Family with a surface-to-air missile. I’m now faced with the shifting landscape of the publishing world. So far, I’ve released books through three publishing houses, but I self-published my last few novels. With the current tendency for publishers to reduce what they pay for novels and do less to promote them, it’s a delicate decision choosing the best way to get your story out there. Just when you think you’ve got to grips with the publishing industry, you realise you’ve still got a lot to learn.

Alongside creating novels and mastering new publishing platforms, I deliver workshops on writing skills. I’m happiest when showing people how to make their writing easy to read. But recently, a large university in the north of England asked me to run a workshop that addressed scientific writing, including how to evaluate qualitative research. More unfamiliar territory. I also work as a copywriter in the advertising industry. This, too, has altered dramatically over the years. When I first started out, I spent my time writing brochures and mailers. Now it’s virtual-reality scripts and ‘experiential brand experiences’.

My point, to use a cliché, is that learning never stops. For many students, the need to develop their writing skills comes as an unwelcome surprise. I’ve tutored science students whose main reason for choosing their course was to minimise the amount of essay writing they had to do. If you are nervously facing the prospect of having to tackle new tasks, I can sympathise with you. But I can also offer the reassurance that anything can be mastered, once it’s been broken down into simple steps. We’re all learning all the time. That’s as true for writing as it is for publishing or creating ‘experiential brand experiences’ – whatever they are.

23 November 2016
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Finding your voice

Finding your voice

Image credit: Anna Barker

Image credit: Anna Barker

When I began my writing career, I devoured the novels of authors I admired and read creative writing self-help books cover to cover. I wrote plot outlines on huge sheets of brown paper and stuck them on my wall; I played around with character sketches until I had what I thought was an interesting cast. But one area of my writing development had me stumped. I had no voice. My words were flat, pedestrian; there was nothing in my work that jumped off the page and sizzled in the air. I wanted the magic the writers I admired had in abundance. When I read what I had written, I sounded like a terrible parody of a writer. Where was my voice?

I went down many a dark alley in my writing looking for it. In the end it came from writing about something very personal, something only I could write about. I chose a subject filled with pain and grief, which tore at my guts as I wrote it. And there it was, like a whale coming up for air. The words jumped off the page.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines voice as ‘the distinctive tone or style of a literary work or author.’ That’s certainly a good starting point, but it seems rather nebulous. Often, voice comes from originality and having the courage to express it, from being less tentative and timid and more confident and forthright. When I read academic writing that lacks a voice I immediately look for the location of the writer’s ideas. Are they at the end of a long train of dutiful acknowledgements of more established ideas? Does the writer position front and centre what is unique about their perspective, for example — at the beginning of paragraphs, sections or chapters? If not, the writer hasn’t yet found their voice.

This is unsurprising. Students tend to describe themselves as researchers, not writers. But to thrive in their careers, especially if they stay in academia, they will benefit from developing a distinctive and compelling voice – something I stressed when co-facilitating a thesis-writing immersive course for postgraduate students at Teesside University earlier this year.

As I sit down to plan my third novel I’m already thinking not just about the characters’ voices and what problems I might set for them, but also how I can feed my own voice. I’m reminding myself about what allows my voice to infuse my writing: dialogue, nature, process, sexuality — and courage.

9 November 2016
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Getting quality feedback on your work-in-progress

Getting quality feedback on your work-in-progress

How do you become a better writer? The horror writer Stephen King’s response was, ‘read a lot and write a lot.’ To that I would add, ‘get quality feedback.’

Recently, I submitted my ‘Sardine’ manuscript to my publisher. This is a book for wildlife lovers, budding chefs and anyone concerned with the natural environment. The book is much more than the story of a fish — it is a window on our relationship with the ocean world.

Before submitting the manuscript, I had colleagues check individual chapters. Historians read the chapters on the rise and fall of sardine fisheries. Scientists scrutinised my chapters about ecology, fish design and sardine behaviour, while fellow writers commented on my culinary and culture chapters. Getting this feedback was vital. It reinforced what I was doing right – thankfully a lot – and highlighted where I could tweak and improve the narrative, my arguments and the power of my prose.

In my work with research postgraduates and academic staff at Aston, Bath, Exeter and other universities I encourage them to get quality feedback before they submit their finished work. Giving feedback on writing is not easy because it operates on so many levels. What can you do, for example, to improve the overall structure, your argument and the fluency and clarity of your writing? Added to this are finer details, such as grammar and punctuation, citing and referencing, and any visual features.

My advice is to ask for feedback from the person best suited to give it. Get feedback on grammar and punctuation or citing and referencing from a trusted friend or colleague. Then ask for feedback on structure, style and argument from your supervisor or another appropriate staff member. Asking for targeted feedback from two or more people can help you swiftly develop your writing. To do that, of course, you have to factor in enough time to ask for, get and incorporate that specific feedback. In my experience, it is well worth the trouble.

26 October 2016
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What’s your investment in your writing?

What’s your investment in your writing?

Image credit: Soren Levy Sands

Image credit: Soren Levy Sands

So much of a writer’s work happens off the page that it is sometimes difficult when teaching ‘craft’ or writing technique to convey the importance of the work that takes place before you put fingers to keyboard. Off-stage is a vast territory of motivations and ambitions, impulses and imaginings, to say nothing of the essential grunt work involved — at least in academic writing — in structuring an argument that is grounded in extensive research. How to bring it all together? How to focus your attention on the single thing that feels authentic? How, in other words, do you locate the place from where you speak?

Reading Mary Karr’s latest book, The Art of Memoir, I came upon a sentence that summed up for me the way into this question. ‘The goal of a voice is to speak not with objective authority but with subjective curiosity.’ Start, in other words, from the inside, and then work your way outwards.

But there’s more: the best voices, says Karr, ‘include a writer’s insides’. They never lose site of the ego’s shape, its blind spots, its prejudices, its wants — all those filters that colour everything you think and see and remember and value.

In memoir, part of the writer’s job is to keep those filters visible and in play, something I consciously attempted to do in my work, especially in my latest book The Middlepause. In my work as an RLF Consultant Fellow with PhD students at the London School of Economics, I feel that getting them, too, to be properly acquainted with their insides is part and parcel of the job. They know about subjectivity (that is to say, they know what they think and feel), but many believe that academic writing involves erasing themselves, striving for an ‘objective’ voice that carries authority, flushes out bias. They fret about whether or not to use the first-person pronoun for fear of contaminating their dispassion. My feeling is that researchers gain critical insight into their work when made to answer the following question: what is your investment in this?

I suggest that this investment is their subjectivity, and that it goes far beyond whether or not they use the word ‘I’. I tell them that I’m talking about bringing all of themselves to their work, so that a vital curiosity animates everything they write, and that recognising the filters through which they process information will inflect every thought with self-awareness.

12 October 2016
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The role of the protagonist

The role of the protagonist

Max Adams

Image credit: Kona Macphee / RLF

In the last year I have co-facilitated two writing immersives: a five-day retreat in the Derbyshire countryside for post-doctoral science academics and a series of one-to-one tutorials sandwiched between whole-day workshops for PhD students from all disciplines at Teesside University. As a writer of fiction and non-fiction, I know that narrative structure is key to pulling off a big piece of work — 100,000 words or so. I see theses, novels and commercial non-fiction in much the same way, despite their very evident differences in terms of audience, tone and style.

One of the most successful tools for doctoral students or, indeed, post-doctoral academics, is to envisage the role and nature of the protagonist: that is to say, the character (or discipline; or theory; or interpretive paradigm) that undergoes the most profound change during the course of the work. For humanities students this often provides them with a key insight and answers that tricky question, ‘what is this about?’ On the other hand, scientists are often sceptical — at least to begin with — about the idea that a mathematical conundrum can be turned into a protagonist or that solving a problem of measuring the performance of micro-fluids can be encompassed as a narrative with a protagonist’s journey. So, we often start talking about the movies: how screenplays work to set up a challenge, map how the protagonist overcomes those challenges and emerges wiser — and changed — at the end. I managed to convince an ultra-reductionist mathematician that the Pythagorean five-bridges problem could have a protagonist. If nothing else, it forces the writer to consider if there is a potential protagonist on whom to drape the flesh of their narrative. As for my own writing, being challenged by highly intelligent academics forces me to interrogate my own approach to story: to engineer it to the highest standards. Even in fiction — perhaps especially in fiction — the rigour of the academic approach, always questioning, always scrutinising, always testing, keeps me on the straight and narrow.

28 September 2016
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