Learning to listen

Learning to listen

There is little point being a professional writer if no one reads your work. As a Royal Literary Fund Consultant Fellow, I stress the need to be sensitive to the audience and communicate clearly. My pedagogic mantra has been brought into sharp focus during my latest book project. I was commissioned to ghost write the autobiography of a moderately famous artist. During the first few months, I met the subject and recorded our conversations. I then transcribed the material, moulded it into a coherent narrative and sent this draft version to the subject. Over the last few weeks, we have met several times. I have listened to his comments on the draft and nodded sympathetically while he explained why he would never have said what I said he said — or, at least, not in that particular way. My ultimate task is to create a readable book while enabling my subject to retain ownership of his own narrative, and this requires the ability to listen and respond sensitively.

There are parallels here with my Higher Education writing workshops. During these, too, I need to be sensitive to the participants’ needs. My students, unlike the subjects of many ghost-written autobiographies, tend to be very good listeners and eager to learn. Last term, I ran a workshop for student teachers undertaking a Masters programme at the Institute of Education on ‘Writing your thesis’. My remit was to help the students to communicate their own skills more effectively — not to teach them how to teach. As part of an introductory writing exercise, the students were amazed to discover how difficult it is to explain clearly and concisely how to make a cup of tea, and I continually referred back to this realisation during the rest of the workshop. The exercise made the students laugh out loud, and this good humour created a positive foundation for the following practical writing exercise in which the students had to describe the thrust of their thesis in one sentence. This simple activity vividly illustrates both the value of being sensitive to your audience and how, with well-chosen tools, you can help hone the communication skills that will attract and hold a reader.


17 August 2016
Overcoming writer’s block

Overcoming writer’s block

Lucy English


Image credit: Simon Goldstein

Writer’s block — we’ve all experienced it, whether we are novelists pondering over a plot twist or students battling with their thesis. How can you snap out
of it?

This year, along with Royal Literary Fund Consultant Fellow Helena Attlee, I co-facilitated two workshops for undergraduate Social Work students at Glyndwr University in Wrexham. We focused on academic writing and dissertations. The Social Work course is mostly practical, and the students struggle with academic writing. Although they were not taking a creative subject, we adopted a creative approach to the workshops to assist students who felt stuck and help them to work their way into their writing. When faced with a dissertation to write, university students are often given a bulleted list of tasks but this doesn’t always do the trick. People may not work in a linear fashion; they learn in different ways, and sometimes, a left-field approach is better for getting your ideas flowing.

If you’ve got writer’s block, a physical approach may help. I encouraged the students to leave their laptop on the table, move around, walk about — even dance! I handed out pads of sticky notes and suggested they pick a section of their dissertation to think about and write each idea on a sticky. Alternatively, they could take a visual approach and draw or doodle instead. With the ideas down on paper, they could shift them around to play with the order.

At the time, I was in the middle of my PhD in Digital Writing, which involves writing 48 poems to accompany short films for an online poetry and film collection. I was stalling with the critical analysis element. Running the workshops gave me confidence in my own academic writing. I adopted the tips I myself had recommended to students in the sessions and succeeded in kick-starting my own work. Perhaps a case of ‘do as I say, and I will too.’

3 August 2016
Embracing the delete button

Embracing the delete button

Katie Grant by Debbie Toksvig square

Image credit: Debbie Toksvig

In brilliant spring sunshine, twenty years to the day he died, I found myself in George Mackay Brown’s beloved Stromness delivering writing workshops to PhD students from the Glasgow School of Art’s Institute of Design and Innovation (InDI). I’d previously delivered workshops at InDI’s Creative Campus at Forres. What a pleasure to get to Orkney, and what a boon to hit Mackay Brown’s anniversary, providing as it did a perfect opportunity to illustrate how the cleansing techniques of poetry can, to great effect, focus and sharpen academic writing.

And not just academic writing. I read poetry to sharpen my own novel writing, particularly at the slicing and cutting stage. Sharing this working practice in workshops is, I find, a great way of opening up conversations about writing, and for discovering what activities will best help any particular group. When, for example, I reveal how I might lose as many as 40,000 words between a first draft and a finished novel, and that this is all part of the process, a group’s initial horror morphs into new respect for the central editing role of the delete button.

Indeed, I’d go so far as to claim the delete button as my best friend as I move from writing novels set in the past – I dislike the straitjacket category ‘historical novel’ – to a novel set in the 1980s. Moving is hard. Firstly, I’m more at home in the 1780s or even the 1280s than in a decade through which I actually lived. Secondly, it’s been difficult to pinpoint exactly what I’m writing about. I don’t mean the plot. That’s the easy bit. I mean identifying the fundamental core of the book. In the struggle to locate that core, I write and delete in equal measure, which, whilst frustrating, is a useful daily reminder that whether novelist, poet, tenured academic or student, poor writing always stems from muddled thinking. George Mackay Brown didn’t write on a computer so was unacquainted with the delete button. He did, though, scrupulously edit. How lovely to share his clarity and vision under wide skies in Stromness!

20 July 2016