Are you stuck with the development of your essay or dissertation idea and tempted to shelve it and start again with a different topic? Before you discard the idea, why not remind yourself of what attracted you to the idea in the first place? Then go back to the original premise and think about what you are trying to explore, debate or prove. Talk it over with someone else — the discussion may help you connect with your original passion for the topic. As you explain the idea, you will begin to clarify your thoughts and a new way forward may emerge.
25 April 2018
As a storyteller, I see stories everywhere. We all do this to some extent. In fact, we only ‘exist’ in the context of our stories: who we are, how we came to be here, where we’re going and why. We ‘story’ our existence because we want to understand how things fit and what will happen.
Stories aren’t a random series of events, though; they have a pattern. Typically, a hero ventures out into the unknown, faces challenges and defeats, and invariably has to let go of a false belief or flawed thinking in order to learn something new. Even following a cake recipe is a story of sorts: you want to achieve something, you begin, you carry out challenging steps, then you entrust the cake mixture to the oven, hoping the result will satisfy your guests. Even if the recipe doesn’t work out, maybe you’ll learn something.
The principles of storytelling can be applied to academic writing, too. When students are struggling to shape their research into a dissertation or thesis, I ask them the same sort of questions I’d ask a creative-writing student about their novel:
• What was the status quo before you began?
• What are you trying to achieve? What problem are you trying to overcome?
• Why is this important? What are the stakes?
• What do people believe? Does this need to change?
• How are you going to get to where you want to go?
• What are the difficulties?
• Does your journey have a high point? A low point?
• What have you found? What do you think you’ll find?
• What’s the significance of your findings?
• How will they change things? What will happen now?
Finding the narrative of your research can help you write a powerful abstract, case study, press release or funding application. It will make the story of your research more compelling. Being able to tell this story in a few sentences can also be helpful when you’re networking at conferences or trying to explain what you do to people outside your area of expertise.
• They’re both about communicating ideas.
• They need to make complex ideas accessible.
• They tell a story.
• They aspire to effect change.
When I teach academic writing skills, I tell workshop participants that their writing will be more effective when it adheres to some of the constraints required in writing for children.
What’s the point of writing if not to communicate? Communicating requires you to empathise with your audience. How much does your audience already understand? Why are they reading? What’s in it for them? Keeping both the aspirations and the experience of your audience in mind will make your writing accessible and engaging. It will make your readers feel ‘seen’. Your readers will return this favour by paying more attention. This is particularly important if you want to share your ideas beyond the tight circle of your own research community.
Explaining something clearly requires you to think harder and dig deeper. The struggle to articulate a complex idea in simple terms forces us to make previously abstract thoughts concrete. It can reveal gaps in our own knowledge, or foggy thinking. Albert Einstein once said: ‘If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.’ In workshops, I ask participants to explain their research to a child they know, or a family member who knows nothing about their subject.
They say children have short attention spans. But don’t we all? Good writing – like any good design – has no redundant parts. Every word should be indispensable to the whole. Getting to the point is another way of empathising with your readers. As an exercise in brevity, I ask workshop participants to describe their projects in 50 words or fewer.
I once heard a child say of a book he couldn’t put down that it had ‘an urging flow.’ What a wonderful description of narrative! Narrative drive is what keeps a reader hooked. If you can recognise a narrative in your research, you’ll be able to describe it in a more engaging way. Interrogate your work in the same way a children’s author does. What was the situation before you started out? What was the ‘inciting incident’ that began your quest? Why is this important? How did you reach where you are now? Were there difficulties and setbacks? Finally, what did you learn and how might it change the world? A story – like research – recounts a process through which new knowledge is attained. We describe a journey, not just a destination.
In the early stages of planning a piece of writing, try to give yourself the time and space to explore the topic in a loose way, in a state of total relaxation. We can all get very stressed about exams, grades and writing to a deadline. Giving yourself permission to experience a short interlude when you think freely and play with ideas – without your internal ‘critical voice’ intervening – can help to clarify your argument. Techniques such as free-writing (writing without thinking or stopping), mind mapping using colours and shapes, and speaking aloud, can divert you from established thought patterns and refresh your perspective on the question. Drawing, speaking and writing freely are ways of giving centre stage to thoughts that you’ve kept ‘in the wings’ up to now. Some of them may be valuable. Start by breathing deeply five or six times with your eyes closed. Relax. And then begin.
Dr Anne Wilson
10 January 2018
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.
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.