Thinking time

Thinking time

Martin Vorel, Pixabay

Most writers fit their writing into busy lives full of all kinds of other demands. If you’re a parent or carer, it can be especially hard to clear your mind. But thinking doesn’t have to be done in a library or at a desk. Embarking on a PhD as a mature student with two tiny children, I made some breakthroughs when I least expected them: in the middle of hanging out washing, for example. When chores mount up, and you’re stuck at home, try not to worry that you’re not ‘working’. The particular rhythms of repetitive tasks and tedious domestic duties – chopping vegetables, picking up Lego, walking a baby to sleep – can give you valuable problem-solving space.

Lydia Syson
30 April 2020

Who is the protagonist?

Who is the protagonist?

Trevor Day

Several years ago, my writer colleague Max Adams introduced me to the idea of the ‘protagonist’ in non-fiction writing. I have been playing with this idea since, especially when working with doctoral students and academic staff.

Drawn from the world of creative writing – plays, novels, radio and film – the protagonist is the person, usually a central character, who is most changed during the course of the story. In James Cameron’s film Titanic, Rose (played by Kate Winslet) is the protagonist. Through her encounter with steerage passenger and aspiring artist Jack (Leonardo diCaprio), and their experiences before and after the sinking of the Titanic, she rejects her upper-class origins and goes on to lead a life of independence and adventure.

How does the notion of the protagonist play out in non-fiction writing? Here, a protagonist could be a person, a group, an idea or an object. Imagine this scenario. In a remote part of the world, a World Health Organisation representative arrives and discovers a high incidence of malaria among the population, as yet undocumented. She returns to base and puts out a tender for a team to research and devise an effective response. Your research team wins the tender. The solution involves a bottom-up approach, drawing upon the insight and practices of the local population. Stakeholders, from regional to international, are involved in dialogue and decision-making, drawing upon best practice at all levels. The project is a success. After five years, the incidence of malaria has plummeted. If you were writing a report documenting the project’s triumph, who or what would you choose as the protagonist? Would it be your research team? The local community who were actively involved and benefited? The mosquito that transmits the malaria and is thwarted by the new practices? You choose your protagonist to match your purpose and audience.

Deciding who is the protagonist helps you tell your story with greatest impact. Thinking about the protagonist can help you write an essay, a report, a dissertation or a thesis. In reflective writing, you may be the protagonist. And here is a radical thought. Think of your reader as the protagonist. After all, it is him or her you are trying to convince – perhaps even to change or to take action.

23 April 2020


Freeing your writing

Freeing your writing

Trevor Day

I have been running writing workshops in research-intensive UK universities for more than a decade now. When working with academics or doctoral students, one of the activities that tops their ‘most beneficial’ list is freewriting.

Freewriting is the process of writing as a stream of consciousness, without worrying about the normal conventions of proper sentences, grammar, punctuation and so on. There are many approaches to freewriting, but the one I’ll emphasise here is freewriting just before you get down to serious writing.

In my workshops, I often ask participants to write down what they ‘think and feel’ about writing their thesis, paper or other major writing task. I give them up to 10 minutes to handwrite, not stopping to analyse their writing.

Whatever the discipline of the participants, the majority find the activity unexpectedly revealing. Freewriting shortens the distance between thinking and writing. Without the normal constraints of worrying about the audience, the purpose, and the conventions of ‘good’ writing, the participants can freely express what they think and feel. This could be an outburst of emotion, a free-wheeling exploration of potential solutions to a problem, stepping back from a situation and seeing it from a new perspective, or something else. Thoughts tumble out in a haphazard way, without the need for them to be organised. Often, new connections are made.

Reading their freewriting afterwards, people often discover useful insights. At the very least, they tend to feel better having expressed something that had been concerning them.

When I follow up with the academics or students several weeks after a workshop, I sometimes ask them how and when they use freewriting. The most frequent response is ‘just before I have to write something serious’. Typically, they spend 10 minutes or so writing their stream of consciousness. Some use it to ‘clear the mind’ and get their ‘writing muscles’ working. Others use it to explore the piece of writing they’re about to do: ‘What do I think and feel about this paper?’ or ‘Why am I so resistant to writing this paper?’ They tell me it makes them think more holistically about the task and the process, stepping back from what they’re trying to do. A few say that by making new connections, they end up writing the paper more creatively, without the headings and structures they habitually use. It helps breathe life into their academic writing. They find their formal writing becomes more expressive, without losing its rigour.

Freewriting is a marvellous complement to academic writing, and the benefits far outweigh the little time it takes. Try it next time you have something important to write.

21 November 2019


Free reading

Free reading

woman in library

Klimkin, Pixabay

However deeply you are immersed in your research, always do some reading that is not one of your required texts. A text outside your subject can act like an invigorating shower, its new themes and different forms freshening the mind. When I’m writing a novel, I often turn to poetry – not for its subject matter but for its economy – and find my own writing becomes crisper as a result. For students across all disciplines, reading a novel or a collection of poetry unassociated with your work is both a necessary reminder that there is life beyond your studies, and an opportunity for words or phrases to trigger new thoughts and ideas. Freewriting is well-documented as a writing aid, but if you really want to nurture your mental health and keep your writing in shape, I’d advocate free reading too.

Katie Grant
14 November 2019

Creating space to think

Creating space to think

no mobiles signSmartphones and social media are designed to keep you going back to them by offering little hits of the chemical dopamine — tiny rewards that entice you and then hold your attention. We know this; their inventors have admitted it. Smartphones could just as well have been designed to disrupt writing, because what writing requires is absorption: sustained attention without distraction. So give your brain a chance to think. If you can’t bring yourself to switch off your phone and Wifi connection, then at least mute alerts. That way, you go to your device when you want to, not every time it calls. Why not try working for an hour with your phone on airplane mode, and an hour as normal? Afterwards, compare your productivity over the two hours. You might be shocked by the difference.

James McConnachie
3 October 2019

Pictures make words

Pictures make words

Max Adams

Image credit: Kona Macphee / RLF

During workshops with undergraduate, graduate or doctoral students, I use images – anything from films to works of art – to help them to develop their sense of story and visualise its shape.

In great art, as in good writing, there is always tension. Take a look at Joseph Wright of Derby’s marvellous allegory of the Age of Enlightenment, An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump of 1768.

The ten figures, portrayed in a room lit only by the light of a pale moon through the window and a candle behind a glass of liquid, are in a state of maximum tension; they are wondering if the scientist will let the bird die, each trying to process their own reactions. It is a moment of great drama. One figure is the protagonist — the character who will make the most profound emotional journey in the unfolding drama. But who is it? By exploring the web of tensions within and between the actors on stage, we are working out what is important to the story. How did this scene come about; what drives the action and characters; how is the narrative structured; what happens next?

The viewer must be emotionally or intellectually engaged in order to care. Will the bird survive? Will the tearful girl be traumatised for life? Above all – and this is the point of view of the protagonist – where will it all end, this toying with nature?

The drama is carefully structured, so that we know there is a past, present and future. For the academic writer, that past might be a literature review or introduction — and it’s vital that writers load these elements with sufficient tension that readers care about what happens next. Each character might represent a structural element (a theory or point of view) in a thesis or journal article. The experimental core of this painting’s story maps particularly well on to academic writing.

Good writers find a source of tension and raise the stakes (like the painter using techniques such as dramatic lighting) by suggesting a conflict or problem that must, somehow, find resolution. The props (for the painter, the costumes, furniture and landscape) are your data, which you need to manipulate to sustain the tension until you resolve them and satisfy the reader. In occasional instances, the tension is unresolved; this is a prompt for thinking or taking action.

All good academic writing needs these elements, and using art or film to visualise them can be extremely helpful in finding and structuring a narrative.

Have you spotted the protagonist in the painting yet?

An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump 1768

Image credit: National Gallery and Wikimedia Commons

11 April 2019
Inspiration plus perspiration

Inspiration plus perspiration

Doug Johnstone

Image credit: Chris Scott

Doug Johnstone

I write gritty crime novels and also have a PhD in nuclear physics — people frequently have trouble getting their head around this combination of facts. They ask how I made the giant leap from science to the arts, but that’s a misguided question; I feel deeply that the adversarial idea of science versus art is a false dichotomy.

Creative writing involves a modicum of inspiration, but it’s mostly hard graft, trying to fit the pieces of a puzzle together. And on the other side, science can be utterly creative and drawn from inspiration. I don’t know of a more creative piece of thinking than Einstein’s theory of relativity, in which he realised that time could be relative.

Inspiration and logical thinking combine in both science and the arts, and that’s true when writing about them too. Last summer, my RLF Consultant Fellow colleague Cherise Saywell and I ran an immersive writing ‘bootcamp’ for PhD students at Heriot Watt University. All were science or technology students, and the objective of the workshops was to help them with their theses, using narrative techniques from creative writing.

It quickly became clear that hardly any of them thought of themselves as creative people, yet when we got them to talk about their work, they each described moments of inspiration combined with huge amounts of legwork, just as when I write my novels. They all had the raw material for a fascinating story – fracking problems, 3D printing or revolutionary textile production – but they struggled to see the bigger picture, the compelling narrative in their work.

One of the most effective exercises was also one of the simplest: an icebreaker at the beginning of the day. When the students arrived, we had a table laid out with an assortment of random items – toys, trinkets, a compass, binoculars – and told them to pick one that spoke to them. Then we asked them to write without stopping about how the item related to their PhD. It’s a version of free writing or writing to a prompt that Cherise and I often use; it always results in wonderfully creative writing and frequently contains a compelling narrative. On this occasion, one chemical engineering student eloquently used the shell of a small organism living millions of years ago as the starting point to discuss how shale oil is created, moving on to talk about the current problems associated with its extraction.

By the end of three days, we had encouraged the researchers to view their work and writing differently, as a blend of science and art, storytelling and logistics, inspiration plus perspiration.

28 March 2019
Communicate and collaborate

Communicate and collaborate

Lucy English

IMG_7200_Lucy_Portraits

Image credit: Simon Goldstein

As PhD students and researchers, communicating with people outside our discipline can open our minds, expand our horizons and help to develop our thinking. It can also lead to fruitful collaboration.

In a session for PhD researchers about communicating research, I put the participants into pairs with someone from another discipline and asked them to describe their work to each other. They had to avoid jargon and were encouraged to listen carefully to the questions they were asked. Somebody from a Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) subject might ask an artist, ‘Why are you doing this?’ — just as an arts student might ask a scientist, ‘Please explain it simply’. The researchers found it instructive to communicate the vision of their project to a non-specialist.

Communicating with others outside my own specialism led to a collaborative project for my practice-based PhD. I am making short films with film-makers for an online poetry film project. Previously, I hadn’t thought about how my ideas would translate to the moving image, but I’ve learnt a lot by collaborating with people from the visual arts. Interpreting a poem in a film is not how I thought it would be. For example, for my poem ‘Daisy Chain’, where I link daisies in the grass with the nature of transience, my film-maker used images of a snowy landscape. The words of the poem, about summer meadows and blossom, are in stark contrast to the snow and frost, but capture beautifully the essence of the poem, where daisies and youth will eventually fade.

Why not see if you can communicate your research to people outside your field and find a collaborator from another discipline? Funding opportunities exist for collaborative bids from PhD students and researchers for inter-disciplinary work, particularly between the arts and sciences or social sciences. PhD forums within universities are a good place to start looking. Working with someone with a different perspective can be a humbling experience as you accept your ignorance about their field and adopt an open mind, prepared to learn. Removing the blinkers of your discipline can spark off ideas and take your research in a fresh direction.

14 February 2019
Think around your research question

Think around your research question

Image credit: Anna Barker

Anna Barker

On a writing retreat recently with students from the Arts and Humanities, we were talking about how research is about finding answers. You start – typically after much deliberation – with a research question, and everything that follows is about discovering answers. It seems simple enough, although of course it’s rarely that straightforward. The research takes you on a journey down rabbit holes, around blind bends, up steep cliff faces, and every now and then you can feel like you’ve hit a wall: obstacles, unexpected deviations, surprises. Suddenly, what you’ve got in front of you seems a long way from answering your research question. Unsettling as this might be, it’s all part of the research story.

When your research journey hits a wall, it can be useful to take a step back and forget for a moment that you are searching for answers. Instead, dig for more questions. This not only helps you to recalibrate your research question, but it can also open new doors and push your thinking into new, previously unexplored territory.

The technique works well for essays. Having received your essay question, you might set off immediately to answer it. But by taking some time to think of additional related questions, you can work out what you know about the subject already and where you might focus your thinking and reading. Take this essay question as an example:

Critically evaluate the suggestion that problems of overcrowding, bullying and poor conditions have always been, and will continue to be, of concern to penal reformers.

  • What is the extent of overcrowding and bullying in prisons — facts, figures?
  • What is meant by ‘poor conditions’ and what are the causes?
  • What has contributed to this situation — has it become worse over time, and why?
  • What are the reasons overcrowding might concern penal reformers — it leads to less time for penal education/other activities that encourage rehabilitation of inmates?
  • Examples of other activities?
  • Evidence that education/other activities enable rehabilitation?
  • Opposing views?

Once you have a list of additional questions, you can begin reading and note down some possible answers. Your notes might even prompt you to ask further questions. Best of all, you’ll have focused your reading time and begun to get some words on the page that can later be used to shape a first draft.

31 January 2019
Where’s the conflict?

Where’s the conflict?

Image credit: Kona Macphee

Heather Dyer

When I’m writing fiction, I only recognise what a story is really about when it’s very near completion. Only then does it become clear that it’s about ‘control versus letting go’, for example, or ‘security versus freedom’. I realise I need to go back and find the places in the text where these tensions arise, and explore them more deeply.

This can apply in academic writing in the arts, humanities and social sciences, too. Try the following exercise with your essay, dissertation or thesis. Identifying opposing elements in your work can expose underlying conflicts and reveal potential themes.

  1. In two columns, list at least five pairs of ‘opposites’ within your project. You might identify opposing elements in relation to size, space or time — or personality, habitat or temperature, for example.
  2. Freewrite to reflect on the relationships between these pairs of opposites. (Freewriting is writing steadily without stopping and without knowing where you’re going.)
  3. Identify places in your work where you may want to consider these relationships further or make the conflicts more apparent.

I used this exercise on my own doctoral thesis, which explores parallels between the mythic archetype – or classic story arc – and the creative process. I quickly noted down the following ‘opposites’ in these paradigms:

Female Male
Starting out Returning
Conscious Unconscious
Not-knowing Insight
Surrender Questing
Heroine Hero

 

Studying the list, I noticed that these opposites might be further aligned by the typical qualities of masculine and feminine, or yin and yang:

Masculine Feminine
Male Female
Starting out Returning
Conscious Unconscious
Insight Not-knowing
Questing Surrender
Hero Heroine

 

I realised that the protagonist’s journey through a story and an individual’s creative process both swung between these two poles. This informed the conclusion of my thesis.

At a writing workshop for artists and writers, I asked them to consider opposites within their own work in progress. Participants identified contrasts they hadn’t previously been aware of: movement and stasis; smooth and rough; child and adult. These tensions triggered ideas that enabled them to develop the central theme of their work.

If you try this exercise, it might help you identify hidden tensions that reveal a theme. You may then want to ensure that you have highlighted these tensions within the work itself.

17 January 2019
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