26 March 2020
26 March 2020
Whether I’m writing a chapter of a book, a report, or indeed a blog post, I keep the title in front of me. I write on a computer but always have a notebook and pen next to it. I jot down the title when I am planning my writing and leave the title visible when I am putting the piece together. It serves as a reminder to keep the writing focused and not stray off-topic. I may even underline key words in the title. This technique is useful for any type of writing.
28 November 2019
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.
What’s the best thing to do with the first paragraph of your essay? Write it, then put it in the bin. Now this isn’t always true, but it often is. Many writers ‘write themselves into it’, like an engine warming up before it runs properly. They might write vague opening lines like this: ‘Experts disagree about how best to begin an essay, and it is easy to feel confused by conflicting rules.’ You’ll often find that it is better to start with your second paragraph, which might start like this: ‘A surprising writing tip is to put your first paragraph in the bin.’ Typically, paragraph 2 is where you start getting down to the important stuff — and that’s precisely where your essay should begin. The writer Hilary Mantel put it most memorably. When you write that first paragraph, she asked, ‘are you performing a haka, or just shuffling your feet?’ Most of us, I’m afraid, start with a stiff shuffle. The agile, exciting, showy war-dance of the haka only gets going in paragraph two.
21 March 2019
Paraphrasing is explaining what an author has said in your own words. It’s an important skill in academic writing that indicates that you have understood the source and are able to use it to advance your own argument.
Some students think that you can paraphrase by simply changing some of the nouns or verbs but keeping the sentence structure of your source. But to paraphrase properly, you need to really understand what you’re reading and be able to explain it.
Effective paraphrasing is a skill that can be learned. In workshops at Edinburgh University and Heriot Watt University, I try to encourage good paraphrasing by addressing two key principles: using your own words, and employing a sentence/paragraph structure that is different to the original. Here’s how to do it.
Read the passage first. Underline or highlight key phrases. Then put the text away. Now use your voice – I’m talking vocal chords here – to articulate what the text is saying. Pretend you’re explaining it to someone. You could give yourself an opening line, such as ‘Here, X argues for a novel methodology because . . .’ or ‘Y’s theory is important because . . .’ Once you have said it, scribble it down; it doesn’t matter if the style is informal — you can edit it into shape. Now check it against the original. Have you captured the essence of what the author is saying?
7 March 2019
Do you often start sentences with the words ‘This is’? If so, you might be making your reader sweat, while missing a chance to underline or refine the point you’re making. When you write ‘this is’, your reader is often forced to try to remember whatever it was in the last sentence you were talking about.
So remind them. This . . . what? This belief, this breakthrough, this reappraisal, this campaign, this experiment, this opportunity . . . You need to figure out precisely what you were talking about and then tell the reader in one single, crucial word. This is about more than just reminding the reader. (Actually, that sentence should be, ‘This technique is about more than just reminding the reader.’)
When you add a word between ‘this’ and ‘is’ you force yourself to reimagine, in an abstract way, the underlying nature of whatever it is you are describing. And that little move towards a higher-level evaluation of what it’s really all about, is the very essence of academic thinking.
21 February 2019
Paragraphs punctuate your writing, clarify your meaning and strengthen your argument. A typed page without paragraphs is like a wall of words; it’s very hard for the reader to find a way in to your writing, and it’s very hard for your meaning to get out. Paragraphs don’t add words but they do help get your point across. Remember: one point per paragraph. As a rule of thumb, I’d advise two to three paragraphs for each A4 page. Every paragraph is different, but many contain the following parts in the following order:
I Introduce the topic
D Develop the point / present your argument
E Give your Evidence
A Analyse / evaluate the evidence
S Summarise and lead on to the next point
Each new paragraph is like a breath of fresh air. It breaks up the text and improves readability, helping your reader to grasp the meaning.
24 January 2019
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.
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:
Studying the list, I noticed that these opposites might be further aligned by the typical qualities of masculine and feminine, or yin and yang:
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.