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
Lose that redundant paragraph

Lose that redundant paragraph

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.

James McConnachie
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?

Cherise Saywell
7 March 2019

This… what?

This… what?

Writing tipsDo 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.

James McConnachie
21 February 2019

Create breathing space in your writing

Create breathing space in your writing

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.

Jen Green
24 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
Finding the nugget of gold

Finding the nugget of gold

Image credit: Anna Barker

Anna Barker

I recently wrote a story for a collection I’m working on at the moment. It was going well — so well, in fact, that the short story grew and became a novella. I got to around 22,000 words, which seemed to be the end. I’d written the climax scene and it all hung together. Great, I thought . . . and yet. There was a ‘but’, a niggle. Something didn’t feel right. The theme – the heart of the story – wasn’t quite working, and without it everything else didn’t really gel.

Yet there was something there: a surprise, a nugget of gold. Small, buried, but it was there. It was actually what had been sitting in my unconscious since I first dreamed up the story, only I hadn’t realised it and I hadn’t foreseen it in any of my advance planning. I needed to redraft or do some freewriting (writing in a free-flowing way, without worrying about accuracy) to think about this nugget some more and then refine what I’d found.

Sometimes, even if you have a detailed plan, it is only through the act of writing that you discover what you have really been trying to say. When I’m working with PhD students, I encourage them to make a detailed plan, but I also remind them that it’s OK to amend it once they start writing. It’s about staying open to new connections and possibilities in the work, and these are much more likely to happen when you get into the flow of the writing itself.

Earlier this year, I asked my students on a writing retreat how they approached a new project. Some did a plan on screen, some on the floor with paper and sticky notes; others started writing straight away to see where it took them. None of these are wrong, and different approaches suit different people. For me, the writing process is a combination of planning, freewriting, writing and redrafting. I often revisit these stages, in any order, several times during a single project. For example, I might need to revise my plan after I have started writing, or I might get stuck and do some freewriting to work through whatever is blocking the way before I get back to the writing itself. The best work comes when I keep things creative and use a range of different techniques. It’s this combination of different writing – and thinking techniques – that helps the students I work with to develop their writing processes and, hopefully, find nuggets of gold in their own work.

15 November 2018
What should I do when I get stuck?

What should I do when I get stuck?

This is a common question I get asked by university students and staff alike. At some time or other, many of us experience writer’s block. When we sit down to write, nothing comes out.

There is no one simple solution to the problem because the causes of writer’s block vary. You might be exhausted or in the wrong state of mind. Perhaps you haven’t done enough preparation or you’re not clear about what you’re trying to do. Sometimes, just taking a break is enough.

But if writer’s block is more than temporary, try free-writing. When I’m stuck, I walk away from the computer, grab a pad of paper and a pen, step outside, find a quiet place to sit and write ‘I’m stuck!’ on the top of a sheet. I then write for 5 to 15 minutes, responding to the statement as a stream of consciousness. I don’t worry about grammar or punctuation or even writing proper sentences. I let go of being self-critical. I might draw a flow diagram or a mind map. One way or another, I dump my thoughts on paper. In doing so, I invariably find a way forward.

When I use free-writing with doctoral students in the sciences or social sciences who have writer’s block, various issues surface. Often, they have not done enough background reading, thinking and planning to be ready to write. They think that starting writing will force them to do the required reading. But trying to read papers as you write is usually a recipe for slow, piecemeal, turgid writing. You need to put in the groundwork beforehand.

Another common issue arises when you sit down to write, and your unconscious mind sees a problem coming up several paragraphs ahead that prevents you even starting. This is nowhere near as serious as it sounds. Do some free-writing, and you will usually discover the problem; for example, you’ve got a gap in your argument or you don’t have enough supporting citations to bolster your argument. You can either get on with writing, ‘jump’ past the tricky part, and return to it later, or you can try to sort it out before you write. I tend to go for the first option because I don’t want to procrastinate.

An emotional block can also cause writer’s block. When you sit down to write, feelings start to well up. Perhaps you’re concerned about what others will think about your work or you recall recent criticism from a supervisor and it immobilises you. Again, use free-writing to help identify the issue and find the solution. The act of writing allows you to see the problem on paper, outside of yourself, and lessens its power. You can move beyond it.

Although it is not academic writing, free-writing helps with the process of academic writing. The act of expressing your thoughts less self-consciously helps to reduce tension and encourages you to get on with it. The more you practise writing as a daily ritual, the less likely you are to be troubled by writer’s block. You become accustomed to sitting down to write and getting on with it. You might like to do that now!

4 October 2018
Finding connections between ideas

Finding connections between ideas

Image credit: Anna Barker

Recently I partnered with Tina Pepler, another Royal Literary Fund Consultant Fellow, to deliver a five-day writing retreat for third-year doctoral students. Students were at the writing-up stage of their research and grappling with a large amount of material. As writers, we know all too well the muddle you can sometimes get into when working out the structure of a long piece of writing. There’s a familiar tension between being close to the detail but also needing to be able to zoom out and see the piece as a whole. You can sometimes feel lost in the fog. It’s often difficult to see the connections between ideas, the links that would provide a cohesive structure.

Every morning at the start of our sessions, we asked our students to practise freewriting. Freewriting is the act of writing continuously, not stopping to correct errors, or even really to think that much. It engages the unconscious mind, that place where the mulling over of problems ordinarily takes place. (See Heather Dyer’s blog post You can write using a prompt such as, ‘What am I trying to achieve with this chapter?’ Alternatively, you can simply begin writing and see what comes out. When you feel you having nothing to write, you just fill in the blanks with ‘blah, blah, blah’ until another thought kicks you off again. It’s a terrific way of engaging the creative side of your brain.

Once you have been writing for 15 minutes, stop, and read through what you have written. You might like to circle or underline things that leap out at you as interesting. And keep the routine going; do it every morning. I’m always surprised by what comes out when I’m freewriting and indeed I’m doing a lot of it just at the moment as ideas for a new novel take shape. Our students at the retreat found it very helpful in making connections in the structure of their thesis. It also allowed them to slip off the cloak of academic writing, to write freely and to explore how they thought and felt about the material they were working with.

24 May 2017
A page, a paragraph, a sentence: keeping your focus

A page, a paragraph, a sentence: keeping your focus

Cherise Saywell

Image credit: Brodie Leven

I participated in several intensive writing courses while becoming a writer and I’ve always been a great believer in the benefits of the immersive experience. Apart from the sustained focus on my writing, I loved working closely with the course leaders — novelists, short-story writers, poets and memoirists. Sometimes they showed me things I was doing already. This was reassuring — I’m doing the right thing, I’d think. I just need to keep going. Sometimes they showed me something completely new. Each time, I came away fizzing with purpose. Of course, the creative high couldn’t last, but one of the most beneficial things I took home with me each time was how to achieve an aerial view of my project — an overview of what I am trying to say.

I’m in the process of setting up my first immersive writing workshop. My participants will be fourth-year undergraduates about to embark on their dissertations. I’m going to show them a useful way to achieve that aerial view. It involves taking a break from writing and researching, and producing a synopsis as if you were telling a story — a summary of what will happen. The approach is helpful for other forms of writing too. This is how it works:

Participants take a blank piece of paper. ‘What is your dissertation about?’ I ask. ‘What is the answer to the question you’re asking?’ First, I suggest that they scribble it down on a blank page — roughly 300 words. The first draft is written quickly, and by hand. Then, on a separate page, they summarise what they’ve written in a paragraph of up to 150 words. I emphasise that the important thing is to distil rather than simply extract. So they aren’t just cutting, they are re-thinking, re-working, re-wording. Finally, they produce a summary in a sentence — no more than 25 words. This is the essence of the dissertation.

In each instance, when they finish a draft, they slow down. They edit what they’ve written. Then they read it out loud. The aim is to produce something that is coherent and complete, although brief. This approach helps you to stay on track and remained focused on the topic. I still do this exercise in my own work. I find it boosts my confidence, whatever I’m working on. It puts me back on track if I’m flagging. It’s a way of telling yourself you can do it, and then explaining how it’ll be done.

26 April 2017
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