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 https://rlfconsultants.com/creative-insight/). 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.
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.
Eloquent writing rarely emerges fully formed on the page. My recommendation is to write often, daily if possible, and not to be too self-critical about early versions. Writing may be hard mental work but the graft and the craft need to be enjoyed too. Get on with it. If the first draft is a poor attempt you can always improve it. And if it reads well, enjoy the gift and continue. When you have a more polished version, it helps to seek the constructive feedback of trusted advisers.
5 April 2017
Sometimes our unconscious mind knows the answer before our conscious mind does. Here’s how to harness the power of the unconscious when working on assignments:
1. Start early. Make notes on what you think the answer might be, even before you’ve done any research. This prompts your unconscious to start mulling it over.
2. Alternate between research and writing up your notes. Writing about what you’ve just read, in your own words, will help your unconscious to process the information before you continue to research.
3. Stop and start. Taking a break or working on two assignments gives your unconscious time to work on one problem while you are busy with another. When you return to the first assignment you will bring a fresh perspective — and maybe new insights.
4. If you finish early, don’t hand your assignment in just yet. There’s still time for your unconscious to wake you in the night and provide another insight.
25 January 2017
In my day job as a ghostwriter, I’ve worked with half a dozen SAS men over the years and I soon discovered one of their favourite acronyms: KISS – Keep It Simple, Stupid. They use it in relation to planning active-service operations, but it’s good advice for undergraduates too. I’m not suggesting that it will enable you to kill silently in 93 different ways or carry a 50-kilogram Bergen military rucksack up and down Welsh mountains at top speed. (If that’s your aim, you’d better drop out of university and join the SAS instead.) But it will help you produce written work that is clear and concise, with an argument that is readily apparent — earning you high marks and the undying gratitude of your tutors.
Many undergraduates – and indeed, some academics – appear to believe that academic writing should consist of complex, convoluted sentences, littered with polysyllabic words and obscure concepts, and so jargon-laden that even the experts struggle to understand it. Even promotional writing can suffer from the same flaws as academic writing, as in this example (rendered anonymous to spare the writer’s blushes): ‘T*** H***** exercises synergies in a multi-platform social media paradigm that creates a new creative cultural space for blue-sky thinking. He leverages best-in-class solutions to communicate key performance metrics in a distributed yet centralised real-time goal-oriented proprietary methodology.’ Can anybody understand this?
Sometimes I’ll challenge undergraduates to tell me what a particular sentence they’ve written means and they’ll say, ‘I don’t know, I thought it sounded impressive.’ It doesn’t. If you don’t understand your own argument, how do you expect anyone else to? The solution is not to sound as if you’ve swallowed a thesaurus, with a dictionary for dessert, but to write in a way that is simple, direct and comprehensible, so that your argument shines through.
Even better, once you’ve acquired the habit of straightforward writing, you’ll find it useful in all sorts of other contexts: writing a CV, a personal statement, a job application or even a love letter. Give it a try — you’ll find that keeping it simple makes sense.
Feeling stuck with your assignment and don’t know how to get started? Stop worrying — your work doesn’t have to emerge perfectly written straight away. You don’t need to start by crafting a brilliant opening paragraph. That will come later. Start by scribbling down your ideas and work your way into the writing. You will soon get into the flow. Don’t worry about academic language either. Students frequently feel the pressure to write in an unnatural academic style full of jargon. Have confidence in your own voice — you have a unique contribution to make. Write in the way that feels most comfortable for you; later, you’ll rewrite and edit your work to ensure the content is accurate and expressed in the correct style. For the moment, just do it.
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
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.’