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 freewriting. 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 freewriting 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 freewriting, 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 freewriting 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, freewriting 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
Get on with it

Get on with it

Writing tipsEloquent 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.

Duncan Forbes
5 April 2017

Let your unconscious do the work

Let your unconscious do the work

Writing tipsSometimes 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.

Heather Dyer
25 January 2017

Keep It Simple, Stupid!

Keep It Simple, Stupid!

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.

4 January 2017
Just do it

Just do it

Writing tipsFeeling 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.

Lucy English
7 September 2016
Overcoming writer’s block

Overcoming writer’s block

Lucy English


Image credit: Simon Goldstein

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
of it?

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.’

3 August 2016
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