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
Make your text more readable

Make your text more readable

According to Dr Alison Yeung Yam Wah at the University of Surrey, who researches the writing strategies of academics, ‘readability’ is one of the key ingredients of successful academic papers.

Yet academic writers frequently make their text hard to read by seeding it liberally with abstract nouns. These are nouns that express an idea, quality or state rather than an object you experience with your senses. ‘Transportation’ is an abstract noun. ‘Buses, coaches and cars’ are concrete nouns; you can touch, see, hear and smell them – I haven’t tried tasting.

Here’s an example:
The deposition of fish scales in the geological record over the last 1,600 years shows that sardine populations off the US West Coast have exhibited fluctuation – natural cycles of abundance each lasting some 50–70 years.

If we turn the abstract nouns into verbs, the sentence becomes shorter, more readable and no less convincing:

Fish scales deposited in the geological record over the last 1,600 years show that sardine populations off the US West Coast have fluctuated in natural cycles of abundance each lasting some 50–70 years.

Replacing abstract nouns with their equivalent verbs often injects energy into a sentence and usually makes it more readable. Why not try this when you next edit your work?

Trevor Day
8 November 2018

Sharing students’ concerns

Sharing students’ concerns

Miranda Miller

My RLF Consultant Fellow colleague, Amanda Swift, and I have been running academic writing workshops at the University of East London to help postgraduate students and research staff whose first language isn’t English. When I introduce myself at the beginning of each workshop, I always mention that I’ve taught English in Italy, Libya and Japan. Although my spoken Italian is fluent, I still find it difficult to write a simple Italian letter without making silly mistakes. When I say this I watch the students’ faces relax. I think it’s important for tutors to recognise that international students are being asked to carry out a difficult task; the level of English needed to write a Masters dissertation or PhD thesis is advanced.

Another way in which I try to empathise with students is by confiding my own struggles with completing the final draft of a novel. I always feel anxious about handing my work over to someone else to read and have developed techniques to ensure that it is as good as it can be before submission. I advise students to take a break of at least 24 hours from their work. Just like novel writers, they’ve been looking at their own writing for so long that they might find it hard to notice mistakes. I also suggest that students print out their assignment: it’s difficult to spot details such as incorrect punctuation on a computer screen. From the printed text, they can read their work aloud — a useful way of identifying awkward sentence constructions. Russian students, for example, often seem to write very long sentences and can make their writing in English clearer by breaking long sentences into two or more shorter ones. I admit that the process of finalising an assignment is not painless. At this point I sense the students’ relief that their problems as writers are shared. A group discussion about helpful strategies for overcoming anxieties follows naturally on.

2 May 2018
How to write more concisely

How to write more concisely

As writers, we know that every word has to earn its place on the page. If it’s not doing a job, it can be cut, and the resulting sentence is usually better for it. Often we write ‘long’, especially in the first draft, as we feel our way into what we want to say. That’s why editing is so important; it gives us the opportunity to make our writing clearer and simpler, using fewer words. Unnecessary ‘filler’ phrases muddy up sentences, such as: ‘in spite of the fact that’, ‘for all intents and purposes’, and the one that I frequently see in student essays — ‘in order to’, when ‘to’ will do just fine. Check for common filler words and phrases when you edit. Cutting them out will reduce your word count and strengthen your writing.

Anna Barker
7 March 2018

Add verbal highlights

Add verbal highlights

If you want to inject energy and flair into your writing, turbocharge your verbs. Verbs perform the action in any piece of writing. They carry the story and provide the power. Slumping into lazy verb habits is very easy. As an undergraduate I got stuck on highlight: it seemed to fit almost any argument. I was like a workman reaching for the all-purpose tool that’s always ready to hand. But another tool, perhaps one tucked away in a dustier section of the toolbox, might work better.
And highlight has a precise meaning derived from painting, meaning drawing attention to an area of an image by making it the brightest part. So I shouldn’t have highlighted all my student ideas. I should have emphasised, underlined, stressed or exposed them – or even spotlit them, which is a different effect. It’s best to search for the right tool, and the right verb.

James McConnachie
24 January 2018

Hunt out the zombies in your writing

Hunt out the zombies in your writing

Helen Sword’s book on academic writing, Stylish Academic Writing (Harvard University Press, 2012), is a go-to book for me.
I particularly like what she has to say on zombie nouns (or nominalisations, to give them their proper name). Simply put, these are nouns that have a much more direct and energetic verb form. For example, discover (not discovery); discuss (not discussion); fail (not failure); notify (not notification); observe (not observation). For more examples, visit www.andynaselli.com/zombie-nouns Switch these nouns back to their verb form and not only do you create a more energised sentence, but also it’s typically shorter. You can convert: ‘Helen Sword makes an observation that nominalisations decrease clarity’ (9 words) to ‘Helen Sword observes that nominalisations decrease clarity’ (7 words). For more direct, energetic and concise sentences, try a bit of zombie hunting the next time you edit.

Dr Anna Barker
13 December 2017

Keeping subject and verb together

Keeping subject and verb together

Writing tipsThe English language can be too flexible for its own good. Many structures are allowed in English, even if this obscures meaning to the point of incoherence. Clause upon clause can be inflicted on the reader, before they reach the crucial verb that explains everything. As a writing tutor, I advise students to identify the active verb in their labyrinthine sentences. Very often, this verb is miles away from its subject, to baffling effect. Here’s a short example:

BEFORE: The boy, feeling embarrassed because it was not a very cool thing to do,
gave his mother a hug.

Reducing the gap between the subject and the verb improves the clarity of the sentence:
AFTER: The boy gave his mother a hug, feeling embarrassed because it was not a very cool thing to do.

Why not check your own writing and try this for yourself?

Deborah Chancellor

31 May 2017

When the blank page is your friend

When the blank page is your friend

I’m always reading about the tyranny of the blank page, the terror of starting something new. But once you’ve got going, when you’re drafting, and especially when you’re editing, the blank page can be your friend. When I can’t see why a paragraph or a sentence isn’t working, I cut and paste it into a new document. There, in isolation, it looks different. I break paragraphs into sentences, listing them one under the other. I take sentences apart too, arranging phrases and clauses in the same way. Often I see repetitions I hadn’t noticed before or it might sound as if there’s repetition when some unintended alliteration is making the sentence clumsy. It’s a good opportunity to read my work aloud. Once I’ve rewritten and reordered the paragraph, I paste the new version back into my draft. Magic.

Cherise Saywell
17 May 2017

Zadie Smith and the semi-colon

Zadie Smith and the semi-colon

Writing tipsI was lucky enough to hear the novelist Zadie Smith speak at last year’s Cambridge Literary Festival. After discussing her novel, Swing Time, someone asked Smith if her decision to live in the United States had affected her writing. Interestingly, she reflected upon style not content, saying that she was now almost cured of her addiction to the semi-colon. A new kind of American directness had pervaded her writing, enabling her to get to the point far more efficiently. So, students and aspiring writers: do you find that your writing is littered with complex sentences, semi-colons and dashes? See if you can divide your over-long sentences so they are shorter and clearer. The over-use of the semi-colon may be the first thing to address in the quest to improve your style.

Deborah Chancellor
3 May 2017

Print it out!

Print it out!

Nowadays, students frequently submit their assignments online. They write and edit an essay on screen and send it off with the tap of a key. Printing it out seems unnecessary and it’s costly. But I’d advise you to print out your work just once — ideally when you feel it’s almost finished. Looking at the pages in black and white allows you to spot any repetition of sentences or phrases more easily than on a screen, and you’re more likely to notice awkward wording or typos too. Try it out. I can guarantee you’ll find errors you hadn’t noticed before — and I’ll bet there’s at least one mistake in that all-important introductory paragraph.

Cath Senker
22 March 2017