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

Re-ordering paragraphs

Re-ordering paragraphs

Writing tipsIt’s often difficult to look at your essay with an objective, critical eye. I use the following strategy when I need to examine the order of my paragraphs — here is what to do:

Print out a hard copy of the draft of your essay and number each paragraph. On a separate sheet of paper write a list: 1, 2, 3 etc., leaving a space between each one. Then write down next to each number what that paragraph is about, in one word or phrase if possible. Let your eye drift down the list. Did you intend, in paragraph 19, to return to the topic of paragraph 11? Did you aim to spend paragraphs 20–25 on one aspect of your argument, but only one paragraph on another aspect? If so, fine. If not, you can rearrange your paragraphs to improve the structure and flow of your essay.

Sarah LeFanu
22 February 2017

How to be your own editor

How to be your own editor

Image credit: Fran Tegg

I have a strange confession to make: I love editing. Before I was a writer, I was a children’s non-fiction book editor. I spent several years restructuring, rewriting and tidying up other people’s work.

When I started writing books myself, I wanted to incorporate my editorial skills. But it’s hard to edit your own work. How can you achieve a feeling of separation from your own writing and look at it objectively? I like to think of my first draft as a terrible manuscript sent in by an author; it’s down to me to knock it into publishable shape. The text goes through several versions, the process taking far longer than cobbling together the original draft. Gradually, I transform it from a scrambled mess into readable prose.

Although I enjoy editing, my students seem to hate it. In a workshop entitled ‘How can I improve my grade?’ I asked the group of undergraduates and postgraduates from various disciplines to write on a sticky note how they felt about editing their essays. Apart from one participant, who joyously wrote ‘eager’, the rest expressed such sentiments as ‘anxious’, ‘stressed’, ‘fed up’ and ‘prefer to avoid it’.

The trick to making the editing process less fearful is to break it down into manageable chunks. You can’t simply read your essay passively, hoping that mistakes will leap out at you. I advise dividing the work into two main stages and drawing up a checklist of tasks so you focus on one at a time.

First, examine what you are saying. Are you answering the question? Is your structure clear? Make sure your argument flows through the essay and that you have a good topic sentence at the start of each paragraph to make your point. Then review how you are expressing yourself: divide any over-long sentences and cut unnecessary words and phrases. Ensure your grammar and punctuation are correct, that you have used terms consistently, and check your spelling. Finally, make sure your assignment is laid out in the correct format, with accurate referencing.

What’s the clincher to persuade you this lengthy process is worth the effort? Every editorial task you carry out will help you to improve your grade. Good writing is all in the editing. It’s as true for students as it is for academics and professional writers.

1 February 2017
Cut the waffle

Cut the waffle

Writing tips‘Less is more.’ This is what I say to my PhD students, most of whom don’t have English as their first language. In academic English, short sentences and paragraphs are often clearer, more readable and more effective than long ones. When you edit your writing, read it aloud, either to yourself or to an interested friend, and be ruthless about cutting waffle — those parts that use lots of words but do not say anything important or interesting. To quote from George Orwell in his essay ‘Politics and the English Language’ (1946): ‘A scrupulous writer, in every sentence that he writes, will ask himself at least four questions, thus: What am I trying to say? What words will express it? What image or idiom will make it clearer? Is this image fresh enough to have an effect? And he will probably ask himself two more: Could I put it more shortly? Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly?’ All writers would be wise to heed Orwell’s words today.

Miranda Miller
11 January 2017

Rambling: best left for the outdoors

Rambling: best left for the outdoors

Writing tipsWriters shouldn’t ramble. Yet it’s such an easy mistake to make that many writers don’t realise they’re doing it. But your reader will. And soon they’ll feel the constricting effect of your sentences slowly wrapping round them. Bit by bit, your words will weigh the reader down, make them stumble and, eventually, rob them of the will to go on.

How do you know if you’re rambling? Read your work aloud! Struggling for breath and still no full stop in sight? How many words are in your sentences? More than thirty? You’re rambling.

To see how it works, replace the first five full stops in this piece with commas. What do you get? A 59-word sentence that’s like trudging across a muddy field. Instead, follow the one-point-per-sentence rule. Find the place in your sentence where your first point has been fully made and insert a full stop. If needed, use a suitable connective – such as ‘and’, ‘but’ or ‘nevertheless’ – to continue with what you were saying. This makes your writing easy to read.

Chris Simms
14 December 2016

Read your work aloud

Read your work aloud

Writing tipsRhythm and flow and sense can all be put to the test when you read your work aloud, because the ear is so sensitive to dissonance. And because reading aloud is strangely alienating (work you’ve written doesn’t sound like your own), you judge it differently, listening for flow and movement, and how engaging it is. The exercise also catches faulty punctuation: when your tongue trips, so does the mind. Reading aloud helps you to check that your voice is coming through clearly in an appropriate tone and you find that you can easily detect any clanging notes of falseness. The tool is simple, but it’s invaluable.

Marina Benjamin
16 November 2016

Getting ‘distance’ from your writing

Getting ‘distance’ from your writing

Writing tipsTo assess your own writing, it’s vital to get a bit of distance so you can look at it dispassionately. When you’re at the (almost) final stage of drafting, print out the day’s work at the end of your writing session. Set the page(s) aside and have a fresh look at them the following day. Looking at a printout makes it much easier to assess what you’ve written, and to spot errors, typos and repetition. As well as distance from your writing, you need distance from your research so that you can consider whether any particular piece of research merits a place in your work. This is why I advise against continuing to research once you have started writing. Articles that you’ve only just read will loom larger in your mind than ones digested days or weeks before. Being too close to either your writing or your research can cloud your judgement, skew your argument or even wreck it entirely — the last thing you want when you have a deadline.

Jen Green
5 October 2016

Smoothing out the rough: paragraphs that won’t flow

Smoothing out the rough: paragraphs that won’t flow

Writing tipsSo often, in a long piece of writing, there are paragraphs that refuse to flow. When you read them aloud, you stumble. If you’re busy and stressed, the temptation is to pretend the paragraph is fine. Resist temptation! Go through the paragraph underlining the words (usually nouns, verbs and short phrases) that form the subject of the paragraph, i.e. words that MUST be included. Leave out fillers and connectors. Take the underlined words and either type them out of order on a rough sheet, or print them out, cut them up and shuffle them. Leave your desk for half an hour, or, if you’re up against a deadline, work on a different part of the thesis/essay/report. Return to the shuffled words. Ask yourself ‘what’s the point I’m trying to make with these words?’ Rewrite, adding only enough extra words for the paragraph to make sense. Read it aloud again, and with luck, this little trick will have smoothed out the ruts.

Katie Grant
24 August 2016
How can you analyse your own writing?

How can you analyse your own writing?

Writing tipsThe hardest thing for writers is to read our own work and gauge how it comes across. One effective way is to examine the first sentences of your paragraphs. Are they mostly descriptive? Do they often start with someone else’s idea, or perhaps an accumulator such as ‘furthermore’ or ‘also’; or do they contain an argument or a pivot, such as ‘however’, ‘on the other hand’, and so on?

Writing with mainly descriptive openings can read like a list, while too many accumulators suggests a lack of nuance. Too much use of others’ work sounds derivative and too many in-your-face arguments turn your piece into a polemic, or a rant. Often, the very best writing starts with an argument, followed by evidence, followed by scrutiny and doubt; then affirmation by another source, then significance. Those rules work well within paragraphs; they also work well on a larger scale, so that groups of paragraphs follow those structural rules too. And it’s easy to see how your writing comes across if you analyse those first lines: they are a dead giveaway to your writing behaviour.

Max Adams
27 July 2016
Embracing the delete button

Embracing the delete button

Katie Grant by Debbie Toksvig square

Image credit: Debbie Toksvig

In brilliant spring sunshine, twenty years to the day he died, I found myself in George Mackay Brown’s beloved Stromness delivering writing workshops to PhD students from the Glasgow School of Art’s Institute of Design and Innovation (InDI). I’d previously delivered workshops at InDI’s Creative Campus at Forres. What a pleasure to get to Orkney, and what a boon to hit Mackay Brown’s anniversary, providing as it did a perfect opportunity to illustrate how the cleansing techniques of poetry can, to great effect, focus and sharpen academic writing.

And not just academic writing. I read poetry to sharpen my own novel writing, particularly at the slicing and cutting stage. Sharing this working practice in workshops is, I find, a great way of opening up conversations about writing, and for discovering what activities will best help any particular group. When, for example, I reveal how I might lose as many as 40,000 words between a first draft and a finished novel, and that this is all part of the process, a group’s initial horror morphs into new respect for the central editing role of the delete button.

Indeed, I’d go so far as to claim the delete button as my best friend as I move from writing novels set in the past – I dislike the straitjacket category ‘historical novel’ – to a novel set in the 1980s. Moving is hard. Firstly, I’m more at home in the 1780s or even the 1280s than in a decade through which I actually lived. Secondly, it’s been difficult to pinpoint exactly what I’m writing about. I don’t mean the plot. That’s the easy bit. I mean identifying the fundamental core of the book. In the struggle to locate that core, I write and delete in equal measure, which, whilst frustrating, is a useful daily reminder that whether novelist, poet, tenured academic or student, poor writing always stems from muddled thinking. George Mackay Brown didn’t write on a computer so was unacquainted with the delete button. He did, though, scrupulously edit. How lovely to share his clarity and vision under wide skies in Stromness!

20 July 2016
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