Allow time between finishing your research and starting to write. That way, you give your unconscious time to assimilate the information and work out your own response to the topic, which then informs your argument.
I do my non-fiction writing in the early morning, having researched the topic the afternoon before. Just before I down tools, I have a think. How do I want to tell this particular story? I make a little mini-plan of the next day’s writing, listing the headings in the order that makes sense to me, and assign a word count to each section. Having organised and set myself the task in this way, I let my unconscious work on it overnight. This may or may not modify my ‘take’ on the subject, but either way, the next morning I have only to glance at my mini-plan and the writing almost always begins to flow.
6 December 2018
Whether you’re a first year or a veteran undergraduate, good time management means more fun, less stress. It’s best approached at two levels: macro and micro. Macro focuses on the big picture: work, sport, social activities, chilling out, admin; micro on specific tasks.
For both macro and micro, wallcharts or screen timetables are excellent tools, but only if they’re based on reality, not an ideal scenario. For a realistic timetable, use the first couple of weeks of the new term to note down how long things actually take. For example, timetabling 20 minutes for laundry is optimistic, and four consecutive hours reading in the library equally so. And we all underestimate the time we waste browsing online. So don’t guess. Time your laundry. For assignments, note the time you spend researching, writing, re-writing, editing and proofreading. Of course no two tasks, either domestic or academic, are exactly the same, but with real-time information to hand, you’ll have a much better chance of creating timetables you can stick to.
11 October 2018
Every assignment is a creative process, during which you learn and develop your skills. You need to build in time and breathing space for your work to flourish. Assignments involve many stages: understanding the task; researching, reading and note taking; planning your submission; writing; reviewing and editing; and final polishing. When you start an assignment, you don’t know all the problems you’re going to encounter. If you did, there would be little point in doing the assignment; after all, it is supposed to stretch you. So build in ‘wiggle room’ – extra time you don’t think you need – for those unforeseen difficulties. Start early, pace yourself and build in at least 25 per cent wiggle room. After completing an assignment, reflect on how it went. To produce high-quality work you might need to start even earlier and build in more wiggle room. It can make all the difference between an average grade and a high one.
6 June 2018
As a storyteller, I see stories everywhere. We all do this to some extent. In fact, we only ‘exist’ in the context of our stories: who we are, how we came to be here, where we’re going and why. We ‘story’ our existence because we want to understand how things fit and what will happen.
Stories aren’t a random series of events, though; they have a pattern. Typically, a hero ventures out into the unknown, faces challenges and defeats, and invariably has to let go of a false belief or flawed thinking in order to learn something new. Even following a cake recipe is a story of sorts: you want to achieve something, you begin, you carry out challenging steps, then you entrust the cake mixture to the oven, hoping the result will satisfy your guests. Even if the recipe doesn’t work out, maybe you’ll learn something.
The principles of storytelling can be applied to academic writing, too. When students are struggling to shape their research into a dissertation or thesis, I ask them the same sort of questions I’d ask a creative-writing student about their novel:
• What was the status quo before you began?
• What are you trying to achieve? What problem are you trying to overcome?
• Why is this important? What are the stakes?
• What do people believe? Does this need to change?
• How are you going to get to where you want to go?
• What are the difficulties?
• Does your journey have a high point? A low point?
• What have you found? What do you think you’ll find?
• What’s the significance of your findings?
• How will they change things? What will happen now?
Finding the narrative of your research can help you write a powerful abstract, case study, press release or funding application. It will make the story of your research more compelling. Being able to tell this story in a few sentences can also be helpful when you’re networking at conferences or trying to explain what you do to people outside your area of expertise.
PhD students often tell me that one of the most intimidating aspects of writing a thesis is the sheer size of it. It’s longer than anything they’ve attempted to write before. What are they going to include? What do they leave out? What does the reader need to know and in what order do they need to know it?
As a novelist I can sympathise: I need to sustain my readers’ interest over as many as 40 chapters, or around 80,000 words. Deciding what goes where is an important part of ensuring that I’ve got a story that flows and is enjoyable to read. What techniques can you use to get to grips with the structure of a large body of work?
Planning is essential, and for me it takes place off screen. I’m surprised when students tell me their plans consist of lists saved in documents on their computer or sometimes as notes inside the draft thesis document itself. In order to ‘see’ the structure of a work as long as a novel or thesis, it can be helpful to step away from the computer and draw out the structure on paper.
I take a large roll of brown paper and, armed with sticky notes, I write summaries of the plot threads in my novel. The sticky notes are handy because I can move them around; an incident that I thought fitted in chapter two might work better in chapter nine. I might see threads I’ve introduced but not continued, as well as the spine of my novel — I see my story as it unfolds through the entire length of the book. For a thesis, this would be your argument.
Students who have tried this low-tech way of working in my sessions have had some great results. Getting off screen for a while allows them to engage with their research in a creative and illuminating way. Several have solved structural problems they’d been battling with for months, merely by taking this step back.
You can try this technique at any point in the writing process. And you can get as detailed as you like. Try it with all your chapters to see how you might improve the flow of your argument, or work on just one chapter, summarising the points and then playing around with the order. When you return to your screen, you may find you have a fresh perspective on the structure of your thesis and are able to move forward more confidently.
In the early stages of planning a piece of writing, try to give yourself the time and space to explore the topic in a loose way, in a state of total relaxation. We can all get very stressed about exams, grades and writing to a deadline. Giving yourself permission to experience a short interlude when you think freely and play with ideas – without your internal ‘critical voice’ intervening – can help to clarify your argument. Techniques such as free-writing (writing without thinking or stopping), mind mapping using colours and shapes, and speaking aloud, can divert you from established thought patterns and refresh your perspective on the question. Drawing, speaking and writing freely are ways of giving centre stage to thoughts that you’ve kept ‘in the wings’ up to now. Some of them may be valuable. Start by breathing deeply five or six times with your eyes closed. Relax. And then begin.
Dr Anne Wilson
10 January 2018
In small groups, the students discuss their strategies for developing a fresh perspective. They often come up with thought-provoking ideas. One student proposed reading an author you totally disagree with to help to clarify your own position, while another said she searched for the viewpoint of the underdog. A valuable strategy is to mull on the issue overnight or use freewriting — allowing the unconscious mind to assist creativity (as RLF Consultant Fellow Heather Dyer explains here https://rlfconsultants.com/creative-insight/)
The search for inspiration is familiar to me. As a children’s non-fiction writer, I’m usually commissioned to write a specific book; it’s like being given the essay title. A couple of years ago, I decided to embark on writing adult non-fiction but struggled to find my subject. For me, it was a case of reading voraciously as always and keeping my mind and eyes open to stories from any source. In the end, inspiration came from an art installation related to the Six-Day War in 1967. Bringing my project to fruition in time for the 50th anniversary of the conflict has involved using many of the techniques described in this blog series, including time management, working on voice and tone, getting distance from my writing and eliciting quality feedback. I hope that this year’s blogs have proved as useful to students, academics and other writers as they have to me.
This is the last of this year’s series of Top Tips and What’s Happening? blogs but they will remain available on the RLF Consultant Fellows site. A new series of blogs is planned for autumn 2017.