‘Wiggle room’

‘Wiggle room’

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.

Trevor Day
6 June 2018

The story of your research

The story of your research

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.

18 April 2018
Embrace low-tech working

Embrace low-tech working

Anna Barker

Image credit: Royal Literary Fund

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.

4 April 2018
A writer as facilitator

A writer as facilitator

Cath Senker

Image credit: Fran Tegg

After a recent planning and structuring workshop, an undergraduate student commented that the most useful element was ‘Hearing other people’s ideas which I may not have thought of originally.’ I’m no egotist, and I don’t mind that sharing suggestions with peers proved more important to this student than my pearls of wisdom. In fact, this is a very positive result. Research and development by Dr Wendy Maples at the University of Sussex, who has investigated the value of peer assessment, shows that students frequently learn a lot from interacting with their peers. ‘I’ve always felt that students can learn as much if not more from each other than they can from some teachers,’ noted one participant in her study.

In my planning and structuring workshop, the students start by discussing how well they plan at the moment. Many say they create only a skeleton plan and don’t really know how to go about creating a detailed structure. My task is to facilitate a discussion about how to do this.

As the students talk in small groups, a range of techniques for planning and structuring emerge. They then share them with the whole group. We collate the ideas and I add mine. I talk about how I’ve developed a process through years of writing children’s non-fiction books and we talk about how different writers work in different ways. It’s a matter of finding an approach that suits you, whether it’s mind mapping, storyboarding with pictures, concept maps[1], using sticky notes or a more linear approach, listing bullet points. The students sometimes know of new software programs or apps that I haven’t heard of, so I learn something too.

This process indicates to the students that they are not the only ones struggling with organising their essays and reports. It also demonstrates that they know more than they think they do. Some report that having dreaded the writing process before, they now look forward to writing their assignments; for one undergraduate, the planning and structuring session ‘helped to just give me more confidence about what I need to do and how to be a writer’. When I read feedback like that, I feel I have done my job.

[1] For further information on concept maps see: http://cmap.ihmc.us/docs/theory-of-concept-maps

28 February 2018
Time and space to play

Time and space to play

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

Searching for inspiration

Searching for inspiration

Image credit: Fran Tegg

Students at my Masters writing workshops say that one of the hardest tasks is coming up with an original angle for their assignments. It’s particularly important when it comes to selecting a topic for a dissertation. I always advise students to read widely to gain a broad understanding of the field and to identify any possible gaps in the research that could be filled. We talk about applying previous research to a new problem; comparing and contrasting materials that have never been compared before; or applying grand theories such as feminism or Marxism.

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.

7 June 2017
Seeing the obstacle as a gift

Seeing the obstacle as a gift

I think of obstacles as friends in the process of writing.

I have often found that when I’ve stumbled upon a problem when writing a play, that very obstacle has turned out to be a gift. In finding the solution, I’ve pushed the play into directions and dimensions I hadn’t thought of when I first had the idea, allowing it to achieve its greatest potential, and giving me a key to unlock my own deeper motivations for writing the piece. Here’s just one example.

Years ago, I was writing a radio play about the relationship between a young woman who had recently been paralysed and a capuchin monkey being trained to be her aide and companion. How do you give a voice to a monkey, a voice that isn’t Disney, and isn’t simplistically anthropomorphic? By chance, I discovered that the capuchin monkeys being trained in this way come from a part of the Amazon rainforest where a people called the Bororos live. The Bororos believe that monkeys are human children who died in childhood and were born again as monkeys, so I used the mythology of the Bororos to find a child/monkey voice for the character of Jacu. Along the way, the play took off in several unplanned directions, and became much more layered, exploring how we connect with nature, with animals, and with our mothers, and how missionaries sometimes colluded with the persecution of the Bororos by prospectors and developers.

In my work as an RLF Consultant Fellow, I’ve shared this idea about obstacles with students and academics, and they have almost always been able to run with it. One senior lecturer in Pharmacology wanted to argue the case for giving pharmacologists a more active role with patients in these days of acute stress within the NHS, but kept tripping over memories of her father’s work as an old-style pharmacist. To her, such personal recollections seemed out of place in an academic study. I suggested that she could embrace the apparent obstacle and write her paper partly as a memoir, to include vignettes from her childhood. Thus she could foreground the central role a pharmacist once held in communities in Britain, as a powerful contrast to the current situation.

The effect was immediate: her writing became much more compelling — as if it had been set free. Afterwards, she said of the process: ‘I found a narrative voice I didn’t know I had, and changed my research question very radically as a result.’ For her, as for me, the obstacle had been a gift, and it had given her a more personal connection to the work — with no loss of academic rigour.

10 May 2017
Storyboarding: using pictures to unlock words

Storyboarding: using pictures to unlock words

As a writer of information books, I work with words and pictures. Sometimes, when I’m planning a book, I even plot the pictures before the words. I find that thinking in pictures can be liberating, and I believe all kinds of people can benefit from a more visual approach to their writing, especially when they’re feeling trapped in a web of words.

I recently worked with a group of social workers who were writing case studies. Some of them had stalled on their introduction. Others had run aground in a morass of detail. It was clear they all needed a fresh approach.

I suggested they could storyboard their case studies. This meant approaching each study rather like a director plans a film: creating an opening shot to set the scene, a sequence of acts in logical order, and a strong conclusion. I equipped the group with large sheets of paper and handfuls of coloured pens, and set them to work in pairs on a shared case study. Each pair worked together to select key points and to decide on the best order in which to present them. Then they went on to sketch out a series of scenes that explained their ‘story’ to the group. Somehow, thinking visually enabled the participants to master their material and freed them from anxiety over choosing the right words. Even those who claimed to be completely non-visual found they could recognise when a sequence worked, and everyone agreed that this approach to creating a synopsis had made the whole process of planning much easier and more manageable than before.

The storyboarding approach can be used successfully for planning essays and dissertations, either in a workshop or on your own. To work out the order of your points, you can also draw pictures – or write down the points – on a set of cards, then move the cards around until you find the best and most logical sequence.
Storyboarding may not turn you into the next Scorsese, but it could help you through the essay-planning blues.

29 March 2017
The joy of sticky notes

The joy of sticky notes

postit-1726554No, I am not one of the sales team for a famous brand of sticky-note pads, but I do find these coloured squares useful for organising my thoughts and planning my work. Whether you are writing an essay, a report or a dissertation, you can jot down themes, arguments or evidence on a series of sticky notes and then juggle the order. For example, you might choose different colours for the points of your argument and counter-argument. Then you can organise the sticky notes. You might decide to group the argument points together and then the counter-arguments. Or you might decide to interweave the argument and counter-argument points. Of course, you can do this on a computer with the cut and paste tool or sticky-note software. But I favour the paper version, which has the added attraction of being available for contemplation away from the computer screen. Further possibilities include the use of sticky notes for group work and mind maps. Please also consider the slender cousin of the bright squares: page markers — they are fantastic for bookmarking and referencing.

Amanda Swift
30 November 2016

The role of the protagonist

The role of the protagonist

Max Adams

Image credit: Kona Macphee / RLF

In the last year I have co-facilitated two writing immersives: a five-day retreat in the Derbyshire countryside for post-doctoral science academics and a series of one-to-one tutorials sandwiched between whole-day workshops for PhD students from all disciplines at Teesside University. As a writer of fiction and non-fiction, I know that narrative structure is key to pulling off a big piece of work — 100,000 words or so. I see theses, novels and commercial non-fiction in much the same way, despite their very evident differences in terms of audience, tone and style.

One of the most successful tools for doctoral students or, indeed, post-doctoral academics, is to envisage the role and nature of the protagonist: that is to say, the character (or discipline; or theory; or interpretive paradigm) that undergoes the most profound change during the course of the work. For humanities students this often provides them with a key insight and answers that tricky question, ‘what is this about?’ On the other hand, scientists are often sceptical — at least to begin with — about the idea that a mathematical conundrum can be turned into a protagonist or that solving a problem of measuring the performance of micro-fluids can be encompassed as a narrative with a protagonist’s journey. So, we often start talking about the movies: how screenplays work to set up a challenge, map how the protagonist overcomes those challenges and emerges wiser — and changed — at the end. I managed to convince an ultra-reductionist mathematician that the Pythagorean five-bridges problem could have a protagonist. If nothing else, it forces the writer to consider if there is a potential protagonist on whom to drape the flesh of their narrative. As for my own writing, being challenged by highly intelligent academics forces me to interrogate my own approach to story: to engineer it to the highest standards. Even in fiction — perhaps especially in fiction — the rigour of the academic approach, always questioning, always scrutinising, always testing, keeps me on the straight and narrow.

28 September 2016
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