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

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
Encouraging creativity in your essay writing

Encouraging creativity in your essay writing

Writing tipsWhen writing an essay it is easy to get so concerned about following the academic ‘rules’ that creativity goes out of the window. How can you encourage your self-expression and creativity, while still following the conventions? Here is one suggestion.

Before you do any research, write down what you know, think and feel about the theme of the essay. Write this down as a stream of consciousness, not worrying about ‘getting it right’. You might want to jot down your ideas as a mind map, flow chart or some other kind of diagram. Doing so encourages you to unlock your creativity and generate and connect ideas, to break away from the more linear thinking you do when you start writing ‘seriously’. These thoughts and feelings can influence how you carry out the research and what you choose to feature in your essay.

Trevor Day
21 September 2016
To plan or not to plan?

To plan or not to plan?

Image credit: Liz Allen

Image credit: Liz Allen

A few months ago I gave the last of a series of nine workshops on dissertation writing. This final session was for taught MA students at Sussex University but I’ve also run sessions for third years at both Brighton and Sussex universities. Dissertations seem to have become my speciality as an RLF Consultant Fellow!

In response to student feedback, I usually include a section on planning and structure. Students always seem to find this valuable, whether we focus on the macro-task of planning a dissertation or the micro-structure of paragraphs. I begin by taking a straw poll. How many of you make a detailed plan/several plans before writing? How many make no plan? There are always a surprising number who claim to create no structure at all. At some point in the ensuing discussion I ‘come out’ as a meticulous planner. I may describe my method of writing, which involves distinct thinking, reviewing and planning stages.

As a non-fiction writer I work with facts. I may present a range of views on the topic, but it’s vital to develop my own position and present the information in my own voice. I point out that these are exactly the same skills that are needed for dissertation writing. My own method is to do my research for the following day’s writing the afternoon before. As I complete it, I have a little think, and make a ‘thumbnail’ plan in the margin of my notes. This mini-structure sets out the points I will make and the order in which I will make them. I assign a word count to each point. The following morning, I compose my text.

As a careful planner I adhere to what I call the ‘constipated school’ of writing. I write quite slowly (1,500 words a day maximum) but the text flows well and is pretty much the final draft, bar a few corrections. At the other end of the spectrum is what I call the ‘splurge school’. Some students and fellow writers begin drafting as they research, and then have an extensive reshaping stage. As we discuss the pros and cons of various approaches, I stress there’s no right or wrong way to write, though I do advise developing a tight structure for a piece as long as a dissertation. Am I influenced by the counter-argument for ‘splurge writing’? Almost never, with one exception — this blog. Perhaps I’ll give it a go more often!

14 September 2016
Managing your time during the long game

Managing your time during the long game

Swift RLF by Danny Hilton

Image credit: Danny Hilton

One of the main similarities between academic writing and novel writing is length. Novels and dissertations are long pieces of work, requiring complex and detailed content, rigorous planning and oodles of stamina. You need to play the long game.

When I led workshops on dissertation writing for undergraduates at the University of East London this year, I included a session on time management. I have never read any hefty self-help tomes or been on any special courses on the subject, but I have realised over the years that my time-management strategy is a major tool that I use to get the job done.

Many writers and students feel defeated by the task before they’ve even begun. The project seems too big even to start, and that’s where there’s a danger of procrastination and displacement activity. My response is to break the job down into manageable segments and allocate a task to each available writing session. I put my writing slots into my diary alongside going to the dentist and remembering my nieces’ birthdays.

In my time management session, I give the students a blank calendar for the next two months. I tell them they are filling in the calendar for an imaginary friend and I decide the delivery date for the friend’s dissertation. I give them other essay deadlines and ask them to block out time for writing these essays. We add lectures, paid work, social commitments and days off. Then we get down to the nitty-gritty: time for reading, planning, first draft, editing, second draft, proofreading and so on. It quickly becomes clear that although the imaginary friend will be busy, they will be able to get the task done. This exercise isn’t rocket science but it seems to work: at the end of the session nearly all of the students ask for spare copies of the calendar. I hope it’s because they want to use them to play their own long game.

31 August 2016
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