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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