Pre-writing, or writing for yourself first

I have been thinking a lot lately about what makes writing ‘good’, and how ‘bad’ writing is part of creating good writing. A truism you will see in many memes about writing is that you have to be willing to create bad, and sometimes terrible, writing on the path to writing something well.

This is not as easy at it may sound. It is painful to create bad writing: you have to sit there and type or write, knowing that it all probably sucks and will have to be revised and rewritten later, after you have re-read it yourself and seen the aspects that need revisions, or someone else has given you feedback. It is much more pleasant to create good writing, when you feel that the argument is coming together, and your ideas are good, and your readers will appreciate what you are sharing with them.

But, unless you are willing to get the bad writing out there and onto the page, and sometimes be brave enough to share it and ask for constructive feedback, you are unlikely to create very much of the good writing. This is where pre-writing can be a really useful writing strategy, as part of a recursive or iterative writing process.

We don’t write anything in academia in a linear fashion, where we have an idea, research it, write about it, submit the work and that’s it. It may feel like this for you if you are reading this as a student who writes mainly for assessment and marks, and never really thinks about what you have written once the paper has been handed back, marked and done. Even where your assignments don’t have a drafting and feedback stage built-in to the process, your lecturers are expecting that you will treat every assignment as a learning process, and that you will use the feedback you get to do the next piece of writing with more knowledge and insight. They are expecting you to see writing as a practice, as part of the whole learning process and path you are on, and not as a series of disconnected products or pieces of work for marks. This means that we move back and forth between drafting, getting feedback, revising, and also learning from past mistakes and poor writing. This makes writing an iterative process.

But, if you only write when there is a formal assignment to be completed – a paper or a test or a research project/thesis – it is quite likely that you will find this process difficult, frustrating, anxiety-provoking and hard to manage. This is because your writing muscles are weaker than they should be. Writing is like being fit: if you want to be fit, you have to work out regularly. Let it slide and your fitness level will decline. If you want to write well and enjoy the writing process, you need to write often, in different formats and ways, to work on your writing ‘fitness’. Pre-writing, or writing for yourself, is kind of like a writing ‘gym’, where you can work on your ideas, arguments and so on, figuring out what you want to write about and say before you share it with others for feedback, or for assessment.

There are a few ways in which you can write for yourself, or make pre-writing part of your daily life as a student or academic:

  1. Keep a reading and research journal. For every paper you read, there should be a piece of writing that helps you work out the main point of the reading, the argument it makes and how it relates to your own research (this is the reading journal). A research journal can be used to work out lines of argument, or new ideas, or to scribble down insights gleaned from conversations with peers and supervisors, and so on. This is a low-key, but incredibly powerful, way of writing to and for yourself about your research.
  2. Freewrite. In your research journal, you can do timed, focused freewrites, which are like mini brainstorming sessions designed to help you get all your ideas out of your head and onto the page, where you can look at them from a different angle, and start developing your ideas in a more coherent and connected manner.
  3. Mindmap. Mind-mapping, or its more complex cousin concept-mapping, can be a really helpful way of working out not only what your ideas and emerging arguments are, but also where the links between parts of the argument are, and how to organise your thoughts into a logical, sensible structure for a paper, or thesis chapter.

There are other ways of pre-writing for yourself – here and here are some nice examples to add to these ones I have listed. The point, regardless of the mode you choose to do it in, is to make time for some kind of writing every day. Working at your writing like this won’t mean that you stop doing bad writing. But, it will mean that the bad writing may bother you less because you know it is part of creating something good that you are proud of, want to share, and really want other people to read.

What does it mean to ‘sound academic’ in your writing?

How to write a PhD in a hundred steps (or more)

I have been reading a lot of other people’s writing lately, which has kind of sapped my own creative energies. However, it really has got me thinking about a few issues related to helping other people to improve their writing, which I’ll share over a few posts. This one is about ‘sounding academic’, and what that may mean in academic writing.

The first thing I have noticed in the academic writing I have read, as an editor and a critical friend, is that writers often use overly complex sentences and (under-explained) terms to convey their ideas. Here is one example:

Despite the popularity of constructivist explanations, this perspective oversimplifies the otherwise complex ontology and epistemology of reality by suggesting that representations of physical and biological reality, including race, sexuality, and gender, as well as tables, chairs and atoms are social constructions. Constructivists do not necessarily focus on an ontological reality they regard as unintelligible…

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Academic writing: making (some) sense of a complex ‘practice of mystery’

How to write a PhD in a hundred steps (or more)

This is a second post linked to my own insights about academic writing at postgraduate and postdoctoral level, gleaned from working with a range of student and early career writers over the last few years. This one tackles a tricky topic: the aspects of writing that can be knowable and teachable, and those that are more tacit and mysterious, and how we grapple with this as writers (and writing teachers).

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Have you ever had the experience of reading a really well-written, tightly argued paper without one word out of place, and wondered: ‘how did the author do that?’ Writing like that seems like a fabulous piece of magic – a card trick that should be easy to do, but is actually much harder than it looks to replicate yourself. Why is academic writing so complex, and hard to do in sparkly, elegant, memorable papers and theses?

Theresa Lillis

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Can a writing centre really be a ‘safe space’ in a university?

In South Africa, this morning, we woke to the news that our president has finally managed to do the unthinkable: he has effectively set us on a path to real economic and political disaster. South Africa is no longer safe, especially for those who were not safe to begin with: poor, unemployed, and unskilled citizens really battling to make a living. The South Africans government should be working for, in other words, yet who are being further hurt by the president’s monstrous and selfish actions. Further afield, Brexit and the reign of Donald Trump are ensuring that, for many – largely, again, those already struggling to get by – the UK and America are not safe. This seems a cold and dark state of affairs, and the end of the tunnel is not yet lit.

In this context, education becomes all the more valuable and important. Making education – in the case of this blog higher education – accessible, just and open to many, is vital to ensuring that the world halts this slide into darkness – politically, economically, environmentally, socio-culturally. Research on making higher education accessible and just argues that students – especially those from backgrounds that are less congruent with the ways of knowing of the university – need to be consciously shown the ‘rules of the game’ in their disciplines, and given tools and opportunities to try these out, and become proficient and knowledgable. However, too often, these students are the ones who eventually drop out of academia; a recent study shows that graduation rates in South Africa are still markedly skewed in racial terms, and almost 50% of students never graduate. This means that, for many students for whom education should represent a way up and out of their present circumstances, universities are not safe.

Writing centres, in published papers, are often called ‘safe spaces’ within the university context. We are there for all students, as critical friends and advisors, not judging or grading their work but rather genuinely concerned with helping them to make sense of at least one set of ‘rules of the game’ so that they can better express and articulate their knowledge to their lecturers and tutors. This non-judgemental, supportive set-up is at the core of who and what writing centres are. And yet, to paraphrase Shannon Carter’s excellent quote: while we are indeed there for the students, we are also there for the university (who funds us and gives us a physical home), and we are also there for ourselves; our own theoretical and methodological underpinnings drive who we are and how we work within our local contexts.

This has led me, of late, to wonder: can writing centres really be ‘safe’, when the university is not safe for so many students, and when the world is not safe for so many people?

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Perhaps a good start in unpacking this question is to consider what ‘safe’ means. The dictionary defines ‘safe’ (adjective) as a state where one is not exposed to danger or risk. This definition can indeed apply to the work of a writing centre, as we do work hard to ensure that students feel they can explore ideas and tools in their writing without the risk usually attached to getting it wrong (such as a low grade or negative feedback from a marker). However, safe can also be a verb: to be safe is to be cautious and unenterprising, taking no risks to avoid being harmed. I’m not sure this should apply to writing centre work, or academia.

Part of the work of becoming knowledgeable is encountering knowledge, thinkers, ideas, strategies and so on that may unsettle us, challenge us, shift our sense of self and the world. In her excellent book, Jenni Case argues that a true higher education is transformative on a personal and intellectual level – we should not leave university the same people we were upon entering. This requires risk. We have to be willing to risk being wrong; we have to be willing to risk being challenged; we have to be willing to risk challenging others. Thus, we have to be okay, at least in part, with being unsafe in this sense. However, when we consider that many of our students, in this era of massification or open admissions, are already unsafe in other ways – struggling to pay fees, struggling to find a place to live and food to eat, struggling with poor, unsafe public transport and so on – what kinds of risk can we justify at this level, without further deepening the sense of unsafeness so many of our students must already feel? Yet, what would the unintended consequences be of working too hard to make higher education ‘safe’ and without intellectual or personal risk? What kinds of risk are justifiable, and what kinds are not?

Writing centres can step in here, I believe, in a much more critical way than perhaps they have done previously. Still too often seen as ‘remedial’, ‘skills-imparting’ and ‘soft’ spaces in universities, writing centres now have a rather exciting opportunity to reinvent the discourse that has shaped them, to embrace rather than avoid the larger socio-political context in which they, as part of universities, work. Using critical approaches drawn from work on the ethics of care, and academic literacies, as two examples, writing centres can reimagine what it means to be ‘safe’ spaces, while acknowledging that actual safety may be an illusory goal. We can help students take risks, at least in the arena of academic knowledge-making, and through our tutorials, consultations and workshops, we can more overtly show students how one embraces the challenges of engaging in a truly transformative higher education.

We are not independent of the university: we must acknowledge that the ‘rules of the game’ we help students to play by are often experienced as alienating and unjust. And, perhaps because of the ways in which we are still positioned and conceived of, marginal rather than central to academic development, we do not always take enough risks ourselves in challenging those rules. Thus, we must acknowledge that we have a complicity in perpetuating an unevenly accessible higher education, as much as we work to be non-judgemental, open and welcoming to all students, and as much as we aim to make them feel relatively safe in revising, reworking, and rethinking their academic writing.

life-preserver-1748575_640Rather than leading us to hang our heads, acknowledging our role as insiders can offer a kind of freedom: to use our insider knowledge to challenge dominant discourses around what it means to be literate and knowledgeable; to bring other forms of knowing and knowledge into the writing centre space in creative ways that give already ‘unsafe’ students different tools for exploring their writing; to openly acknowledge the risks involved in academic work, and the challenge inherent in putting ourselves and our ideas out there for judgement, even in an undergraduate essay.

Making the notion of ‘safety’ open for debate and discussion is in keeping with who we are and how we work: it makes the inevitable risks visible, and makes it okay to feel afraid, overwhelmed and unsafe, even in a space that tries to mitigate those feelings. Rather than uncritically adopting a notion that writing centres are an island of safety in a sea of uncertainty, I argue that we need to jump into the water with students and lecturers, and swim next to them as they work out how to get to the shore, transformed, challenged, more resilient, and ultimately more able to grapple with complexity than if they would be if we devoted all our time to make ourselves a safe space in a world that makes such a goal nearly impossible.

How do we help students become more resilient writers?

I’ve been thinking a fair bit about this idea of resilience in learning and writing recently. This is partly because I have started a big project – a single-authored book – and I am really struggling to find my voice and the words, and the frustration is knocking me back a bit. This is also partly based on my ups and downs with peer review on papers I have written in the last two years, and how I have made sense of the process of peer review, even when it has hurt, so that I can keep moving forward. And I have been wondering how we develop resilience in academia, and as writers and thinkers, and whether and how we can help or teach students to develop this too.
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Resilience is defined as the ability to bounce back from difficulties or setbacks, and to keep going without letting the setbacks overwhelm you; it is also defined as an elastic property of objects, that they can use to reform themselves into their proper shape when something has bent or pushed them out of shape. Resilience is a key element of success; you need to be able to get yourself up and keep going after a setback. For writers, setbacks often take the form of critical feedback that signals more work to do, more thinking, more writing. Sometime way more than we expected to have to do, or even want to do.

If you are an academic who has chosen a career that involves much writing and publishing, you accept that you will be knocked back but that you will have to keep moving. No journal article or book chapter is written in the first try – many drafts and revisions will need to be completed before it is ready to be read by your peers in a published form. But, for undergraduate students, this notion of writing and revising is not something familiar or even normal. Most assignments are written once, handed in, marked (sometimes with and sometimes without feedback or comments), and then moved on from. Few students have repeated opportunities to write a draft, have it read and commented on, and then make revisions to improve the paper.

The system of peer review, feedback, drafting and revision is not readily built into most undergraduate education, or even early postgraduate education, for example in a coursework or taught Masters programme. Perhaps this is why many students struggle to develop resilience against having their work or ideas critiqued, which should then prompt them to rethink, revise, and not feel defeated. A project I worked on several years ago built a first draft-revisions-final draft system into a course where students had previously had no opportunities to get feedback on an essay in progress. I thought most students would really like this system, but I found when I talked to them after the project that many had been frustrated and discouraged receiving feedback that meant they had more reading and writing to do, as they believed their essays were fine as they were. They didn’t want to make revisions; they wanted to give up and move on to something else.

I wondered, though, if this wasn’t a normal reaction from a first-year student encountering critical commentary on her work for the first time. Of course she would have that kind of reaction. Even experienced, published writers dread feedback as much as they appreciate the opportunities it affords them to improve their work. I further wondered if, given further drafting-feedback-revising opportunities in courses across the curriculum and thus made a normal part of undergraduate education, those students would have developed writer-resilience over time. Sure, the feedback may still have initially been upsetting or difficult to read, but with input from tutors and lecturers on how to use feedback to revise their work, these students may well have learned to get back up and keep writing, and would certainly have gained a great deal, both intellectually and emotionally, from that process.

resilience

I am aware that increasingly large classes, and linguistically and educationally diverse student bodies, make creating and sustaining writing intensive courses a challenge. But, some of this challenge stems less from the time it takes to read and comment on student work, and more from the nature of the curriculum being too full of things students need to learn and know and less with time for things students need to be able to do with what they know, such a problem-solving and argument-construction. I think this is an imbalance that may need to be corrected if we do take seriously helping our students to become more resilient thinkers and writers, an ability that will surely stand them in strong stead in further studies, and in the world of work.

Reimagining literature reviews as part of undergraduate research

I am currently supervising a PhD student, and she has been working on her literature review for the last few months, building the foundations and rationale for her study. Reading her successive drafts, and seeing her voice grow and develop, has given me pause for thought in terms of how we conceptualise, teach and write this thing called a literature review, especially in undergraduate education.

There has been a growing drive in the last five years or so, certainly in South Africa, towards making research a strong focus of undergraduate curricula, across the disciplinary map. In a higher education system that wants to grow its postgraduate  student base, both in quantity and in quality, having prospective postgraduates learn how to design, manage and write about research projects while they are undergraduates is becoming increasingly valued and important. Thus, parts of research projects – in particular methodology courses and literature review assignments – are becoming more common at undergraduate level. In this post, I will focus in on literature reviews – specifically a few of the main shortcomings of how they tend to be taught and assessed at undergraduate level, and the implications for postgraduate research.

In a fairly traditional research assignment or project, the literature review is almost always the starting point. We read to map out the field, to work out who are researchers are that are working in this area and what they are (and are not yet) writing about. We read to work out what we think about the research we are interested in doing, to work out what kinds of research questions might be viable and also interesting to answer. We read to develop our own voices, and to build our credibility as we map our own research project onto the field, especially into gaps in the field we are working in. In short, we do a great deal of reading, and a great deal of thinking, scribbling, drafting and revising as we build – whether for a large or small project – the foundation and rationale for the research we plan on doing.

Once we have scoped all of this out, and have honed in on one question we can answer, we design a study, develop a theoretical framework, and proceed to generate relevant data that we can analyse and interpret in order to answer the research question. Doing all of that reviewing and reading of literature makes sense in the context of a research project as a whole, because what we do find will then speak back to that field – adding a voice and new ideas and thereby making a contribution. Without the research project as a whole (behind and) in front of the literature review, it can become a disconnected and therefore potentially unhelpful exercise, if its aim is to begin to acculturate undergraduate students into the hows and whys of doing their own research.

A literature review is less a review of existing literature – summary and compare ‘n contrast exercises – and more contextual framework for the research you propose to undertake. You are setting out, for your reader, the parts of the broader research field that are relevant to your own research – that they need to know about in order to understand why your research is necessary and important. Relevance is key. What you should not be doing is writing a long assignment showing the reader everything you have read, laboriously summarising, comparing, contrasting and synthesising the views of different authors. What tends to happen, in these kinds of review exercises, is that your research project and questions get lost in the tumult of other researchers’ projects and arguments. You lose your voice, and the relevance of all that reading is lost.

Unfortunately, most of the literature review assignment at undergraduate level I saw at the writing centre I used to manage over the last few years end up becoming exactly this kind of exercise, largely because there is no drive to understand the rationale for a research project students are invested in. Students are given a topic, perhaps a couple of the same readings with instructions to find two or three more related readings on their own, and then asked to summarise, synthesise and connect the readings in a literature review. In the better assignments, the topic will be a research question, but it is (as I have observed) difficult and puzzling for an undergraduate student to work out what they are reviewing in the literature and why, I believe because it is not their research, or because there is not project as a whole. The assignments thus do not end up helping these students learn how to do the kinds of literature review work that will be useful to them in postgraduate study.

This brings me to a second issue: postgraduate study, and the expectations of postgraduate students as compared to undergraduate students. Honours and Masters degrees are usually quite structured, and students embark on coursework before undertaking a manageable research project. The reading lists are shorter than they would be, in general, for a PhD study. But the task is, albeit on different levels, the same: you need to construct a research question, and develop a study that can be carried out in order to find an answer (crudely put). Thus, whatever existing research you read needs to be relevant to that project – it needs to help you understand your part of the field well; it needs to help you locate your proposed research in relation to existing research; it can help you work out appropriate theoretical and methodological frameworks or approaches; it defines and delimits your context and scope for the research; and it guides your reader into the rationale and need for your research. If all undergraduate students have learned is to summarise whole readings, without knowing how and what to select from them relevant to a specific project, how will they be able to accomplish the challenging task of building contextual and conceptual frameworks for their postgraduate research? If undergraduate literature review assignments are more often than not stand-alone assignments rather than initial parts of whole research projects, how will we need to adapt our supervision and mentoring practices at postgraduate level to bring students up to the levels of research and writing that are required of them?

Too often, postgraduate students who have done well as undergraduates end up feeling stupid and incompetent when they try to use what worked for them at undergraduate level in their postgraduate work, only to be told that they are not working at the right level, or in the right ways. Our work, in teaching undergraduate students the value and practice of research, is to look for clearer ways to align undergraduate and postgraduate expectations and study; to reimagine the teaching of research at undergraduate level so that it builds, cumulatively and in progressive stages, towards the capacity to continue learning and growing at postgraduate level. We cannot keep leaving it to the students themselves to work all of this out on their own, if indeed we want research, inquiry and curiosity to be much stronger and more visible in undergraduate and postgraduate curricula.

Learning about our writing through feedback: giving and receiving

When we think about academic writing, generally, and how we might characterise it for students learning how to express their thinking at university, what might we tell them? This blog has discussed some of this here, and here, but let’s just say for the purposes of this post that we might tell students that academic writing is not vague – it has something specific to say, and generally it tends to try and say it as clearly, and concisely as possible. An excellent article I read recently has really helped me to better express a great deal of my advice to writers I work with on how to be less vague, and more focused. There is a lot of advice out there for writers on how to polish, strengthen and improve their writing.

But students, especially undergraduate students, find it difficult to turn all of this advice into improved writing – at least, this takes some time, and they tend to need a good deal of guidance and opportunity to practice, make errors, and receive feedback that can help them to avoid those errors in future writing. Theresa Lillis wrote in her 2001 book on student writing that essay writing advice is often most helpful to writers who already have some experience of writing in the right sorts of ways. Fresh out of school, with no real sense of what an academic argument is or how to create one in a piece of research-led writing, most undergraduate students read essay writing advice with a sense of overwhelmed confusion, and their attempts to put the advice into practice tend to produce different kinds of results, some more successful than others.

Lucy writing advice

Image credit: Charles Schultz

So, how can we assist students, practically and practicably, with their writing? How can we show them what better and poorer writing looks like in our disciplines or fields of study (rather than in a generic way), and how to turn the weaker aspects of their writing into strengths over time? Feedback, I hear you say. Yes, I would agree, but feedback from whom? Many lecturers would groan on hearing this word ‘feedback’, especially those who teach increasingly large classes in disciplines where students need to write a great deal, the more the better for their learning (think here especially of the humanities and many of the social sciences). With large classes and reams of written work to mark, lecturers often skimp on the detailed written feedback, or give only the most cursory comments, perhaps supplementing this with ‘global’ feedback in a lecture for the whole class on common errors and misunderstandings. This tends to mean that students keep making these errors, and the development of their thinking, writing and ability to create and critique knowledge in the discipline takes far longer to progress.

Yet, feedback is what all writers need. Critical, thoughtful, clear feedback that praises what is well-considered and realised in our writing, and points to what has been less well realised and needs further revision and rewriting. Whether in larger or smaller classes, in disciplines where students write a great deal, and are expected to improve with each piece of writing, feedback is essential. Preferably individual feedback that engages students in thinking differently about their writing, although this is often a logistical challenge for many lecturers and tutors.

Peer feedback, then, has been used as a partial solution to these challenges in many university courses globally. Students give feedback on writing to their peers, either in classes or in tutorials, in structured tasks that try to guide students on what kinds of feedback to give and how to give it well. Many of these instances of peer feedback work well, probably as many struggle to achieve their goals. Giving constructive, kind-but-critical, and helpful feedback on a piece of writing – feedback that will make it possible for the writer to make effective revisions – is hard work. Telling someone a paragraph they have written has no point is not that hard, but giving them advice that helps them to understand why there is no point, and how to both create a point and then reconstruct a paragraph that makes sense within the piece of writing – that is much more challenging. Many students, especially undergraduates, need guidance in order to provide their peers with this kind of feedback – this is a practice that needs to be learned, and that can be taught or scaffolded.

There are many, many research studies that have been published on feedback – the principles of good feedback, how to work with feedback as a writer, how to structure peer feedback-giving exercises, why feedback is ignored by students and how to get them to pay attention, and so on and so on. One of the questions asked in many of these studies goes something like: ‘how do we get students to learn from feedback, and improve their writing?‘ (The corollary of this seems to be ‘why don’t students learn from the feedback they get?’) One paper I read recently on a peer feedback-giving exercise revealed an unexpected finding in the students’ evaluation of the exercise: that they learned more about their own writing from giving feedback to their peer than they did from the feedback they received.

This is interesting, because many of the studies I have read focus almost solely on what to do with feedback received, and how to make sure that feedback givers give better feedback, so that the receiver can do more with it to improve their writing. But what of the lessons about writing that feedback-givers can consciously learn, and act on in their own writing? To return to the example above, if you need to give a writer feedback on how to improve a pointless paragraph, or one that doesn’t quite develop its point, you may find yourself reflecting on this aspect of your own writing and seeing it differently. Going back to it with fresher eyes, you may find yourself revising your own paragraphs, ensuring the the points you are making expand your argument, and are well supported with evidence.

Students can learn from the feedback they receive if it is given in understandable, actionable ways. But creating peer feedback-giving exercises in writing programmes, courses, or centres provides an excellent opportunity not only for students to learn how to give useful feedback, but also to learn more about their own writing through being asked to read, think about, and comment on a peer’s writing with the aim of giving them clear, constructive and useful comments and advice.