Lessons learned and lessons shared: writing advice from writing tutors

This was a fun post to devise and also to write. In a recent staff meeting I posed the question: ‘what advice would you give yourself about writing if you could go back in time to yourself as an undergraduate student, or yourself starting out with your postgraduate degree?’ This is what we came up with, and we would like to share it with all of you. There are 20 pieces of advice, in no particular order:

1. Procrastination is not always a bad thing. Taking a break from a piece of writing and doing other things can lead to greater clarity when you can go back to it with fresher eyes.

2. Critical friends are an essential part of the writer’s ‘toolkit’. It’s scary to ask for feedback but if you ask the right people and take their advice, it will help you to grow as a writer.

3. Revisions almost always take longer than you think they will. Make notes about how much time writing takes you, and learn from this when you plan future writing tasks and revisions so you can plan your time realistically and avoid frustration.

4. Learn how to use the MSWord shortcuts and tools well. They can save you lots of time and make the technical side of writing less stressful.

5. Don’t underestimate the importance of giving yourself time to think. Thinking is an essential part of doing good writing – the thinking you do before, during and also after you produce a piece of writing all enriches the writing process and the writing itself.

6. For postgraduates, grounding yourself solidly in the field in which you are doing research before you start coming up with research questions is helpful. Read, read and then read. And make good notes!

7. Develop a system that works for saving your files and readings so that you can approach your writing tasks in an organised way. This saves hours looking for files and source documents that could be spent writing and revising.

8. Keep a journal – take note of where your notes come from: which reading were you writing about and what is the full reference. Create a good system for keeping track of your references, and use the journal to assist you in writing summaries in your own words of the relevant points and arguments made by different authors.  This will help you to be more organised, and also to write more comfortably in your own ‘voice’.

9. Save your drafts with separate file names, and develop a logical system for doing this (like Draft1_Eco paper_date). This helps you to keep track of your own development as a writing, and can also be encouraging when you see how far you have come. At postgraduate level especially, saving multiple drafts means you can cut chunks of good writing out of a final draft but still have them saved to use in a conference paper or journal article where they may be more relevant.

10. Keep the topic you are writing about clear in your mind while you are reading and writing; this will keep you on track and make sure that you don’t read  and write about irrelevant or off-topic ideas and information which will confuse you and your readers.

11. Every day should be a writing day, especially for MA and PhD students. All the small bits of writing add up, even if you are scribbling informally in a journal about ideas you have had. A paper, a thesis, a dissertation – these are all written one paragraph at a time.

12. Read, read, and also read! Start reading on a topic you are writing about as early as you can before the due date and read carefully, making notes as you go. Try to summarise the main ideas and arguments that are relevant to the topic you are writing about or to your research questions. Confident writers are readers.

13. Use the work of writers and thinkers you admire and whose work you are using in your own papers and research to help you find a writing voice or style that is relevant in your field and also feels comfortable for you. Find your ‘writing heroes’ in other words :-).

14. Make sure you understand the key arguments you are drawing on in what you are writing well before you get tangled up in the writing. This can help you to stay on topic and write clearly. Often, especially with theory, depth is better than breadth, but this can also depend on your field.

15. Writing is not a ‘paint-by-numbers’ exercise, which is often what makes it hard to ‘teach’. You need to find your style of writing by writing as often as you can and getting feedback from an advisor you trust, like a tutor, a lecturer, a peer or a supervisor.

16. Writing is not a skill, it’s a practice. You only get better at it if you practice it, and you can only practice by doing it. Writing for yourself every day, in a research or reading journal, can help you to grow in your thinking and writing.

17. Planning is an important part of writing so don’t skip this step. Make time to develop and plan or a basic structure for your essay or chapter before you write, so that you have something to guide you.

18. Save your writing in more than one place. Email it to yourself, or sign up for a cloud service like Dropbox or Google Drive (among others) so that you never have to be let down by a computer than crashes or a flashdrive that gets lost or breaks.

19. Writing can be difficult, and when you are working on a big piece of writing like an MA or PhD thesis it can also be lonely. Find yourself cheerleaders who can encourages and motivate you, even if they can’t help you with your writing.

20. Writing shouldn’t always be a chore. Writing should also be an activity you can enjoy. If you find academic writing, or any writing, tough, try to look for the bits you do enjoy and use that feeling to help you through the bits that are less enjoyable. There is almost always some part of writing you can enjoy, even if it is just handing in a finished final draft! 🙂

An ode to freewriting

It’s been a while since I have posted something here. That is mostly because I have been very focused on writing Chapter 4 of the Thesis, and have had little emotional and mental energy to do much of any other kind of writing and thinking. But this post has been floating around in my head for a few weeks, and Nvivo10 is frozen, so now is a good time to get it down and put it up.

I want to write about freewriting. This is tool that many of us who write and teach writing and work with writers use in different ways, and much has been written about it; notably, Peter Elbow’s seminal text Writing Without Teachers, published in the 1960s and republished in 1998. In essence, I understand freewriting to be a tool that enables a writer to unlock their thinking by creating a space free from second-guessing and judgement and fear where they can just put ideas and thoughts down on a page, in writing, in whatever form or language they take.  This is, at any rate, the way I use it in my own writing and in workshops with students and colleagues. All writers get stuck, or blocked. There are so many ideas in your head but you don’t know where to start in order to organise them and write about them coherently and sensibly. For many students, this happens when they have heard a lot about the writing topic in lectures, and in tutorials and in conversation with peers, and they have done some research and reading, and they are not sure how to start or where to start writing in response to the task. Freewriting, in these cases, in an excellent tool to get past the fear and doubt, and get the  ideas flowing  and the writing started.

The method is fairly simple. Set a time limit – 3 or 5 or 7 minutes. Set a timer – on your watch or cellphone or on your PC if you are near one. Create a topic. ‘I want to write about the link between the concept of framing and the data about teachers’ pacing of their curriculum (this is from my own research).  Then write. In pen, in pencil, on a PC – the main thing is not to stop and think and wonder and delete and rephrase; don’t stop at all until the timer goes ping! If you do stop, I tell students, write to yourself about why you stopped. This also them becomes a way to learn something new about yourself as a writer, and your writing process. Maybe you are thinking too much, or scared that your ideas are wrong, or that your grammar is clumsy. You can work on these fears and doubts if you know they are there.  When the timer goes ping, finish the sentence you are writing and stop. Read what you have written. You may be surprised at just how much you could write in a few short minutes. Now you need to move to the next step, and think about which pieces of your freewrite are useful for the bigger thing you are writing, like a section of a chapter or a paper. Which pieces fit the topic you are responding to and which do not? What claims have you made that want to use, but need to find evidence for? Do you have the evidence or do you need to do more reading and research? Have you only written about the data and the evidence you have found? If so, what are the claims you can make, and how will you express them?  From this first freewriting step, you can move on to do more structured and thoughtful writing and thinking, and this is possible now because you have freed your thinking a little, and have opened the way to more thinking and writing.

I wrote the first draft of Chapter 4 last week. 50-odd pages. It was a huge task and a very, very daunting one when I started. I didn’t know where to begin, so I started with a series of  freewrites. I set as topics or headings my conceptual tools and wrote about what stood out in the data and what I was trying to claim under each ‘heading’. I pasted that all into a new file, and I started building: adding evidence from the data, writing, rewriting, shaping and reshaping. It was really tough, and I am kind of dreading having to do it all over again with the rest of the chapters I still have to write because there is so much to think about and write about. But I’m not worried about finding my way because I have tools in my writer’s toolbox to help me. There are many tools I use in my own writing, and freewriting is one of my favourites, and one I use often with many different kinds of writing tasks. I use and enjoy it because I don’t have to second-guess and doubt my ideas while I’m writing about them, which I often do. When I use freewriting the ideas flow, and I feel productive and I feel like I am moving forward. There is no judgement when I write freely, just me, my pen, and my thoughts and ideas. If you’ve never done it, give it a try. If you are a freewriter like me, keep writing 🙂 – I hope your next writing project is easier because of it.

Keeping calm and freaking out: more on the writing process

keep calm and write on2

Image from cafepress.ca

My name is Sherran and I am a PhD student. This post is part personal confession and part semi-academic musing on writing. I am swinging between keeping calm, writing on and trusting the process, and freaking out and believing the small voice in my head that says this thesis will never be done on time (although it will eventually, surely, be finished). It’s got me thinking a bit more about this thing we call ‘the writing process’ and how perhaps, while we acknowledge that it is iterative and non-linear and tough when we talk to students about it, we tend to maybe describe or present it as this ‘thing’ that can be cracked and that if you just crack it, writing will be easier and less painful and difficult. This is obviously not true, or helpful.

I have written about drafting and revising, and writing being an iterative rather than linear process here. It’s a messy business, for sure, whether you are writing something short or something long, like this mammoth of a Thesis that is currently weighing me down like many tons of heavy bricks. I have read ‘self-help’ thesis writing books, although admittedly only two of them because they made me cross and also made me feel a bit thick because I couldn’t really recognise my own muddled process in those texts. I felt, reading those books at the start of my PhD journey, like I had not cracked ‘it’ whatever ‘it’ was and therefore should perhaps not be registered for my PhD until I was ready (which clearly I was not, yet). Perhaps I would have found a more helpful book had I kept looking. (Barbara Kamler and Pat Thomson’s Pedagogies for Doctoral Supervision is quite excellent, but I only found this very recently).

I am not trying to cast scorn on the writers of these ‘How to write your Thesis and not go mad’ type books – there is value in having guides and advice because academic writing is difficult, and writers need help – but I am wondering how helpful they really are for doctoral students, especially those who are starting out or at quite an early point in their studies. Theresa Lillis argued a few years ago that ‘how to write an essay’ guides are actually only helpful to students who already know how write essays, and from my own limited experience I think the same is true of ‘how to write a PhD thesis’ guides. They are only really insightful and make proper sense, I suspect, when you are finished, or very close to being so, so that you can recognise some of yourself and your journey in what these guides are advising you to do. So where does that leave people who are not yet finished, and are finding their own process quite difficult?

Sadly, as with all kinds of different writing processes and journeys , and all kinds of different things that one can write, I do not think there are easy answers or compact and neat ways of presenting a ‘guide’ to writers that will make the process less… well, process-y; complicated, iterative, frustrating, at times enjoyable and at times maddening. A lot of emotional energy goes into all the reading and thinking and writing and rewriting and this amount is different for everyone. I think any notion of a process that can swing you from being a calm, focused writing machine to being a panicked and freaked out mess and back again needs to be cognisant of the different ways in which the process could progress and also end. We need to aim, in our work with student writers at every level, for a way of allowing them to muddle their way through their own particular writing journeys, and have, at the rights points along the way, spaces and places where they can talk about where they are and get help and advice that makes sense. The challenge is finding more spaces and places in higher education that can fulfill this weighty brief. In the meantime, I shall take my own advice, keep calm, and write on :-).