Making time to write

Apologies, readers. We have been terrible about keeping this blog up to date lately. Our excuse is one many writers know well: we just have not had the time! But, here’s the thing. That’s not completely true. We have had the time if you think of time as physical hours in the day. There has been enough of that kind of time in the last couple of months to write and publish at least three blogposts. But this is not necessarily what writers mean when they say they don’t have time to write. They are talking about another kind of time – a less literal kind.

When I say I don’t have time to write – and I say this a lot at the moment snowed under as I am by administrative tasks and endless emails that need sending and a million little terribly urgent things that need doing NOW – what I am saying is that I don’t have time to do the things I need to do to make it possible for me to write. I don’t have time to read, and to make notes. I don’t have time to think about all I have read and make connections and have realisations and see a paper structure emerging from that thinking, scribbling and reading. I may have physical time, but my head is so full of all these other things that I find I need more than just an hour or two here and there to get into the right headspace and create writing time.

Writing time is less about hours and minutes, I find, and more about space in my head. Hours and hours of headspace that can be devoted to all the reading, thinking, writing, scribbling, rewriting and so on that goes into producing a chapter of a thesis, or a journal article or a report. This kind of time is not always easy to find when life and work are busy. Many students, I think, struggle to find this kind of time. I think many students may also struggle, especially as undergraduates, because they are perhaps unfamiliar with all the things that need to go into this writing time – all the reading and thinking and drafting etc that is part of a typical writing process linked to a piece of writing to be published or submitted somewhere for evaluation. They may find physical time, but may then discover that it’s not enough, and that they are too rushed. But if they have a deadline they will hand something in, even if it is not the something we would like to read and assess; even if it is rough, or does not fully address the questions asked and so on. So students also need to work out the difference between physical time and writing time.

You see, I know now, having been an academic and a writer for some time, that I can find an hour today to work on a paper I am writing. It’s in revisions, so an hour is enough to get a good whack of revising done. However, if I were to use that same hour for a paper I am starting to write, I would get a lot less done. I would maybe be able to read a couple of short articles and make some notes on them. But when I was an undergraduate, an hour seemed like enough time to get a draft of my essay scribbled out – it was only 1200 words after all and I’d been listening in class. I didn’t know then about all the reading required, and the thinking and the referencing and the editing and proofing that need to be factored in as well. So, of course, I would leave the essay until a couple of days or less before the due date, read the course readings cursorily and then write out my essay in a hurry. Too late I would realise that I had not given myself enough time to do the task justice, but it took me a long time to learn what went into all that writing and therefore how much physical time I needed to make for my writing. It took me a long time to make my writing important.

This brings me to my point in this post: I don’t think we find writing time – I think we have to make it. We need to sit with our writing tasks and work out all the steps that have to go completing them, and then make that time in our schedules. We need to prioritise our writing and make it important – more important than the million other small things we do every day that can probably wait or at least be scaled down in importance. For me this means putting it into my calendar as a meeting with myself each week, and then planning the rest of my week so that I can get all the other things done in order to clear my headspace and have that writing time to spare. For students this could be a similar kind of process. Writing time is made, not found, but it can take time to learn that lesson.

A final point for lecturers and tutors: when you set tasks, make time in class or tutorials not only to explain the task and your expectations to students, but also to workshop with them if possible, or at least to show them, the things that go into writing an assignment like the one you have set them. What will they need to make time for? Reading? Fieldwork? Drafting and revisions? Proofreading? Getting advice from a writing tutor? Doing an experiment and collating results? Be careful of assuming that students, even postgraduate students, know how to spend their writing time or know what has to go into it. Teach them how to make time for writing when you teach them how to write in your discipline – this practical lesson is a valuable one.

 

Giving feedback that encourages engagement with writing and thinking

Image from Linchi Kwok’s blog

We have posted on this blog about feedback this year already, but I have been thinking a lot lately about what counts as useful feedback and what kinds of feedback constrain rather than enable a writer’s further engagement with their own writing. So, I thought a less ‘academic’ take on feedback might be useful.

I am a student, too, as readers of this blog will know, so I am currently getting and reading and working with a lot of feedback from my supervisor, and while some of the comments are tough because of all the extra thinking they ask me to do, all of them are actually helpful. But more than that, they encourage me to go deeper in terms of my engagement with and thinking about my own writing. They ask me to rethink things I have written; to question connections between parts of the text that I may have said are there but are not clear to the reader; to make links clearer and to edit out repetitive or vague comments that add little to my text or make it less coherent. They ask me to think, and to question and to challenge myself as a writer to grow and learn from errors and missteps. This kind of feedback, I think, is ideal. Writers only become more capable and more confident as they write, and they need to know what their readers think, and where the writing makes sense and where it does not. Further, if there are errors and missteps they need advice on how to correct these and get the writing onto the right path.

Feedback, then, needs to do two things: encourage further engagement between the writer and their writing, and offer useful advice on how to make that engagement constructive. Feedback that just tells you things are wrong, or vague or irrelevant is at best unhelpful and at worst demotivating, especially when no advice is given on what you could do differently to meet the reader or marker’s standards. It discourages students from doing more thinking, and reading and writing. It constrains further learning and growth. But this constructive, helpful and engaging feedback is not easy to give, and it can take time. It requires the reader to read carefully, and to step into the role of a critical friend, rather than just an assessor. The reader needs to think about what the writer has tried to achieve, and comment both on what has worked well, and also what has not. Rather than simply pointing out mistakes the reader needs to engage the writer, asking questions that will guide their thinking (‘could this paragraph make more sense if it came before the previous one rather than after? Think about the ideas you are linking together here’). The reader needs to offer advice that gives the writer choices (‘I would cut this section out because you have made this point already in the first part of the chapter. Maybe you could blend the best pieces of each section together to make one strong section earlier on’). The reader needs to encourage the writer realistically, so that hey know where they are in terms of the standards set and also what they still need to do to reach them (‘This is a good start, and the introduction and conclusion are well-written. However, parts of your argument are not well supported by evidence from the readings, so you will need to revise these, supporting your claims with relevant information where needed’).

The reality, often, is that when we hand in a piece of work we really want to be finished with it because we always have something else to move on to. Feedback, however, and the revisions that it asks for, are a necessary part of writing, whether you are writing an essay, a thesis or a novel. Mediating feedback by talking to students about it and explaining your own thinking as their reader is one way of foregrounding the role feedback plays in the writing process, and the fact that writing is a process and not just a product. Making time and finding creative ways of giving this kind of feedback can pay dividends in getting students, slowly, to learn how to read feedback, think about it and revise their writing. There are many different ‘tools’ you can use, like getting students to work out assignment criteria with you and give guided peer feedback, or getting students to submit essays on Google Drive and doing oral feedback as you read their essays. Whatever the tool, and however much feedback you give or however often, a guiding principle should be that it gets the writer to a next step in their writing process, and facilitates their own further engagement with their writing.

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! 🙂

Revisions are the hardest thing to do

Image from learnnc.org

Image from learnnc.org

I’m just going to come out and say it: I dread doing revisions on my written work. I have two big pieces of writing sitting on my desk right now, waiting to be revised and rethought about and reapproached, and I am trying to pretend that they are not there. One is a paper I am writing for a journal, with a colleague, and the other is the first three completed chapters of my PhD thesis. I am spending a lot of time fixing my reference list, and reorganising my desktop folders and refiling readings in order to avoid having to do these revisions. But it’s not the writing that is putting me off, it’s the thinking.

I have realised over the years that this is the hardest part of the revision process, and I think this is what students may be feeling overwhelmed by when they come to the writing centre and we give them advice and guidance on revisions they could and should do in order to improve their written work. Thinking is hard work. Or rather, academic thinking about theoretical and abstract ideas and how they apply to a particular argument or question is hard work. Often, thinking in the revision stage of the writing process is harder than the initial thinking that helped you write draft one, largely because you may have to unthink ideas that are irrelevant or misplaced or even wrong in the context of what you are reading and writing about. And then you have to think new ideas, and work out how these might fit with the older ideas that are good, and can stay. And often – almost always for me – this thinking process happens while I am rewriting pieces of the text that need to change. So I think and write, rather than think and then write. This often means that I go through a few drafts in revising my work before I am happy with what I have written. It’s a process in the true sense of the word – it’s tough, and can take a long time, and is very demanding of my emotional and mental resources. But I grow as I do it, every time, and I learn more about what I am writing about as well as how to write in ways that will make my work credible and readable.

But it is hard work. And I don’t like doing revisions because it’s difficult, especially if there has been a longer period of time between the first draft and the second draft, and it’s time consuming. Getting back into the right headspace takes effort, and often I want to be done with that piece of writing and move onto the next one, so I sometimes also feel resentful of the intrusion on my new thinking and writing spaces. But, I have also learned, for all this moaning, that the revision process is necessary and even good for you for a reason.  It helps you to realise that your thinking on any topic you are writing about is never really done. You could revisit a first year essay in second, and third year and as a postgrad, for example, and right very different versions of that essay which would hopefully show the widening and deepening of your knowledge and learning, and also the growth in yourself as a writer. The revision and rethinking/writing facilitates your growth as a writer and also the deepening of your knowledge and understanding as you work on clearer and more credible ways to articulate what you know and what it means in the context of the argument you are making. When we write and think about what we know we are forced to think about what it means, and why others need to read about it. We are forced to be articulate in ways that challenge what we think about our own writing and the topics we are writing about, so revising our work also makes us better scholars. Or, it can at least with the right help along the way.

Revisions can’t just be done by the scholar with the assumption that if you say ‘this needs revision’ they will know why and how. Often students hand in work that they know is not finished yet, or good enough yet, but they are stuck and can’t work out how to improve it on their own. They need guidance from those who know about the kind of writing they are doing, and also about what they are writing about. They need feedback that recognises what they have done well, and that can point out the gaps (and give suggestions on how to fill them), and probe thinking by asking the right kinds of questions. All writers need help, even the very good ones. This is why editors, reviewers, readers exist. We, at the writing centre, are one kind of reader or reviewer that can help undergraduate students think about and revise their writing. Lecturers and tutors in the disciplines are another.  Feedback that helps writers to make choices about their writing and understand where they are going wrong, why, and how they could get onto the right track is hard to give, but it is an essential part of the revision process. And the revision process is an essential part of students’ growth and intellectual development as they become knowers in their field. It is hard, yes, but it’s also ultimately rewarding when the thing you write receives recognition and praise. It makes all the hard work worth it.

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.

Why I enjoy blogging, and why students could too

I started this blog for the Writing Centre in April last year. I was very new to blogging at the time, and wanted to find a way of writing about what we do and who we are and the issues we are concerned about as a writing centre team that allowed us to connect to readers and interested people more immediately and more informally. I also wanted the tutors to begin to write some of the posts and find a less daunting way of thinking about some of the aspects of their work with students and as writers, and share these thoughts in this informal space.

Academic publishing is a tough field. In South Africa we are encouraged to publish in accredited journals, and many of these have high rejection rates and it can take more than a year for your work to appear in print. Many of these journals make papers available only to those with subscriptions, so your work is not available openly to all who may want to read it, for free. Writing for these journals and at this level is also challenging, takes time, needs to conform in specific ways more often than not, and is not always enjoyable, especially when a paper you hoped you were done with comes back with reviewers’ reports requesting significant rethinking, revising and rewriting in order to be publishable!

I love blogging for these reasons. It’s online, it’s free to read and anyone can sign up to follow your blog and read and think about what you have to say. There is a sense of a more immediate community in some ways, as people ‘like’ posts and can comment on them quite informally, and that is always encouraging. I don’t have to reference, and find lots of evidence for all the claims I make. I can wonder, conjecture, provoke and think in this space, and just leave questions out there without immediate answers. I don’t write just any old thing and I do think about what I want to say and the relevance it may have for readers interested in writing and academic literacy in education – as an academic it all comes from spaces in my head and work-life that have theory and thinking within and behind them. But this space feels freer than my other academic writing, and it takes less time to do. I can adopt a more relaxed and even humorous tone, and I can play with words and phrases in ways that academic publishing does not often allow.

I enjoy blogging because I enjoy being free to write without second-guessing what I write, and because it gives me a space in which to form ideas and think about things I am not quite ready to research and write full journal articles about. I gives me, and hopefully also my tutoring colleagues, a place to write about ideas we may never write formal articles about but which are still interesting to us, and hopefully others, and which should be put out there, perhaps for others to take up and carry further. Many academics ask students to blog now as part of ongoing assessment, as a way to get them to think about and reflect on what they are learning – not necessarily for lots of marks, but definitely for lots of learning. As a form of low stakes and formative assessment, I think blogs are an excellent teaching, learning and writing tool. And they make writing fun, which for students ( and academics) is always a good thing :).

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 :-).