Making transitions when writing in new media

I have been procrastinating about some revisions I need to do recently on my own PhD thesis and also on a paper I have been writing with colleagues. One of the forms this procrastination has taken is looking back at some of the early posts on this blog. I was struck by how formal they are – so ‘academic’ in tone and style. The later posts are different, more humorous in some ways, and also more relaxed; more like what I now think blog posts on this kind of blog should be – conversation-starters or think-pieces there to stimulate discussion and thinking and conversation in a more relaxed or informal way. They should be engaging – of the writer and the reader, and be fun to write and read. Well, this is my opinion of them anyway.

But I got to thinking, ‘what changed? Between now and then, why did my style shift so?’ There is also a bigger question here about transitions writers make in their own processes of growth and learning, and how and why these transitions happen. We in writing centres are, I think, quite focused on these transitional moves, because part of our work is to enable them to take place and also to make student-writers more aware of the need for change and transition and growth and how to achieve this.

In my own blog-writing I think my learning has been quite tacit. As I got more comfortable with the blogsphere, and as I started subscribing to and reading other blogs, I started to learn about what I liked to read, what kinds of tones and styles were used in blogs that I identified as being like my own, and I began to play with this genre a little more boldly, although I didn’t try things out very consciously – rather I just began to write a little less formally, and with a little less planning and careful thought. I tried to just let the ideas come, and then edited and organised retrospectively. If I think back, I cannot pin-point this strategy or that which worked, although I could show you posts I liked writing more, and less, and probably the ones I liked more were funnier and more fun to write, and also more personal and about my own writing and how my learning is carried into my conversations with students and tutors. They felt more like the kinds of texts that tend to count as relevant or authentic in the blogspheres I think they fit into.

So, I suppose I have to ask myself, now, ‘what learning from this experience of changing my own writing style in my blog can I take into my tutoring of students and writing tutors?’ You may say that this is an easier space to play within than perhaps a university course where the assessment of the students’ writing is high stakes. After all, no one is marking my blog posts out of 100 or judging the posts to pass or fail against some preset criteria. However low-stakes this space may be in terms of the formal understandings of assessment of writing in higher education, it is not all that low-stakes for me. I am putting my ideas out into a very public space, sharing them with many people I cannot meet or see, who do not actually know me the way a lecturer might, or be able to give the benefit of any kind of doubt. This has made me feel quite vulnerable, and open to possible critique and misreading. While I know, as an academic, that critique is good if it can help me grow and learn, it is not always easy to hear. So each post feels a bit like an act of bravery, and each post is another step in my learning process about writing in this space, in this medium.

I think that each essay and assignment must feel to many students like an act of bravery, as they open their work and their selves expressed in their work up to critique and correction. Students also need to learn to write well in new media and new genres, and often the rules and conventions of these genres are not explained or opened up for discussion and deconstruction in lectures or tutorials. Many lecturers assume that students can work these rules and conventions out on their own, and struggle to see the tacit-ness of their own learning and growth as writers. If they could see this, as I can try to see my own tacit learning and growth, then they could start working with student writers from a place of empathy, because writing in new media and new voices is risky and does feel vulnerable, and support and feedback is needed. They could also begin, as I have tried to do with my tutors, to explain their own processes of learning, making the rules and conventions that govern what counts as the right tone or style or voice in these different media more explicit and easy to see, understand and also challenge where necessary.

Writing never stops being work, and even when we stay with one or two media we are comfortable with as writers we still need to make transitions and change and grow in order for our writing to remain engaging, current, relevant to our audiences. But it doesn’t always have to be painful, unpleasant work. I think that reflecting on our own journeys as writers, trying to pull out and explain our own transitions and what enabled them or made them happen could be a useful and creative starting place when we approach working with student writers who need our feedback and guidance.

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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! 🙂