Last week I attended a conference about writing skills for graduate students. It was extremely helpful to hear so much common sense, including ‘let people read what you are writing’, I’ve neglected my blog this term, with several half-finished posts lurking on computer stickies and being put off in favour of apparently more urgent tasks. Yet I don’t seem to have finished many of them either! So this post is about points from the conference that I’m trying to apply to my writing work. Perhaps I’ll manage to blog more often, too.
1) START WRITING. Which doesn’t necessarily mean ‘start at the beginning’. Write down what you know already, or what you want to know. And it doesn’t have to be a word document: PowerPoint, post-its, flowery notebooks…whatever works for you. Unfortunately, going shopping for beautiful stationery does not actually count as writing.
2) KEEP WRITING. As one presenter observed, the best dissertations are those that get completed. Too often, I decide on a topic, write a couple of paragraphs – then spend three weeks reading, making notes, and generally getting my head round things. This is followed by a panic because the deadline is tomorrow and I still only have that initial couple of paragraphs. The conference reminded me that it’s important to differentiate between note-taking, or other writing for your own benefit, and writing that is meant to be read. I’m aiming to do more of the latter, earlier on in each assignment.
3) BUT DO WRITE FOR YOURSELF. Have sessions where you ban use of the delete key. It helps to break the cycle of never having anything to show for your time spent working. Since the conference, I’ve started a daily journal as a separate document from other assignments and lists. I’m making notes about what I’ve read, written and discussed during each day, and noting questions to revisit at a later date. This exercise, writing freely and quickly, without paying much attention to phrasing, is very interesting and helps me to work out ideas more easily than when I’m battling with grammar and correct use of vocabulary. Additionally, if I’m tempted to delete a large section of an assignment, I move it into the journal document first – so there’s always something to show for the day’s work.
4) I’LL SHOW YOU MINE IF YOU SHOW ME YOURS. Several presenters emphasised the value in sharing your work regularly with others. I’d like to do this on a more regular basis, partly because such intermediate deadlines might mean I write further in advance of final deadlines, but also because suggestions given earlier on in a project are often easier to take calmly and apply productively than feedback just before a deadline. One presenter also recommended sharing work with readers from other disciplines, since feedback from non-specialist sources can be just as valuable as that from within the field. So, does anyone writing for a different purpose want to pair up?
5) READ WRITING. I was surprised by how much the conference presenters encouraged reading beyond one’s discipline. They recommended reflecting on reading of literature, non-fiction, journalism, etc, and considering why it is good or bad writing and how effectively it tells a story. They also emphasised the importance of re-reading your own writing and thinking about what is missing – not necessarily the same question as ‘what do I want to add?’
Writing this blog a week after the conference has helped me to recap some useful points. The journal is going well so far, but I really do need to stick more to intermediate deadlines and procrastinate less. If only Facebook conversations counted for academic credit…