And… that’s a WriteFest wrap!

It’s the 30th November. Which means that tomorrow it’ll be the 1st December. Which means that Academic Writing Month, aka WriteFest 2018, is done!

So what have we achieved

Well, this month, as a university, we’ve produced

  • 3 video shorts containing 9 writing tips
  • 9 book reviews on how to write books
  • 5 weeks of activities
  • 4 drop-in writing days
  • 4 writing workshops
  • 3 thesis bootcamp days
  • 3 writer’s retreats
  • Several other blog posts
  • 1 limerick (a bad one)
  • … and written 373,000 (approx) words.

(All sung to the tune of ‘On the first day of Christmas’)

It’s not just about the words, or the events though. Because what comes from writing is theses, and articles, and books, and grant proposals, and job applications, and these lead to PhDs, and grants, and publications on CVs, and jobs.

So, we have reason to be proud. And next year, we’ll try and do more.

Thanks for spending the month with us!

 

 

 

 

 

A complete change of perception…… Writing Science: How to write papers that get cited and proposals that get funded – by Joshua Schimel

(by Dr Emma L TurnerSenior Research Associate, Bristol Medical School – PHS)

I started reading this book as someone who dislikes the writing process, and to be honest I can be quite avoidant when undertaking writing.  It was therefore with some trepidation that I volunteered to do this review.  I fully committed, and decided I would carry out the practical exercises along the way in the hope of kick starting new habits and embracing this part of my academic career.

Joshua Schimel has a very clear conversational style of writing, and I found the book a pleasure to read.  It did however take me longer to read then I anticipated as I kept stopping to note down ideas and thoughts.  The change in perception I mention in the title of this review comes from the statement that “As a scientist you are a professional writer” – this concept is introduced in the first chapter of the book and certainly did give me pause.  Schimel also advocates that we study and develop writing as thoroughly as we develop our other research tools.  I decided it was time to stop my avoidant behaviour, I needed to develop and practice my writing.

The exercises spread throughout the book ask you to analyse published papers to consolidate the principles being described.  He also encourages getting together a writing group to allow you to review each other’s writing, as the second part of the exercises require you to write short articles.  I didn’t form a writing group but can see the benefits.

Throughout, the book focuses on the structure of writing: opening framing an interesting question; challenge presenting the research and results; action the discussion of what it means; and resolution the take home message.  Schimel wants us to embrace the story telling in scientific writing.  The best stories stick, and become papers that get cited or proposals that get funded.  We could even think of data as supporting actors in the story, with questions and the larger issues being addressed as the lead actors.

I suppose the highest praise I can give this book would be that I have decided to buy my own copy so I can refer to it again and again.  The final message from Schimel is to “learn to embrace the pain and enjoy the process” – I can’t say I am there yet, but it is still early days….and I do believe I am now on the road to becoming a scientist-writer.

Writers on writing, and their blogs

This month, we’ve published reviews on books on writing by a number of authors. We thought it would be useful to collect their blogs together into a handy reference list. So… here it is:

Margaret Atwood – OK, so she’s not really a writer on writing… more just a writer, but she did write “On writers and writing“, which Bradon reviewed for us, so she’s in the list. Her blog is interesting actually, as it gives an insight into the many and varied things that a writer does – and the way that she organises all of those around, and in addition to, her actually writing!

Paul Silvia‘s blog is… um, nothing to do with writing. He tells us on the ‘about’ page that he’s a college professor, and writer, but that in his spare time, he adjusts watches. And that’s what his blog is about: adjusting vintage watches. I actually kind of like the surprise of this, I think because it challenges our vision of a typical academic who lives, breathes and eats their work. Paul is just a normal person who… adjusts vintage watches.

Joli Jensen is an academic who writes about writing. And country music.

I can’t find a blog for Rowena Murray (perhaps she spends so much time writing for publication that she doesn’t blog… worth a thought!?), but her writing retreat pages are at http://www.anchorage-education.co.uk and she points people to the Research Whisperer’s blog for material on postdoctoral writing.

Pat Thomson‘s blog contains information on her academic work as well as guidance on writing. For an angle into writing content, use the ‘academic writing’ category link, or click here (where I’ve done it for you).

Helen Sword doesn’t really have a blog, but she does have a site. I did also find this blog by her, but it seems to have not been updated for a couple of years.

Finally… Joshua Shimel‘s blog is, in his own words, a “space to follow up on thoughts and topics that didn’t make it into Writing Science.” It’s a heady mix of writing guidance, and general opinions on the state of Science writing, and the state of US Higher Education in his field.

 

Things my PhD taught me about how I write best

It’s interesting that we’re never really taught to write. We even consider our PhDs (the biggest bit of writing that many of us ever actually do) about the topic we study, and not about writing itself.

So, here are some things that my PhD taught me about how I write best.

I write best, slowly, trusting a small daily target to add up over time.  

I don’t write quickly. I need to get things right – or as right as I can – before I’m happy with them. If I write too much, and go too ‘sh*tty first drafts‘ then I take so long to do anything with that material that I might as well start again. (more…)

On Writers and Writing – by Margaret Atwood

 

(by Dr Bradon SmithSenior Research Associate, School of Education)

Why write?

Why do writers write? And what is writing anyway? These are the central questions in Margaret Atwood’s volume of six essays On Writers and Writing, which mixes autobiographical musings with a wide-ranging scholarship on some of the universal themes taken up by writers.

Atwood considers the idea of the writer, and how writers perceive themselves; she discusses the many ways in which writer are interested in doubles, and are themselves somehow their own doppelgänger; she explores the relationship between art and money, and the social responsibility of the writer. She asks, ‘for whom does the writer write?’ and looks at the three-way relationship between the writer, the text, and the reader; and, finally, she delves into the Underworld, and the idea that all writing is, in some way, motivated by a fascination with mortality.

Atwood draws on a dazzling array of examples to illustrate her themes, and the bibliography would make a fascinating reading list. But her writing is eminently readable, quirky, even conversational: “You may find the subject a little peculiar. It is a little peculiar. Writing itself is a little peculiar”. Perhaps this is because these essays started life as lectures (given in Cambridge in 2000); but writing, as Atwood notes, has an apparent permanence – unlike a dance recital (or a lecture) it ‘survives its own performance’.

This erudite, but often light-hearted book won’t help you become a (better) writer, or not at least in any direct way.  But it does give rise to some interesting questions for academic writers. Atwood, for example, discusses the difference between a writer, and someone who merely writes. Since anyone can write, what makes a writer? Atwood replies with a macabre metaphor: everyone can dig a hole in a cemetery, but not everyone is a grave digger. For a start, the profession of grave-digger requires stamina and persistence. But the comparison also evokes the character in Hamlet: the grave-digger is a ‘deeply symbolic role’, carrying expectations, fears and superstition. So too with the public role of the writer.

In an amusing list spanning three pages of the Introduction, Atwood lists the reasons for writing given by writers, from the highfalutin (‘To serve Art’) to the bathetic (‘Because I hated the idea of having a job’). So, why do we as academics write? Hopefully, it is to shed light on something. Perhaps here is the common ground with the Writer (capital W). As Atwood says, “writing has to do with darkness, and a desire or perhaps a compulsion to enter it, and, with luck, to illuminate it, and to bring something back out to the light”.

Writing Science: How to write papers that get cited and proposals that get funded – by Joshua Schimel

(by Dr Shibabrat NaikResearch Associate, School of Mathematics)

To an early career researcher, a well composed scientific article certainly seems like one of those things where “you know it when you see it done” rings true. Joshua Schimel’s Writing Science demystifies this for the uninitiated by presenting actionable steps and breaking down the essential elements of a written scientific communication: maintaining structure and flow in the article, making an idea sticky, knowing the target audience, balancing jargon and technical terms. These steps and elements are illustrated using examples of texts on which appropriate corrective measures are taken which along with exercise problems make Writing Science a standout as a book on writing advice.

Very much like storytelling, the author emphasizes, a compelling scientific narrative’s lead actor is the research question where supporting role is played by the data, and the theme is the phenomena/mechanism under investigation. Schimel points out that the aim of a science writer is to go, and take the reader, from data to information to knowledge to understanding by listening to the data, while also paying close attention to the outliers and limitations of the methodology. In this sense, writing and doing science are complimentary acts, and rarely can deep thinking emerge without clear writing. I have come to see this in my own articles where arguments become crisper as I revise the prose. Of key importance is the author’s emphasis on revision, what he calls “prune the big limbs and then shake the dead leaves” approach, in going from the first draft to the submitted manuscript. Indeed, this happens in multiple rounds of back and forth changes in structure, content, flow, and language. To this end, the author points out, via corrections of example texts, what the revision process looks like.

Schimel goes further to unravel the practices that make an article page turner by keeping the audience engaged. This can be achieved by creating flow of concepts and logic, using active voice where possible, adopting action verbs, avoiding conversion of verb oradjective to noun. I would like to add here that a scientific communication benefits from careful graphics designed to aid the story, be it schematics that elucidate definitions or figures of main results that are intimately annotated and labelled. This is indeed captured in Joseph Pulitzer’s words in the opening of book’s chapter 20. I hope future editions include discussions on well composed graphics as an essential element of writing science.

A Tuesday limerick

Since writing comes in all shapes and sizes, here’s a limerick for a WriteFest Tuesday:

There once was a male academic
For whom writing was a bit of a gimmick
When at last he was fired
He claimed he’d retired
But his victory was somewhat pyrrhic

(OK, it’s not very good, but you try find something to rhyme with ‘academic’!)

 

 

Writing for peer reviewed journals: Strategies for getting published – by Pat Thomson and Barbara Kamler

(by Sérgio Waitman, Research AssociateDepartment of Aerospace Engineering)

As I was midway through the book by Pat Thomson and Barbara Kamler, it occurred to me that the choice of the subtitle “Strategies for getting published” might seem a bit misleading. Indeed, as the authors themselves emphasize throughout the text, the objective of the book is not to provide a set of writing guidelines with dos and don’ts and article recipes. Instead, they focus on more conceptual notions about the development of the writer identity and how the text should be seen as part of a conversation among members of a particular scientific community.

The book is mostly aimed towards PhD candidates and early career researchers. The first chapters are of particular interest, as they help inexperienced writers to understand the importance of locating their argument within the body of literature of a given journal as well as that of the scientific community in which it exists. The focus is then not on how to write a good report of results, but on how to put forward an argument that fills in a previously identified gap of knowledge.  The author is encouraged to present its paper as another brick in the ever growing research wall, building on previous results and theory, but with a distinctive new take that will allow the wall to keep going up.

The last chapters are more directly related to the writing work per se and provide some good insights into how to put all this in the paper, as well as how to deal with co-authoring duties and feedback from peer review.

My only criticism of the book is its insistent reliance on examples from the field of Education. Even though it is understandable, given the background of both authors and their active research in this area, I would have expected more variability, especially with the extensive experience of the authors in ministering writing workshops around the world. Even though most of what is being said should remain valid and helpful for the majority of academic researchers, it is sometimes hard to appreciate how some of the arguments would be translated to the specificities of different subjects. Nonetheless, I would recommend this book to anyone starting their academic career and struggling to find their voice in the scientific discussion.

Daily Routines of Creative People

When we’re talking about writing, we often suggest that a regular routine is best. That routine doesn’t, however, have to be one that fits into a neat 9-5 day. As the following examples show, the routines adopted by some of history’s most creative people, vary widely.

Visualisation of creative routines

Some are more 9-5… Maya Angelou worked regularly from 7 a.m. to about 3 p.m., and then took a break, doing about a half hour’s more work at 7.30 p.m.

Some, though, are very different. Honoré de Balzac, for example, did most of his creative work between 1 a.m. and 8 a.m., had an hour’s snooze, and then worked again from 9 a.m. until about half past three in the afternoon.

Charles Dickens worked only in the morning, spending the afternoon tramping for miles around London and in the countryside soaking up the atmosphere that he then wrote into his prose.

Voltaire, on the other hand, appears to have done little else but work, sleeping only 4 hours a night, and pausing only briefly to eat.

And in terms of working environment, they differ too. While Dickens wrote in absolute silence in his study, Angelou wrote only in hotel rooms. John Milton was blind by the age of 40, and so dictated his work. W. H. Auden (and this is one that, even as much as we encourage productivity and focus, we probably wouldn’t recommend) took a daily dose of Benzedrine to aid his concentration.

Visualisation of daily routines

What’s your routine? And your own working practice?

(note – Due to copyright restrictions, these images are screengrabs. But various versions of these have proliferated online, so you’ll find alternative, or better quality versions by simply searching for ‘Daily Routines of Creative People’). 

 

 

Write no matter what – by Joli Jensen

(by Dr Anupratap TomarResearch Associate, School of Physiology, Pharmacology & Neuroscience)

Academic writing is stressful and can be frustrating especially in todays’ ‘publish or perish’ environment. Scholars often multitask, i.e., they research, teach, interact with students, and perform other academic duties, all while vying to publish their work.

If you are an overwhelmed academic suffering from writing blues, then “write no matter what”, by Prof. Joli Jensen is a book for you.  Jensen possesses over 30 years’ experience as a scholar and heads the faculty writing program at the University of Tulsa, United States.

This book deconstructs the psychology behind delays and procrastinations often ‘suffered’ by academics and provides useful practical solutions. While it demystifies the “how”, this book does not delve into “what” to write in scholarly publications.

The book is written in a conversational style using convincing and easy-to-follow language. The coherent arrangement of five sections into short (approx. 4-6 pages) well-structured chapters. The descriptive titles allow readers to identify specific sections/chapters in case they don’t intend to read the whole book.

Jensen has a knack for identifying toxic thought patterns that frequently mar academic writing and debunks the various myths underlying them. She emphasizes that we should avoid must-know-everything attitudes and advocates for acquiring a “craftsmen” approach i.e. learning and improving from every experience throughout life. Indeed, such advice can be applied to many other aspects of scholarly life.

A key message that I found compelling was about prioritizing projects using a front-burner/back-burner system. The suggestion is that when our main (front-burner) project is becoming overwhelming or we are stalled and frustrated, we should take a small break and collect material for our other (back-burner) project. This approach will likely ensure that we feel productive even while experiencing writer’s block.

In the last section, this book advises creating “faculty writing groups” where members find a supportive and motivating environment – which, according to Jensen, is lacking in current university setups. Such writing groups are a fantastic idea. Though Jensen clearly discourages egoistic attitudes, I am slightly sceptical that this will be a very successful forum at those universities where multiple faculty members may be vying for a few promotion spots.

There were a couple of typos, but they can be ignored since this book is a treasure trove of good advice. Overall, I found the book very useful and recommend that you grab a copy if you are stalled in your writing or seeking inspiration for productive writing under minimal stress.

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