Online Writers’ Retreats… what you do when you can’t meet up!

If you search the Internet for writing retreats, you’ll find all kind of images that involve groups of people sat, with laptops, around a table… like this:

group of writers around a table, each with their own laptop

There’s a very good reason for this. When Rowena Murray did her initial work on structured retreats back in 2009, she found that key to success was the ‘doing together’ that comes from all being in the same place at the same time.

Writers on our retreats have told us the same.

“It helps me push through, when I get stuck and I might get distracted and give up, being with others who are also writing means I don’t stop… I keep trying, and eventually I work out how to get past the problem and I can move on.”

What do you do, then, when – like now – you can’t be in the same room? (more…)

Bristol Clear – we’re here if you need to talk

With all that is going on at the moment, we realise that many of you may be finding the situation challenging. Working in unfamiliar ways, and in unfamiliar environments, you may be struggling to know how to do your job, how to structure your time, and how to access the support that would normally be in place from colleagues and the university. More importantly, you might be dealing with new worries – about loved ones and how they are coping, or about your own health and work both now, and in the future.

There is no clear end to the current situation. And so, to support you, we’ve made some changes to our existing provision to make it more accessible to you. We’ve also added some additional provision that is specifically there to support you through the next few months.

Please read on to find out how our support will change, and what more we’re offering.

Training

Our face to face training and workshops will be moving online where possible. We’re currently talking with our training-providers about how we’re going to do this, when, and what form their training will take.

If you are booked onto a workshop or retreat, we will be in touch with you directly when we know more.

Writers’ retreats

All physical writers’ retreats will be moved online. We’re exploring technology that will not only allow us to preserve the peer support of being ‘in the room’ but will also open participation up to a wider audience (including those on the waiting list!). We’ll be able to use this experience to enhance the retreats when we are able to return to normal.

If you’re booked onto a writers’ retreat, we’ll be in touch with a ‘how to’ guide shortly.

1:1s

We can no longer offer face to face career-focused 1:1s. However, anyone who has one booked or who is on the waiting list will be contacted to be told how we will run all of these remotely.

In addition, we are setting up regular, weekly, virtual 1:1 chats for you to talk with someone about how you are finding the current situation. So, if you are struggling with working from home, managing or structuring your day or maintaining your motivation for example, you can talk to us. These can be used for any topic: professional or personal, and are bookable through: https://calendly.com/bristol-clear-1-1-chats/1-1-chats.

Please note, if you are fortunate to have a strong support network, please allow others to take priority so that we can reach those most in need, most quickly.

Mentoring

The Bristol Clear Mentoring scheme continues, but moves online.

All of those who signed up for the current cycle will be hearing shortly who their mentor/mentee will be, and will also receive information about how to set up a virtual meeting.

The Bristol Clear blog

Over the next few weeks, we’ll be using this space to support you to make the most of remote working by looking at how you can structure your time, write effectively at home, protect your well-being (particularly in this period of ‘waiting’), and use social media to stay connected with others and make your work more visible.

We’ll also use this blog to point to other sources of online training.

Bristol Clear emails

We’ll be mainly using email to send out updates, and signpost additional sources of information and support, so – if you are filtering – please keep emails from bristol-clear@bristol.ac.uk out of SPAM. We will temporarily pause sending out the Bristol Clear Bulletin and instead will send individual timely emails with key information about new initiatives, support and opportunities.

Twitter

You can also follow us on Twitter, @UoB_Researchers.

 

The publication pipeline

hat someHow did that submission go? Did you get it accepted?

Yes, all in – reviews done. Now I’m at the foot of Everest again.

The foot of Everest?

Yes… I’ve not really got any writing in progress, so I’m starting again from scratch.

The first time I published, it felt like that. The process was very one-directional. I wrote, I submitted it, I dealt with the reviews, I resubmitted, it was published.

Because it was so single-minded, it was relatively easy. I just did what I needed to do, and then waited for instructions from the editor. But it also took a long time. From initial idea to print, the process was on and off, and lasted a full 2.5 years.

Both of those things – the ease, and the time – aren’t a problem if you’re starting out as an academic. But they become more problematic if you need to be publishing more often. A more recent journal article took me and a co-author nearly 5 years from conception to print.

Adding the time for the first and second publications together, that’s two publications in 7.5 years. That’s waaaay too slow for any kind of academic CV.  (more…)

Writing and publishing: strategies from/for non-native speakers

By lucky coincidence, most of the Bristol Clear writers’ retreats this year are being run in a large, well-lit room in Bristol’s ‘Centre for Academic Language and Development’. The CALD is a unit dedicated to supporting (particularly overseas) students with their English. As you walk through the main doors of the Centre, you can’t help but notice the banners, celebrating a quote by Pierre Bourdieu, which says

Academic language… is nobody’s mother tongue.

Bourdieu is right, academic language isn’t anyone’s mother tongue.

And for many of those who come on writing retreats, neither is English. And yet they are expected to not only write and publish in academic language, but in the academic form of English.

A non-native form, of a non-native tongue.

How are they doing this?

This is something that I’ve been asking those who attend retreats. I’ve also been looking in the literature to find out what others do. There appear to be four main approaches.

Write with a native

Probably the most common way that those who aren’t native speakers of English produce publication-ready material is by co-writing with native speakers (who lend their eye to all of the writing at all stages).

As a strategy, this is hugely effective, particularly at early career stage when there are potentially, naturally, multiple authors involved in a publication. But it can also carry risk, particularly if any kind of tension over the ‘authoring’ breaks out – e.g. where author ‘order’ becomes less an issue of who contributed most to the thinking, and more about who wrote more ‘words’. This can get worse when, in the mind of the authors, they begin to associate words with expertise. One writer describes the problems that arose when native English speakers in a mixed language group started to act as if they were more ‘expert’ in the research topic, simply because their English was ‘better’.

“at one point [it] caused me to go off and publish some academic articles in [my own language] just to prove that I’m better than them at something” (Sword 2017: 96).

That doesn’t mean you should avoid writing with native English speakers – It can work brilliantly, and even the difficult moments make it a perfect opportunity to practise negotiation and collaborative working (both of which are key professional skills). But it does mean being aware of the potential for tension early on, and taking steps to resolve it through a planned and professional approach, rather than assuming that ‘things will just work out OK’.

Ask a native to proof (or better still, mentor) your work

After writing with a native speaker, the next most frequent approach is to find a colleague who is prepared to proofread and/or correct a draft that you have written.

This can be very effective. Although it does rely on a (sometimes fragile) quid pro quo. Even though many fields have strong non-English literatures, in most the need to write in English massively outstrips the need to go in the other direction. Rather than a balance, then, the ‘proofing’ approach can end up relying on the generosity of a colleague, who may not receive the same degree of support back from you if they don’t need to publish in your language.

There are ways around this. Helen Sword suggests, in her book ‘Air & Light & Time & Space’ that you can establish a balance in the relationship by ‘giving back’ something: conversational language support in your native tongue, or cooking lessons. If you can’t do that, then you can at least offer constructive critical feedback on their work if they need it.

Alternatively, you might try to move away from the ‘ad hoc’, and establish a more stable relationship with a ‘language mentor’ – someone who will regularly work with you, reading what you write, to identify consistent language issues that you can then correct.

Language mentoring has the advantage that, because it systematically works on reoccurring weak points in your language, over time your English improves.

Professional proofing

An alternative approach, and one that doesn’t rely on colleagues, is to get proofing done by a professional. This can be useful, particularly if you are writing for an unfamiliar audience and need to ensure that not only the language, but the content lands as you want.

However, the expertise of editors can, on occasion, collide with the aims of the writer. I work in a field (Deaf Studies) where a capital letter can mean the difference between affirming someone’s identity as the member of a cultural and linguistic group (Deaf), or defining them as disabled (deaf). I have had editors assume that my capitalisation was in error, and remove it all – a mistake that then required hours of careful re-editing to put it all back in.

Besides which, professional proofing is expensive, and although it’s now required by some journals for articles from non-native speakers, I’m not aware of any publishers (or indeed any universities) who will pay for it.

Take a chance

The final approach is where you don’t get any native speaker support, but simply write and submit, and see what happens.

This is a gamble that can pay off… Researchers I spoke to have seen this work – but only where their English has been almost perfect, and where they happen to have landed a reviewer who has had time (and a generous spirit) enough to offer corrections, or on an editor who has seen the individuality of the writer’s style as something to be valued, rather than smoothed out.

The general rule of thumb, though, when presenting a manuscript for publication is to make it as perfect as possible. Editors and reviewers are just as tired and overworked as everyone else, and the last thing they want to do is wrestle with a script that is peppered with problems, or is unclear.

In that case, the gamble can fail – spectacularly.

I’ve known some very good articles be rejected and then really struggle to find a home, simply because in their first submitted form, they looked like the writer ‘hadn’t bothered’.

And finally… to all those native speakers out there.

All of the academics that I spoke to, and much of the literature, suggests that the better your English gets, the less you have to rely on any of these strategies, and the more you can simply write and submit under the ‘take a chance’ approach with a good expectation of success.

But as (again) Helen Sword suggests, that takes time.

Learning to write sophisticated academic English… Like any other artisanal skill, the art of communicating fluently and elegantly… requires, at the top end of achievement, thousands of hours of practice – and there are no shortcuts.

No shortcuts means that, in addition to their academic skills, non-native users of English spend thousands of hours honing a skill that most English-world academics have picked up, probably without ever being aware of it.

So here’s a thought for all those academics out there who are native speakers… consider how lucky you are, and be generous with it.

Whether as a co-author, an ad-hoc proofer, a mentor, a willing reviewer or editor, or simply as a colleague, ask what you can do to support your colleagues to succeed.

 

Structured writers’ retreats – things we learned during WriteFest

Across UK Higher Education, the month of November was ‘WriteFest’, a month for writing.

As part of our WriteFest provision, we ran four writing retreats, one a week. They’re structured days, set up specifically to allow academics to write, without the distractions of their daily work.

The retreat structure has always encouraged productive writing. But – with a whole month to play with – I was keen to examine the retreats themselves, and to identify and adapt anything that would make them even ‘better’ – to make the environment as conducive as possible to writing.

Now, at the end of the month, here are some things that we’ve learned, and changed.

(more…)

The case for structured writing retreats

If you’ve ever been to a writing retreat at the UoB, you’ll have heard us explain why we structure it as we do.

If you’ve not, then you might wonder why we run them in such a structured way.

The structure might even have put you off.

This post will explain some of why we shape our retreats like that – and what the potential benefits are.

*spoiler alert* – they’re not just about how many words you write!

(more…)

Dealing with writing-related anxiety

Different writers enjoy diverse parts of the writing process but all writers experience writing-related anxiety at some point in their writing lives. Whether you are worried you haven’t found that one bit of evidence that disproves your theory, or you feel like you can’t communicate your ideas well, or that, today, you simply have no ideas to communicate, it is a normal part of the writing process. Some days, writing will be slow. Often, these are the days when you are creating something exciting and complicated – relax and remember that you are doing something difficult and that can take time. Other days, you will simply feel tired and disheartened. Either way, here are a couple of techniques that can help you feel calmer about your writing:

Planning your day

It can be difficult to start your writing day, to dirty that clean white page with your unformed thoughts. This can cause anxiety, making it feel impossible to start. Planning carefully and setting goals for a writing day can help with these feelings. Think about how much writing time you have today (remember to allow long breaks and a good lunch) and then divide your day up between your tasks. Look at the overall plan for the piece you are working on a select a few sections to work on today. Write them separately so you aren’t distracted by the big picture. Be realistic. For example:

9.15-9.30am                Set goals for the day. Do a quick writing warm up.

9.30-10.45 am             Finish overview on chicken’s eating habits

10.45-11.15am            Break

11.15-12.45pm            Write section on beaks

12.45-1.45pm              Lunch

1.45-3.15pm                Write section on grains

3.15-3.45pm                Break

3.45-5.00pm                Re-read today’s writing and do a quick edit then plan for your next writing session

Just having a structure to work to, and a plan for the day, can make the work seem more manageable. The more you plan like this, the more realistic you become, and the less you punish yourself for not achieving unrealistic goals.

Ask yourself some key questions using Who, What, Where, Why, When and What

Sometimes it can be useful to go back to basics. Anxiety can be caused by a fear of missing something important. Doing an exercise like this can help you marshal your thoughts. For example, this is one of mine for an article on drinking in Wuthering Heights:

Who is Hindley?

What is habitual drunkenness?

Where does the action take place?

Why is drinking important to this novel?

When is it set?

What does Emily’s attention to Domestic Medicine reveal about Hindley’s drinking?

It only took 10 minutes to write these questions and reflect on some possible answers but it helped me remember the key things I needed to include and helped me to remind myself why my research was important/useful/different.

If you aren’t sure how to do this, try using Brown’s 8 questions:

  1. Who are intended readers? (3-5 names)
  2. What did you do? (50 words)
  3. Why did you do it? (50 words)
  4. What happened? (50 words)
  5. What do results mean in theory? (50 words)
  6. What do results mean in practice? (50 words)
  7. What is the key benefit for readers (25 words)
  8. What remains unresolved? (no word limit)

Reflect positively on the work you have done so far by creating a reverse outline

This is particularly effective in the editing stages. Without editing your text (sit on your hands if necessary), read through your work so far and write a reverse outline.[1] This means writing a couple of words, or a couple of sentences, beside each paragraph summing up what that paragraph does.

As well as being a reassuring exercise to remind you how much work you have already done, this ‘reverse outline’ can be a useful tool to see whether each paragraph is working and whether your overall argument is scanning properly. For example, this is the introduction to a comparative piece on Dickens and Eliot:

Introduction

  1. Teaser
  2. Overview of Hard Times
  3. Overview of ‘Janet’s Rep’
  4. Divorce and publication dates
  5. Janet as new form of female alcoholic
  6. Add more signposting?
  7. Conclusion

At a glance, I can see which bits are working, whether the reader is getting the information in the right order, and flag up which bits still need significant editing (final signposting in this case).

Rest properly

Make sure you rest regularly through the writing day and find things that help you to relax after a day of writing. It doesn’t matter whether that is a walk in the park, some sweating at the gym, a long bath, or something cheesy on Netflix, take the time you need to re-boot and get ready for tomorrow. But remember to reflect after a rest – did your ‘go to’ relaxation actually help you to relax? If not, try something new. I recommend yoga with Adriene (its free, you can do it anywhere, and its great for body and mind).

Happy writing!

[1] My thanks to Louise Benson James for introducing me to this valuable technique.

 

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…)

Subscribe By Email

Get every new post delivered right to your inbox.

This form is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.