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.

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.

Writing for academic journals – by Rowena Murray

(by Dr Alice Baillie, Research AssociateSchool of Biological Sciences)

‘Writing for academic journals’ presents sound advice in an easy-to-read format for those looking to improve the quality and quantity of their academic publications. I imagine that this book would be of greatest benefit to those who struggle for the motivation or confidence to write, and particularly for those with no prior experience of publishing. Having co-authored a few papers, and naturally enjoying writing, I found much of the advice familiar and affirming rather than revolutionary. Nonetheless, I gleaned some useful tips which I intend to put into practice in my ongoing writing.

The cover of this third edition proudly claims to help you ‘get to grips with using social media’. I felt that this was a bit of an overstatement, with a mere two pages devoted to a brief and rather theoretical discussion of this topic. Aside from that, the book is true to its promise of offering practical approaches to help you to make time for writing and to write productively for publication. I thought that the chapter entitled ‘Responding to reviewers’ feedback’ was particularly good and a bit of a must-read for anyone going it alone with their first publication or two. The chapter on targeting your writing to your chosen journal would, I think, also be particularly useful to newcomers to the world of publication.

While some of the approaches suggested might not suit everyone, I think that the vast majority of ideas in this book could be useful to more-or-less all academic writers, even if they don’t initially like the sound of some of them! Murray is a particular advocate of regular writing, even if much of the output is not directly destined for a draft. This may strike some as a waste of time when writing time often seems at such a premium, but I suspect that taking an open-minded approach to such advice could help all writers to establish productive habits.

My overall verdict: a useful read for any writer or would-be-writer, and especially for those just starting out trying to publish their work.

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

(by Dr Charlotte Lloyd, Postdoctoral Research AssociateSchool of Chemistry)

If you are looking for an easy to read guide to science writing, then this could be the book you have been waiting for. I have started reading many a book about how to improve your scientific writing, how to design robust science experiments etc etc, however usually I only manage to wade through the first couple of chapters before I give up and decide I shouldn’t waste any more precious time and just get on with the work in question! This book however was different. It was incredibly easy to read, and I comfortably made it through the 206 pages in a few sittings (actually, the times while my baby was napping during a week’s canal boating holiday!).  While I think this book is useful and the advice would hold for writing across different disciplines, I think it is extremely useful for anyone who is involved in science research, particularly the environmental sciences.  The author provides numerous examples in each section to really bring the advice to life and uses extracts from actual science writing, whether it be journal papers or grant proposals, explaining why the text does a good or bad job, and importantly in the case of the latter, how the piece could be improved. This technique for teaching I found extremely useful and allowed me to reflect on my own and colleagues writing and as a result enabled me to rapidly provide constructive suggestions to improve text I have been involved with writing.

The book has a logical structure (perhaps the very least you might expect given the subject matter of the book!!), beginning with the fundamentals of how to tell your story and what makes a story compelling, before focusing in on individual aspects of the writing itself. The author covers the designing of the structure of a piece, how to plan paragraphs and even how to think about each individual sentence and making sure each and every line of text plays an integral role – this is invaluable when writing something like a grant proposal where tight space restrictions often apply. The chapters of the book are to a certain extent self-contained, so it is very easy to dip in and out of the book to gain advice about a specific aspect of writing you may be struggling with. For anybody who finds writing a challenge or feels daunted by the prospect of editing and refining their work, I would highly recommend reading this book. It has made writing a much more enjoyable experience for me, and this is fundamental because as the author points out, as research scientists we are in fact professional writers!

Air & Light & Time & Space – How successful academics write, by Helen Sword

Front cover of book

Time & Space & People & YouTube

(by Elisabeth Meyer, Senior Research Associate, School of Physiology, Pharmacology & Neuroscience)

What makes academic writing challenging? Helen Sword captures a multitude of answers to that question from real-life scientists in her book ‘Air & Light & Time & Space’. She interviewed well-established academics in their field as well as grad students, post-docs and early career researchers to present a book in which scientists are given the chance to describe their strategies, their coping mechanisms and their motivations when writing. The sheer amount of individual experiences makes this book a multi-faceted reservoir of ideas and inspiration for the aspiring writer.

The first two parts of the book deal with rather classic writing advice, such as how to find the ever-elusive time to write, or to pick up a book about English grammar now and again. While these sections can hardly be expected to yield any novel insight, I nevertheless appreciated to read that instead of desperately trying to bash out 1000 words before the sun comes up, I’m being encouraged to find my own way of staying motivated and productive. Suggestions range from simply listening to music or watching penguins on YouTube (adorable) to engaging with fellow academics and/or writers in order to build up a solid support structure of people who are willing to offer constructive criticism or even just a shoulder to cry on over a glass of wine.

The last part of the book is dedicated to the emotional side of writing: How does the writer deal with the inner editor, with critics or inevitable rejection?  Reading about established scientists receiving harsh rejections has put my personal experiences with reviewers in perspective. Additionally, she quite rightly calls out the serious lack of formal writing training for academics, since writing advice currently is mainly offered by mentors or colleagues volunteering their time and expertise.

Helen Sword has produced a very useful book jam-packed with inspiring stories about successful academic writers and their habits. And while no book will unlock a magic strategy that will suddenly make beautiful words effortlessly flow from the academics’ fingertips, this one might just give you the right idea about how to bring time and space and people (and maybe YouTube) back into your academic life to kickstart your writing project!

How to Write a Lot – a practical guide to productive academic writing, by Paul J. Silvia.

Image of book cover

In “How to Write a Lot”, the author, Paul J. Silvia, proclaims the message that “productive writers don’t have special gifts or special traits – they just spend more time writing and use this time more efficiently”. In academia, it’s very easy to find excuses as to why you’re not writing enough (and I’ll be the first to admit I’m guilty of many of these): there isn’t enough time, there’s more analysis required first, that surely tomorrow you’ll find the motivation needed to create your very best writing. Silvia begins this book by breaking down these “specious barriers” that hold us back. His arguments are convincing, and quickly unravel the flawed logic that creates such road blocks. Instead, he claims, the secret to success is forming a regular writing schedule and sticking to it. Simple? Sure. Too good to be true? Probably not. (more…)

Welcome to WriteFest

Calvin and Hobbes cartoon about the opacity of academic writing

What’s your relationship with writing? I mean, as an academic?

If you’re anything like me, it’s mixed.

Sometimes I think it’s the most amazing thing I can be doing. And I don’t just mean when it’s already in print and I’m looking back on it with the rose-tinted spectacles of post-publication euphoria… I mean there’s just something almost mystical about writing itself, when it flows, when it’s good, when it’s like a dance between me and the right words, working together to capture, and frame, and nuance, and pass on knowledge in just the right form. It’s an art form. It’s exquisite.

Sometimes, though, I hate it. I remember one month of writing (not that long ago) where, in an attempt to get things ‘just right’ I wrote and re-wrote the same first 500 words of an article, racking up a new version every day. This continued until I had 20 versions (10,000 words!), all of them slightly different, and all worse than what I’d written the first day. At month end, I deleted versions 2 to 20. And then I sat and cried.

As I said. Mixed. But, I think, talking to other academics, perhaps not completely untypical. And, given that writing forms a huge part of what we’re paid to do, a problem. A problem that, perhaps because we feel like we should already have it sorted, or because we can’t spare the time because we should be writing, we don’t often give ourselves permission to think about.

And so ‘WriteFest’.

WriteFest is a virtual festival, celebrated across a number of UK and international universities, that is all about writing. It’s a month in which to pull it apart, analyse it, reshape it, put it back together, test it, practise it, and celebrate it.

What could your writing look like, if you set aside a month to really think about, hone and celebrate your craft?

‘Taking time’ is part of the Bristol Clear vision, and so to support you we’re working with the Bristol Doctoral College to running a series of events, ranging from workshops on how to write regularly and productively, to opportunities to write, both formal and informal. And, most days, we’ll be publishing, through this blog and through Twitter, information on writing, reviews of books about writing, snapshots of writers’ habits, and any other material that we can find that we think will be useful.

Please don’t hesitate to get in touch with us if you have any ideas, questions, or suggestions.

We look forward to spending the month with you.