Notes from a writing workshop

The other day I went to a workshop, “Writing your thesis”, run by Dai Hounsell (a guru in assessment, my much respected colleague on our Online Assessment course, and, it turns out, a bit of a guru on writing too).  I thought it might be worth jotting down a few notes from the session.

Leave things mid-task.  This goes against every fiber of my being (things must be finished and wrapped neatly in a bow!) but Dai’s logic makes sense to me – having something unfinished means there’s something you can pick up fairly easily.  I realize I do this all the time when playing World of Warcraft – I stop before I report in, because the reporting in icon helps me find my way back to what I was doing.

Write first thing in the morning.  I have a terrible habit of doing email first thing in the morning and suddenly that morning becomes the whole day.  Prioritizing writing, particularly when it feels it isn’t going anywhere is hard.  Doing it first thing makes sense though – my mind’s probably a bit clearer – and like doing yoga first thing, I can then hold on to a bit of smugness all day that I’ve achieved something productive and just for me.

Writing is many things.  It’s analysis, it’s brainstorming, but it’s also lots of tasks like referencing, formatting, different forms of writing.

From Holyrood campus to main campusThere’s a difference between a novice and an expert.  An expert can come up with many possible solutions to a problem.  Dai’s example was navigating traffic.  If there’s bad weather, road works etc., an expert will know multiple routes.  This got me thinking: what’s the difference then between being an expert and a novice at writing?  It’s not just practice, it’s having explore the ‘geography’ of writing.  Just as I know multiple routes to walk home from having had times where I’ve gone exploring, unworried about destinations and times, I need to give myself opportunities to explore writing without fears or risks hovering over each writing task.

The perils of perfection.  My particular difficulty is that I feel I can’t write until I know exactly what I want to say.  But then, once I know what I want to say, I become bored with the topic and feel unmotivated to write.  I think also I fear not writing the perfect piece (as if such things existed).  For my particular issue Dai suggested:

  1. Signing up to as many opportunities to present on the topic as possible.  This forces me to articulate my ideas and gets me talking about them with others (rather than cogitating in solitary silence)
  2. Making an audio of what I’d want to say.  Step 1: make voice memo.  Step 2: write that up pretty much verbatim.  Step 3: edit.  (I’m tempted to add “profit” in as a step!)

What’s the point of a PhD?  It’s a little different from other forms of writing (like a journal article) and reason 3 shows why that is.

  1. Fill in a gap in knowledge.  A PhD needs to answer:  What is the gap?  Why is it there?  How have you tackled the gap? What did you find out? What does that tell us about the gap? (and here we reach full circle on “gapness”) 🙂
  2. A signification contribution to knowledge.  Dai warned those writing up to keep in mind that what this contribution is needs to be articulated.
  3. A demonstration of expertise in research and scholarship (e.g. showing technique in action)
Dissertation Festival

If you zoom in on the bottom left hand side,
you can see an example haiku from our Dissertation Festival.

Dai suggested having a few folders on our desktops.  Things like “my story”, “me, the performing seal” and “my contribution” to help us keep in mind what we are aiming for and for tracking how that changes over time.

“My story” struck me as very important, something I see my own students struggling with at times.  It’s about capturing the narrative of what you’re saying, the argument you are trying to make.  In our Dissertation Festival on the MSc in Digital Education, we get dissertation students to write  a haiku summarizing their topic.  It’s a handy tool for helping them remember what’s most important as they get bogged down in the details of writing up.

Know ALL the memes!

Know ALL the memes!

Likewise, Dai suggest the abstract can perform this function.  The abstract is something that should be written ALL the time.   It reminds you of what you’re doing, how your ideas are changing. (I can’t help but think of this wonderful blog post every time I see “ALL”.)

The conclusion, on the other hand, is something that could be written at the beginning of the research (this might sound familiar for those who go hunting for funding) or that goes through the drafting and redrafting process closer to the end.  Dai’s very handy point about conclusions was how you could use them to capture new work in the field not captured in your literature review  or better methodological choices you only came to post data generation (i.e. “knowing what I do now, this is what I’d do differently” or “Future research could take in account…”)

The introduction has two diametrically opposed purposes (this blew my mind, I kind of knew it, but I didn’t realize it until Dai articulated it):

  1. A dry, factual overview of what the thesis will do. E.g. “In chapter 1, I ….” with around 3 sentences on each chapters; and
  2. A possibly very personal  account of why you are doing this research.

Dai’s most important parting message for me was never leave yourself with blank pages, ensure you have something you can work on and be ok with varying your tasks and working on other things.

my hunterEverything these days is reminding me of World of Warcraft but this one particularly did.  I have multiple alts across multiple types of servers and I choose which one to play depending on what I am in the mood for and feel capable of doing.  Sometimes I am up for the challenge of dungeons in random groups, other times I want to quest alone without guild chatter or with guild chatter, sometimes I want to do profession/skill building, sometimes I feel like playing a particular class (I find hunters utterly calming but rogues super stressful).

And pushing the metaphor further, I realized different classes might just capture different PhD activities for me. The hunter seeks out resources, the shape shifting powers of the druid might capture the different forms of communication (presentations, meetings with supervisors), the slow cast of some mage spells is like reading, and a warrior is the rough and tough melee of trying to read critically.  Oh, and sometimes I need a paladin’s heal or maybe a priest’s absolution for the sin of procrastinating 🙂


About Clara O'Shea

I'm an Associate Lecturer at the University of Edinburgh. I teach on the MSc in Digital Education. I'm also doing a PhD on learning and becoming in collaborative digital environments.
This entry was posted in PhD Thoughts, Writing and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Notes from a writing workshop

  1. Gina says:

    great Thanks Clara, very apt as in the middle of the summer academic writing course, will post your link on the Mooodle.

  2. Their tutor certainly does! Thanks Clara; this reinforces lots of things I’m saying and provides other things too!

    • Clara O'Shea says:

      A pleasure! I’d be quite interested to hear what the Writing School students think – it’d be good to get some tips from other writers! 🙂

  3. Keith O'Hare says:

    I love the idea of the audio recording Clara, I do that regularly on my mobile phone for all sorts of ideas. Also the concept of an introduction as a ‘dry’ account, but also a personal ‘why’ you are writing; reminds me of ‘dry’ objectives of a meeting, or class, and then the more personal objectives you may have too.
    One big thing I learned early on in Christine’s course was that writing is about the audience, but it is also about the writer. It’s important to be balancing both, together with the message, in your mind.

    • Clara O'Shea says:

      Indeed! And, in a way, being “about the writer” is important to in helping the audience understand the subjectivities the writer is bringing with them to their materials. So, it’s of value to the audience as an aspect of their critical reading, as well as their engagement with the piece.

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