Polished writing, and recurrent themes.

 

Two things crop up in mentoring sessions a lot. First, questions like ‘How do I make my writing sound more formal/professional?” Second, the length and wordiness of the weaker bits of writing. In academic writing too many words are worse than too few. On starting University, the gulf between written and spoken English grows, and once well-crafted essay now seems amateurish.

When asked for help refining writing- well, it’s a lifelong thing!  But there are few tricks that can be used. Tense, too, can make a great difference (‘tense can be making, too’ doesn’t sound as snappy). Much of this will fall into the final editing stage, which can feel more like a pruning session than anything else. Still, it’s often the little microskills that add an air of confidence and professionalism. It may be easier to categorize them…

Substituting words-Because/as, Lots of/many, this means that/hence, Even though/while, Keep/retain, But/yet, Says/states (affirms, suggests, argues…), you’ll  probably come up with far more as you think about them. Swapping a longer word with a shorter one, or an informal with a formal one, is an easy way to polish your work. Remember the word count, but also how long it will take to read your sentence. A syllable count will make a difference too!

Emotiveness-Another thing is to keep traces of emotion to a minimum. You may be writing a heartrending report on some appalling topics, but it is not so much about your feelings, as the reasons the reader should feel that way. I read an article in the Guardian which was basically about how much the writer hated the Thames Garden Bridge. I gave up caring what they thought long before the end of the article, being presented with so many laden words (despicable, chummy, gobbled ect…) and so few reasons to feel the same way as the journalist.

While essays allow more flexibility for personal opinion than reports, remember to present the information, order it so it supports what you believe, summarise what you feel should be taken from it- and let the reader form their own views.

Structure and order- ‘Many excellent blog posts have been published by the Study Skills Centre’ is not quite as strong as ‘The Study Skills Centre has published many excellent blog posts’. The first is an example of the ‘passive construction’, where a noun has something done to it. The second is the ‘active construction’- the subject does something in its own right. The blog posts were published- but the Study Skills Centre publishing them sounds more engaging.

Also-paragraph beginnings and ends. A common way of beginning a paragraph is to finish the previous one with a statement, then begin with a formulaic link word such as ‘ However’ or ‘Therefore’.  If each paragraph follows the same pattern it gives an under confident impression and a rather flat tone.

Try using a question or a quote. An element of uncertainty in the leading statement, can pique reader interest. Especially if it’s something they didn’t expect. Or beginning a paragraph with a ‘honing in’ of something brought up in the previous one? The ‘Henceforth’ or ‘Although’ can be moved further into the paragraph, if used at all.

 

Writing should be enjoyable to read. For all the stress and worry of writing, it will be worth it in the end. You’re always going to come back to it later on and feel you could do better (hence my previous post on cringy pre-teen poetry). The main thing is that the piece at hand is as good as you can make it. Be proud of your writing!

Speed Reading and Strategies for People with Dyslexia

Students with dyslexia often struggle with the amount of reading required for their degree; a common complaint is that they sit for hours reading, yet failing to internalise the information they have read. Dyslexics also struggle with their reading speed: they take longer to read and often “regress” to previously-read words because they haven’t absorbed the meaning.

Fortunately, there are a number of strategies writing mentors can deploy to help dyslexic writers:

Reading to understand text

One of the most widely-used reading strategies is “SQ3R”, which stands for “Survey, Question, Read, Recall, and Review”.

Survey

In this method, the reader is first required to skim-read their text. This will enable them to quickly get the gist of the content, get a sense of how long it is, and find subheadings or topic markers with which to organise their notes.

Question

Next, the reader should write questions to encourage a deeper encoding of the ideas within the text. Turn any subheadings into questions, or scan the first sentence of each paragraph to determine whether it signals the content to be expounded in the rest of the paragraph.

Read

Equipped with these questions, the reader can now read the text with a purpose: this strategy helps the information to be more deeply encoded and, therefore, more easily recalled.

Recall

This stage tests whether the text has been understood: ask the reader to recite or briefly note down the key information they have just read. It’s fine to re-skim the piece to obtain names and dates.

Review

Finally, the reader should reflect on what they have read. Did they understand it? Does anything need to be expanded? Did they agree with the author’s interpretation or methodology?

This stage helps to develop the ability to critically analyse work, as well as providing another layer of cognitive encoding that will help the material to be internalised and recalled at a later stage.

Reading speed

People with dyslexia tend to read more slowly than other people. This is caused or exacerbated by a number of issues. For instance, distractions tend to cause disproportional problems for people with dyslexia. Even slight distractions can cause a train of thought to be lost, meaning the reader has to start from the beginning. People with dyslexia also tend to make more eye movements as they follow a text, reading each word individually. Though this might appear to be a good strategy to ensure that words and meaning are not missed, good readers make fewer eye movements and read small chunks of words together (though they may not realise they are doing it).

There are a couple of ways to circumvent these issues (and are also helpful for people who simply have difficulty concentrating on large texts).

Minimise distractions

This is an easy one! Advise the writer to go somewhere quiet to read, silence their phone, and close down social media pages. There are also slow, lyric- and advert-free pieces of music on YouTube that are designed to help people to study; I am highly sceptical of their claims to “induce alpha states for learning” and so on, but what they DO provide is an easy-to-ignore background noise that will help to block out more distracting noises.

Create a schedule

You should also advise students to create a reading schedule, with reading sessions lasting no more than 45 minutes. If they lose concentration more quickly than this, shorten the sessions. There is no point in sitting down for 8 hours, poring over a book and despairing at knowing no more than when it was picked up. Short, focused sessions will help readers to stay on track and make the most of their reading time.

Use a pencil to guide the eyes

An interesting fact to note, for dyslexic students and anyone hoping to learn to speed-read, is that the eyes move more smoothly if they’re guided by a pencil (though any pointy implement will work!) – more so than if the eyes are guided by a finger. When using a finger, many people tend to point at words individually: this is what we’re trying to avoid. Moving a pencil along the lines in a smooth motion allows the reader to peripherally perceive the surrounding text. For a dyslexic student, this more closely mimics the action of reading experienced by non-dyslexic readers.

I hope these tips come in handy the next time you have a dyslexic mentee, or anyone who needs a bit of help with focussed reading. I’ve used them with a couple of writers now, and it seems to be helpful – though, like any new skill, it can take some practice for it to become fluid and natural.

(Source and further reading: Study Skills for Students with Dyslexia, Sage Publications).

Quick Tip – Welsh Translation Service

Hi All!

Not sure if everyone has seen the recent email from the Corporate Communications and Marketing department – but within that email they stated that Canolfan Bedwyr (Bangor University’s Center for Welsh Language Services, Research and Technology) offers a translation service (short piece of text: up to 250 characters about 50 words), courses for tweeting in Welsh and writing in Welsh on the web. I just thought this might be something useful for us to know about!

Hope you’ve all had a great Easter break!

Links:

Canolfan Bedwyr: https://www.bangor.ac.uk/canolfanbedwyr/

Canolfan Bedwyr, Translation Unit: https://www.bangor.ac.uk/canolfanbedwyr/cyfieithu.php.en

Pratchett, Austen and the beginnings of craftsmanship.

It’s always impressive for craftspeople to look over their early work. It’s said to always keep your first sewing project, attempt at a bird box, lumpy knitting and so on, to remind you of how far you’ve come. For me, looking back on my pre-teen notebooks and squirming at embarrassment- well, that does a similar job!

The fact is that writing is a craft that can be honed, and experience will take you a long way. Writing with another writer lets you watch another craftsman at work. A little like the medieval apprentice system. That’s one of the wonderful things about peer mentoring. One of the main reasons people come to the Study Skills Centre is simply that they’re new to the particular style of writing asked of them. Highly talented freshers or non-native English speakers are just starting this craft, and by ‘learning by doing’ with a writer who’s been through much the same, the whole style visibly matures and deepens.

This maturing of style and learning-by-doing is a lifelong thing. Fans of the Discworld series will notice the difference between the first and the last ten books. There are 41 Discworld books written over the course of thirty plus years, so naturally there will be development in the quality of writing! The earliest books are ones of very close parody- to Rock and Roll, to Shakespeare, and simply to the plethora of weak fantasy novels so popular in the 80s. In academic terms, there was over-heavy reliance on the source material, with limited originality. Pratchett’s inexperience also shows in the long, over emphasised sentences, weighed down by excess information, and an unclear central theme in the various strands.

Similar is the Juvenilia (juvenile writings) of Jane Austen, which you may be able to get a copy of online or from an old fashioned second hand bookshop. These short stories romp with energy, are clear parodies of the source reading material and don’t quite have the same readability or sound structure of her later work. Many believe that the finest novel she ever wrote was her last, Sandringham. Sadly this was never completed due to her early death, but the same theme of continuous improvement with experience remains the same.

So moving back to The Study Skills Centre, how is this likely to benefit the writers of Bangor University? For a start, I always assure the less confident ‘novices’ that they will only get better. And they do. To the point I can be little more than a sounding board for the more experienced mentees.

Secondly, neither the mentor, the text book or the lecture slides can tell you exactly what to write. While the assignment brief must be followed, a university student is expected to have their own words and viewpoints on the topic. A hand to hold can be comforting, but sooner or later it should not be needed. Two excellent quotes from one of my tutors are-

“Academics are always arguing. That’s what drives science forward”

“You’re becoming the academic now. People are going to look to you for advice”

So Peer Mentoring is interesting in that it helps writers at that early, awkward stage, which even the greatest have. By letting the mentee direct the session and taking a step back to focus on the issues at hand, we help others of our kind develop. And for my own early works? Maybe my parents’ attic is the best place for them…

Academic Writing for International Students

I recently had a more specified query from an International student than just about grammar and writing in a foreign language.  The writer specifically wanted to know how to make their writing more academic, and how to cope with academic terminology.  On the side of their subject, I suggested a formal glossary, as well as that they create their own version as they experience more of their subject over time.  On the academic writing side, then, I managed to find a couple of well-structured and accessible e-books which may be of use to someone in this position:

Academic Writing A Handbook for International Students.

Stephen Bailey

Florence : Taylor and Francis 4th ed. 2014

and

A Student’s Writing Guide How to Plan and Write Successful Essays.

Gordon Taylor

Cambridge : Cambridge University Press 2009

In fact, the way in which they are both set out might be useful for anyone who struggles to get their head around the rudimentary info, such as what a dissertation is as opposed to an essay, or how to break apart a question, for instance.  The first book also includes a fun little quiz on expectations of what academic writing really is.

 

 

‘The’ Writing Process. One size fits all?

The’ Writing Process. Sounds rather official, doesn’t it? The time honoured method that is taught in schools and held up as the Gold Standard method of structuring writing. ‘The’ Writing Process consists of four immobile stages: Planning, Drafting, Revising and Editing, each with a set of activities belonging to it, and each expected to flow naturally into the next. And to be fair, this method does indeed work for some writers.

But writing is complex and so are writers. When researchers in the 1970s and 1980s began to look at the ways many established writers actually write, they found that things weren’t always so simple. The stages could be merged. Editing and revising can happen throughout the writing process. An author may repeat stages, redrafting or replanning as more material is found. I personally like to proofread and tidy my work as a ‘break’ task, keeping my mind in the assignment while getting over writer’s block.

Many writers research as they go along, finding that one piece of information will lead to another, which can be added into a frame of pre-written work. Others find such a chaotic approach distracting and need a well researched initial plan. The same writer may even employ multiple processes, depending on what they’re working on.  How rigidly do you yourself follow the Plan, Draft, Edit, Revise model?

The main focus for us, as writing mentors, is to use this understanding to aid our clients. You may be able to work out a writer’s process simply by engaging with them as they write.  Questions such as “How do you normally plan your assignments?” “What would you usually do when you reach this stage?” or “So this is just your initial draft, isn’t it?” probe deeper. It may be that the mentee’s struggles result from using a process which is unsuited them. Or the process may normally work, but will need adapting for new writing styles- a common problem when entering the world of academic writing!

If it seems that an unsuitable writing process is part of the issue, here are a few tips which could be handy.

 

Rethink Revision

Not only a case of which stage, but how to revise. Heavily? Touch-up-as-you-go? Get it nearly right first time? Some writers are the mad creative type, who plunge into making and tidy up afterwards. Others are more perfectionist and want to write a high quality essay in one go. On the other hand, worrying too much about getting things right can stop the writer doing any writing to start with. Editing and proofreading can also be a semi-procrastination exercise, positive or negative. Some writers find it editing a relaxing exercise, others frustrating. Where is the mentee’s comfort zone in all this?

 

Flexible planning

Forming a rigid plan at the start of an assignment can cause writers’ block, stress and poor flow, as well as prohibit the addition of new material. While some plan is generally needed, (or form part of the assignment brief), don’t get bogged down in it. Reviewing the plan midway through can be helpful. It is even possible to just ‘get everything down’ and then edit and give meaning afterwards, especially with the miracle of the word processor. The plan is there to give support and direction, but heavy editing afterwards can give a similar finished product, depending on the writer.

Encourage Metacognition

Metacognition, or ‘thinking about thinking’ is a handy tool for reflection, development and linking different parts of the writing process together. Questions such as “who is the expected reader?” “How helpful was the planning process for this piece, and how could you improve on it?” “Do you think this piece clearly covers everything it set out to?” can help with this. Basically, try to encourage the writer to think deeply and broadly about not just their writing, but how they write it. It can be so easy to get buried in an assignment, just taking a step back to assess the way you’re going about it can iron out issues.  Some of these may be obvious to the onlooker, but not to the individual themself. Hence the mentor’s role as a sounding board! Metacognition generally aids independence of both thought and study. To grow into an independent, confident writer, developing the ability to see the ‘big picture’ will aid you. Not just as a writer, either.

Bird by Bird.

As it comes highly recommended, I decided to try Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott, a copy helpfully shelved the Mentor room.  Comic, vibrant, and honest – if quite dark in places – this book is all about the writing process from initial panic right through to the relief that comes with the final product.  Though the target audience is literary writers, there were lessons that could apply to anyone putting pen to paper.  This is what I took from it:

  • Irony: ‘That thing you had to force yourself to do – the actual act of writing – turns out to be the best part’ (p.xxvi); so perhaps we need to remember why we’re studying and/or mentoring when times get tough.
  • Expectations are often inaccurate, and certainly overblown, such as the supposed miracle of publishing, which can be really quite deflating.
  • Little and often is the key to success. It takes away the burden of productivity, allays fears from life in general, and defies the ogre of perfection.
  • Comparison to others is best avoided. It yields little, but harms a lot.  Instead, be compassionate to yourself as you would a friend (p.31).
  • Narrow a project so it doesn’t overwhelm you (p.34), but at the same time be open to new avenues of thought as the work progresses (p.53). Creativity is fun and productive, and can lead to marvellous discoveries.  Don’t let your Tutor or Editor sit on your shoulder as you draft (p.174).
  • When in doubt, cut it out. Literally, or virtually, cut and paste the draft to make it work as you need it to (p.88).
  • Find your own little rituals that work, such as working at certain times of day, or putting up inspirational quotations on the wall for motivation (p.117).
  • The exquisite pain and despair of a lost idea should be avoided at all costs, so keep a notebook/phone/index card/pen and the back of your hand available at all times (p.136).
  • Taking criticism is tricky, but the benefits of writing groups far outweighs the drawbacks (p.166).
  • Last but definitely not least, the beauty and simplicity of life is wrapped up in the author’s father’s words of wisdom on an otherwise overwhelming project: ‘’Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird’ (p.19).

I would recommend this book to anyone hoping to get a better sense of what it is to be a writer!

Academic Writing for Non-Native Speakers

Recently, a lot of my sessions have been with ESL (English as a Second Language) students. Many of these students have provided information prior to the session, and indicated that they are struggling with “writing skills” or “academic writing”. I have found in many of these cases, when we really start to discuss the problem, the issue is often that the student is not confident in their ability to effectively communicate their ideas in English.

I have found an interesting book from the University of Helsinki called “Academic Writing in English”. It is, as it says, an academic writing resource for writers where English is not their first language. This book covers lots of subjects in detail, and is great to pick up helpful tips and techniques for mentoring ESL students. This book is available in the “Resources” folder on the U Drive (U:\Service Departments\Student Support Services\Study Skills\Tutorials\Resources\ESL), and also by following this link: academic-writing-in-english-for-non-native-speakers.

Below is a help sheet that I have created which is essentially a summary of (potentially!) useful books, websites and university resources. This document is also available in the “Resources” folder on the U Drive (U:\Service Departments\Student Support Services\Study Skills\Tutorials\Resources\ESL).

Resources for Improving Academic Writing Skills, and Writing in English as a Second Language.

Below are some resources which may be useful to explore to help improve postgraduate academic writing skills, as well as helpful information for studying/writing in English when it is not your first language.

Books

  • Crème, P. and Lea, M.R. 2012. Writing at University: A Guide for Students. 3rd Berkshire, England: Open University Press.
  • Murray, R. and Moore, S. 2006. The Handbook of Academic Writing: A Fresh Approach. Berkshire, England: Open University Press.
  • Osmond, A. 2013. Academic Writing and Grammar for Students. London, England: Sage Publications Ltd.

Online Resources

University Resources

ELCOS – The English Language Centre for Overseas Students (ELCOS) provides English language and study skills courses to overseas students at Bangor University. ELCOS have their own Writing Advice Service.

“ELCOS runs Writing Advice Sessions for international students on degree courses at the University. The purpose of these sessions is to help students improve their written English and become more independent learners. Students can have up to three hours of individual, consultation with an ELCOS tutor per semester. Students should bring to the session the written work they want help with and it would be helpful if they have some general ideas about the kind of help they need with that work (for example, with organisation, coherence, paragraph structure, grammar, referencing, etc.). Tutors will work with the student, make corrections, offer advice on how to make improvements in structure and form and enable the student recognise and be able to correct errors in the rest of the written work themselves.”

Contact – “E-mail the ELCOS office on elcos@bangor.ac.uk to request an appointment for that day and time, giving your name, School, level of study (undergraduate, Masters or PhD student). An appointment will be made for that time and day if available or you will be offered some alternatives; you will also be given the name of the tutor and told where to meet him/her. (Usually Neuadd Rathbone on College Road).”

esl-lessons

 

 

 

Mentoring quote

Hi team,

I wanted to share this quote I found about mentoring that I felt could be applied to the work we do here in Study Skills.

I know I often find it difficult to strike the balance between telling somebody ‘you should do it like this’ and encouraging them to find their own way. For me, little quotes like this serve as a reminder that our goal isn’t necessarily to create the perfect writer in 50 minutes, but rather to set them on their way equipped with all the tools.

260826f39be184fb12435ace0e17a209.jpg

And then hopefully this one will make you smile…

funny-pictures-mentoring

I hope you all have a great week!

 

Encouraging Reflection

Lately, I have needed to reflect on my actions, research, and experiences in order to learn lessons for the future.  This is a tricky skill I am slowly developing, and it is a skill that I believe would be useful for Mentees, as it promotes active learning, rather than relying on teaching.

To that end, I have found a couple of entertaining and helpful academic blog posts on how to encourage reflection, which I wanted to share:

https://whatedsaid.wordpress.com/2011/06/11/10-ways-to-encourage-student-reflection-2/

https://whatedsaid.wordpress.com/2016/11/02/10-ways-to-make-learning-meaningful/