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!

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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…

‘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.