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Though not necessarily a common occurrence within Peer Writing sessions, it could be possible that a student approaches us with a piece of non-academic writing; be it for an assignment within The School of English, The School of Creative Studies and Media or even a personal piece it could be useful to know a few tips to help advise a mentee on their creative work.
The Cambridge Companion to Creative Writing which is available online via the university catalogue (I’ve copied a link to it below) is an excellent compilation of advice for both students attempting creative writing and mentors trying to give constructive feedback. This is a useful skill for us to have because, as the Companion states, ‘writers are, at their best, creative writers whether they are writing journalism, plays, philosophy, novels, history, poetry or scientific nonfiction.’ (Morley & Neilsen, 2012 Pg. 1) Below I have compiled a list of three aspects within creative writing that I’ve noticed my students struggling with consistently, and how we can aid them in overcoming these obstacles.
- Floating Dialogue
This is a term used to describe too much dialogue being used in succession. It applies mainly to bodies of text such as novels and short-stories and can sometimes be used by writers attempting to avoid heavy amounts of description because they worry it makes their work seem ‘boring’ or takes away from the action. Essentially, the writer shall have a small map in their head of everything that is occurring within the story as they write it and may not be aware that we, the reader, cannot (and will not) create the same map of movement without written hints. So, when the writer focuses only on the dialogue between the characters the speech tends to ‘float’ up and the reader loses track of where exactly these characters are. It’s important to reassure the student that despite having good dialogue, the reader sometimes requires a little description too, even if it’s as simple as…
‘They began to pace, hands flapping and feet stomping against the ground.’
This is enough to ground the reader and remind them that the characters are still within the same room they were when the dialogue began.
- Purple Prose
This may be a term some are familiar with, and probably experienced if you’ve ever read Tolkien or Wilde, and is essentially the opposite of floating dialogue; purple prose is when the writer spends far too much time setting the scene. They may write pages about the glorious medieval manor house their story is set in and after a page of dialogue we leave it behind, never to be seen again. It brings down the reader engagement of the story and can oft times be a slog to read through. The best advice to give a writer who is showing this within their writing is to simply tell them it’s not required. Remind them that world-building is important but should be peppered in over the course of the narrative. If they’re unaware of it, inform them of Checkhov’s Gun:
‘Remove everything that has no relation to the story. If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.’
This is an excellent quote to use because it can get the writer thinking ‘What does have to be there? What can I put in that will become important in later chapters?’ etc. and can often turn a point of criticism into a point of creative thought.
- The Inciting Incident
Many times when going over creative works with my students I will read about half way through, put a small line by a sentence and tell them ‘you’ve started your story here.’ All stories need to have a hook, an incident that incites the movement of the narrative while gaining the reader’s attention; this, as the name suggests, is the inciting incident. We, as the mentors reading through and helping to improve the work will often pick up on this much more easily than the mentee will. We read ourselves and if you look through the mentee’s creative work and find yourself wondering ‘what is going on here? What has happened? Why are these characters doing this?’ And you’re halfway through the piece it’s important to flag that up with the writer and let them know you’re lost. Once the writer explains it to you things may make sense and if they do, let them know that you should be able to obtain that information from the writing alone; encouraging them to think like they’re reading it for the first time is useful too.
And that’s about it! The most important thing, as I’m sure we all know, is to be kind when giving this kind of feedback as students can become very attached to creative pieces they’ve written, especially if it in some way is a reflection of their life, and encourage them to redraft, edit and never delete anything for good. If a piece needs to be removed I tell my students to save it within its own word document. Later down the line if they’re looking for inspiration for another piece of writing that small part could be just the thing… Come to think of it, that may work for pieces of essays that need to be edited out too.
Morley, D. and Neilsen, P. (2012). The Cambridge companion to creative writing. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
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”.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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).
Ahead of a session coming up on how to make the most of lectures, an intriguingly new session topic for me, I did some research online and found the following info which might be useful for everyone, Mentor and Student alike.
The most helpful source is:
This website, and pdf version, covers everything from preparatory reading in advance of the lecture, to listening for structure in what is said, to the use of colour and abbreviations in note-taking, as well as the importance of following up on any questions or gaps you might have once the lecture has finished.
In addition, I found some useful practical advice elsewhere; websites are listed at the end.
- Check you’ve got everything you need: pens, paper, books, laptops and chargers etc for ALL of the lectures and seminars you have that day.
- It is useful to have a bottle of water and a snack, as well as tissues.
- Beware: excessive drinking of caffeine or energy drinks usually end in a sugar crash and overwhelming feeling of tiredness.
- Choose seats nearer to the front of the lecture theatre so that you can hear and see better, and are more likely to stay awake. Studies also show that those who sit in the front and middle during lectures achieve higher grades.
- Turn off mobiles: it’s more polite and won’t serve as a distraction.
- Use course handbooks and review the last lecture notes in preparation.
- Download the lecture slides if made available prior to the lecture.
- Ask yourself what you need to get out of the lecture: what information do you know already/need to know?
- Only write down what’s relevant and useful, rather than every word, so you don’t miss anything else important. But don’t write down what’s on screen, as you get a copy later.
- Underlining helps jog your memory later of something your Lecturer stressed as important.
- Ask the Lecturer questions where appropriate (even by email or in their office hours), and chat to other students afterwards to enjoy the buzz of learning and help consolidate tricky information.
- Try to stay engaged, so you don’t have to catch up on missed information later. Find your own way to do this: e.g. water, using colour in your notes, writing down questions you have, taking a walk during the break, drawing spider diagrams of the information, making sure you’re not too hot or cold, avoid distractions, have a copy of your upcoming assignment burning a hole in your desk.
- Try tape recording lectures: this suits some people’s learning style better, helps prevent the panic in the lecture of keeping up with the pace of information, and you can use it for revision. B. still take notes as a back-up, to aid with the lengthy transcription afterwards, and be sure to get Lecturer approval before recording.
I will also hope to focus on how to turn those lecture notes into useful fuel for essays in the session!
Every student has their own individual methods and techniques for learning new information or revising for exams. Honey and Mumford (1992) proposed that there are four definitive “learning styles” that most students can associate with. It is important to be aware of, and understand, your own learning style. This understanding makes it easier to create essay plans or work schedules, and may help you to find the best method of revision and exam preparation for you.
The proposed learning styles are as follows:
You like to learn by doing things. You are happier with project work, and all kinds of active learning. You are less happy reading long papers, analysing data and sitting in lectures.
You are more cautious and like to weigh up all the issues before acting. When you make a decision, it is thought through. You are probably happy to work on a project, if you are given time to digest all the facts before making a decision. You dislike having work dumped on you and get worried by tight deadlines.
You like taking theories and putting them into practise and you need to see the benefit and relevance of what you are doing. If you are learning something you feel has no practical value, you lose interest. You may want to ask your tutor ‘why are we learning this?’ If you are a student who says ‘I don’t like this course as it is all theory’ then your learning preference is probably ‘pragmatist’ or ‘activist’.
You like to understand what is behind certain actions and enjoy working through issues theoretically in a well-structured way and whether you apply it or not doesn’t interest you as much. You may be the one to ask questions as to why and how something occurs. You dislike unstructured sessions and dislike it when you are asked to reflect on some activity or say what you felt about it.
The style you prefer can help you make choices about the way that you work. For example, when revising, a theorist may read over pages and pages of notes and journals to make sure they understand all of the information. An activist, on the other hand, may benefit from making bright and creative revision posters, or creating interesting and enjoyable games to learn important information.
You may definitively fall in to one single category. You may fall into two categories, or even find that you overlap between several. Whichever learning style(s) you think describes the way you learn can be very helpful with university education, and even outside academia.
Something to keep in mind when studying!
Honey, P. and Mumford, A., 1992. The manual of learning styles.
Critically reviewing articles (as well as books and speaker presentations) has been one of the most significant methods of assessment throughout my MA course. A practical research skill that is of benefit to anyone in academic circles, I thought I would briefly summarise all the advice I have been offered, heard at Study Skills workshops, or read about, in case anyone gets asked specifically about this in a session.
What is a critical review?
In short, it is reading between the lines of what is presented on the page. Every article (or book etc) will have been written with a purpose, an agenda, while the author may have bias, the facts may have been misconstrued, or the methods may not be as sound as the researchers might have liked them to be. At University, it is important to stop blindly following what we are taught by our Tutors and the seminal books we read, and start questioning. It may be that the article is absolutely fantastic, or the theory is as awe-inspiring as Einstein’s Gravitational Waves! On the other hand, it might not be quite so significant, original, or rigorous (the big three for decent research).
What should we look for?
After reading the article as a whole, to get the general gist of it, the kinds of questions we need to be asking when reviewing it critically are as follows:
• What is the topic?
• Who is the intended audience, which can alter the way the article is written, and therefore reviewed?
• How much background information/context/literature review is provided? Have the most recent publications been mentioned? Is there a good evaluation by the author(s) of the literature they themselves have reviewed?
• Does the rest of the article follow smoothly and logically from this background?
• Is it written with clarity, an organised and clear structure, good referencing, and a definite line of argument?
• What is the research question or hypothesis, and why this one? If there isn’t one, why not? Does the article still have a clear purpose?
• Has the author(s) made it clear what limits have been placed on the study? Eg ‘I will look at only monolingual Welsh-speaking children, rather than bilinguals.’
• What are the research methods used, including any relevant statistical methods or theoretical frameworks?
• Who were the participants, the materials, what was the equipment, how were variables measured etc? Why were these specific methods chosen?
• How were data analysed?
• Would someone else reading this study be able to replicate the exact experiment or theoretical study to try to come up with the same results as the author(s)?
• What results have been found, in terms of data or new theories for instance?
• How do the results relate to the background information?
• Was the discussion (interpretation) of the results logical and reasonable, without overstating any conclusions that can be drawn for instance?
• Are the statistics significant? If they are, are they also meaningful? Statistics can determine if there is any effect between variables, but it cannot provide an argument as to the real-world value of that effect. Eg, if there is a difference between 2 people, or a few seconds etc in any given experiment, does that really mean anything?
• Is there any discussion of the study’s own limitations, or suggestions for improvement?
• Was the research question or hypothesis answered sufficiently?
• Was anything left unfinished?
• What are the implications, or ongoing questions, for further research?
• What is the researcher’s background? Is this their field? Might their research have been biased by who funded the study?
• Maybe, depending on what our review is for, we could compare this article with others on the same topic too?
How and why do we use this critiquing skill?
Obviously, if we have as assignment where we need to review an article explicitly, we can just follow these kinds of guideline questions, using our own judgement to notice anything else that crops up. But more broadly speaking, it has been stated by many of my Tutors that it’s good practice to get into the habit of really interrogating the literature we read for any assignment, and not to take the results, interpretations, or clout of the researcher at face value. Anyone can make a mistake, falsify data, cherry-pick their evidence, or just miss some valuable feature of their (or others’) research, not just we ‘lowly’ students! This is also an important skill to adopt for any higher level research that we might undertake, or even out in the big wide world: to discern whether advertising is just hype or not, or whether our workplace budget has realistically accounted for all factors, for instance.
I’m currently working on producing a summary and review of the book Critical Thinking Skills by Stella Cottrell.
The introduction to this book provides a good opportunity for a reader to engage their brains about what critical thinking really means. Each chapter facilitates the readers development as a critical thinker and provides exercises and tasks that build on one another throughout the book. For our purposes in a mentoring session, the book provides a useful method for approaching critical thinking and writing, suggesting that a writer should first learn to identify arguments within a text before going on to develop their own critical writing skills. The first 9 chapters focus on reading a source and developing evaluative skills and the ability to select appropriate sources. Chapter 10 covers the act of writing critically, and takes the writer through various approaches depending on the nature of the assignment a writer is preparing (essay vs reports/dissertations). Furthermore, chapter 11 then provides additional practice to enable a writer to identify the characteristics of good critical writing, it does this by providing examples and then sets tasks based upon these. The final chapter discusses critical reflection, a technique often employed by those students who bring attention back to their own experience.
Additionally, I am currently using this book as a resource to form a mini guide to critical thinking which I will add to as I do more extended reading.
Cottrell, S. 2011. Critical thinking skills: Developing effective analysis and argument. Palgrave Macmillan.
Please enter the category ‘Reading / Darllen’ for all posts related to reading.
“Reading selectively and at speed” (151) is a core study skill according to Stella Cotrell and she provides some very useful quick questions to help us think about how smart as readers we really are:
- Know exactly what you are looking for
- Use reading lists selectively
- Examine sources for suitability
- Select relevant parts of the book
- Find information quickly
- Select relevant parts of the page
- Use photocopies
- Make posters to link information
- Chart the main ideas
- Read interactively
- Practise prediction
- Vary reading speed and method
- Engage with your reading
- Use markers
- Listen to yourself read
- Maintain your attention
- Create ideal conditions
- Consider time and place
- Reading off the computer screen or paper?
Cotrell, Stella, The Study Skills Handbook (Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan, 2013), ‘Am I smart reader?’ (165-167)