In deference to the topic, this post is concise enough to say only that, in preparation for a possible session, I came across two really great websites about writing concisely:
In deference to the topic, this post is concise enough to say only that, in preparation for a possible session, I came across two really great websites about writing concisely:
Kamler, B. and Thomson P. (2006). Helping Doctoral Students Write: pedagogies for supervision. London: Routledge.
As a new PhD student, I read this book both for my own learning and out of fear of the fact that I could be asked at any moment to meet with a PhD student who will – absolutely – have more experience of this level of study than I do.
Compared with other texts I have read preparing for this next step, this particular book is aimed at supervisors rather than students, and is therefore couched in a lot of politics and pedagogical literature, which will hopefully be of particular use in the mentoring context.
The key advice from the book I believe may be valuable for sessions with doctoral candidates is:
Watch this space for how the PhD sessions work in practice!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
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:
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.
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:
I would recommend this book to anyone hoping to get a better sense of what it is to be a writer!
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org 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).”
My masters thesis deadline is less than a month away and so I am in full writing mode. All stops are out and I need efficient access to the choicest vocabulary to describe a year of hard research.
Lot’s of clients I see are in the same boat and for years I have been referring them to a handy Google trick called “define”, as well as using it a lot myself.
It’s a really simple case of opening a Google search bar and typing “define” followed by your word of choice. What you get is box containing a series of definitions, example sentences, and, best of all, synonyms.
What makes this better than a dictionary you ask? In a word: Efficiency, and that is exactly what you need when in mid-flow writing up your work. If you want to use a word and be sure of it’s meaning, a quick Google define search is much faster than looking it up in a dictionary, and much clearer on the page, which is appreciated on a library graveyard shift.
But the clickable synonyms are also great for getting out of tighter knots; beating repetition for example. Consider:
“Managing the team was a complicated task, complicated further by the complicated social politics between members.”
A quick google search later and we have:
“Managing the team was a tricky task, complicated further by the intricate social politics between members.”
It can also be fun to consider some of the more exotic suggestions, depending on how extravagant you are feeling.
Another handy use is when paraphrasing information from source material. As well as changing the word order you can change some of the key words themselves to alternatives with similar meaning. Just Google the word in question and you have an arsenal of alternatives at your disposal so you can really make the phrasing your own.
Lastly, for me this feature really comes into it’s own when you have the tip-of-the-tongue dilemma: you know what you want to say, but can’t quite find the word you need.Here the clickable synonyms are really useful, allowing hot and cold experimentation with words until you find what you are looking for. For example:
“It was set to be a long night in the library, but she was determined to …oh, what’s that word again? Continue? Sort of but not quite.”
*Googles define continue*
Synonyms include: sustain; persist; commence
“Persist? Warmer, but not quite.”
*Clicks persist. Google automatically searches define persist.*
Synonyms include: endure, persevere…
“PERSEVERE! That’s it.”
“It was set to be a long night in the library, but she was determined to persevere.”
Such a process would take much longer using a Thesaurus. Google define allows you to juggle a whole bunch of words and try on multiple until you get a good fit.
So there. A handy tool that you may like to use or recommend. Have a play with it.
By Phil Davies, 10th March 2016
Writing an encyclopaedia entry can be a quicker and easier way of getting published than submitting an article to a peer-reviewed journal. It is also a way to get your own specialist area of research out into the public domain, and, where appropriate, your own work cited, and therefore publicised.
An encyclopaedia is generally understood as an ‘authoritative’ reference work suitable for students and professionals, whether online or in printed form. They are normally ‘scholarly’ and ‘professional’ but of interest to a wider audience. They give a comprehensive view of a subject (more than is available in a dictionary) without going into the complicated detail of a specialist text. Very often, they are the entry-point to a topic for students and researchers alike.
Many authoritative encyclopaedias are now found online, along with a host of more traditional printed versions, along with ‘companions’, ‘quick reference guides’ and ‘[extended] dictionaries’. Most online encyclopaedias accept online submissions for entries.
The objective, structure, contents, format and style of an encyclopaedia entry are different to other forms of academic writing, and we attempt to give an overview of the most important points here.
Most professional encyclopaedias, both on-line and in print, have their own guidelines for the objective, structure and style of their entries. Where available, this should be consulted first, as it may determine your choice of which publication to approach. They will, for example, detail the acceptable length of the entries in word-count, the required structure and format, and the word-processing software required (e.g. Microsoft Word) or text format (e.g. HTML). Some encyclopaedias may require a formal contract to be agreed by the contributor (an agreement to transfer the copyright of the material from the author to the publisher) before accepting an entry for publication.
The word-count of an entry varies greatly from encyclopaedia to encyclopaedia, depending on the scholastic objective of the publication. ‘Quick reference guide’ entries can be as short as 200 words, entries in large, specialist subject-matter encyclopaedias can be as long as journal articles and even short monographs (6000-12,000 words). Here are some examples:
A Dictionary of Critical Theory (OUP): c.200-400 words
Encyclopedia of Postmodernism (Routledge): c. 800 words
Encyclopedia of Literature and Criticism (Routledge): c.4000 words
The Encyclopedia of Literary and Cultural Theory (Blackwell): c.4000 words
Stanford Encylopedia of Philosophy (online): up to 12,000 words
The exact structure of an entry varies from publication to publication and is usually outlined in the submission guidelines. However, the following are common characteristics:
Encyclopaedia entries are an introduction and a guide to a topic, not a critical evaluation of it. They include the important facts about the topic, person, place, etc. (the “who”, “what”, “when”, “where”, “why” and “how”), like the dates of birth and death, birthplace, parents’ names, education, career highlights, and place of burial of a person. When discussing a person, they should always be objective, not hagiographical. The following guidelines from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy summarise these requirements quite well I think, and are pertinent to all disciplines:
“Entries should be objective/neutral analyses/surveys that offer a broad perspective of the topic rather than advocate a point of view. Authors should see their mission as that of introducing advanced undergraduates (or grad students and colleagues), who may have no special knowledge of the topic, to the main issues and the most important pieces of primary and secondary literature on the topic, so as to bring them to a state where they can read that literature with insight and understanding. Clarity of substance and style should also be one of the most important goals / Encyclopedia entries should therefore not be idiosyncratic or polemical, or promote the author’s work, but rather strive for balance by presenting the important arguments that have been put forward on both sides of an issue. Controversial claims should be identified as such […] Authors should not use their SEP entry to raise or respond to objections if those objections and responses aren’t already in the published literature.”
Entries should be written in a formal, authoritative, register. ‘Editorialization’ (the inclusion of evaluative statements such, “… was the greatest sprinter of all time”) and personal opinions should be avoided. Entries should be precise and specific, the use of jargon minimized, and technical concepts expressed in plain or previously defined language. Entries on technical topics themselves should include definitions of the technical terms used.
The exact requirements for each encyclopaedia should be provided in the guidelines. If not, keep it simple and unadorned in the first instance when submitting something to the editor. Some additional tips:
Some encyclopaedias permit/encourage photographs and other images to be submitted with the entry. If this is the case, make sure you include the copyright details of the image for the editors to seek the appropriate permissions
Some encyclopaedias require a brief biography of the contributor (e.g. 300 words) and contact details such as email address, the URL of a relevant website you might have. Writing a personal biography is an art in itself, but as a rule it should be concise and focused on the details relevant to the entry, publication and readership. For those wishing to write regularly in the academic world (and make applications for grants, scholarships, project funding, book/article proposals), it is worth having a well-crafted, stock, biography in your store cupboard which can be used each time, perhaps adjusting it slightly for different audiences. Some encyclopaedias may request a personal photo for use on the contributors section as well.
The work must be original, and it is worth consulting other encyclopaedias to check what has been written on your subject before; even Wikipedia. Usual considerations of plagiarism and copyright protection apply, but properly quoted and cited extracts would normally fall under the “fair use” principle widely recognised in scholarly and academic writing.
Encyclopaedias differ in the quantity of sources which they require/permit to be cited but this is normally a low number (e.g. 3). These sources should be ones where the ‘best’ information in your entry comes from, and the ‘best’ additional information for readers will be found. They are not ‘footnotes’ in the formal sense of the word, although large encyclopaedias with long entries such as Stanford do permit footnotes.
Academic encyclopaedias normally require that only ‘refereed’ publications may be cited, and most discourage citing of unpublished and inaccessible materials.
The editors will normally format the bibliographic details as they see fit during the copy-editing process, but they may provide detailed requirements in the guidelines. In the absence of specific advice, err on the side of caution and provide full details of the works you cite (Author, title, place and date of publication).
Likewise, encyclopaedias differ on the acceptability of citing Internet sources, and while this is increasingly common, they might differ on what type of internet source is acceptable (e.g. “.edu”, “.gov.” and “.org” domains may be considered more acceptable than “.com”). They discourage citing on-line versions of major printed texts (e.g. Encyclopaedia Britannica), preferring the original printed version, but when doing so, most require that the URL is included.
Some encyclopaedias prohibit or discourage the citing of the author’s own published work, except where that work is the only, or most, authoritative source available (e.g. Stanford).
Some encyclopaedias end their entries with a ‘Related Entries’ section. This will normally be a list of key concepts or people mentioned in your entry for which there is a separate, dedicated entry in the encyclopaedia. If these are not known in advance, there is no harm suggesting some in your submission, you may be asked to contribute more!
Good luck and have fun…
Submission guidelines consulted (online)
Blackpast.org, ‘Online Encyclopedia Entry Guidelines’, (http://www.blackpast.org/about/online-encyclopedia-entry-guidelines)
Duke University Scholar Works, ‘Writing an encyclopedia article’ (https://scholarworks.duke.edu/copyright-advice/copyright-faq/writing-an-encyclopedia-article)
Kentucky African American Encyclopedia, ‘Guidelines for Writing Entries’, (https://www.uky.edu/OtherOrgs/kaae/files/Guidelines.pdf)
Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ‘Guidelines and Policies for Entry Content’, (http://plato.stanford.edu/guidelines.html)
Buchanan, Ian (ed.), A Dictionary of Critical Theory (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010)
Coyle, Martin, et. al. (eds.), Encyclopedia of Literature and Criticism (London: Routledge, 1991)
Ryan, Michael (ed.), The Encyclopedia of Literary and Cultural Theory (Oxford: Blackwell, 2011)
Taylor, Victor E., et. al. (eds.), Encyclopedia of Postmodernism (London: Routledge, 2001)
This topic came up in my session this morning, and I found this cartoon to be a fun and easy way to explain the issue: