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.


  • 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 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).”





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.


And then hopefully this one will make you smile…


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:




Hi team!

I hope you are well.

I wanted to offer a reflection of a session I had this morning in which a Childhood Studies student came to me with a task I had never encountered before.

I am particularly interested in what you would have done in the same situation, so please do feel welcome to leave your thoughts and comments below.

The task was to create a 1000 word ‘vignette’ and then a 2000 word annotation of the ‘vignette’. 

The material I (or rather we!) had to work with consisted of two case studies outlining two childrens’ childhoods. There was no accompanying task sheet, just the above statement in her notebook.

I asked the student if there was a task sheet or PowerPoint slide available that we could refer to, but she said there wasn’t.

Not knowing what a vignette was (and Google not offering much help either) I was truly stumped, and found myself almost guessing what she had to do. I guessed that she needed to write an assumption of how the children in the case studies’ future would turn out, and then the annotation would consist of research to back this up.

However, terrified of setting her off on the wrong foot, I advised that she went and saw her tutor to clarify what she needed to do.

My heart really went out to the student and I felt like I hadn’t helped at all in –  what turned out to be – a very short session.

Can anybody offer some enlightenment on writing a vignette in an academic context?



Being a Mentor


I’ve been watching a Canadian show from 2009, Being Erica, which is about a thirty-something female in Toronto, whose life’s plans – love, career etc. – have become derailed.  Under unusual circumstances, she meets an even more unusual Therapist (Counsellor in British English) who helps her to time travel in order to answer all the ‘if only’ and ‘what if’ queries we all have of our pasts.  Throughout the show, Erica learns to appreciate the present more, takes greater control over her life, and eventually becomes a Therapist herself.

Whilst the premise may sound a bit wacky, it’s been a very popular show, highly entertaining as well as thought-provoking.  It’s Sex and the City, meets Frasier, meets Back to the Future.  And I, personally, believe it could be useful for Mentor training too!


Granted, the topic in the show is therapy: more life plans than essay plans.  But elements in it ring true of the sessions I’ve had over the past year.  Therefore, I will attempt an overview of lessons I feel are applicable to our own work, substituting in practice, of course, the word ‘writer’ for ‘patient’.

  • ‘You are not your patient’. This lesson is about differentiating ourselves from the other person, not judging with same rulebook, allowing for the fact that others have different backgrounds and experiences that inform their outlooks, opinions, and choices.  This necessitates empathy in Mentoring, to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes, even if at the end you can’t wait for your own footwear again.
  • Linked to this, is the lesson from Dr Tom’s behaviour, that we can’t let our feelings enter into sessions. Mentors are human beings, of course, and sometimes a little of our own personal experience can provide useful examples or helpful advice gleaned from the woes of trial and error.  However, if we are having a bad day, it is not the fault – nor the problem – of our writers.  So this lesson is just to reinforce the professionalism we must bring to the Mentor room, as well as the fact that if we focus too much on ourselves and our own experiences, we are not only detracting from our Writers but also possibly alienating them if they have a different world view.
  • Having said that, ‘You are your patient’ is another valuable lesson from this show, emphasising that we have to see the similarities between ourselves and others. We are not so dissimilar in needs, fears, and desires, and it is best to keep in mind, especially in tricky sessions, that there are common denominators to explain that an aloof person may actually be acting out of pure panic, for instance.  It is important for Mentors to have patience, relate to the Writer where appropriate, and persevere with advice and examples.
  • But we need to be careful with the advice we dispense, for example where Brent – a colleague of Erica’s – is concerned in later seasons. Flippant advice, like ‘Just be yourself’ can be meaningless and not applicable to the real context it is needed for, while overly detailed advice might be too limiting for the other person.  Being a ‘shoulder to cry on’ as it were, someone who will listen and question and find out what the other person really wants and needs, allows Writers to find their own way, which will help them much more in the long-term.  It also occurs to me, as I write this, that there is a huge difference between someone coming to talk about a problem and someone actually asking for advice.  Only in the latter case, and possibly not even then, should we be considering dispensing serious advice and information.  But if we can find a way for the Writer to find out the information or come up with solutions themselves, so much the better.  An exception to this may be emerging needs as noted by a Mentor, such as realising that a Writer’s structure isn’t as logical as it could be.  But once this has been raised, it is perhaps then for the Writer to, again, come up with a solution, even through trial and error.
  • In fact, as with the character, Jenny, one of Erica’s best friends, we sometimes have to let people make mistakes so that they learn from them. We can’t wrap people in cotton wool, which is definitely one of the lessons I need to work on the most.  Just as with Erica’s friend and one-time boyfriend, Ethan, people have to, and often want to, find their own way, believing that one’s past – good or bad – is what makes you who you are.
  • And we make mistakes too, hence the importance of reflections and ongoing training. Like Erica’s ‘day without consequences that won’t stick’, a reckless approach to life, even in this fantastic one-off opportunity, can actually make you think harder about what to do in the first place once things start going horribly wrong.  Plus, the whole premise of the show is about confronting our mistakes, and our past, and to stop ‘if only-ing’ or ‘what if-ing’, remembering that today is tomorrow’s yesterday.  It’s all gone in the blink of an eye, and certainly that’s how most of my sessions feel.  So I’d like to get as many of them right as possible, and as soon as possible.
  • But just how to get it right can be tricky at times. There is no perfect prescriptive way for each and every session to go.  So, just as with Erica’s task to find her way off a deserted island, we often need to make our own path, particularly in difficult sessions.  Sometimes, there is just no simple right or wrong way to do something, or answer a question.  But if the Writer can leave with a clearer understanding of their work, and an action plan to tackle their (sometimes emergent) problems, hopefully feeling a bit happier too, then our work is done.  It comes back, then, to reflection, and exploring if there are lessons to be learned for future sessions.
  • This is a good place to end with the show’s final episode, about standing on your own two feet, as Erica becomes a Doctor in her own right, and not a patient anymore. The importance here, I think, is for the Mentee.  Mentors won’t always be around, so we need to build Writer’s skills and confidence to go on themselves.  And it’s often not us who will know when the time is right for a Writer to spread their wings.  But the Writer will, and it’s my favourite moment, though fairly rare and a little bit nostalgic, when I see the true light of inspiration and productivity in a Writer’s eyes, that they are now ready for their assignment; in fact, for their degree.

I hope this summary is of some use to others, while I highly recommend watching the show if you can – for fun as well as for function!


Grammar point: Participles

Hi everyone,

I thought I would share something else I have been working on from the Palgrave Study Skills: Improve your grammar. (This book is quickly becoming my baby I recommend it to you all!)

This time I have been looking at participles to enhance students’ writing. I find this a particularly useful grammar point to focus on when the student already writes well and coherently, but it’s lacking flare. In other words, the classic stuck in a B graders!

So, what is a participle?

In Maisie speak, it’s being playful with the sentence. Twisting the order and varying this from sentence to sentence. Basically it’s a step further than just adding your usual connectives (and, because, or).

However, I feel the book writes this slightly more eloquently, describing a participle as:

  • A present participle is a form of a verb ending in – ing (eg. facing)
  • A past participle is often a form of a verb ending with -ed (eg. worked, although could include done, driven, known etc).
  • A past participle can also be used after ‘having’ (eg. having worked)

“But stop!” I hear you cry. How an earth do we put this grammatical jargon (as it may seem to the student) into practice?

First, I would get the student to try and use participles to enhance the following sentences. Note that the original sentences are grammatically correct, they’re just missing that oomph, if you will.

Example 1

The country’s car industry was obliged to restructure in the 1990s because it faced the effects of a recession.

This could be improved with the help of a participle, changing it to:

Facing the effects of a recession in the early 1990s, the country’s car industry was obliged to restructure.

Example 2 

Exports grew over the next few years. They were driven by an international marketing campaign.

This could be improved with the help of a participle, changing it to: 

Exports, driven by an international marketing campaign, grew over the next few years.


The book gives a few more examples, however I feel it would be more beneficial (given we only have 50 minutes) to try and enhance some of the sentences in the students’ own work.

I’m sure for many of you this is something you do quite naturally without thinking about it – I know I do! For this reason I have found this resource so helpful because it’s a concrete way to make writing ‘better’, something which can seem a terribly daunting task when faced with a student who is already using a good variety of simple, complex and compound sentences.


Processing, interpreting, quoting and referencing source material

Just a quick reflection on a recent session.

Jenny (not her real name) is an overseas mature student in the School of Social Sciences, having started her degree course only a few weeks ago. She approached the Study Skills Centre for a mentoring appointment because she lacks confidence with the “technicalities” (her word) of academic writing.

The introduction to the session went well. We had time to briefly discuss the services of the Centre and Jenny’s background, country of origin and experience at Bangor so far. She seems to be a very diligent student, having comprehensive, beautifully hand-written lecture notes for all her modules, and is generally confident when talking about her subject. She very quickly presented her main concern to me: avoiding plagiarism, knowing when and when not to reference, and the Harvard system of referencing in particular.

The source of this concern seems to be a lack of instruction during her ‘access to university’ course on how to process information and incorporate it into her own writing, where (it seems) students were permitted to quote large sections of source texts as long as they referenced the author. She instinctively feels that this is wrong but doesn’t know why or what to do about it.

This is a problem I have encountered with other early university learners. They are conscious that they need to engage with the substantive information and discussion of experts in the field but can’t see a way of processing and re-presenting the material other than to quote it in full: “How on earth can I express this any better than the original author did? Particularly as I don’t really understand it anyway!” Rather than compromise on the intellectual tone of the essay and leave out complicated (and perhaps important) details/ideas, they end up quoting large sections of the source text verbatim.

Of course, this isn’t a ‘writing’ problem per se, it’s more of a general study skills issue about how to engage with your reading material, how to understand it and reflect upon it, how to extract the most important details, how to express your understanding of it, how to rephrase it into your own language and present it back to a new audience.

I don’t have the answer to this problem! But I would like to reflect on the approach I’ve taken with Jenny and others before.

Essentially, I separate out the two tasks: i) summarising the ideas/theories of another writer, and ii) deciding what needs to be quoted or referenced, and how. First I ask the writer to put all their notes and quotes aside and just freely (and orally) summarise what the author is saying in the given text. They usually do an excellent and eloquent job of this, often to their great surprise. I then ask them to write down what they have just said. This passage/paragraph is normally suitable for inclusion in their essay somehow, depending on how they tie it in with the rest of the discussion. I then turn to Colin Neville’s guidelines in his book The Complete Guide to Referencing and Avoiding Plagiarism (copy available in the Peer Mentors’ room) and assess the passage based on these guidelines. I’m not going to go through them all here, but ideas like controversy, pithiness, exceptionally good phrasing, etc., may incline the writer to quote a particular section of the original text verbatim in their summary. This can normally be done quite easily retrospectively. Further to that, ideas such as differentiating between new/specific/unique vs. ‘common’ knowledge help the writer decide what aspects of his/her summary need to be attributed directly to the original author or left as their own authorial comment. We might also discuss how those references to the original author might be made, whether in the text or in footnotes, etc..


I find separating out these two tasks makes the process a lot easier. The task of mentally ‘processing’ the source text and summarising it into your own words is fundamental and cannot be avoided. Whether you MUST or CHOOSE to then quote or reference the original author and text are secondary and can be assessed in the light of guidance and good practice, and there is plenty of published material out there to help. First ‘own’ and communicate the information, then decide what needs to be attributed to others and how.

That is how I have dealt with this rather common problem anyway. But I’d be grateful for any thoughts…

Phil Davies

Problems with past forms

Hello everyone,

This is a useful activity I use to help students improve their grammatical expression.

It is taken from Palgrave Study Skills, Improve your Grammar by Mark Harrison, Vanessa Jakeman and Ken Paterson (2012)

It takes the form of ‘find the mistakes’ in the following sentences, so very easy to fit into a session and feel like you have done something concrete which they can then go away and apply to their whole essay.

Why not have a go yourselves?

What is wrong with the following sentences?

  1. The organisers should of been able to predict the press reaction to the show.
  2. After extensive negotiations, Select Design could make an exclusive agreement with Topshop.
  3. My Frock Ltd did not need to go bankrupt if they had restricted their business to the UK.
  4. The designer handbags on sale at £25 each must not have been genuine. 


This is a great activity to get students thinking about grammar, especially those guilty of ‘writing as they speak’!

See the answers below:

What’s wrong?

  1. In spoken English have may sound like of, but it is never correct to write of as part of a past modal form.

    e.g The organisers should have been able to predict….

  2. You cannot use could for a specific achievement in the past. Instead, you need to use was/were able to

    e.g Select Design was able to make/managed to make/succeeded in making…

  3. Did not need to + verb is used for things that did not happen (because they were not necessary) and Need not have + past participle is used for things that did happen (but they were not necessary).

    e.g My Frock Ltd need not have gone bankrupt if they had restricted their business to the UK.

  4. To express the opposite of must have been, you need to use cannot or could not have been, not must not have been .

    e.g The designer handbags on sale cannot have been genuine.

If you have time, you can extend this activity by going through the student’s essay and seeing if there are any specific examples of these errors in their work.

The value of reflections

Hello everyone,

Further to the discussion we had in today’s team meeting about Jenny’s tricky session I have just finished reading her reflection on the session. After a long summer and only just really getting back into the swing of mentoring I’ve lost touch with the value of writing these reflections, so thought a blog post here (and I really don’t contribute enough as the report highlighted!) would serve to remind us of the power of this tool.

For those of you that are new (welcome to the blog!) there’s a pool of reflections on our drive that you can access – they are not only useful for the mentor who wrote them but are a great way of thinking about our mentoring styles and strengths. Reading Jenny’s latest piece I wonder if I would have been so effective in that difficult situation; would I have instinctively gone back to asking more questions, probing, and really try to get to the root of the situation? Possibly not, but I hope that I would at least achieve some of the positives that clearly came from the session.

Reflecting on the times I have, ahem, reflected – I find that sitting down and writing about experiences really cements good practice, as well as highlighting areas for improvements and things I would do differently next time. So, I will aim to write a reflection about a good/ tricky/ interesting session soon for sure.

Reflecting has also made me feel more positive and optimistic (again a thank you to Jenny here for her wise words after the meeting!) as I can remind myself of the good practice I do follow. I had a brilliant session before today’s meeting, with the writer leaving confident about his essay, but more importantly confident that he can write his assignment, and write it well. The addition of the comfortable seating helped too – thanks Julian! Our sessions aren’t always that straight-forward and effective, so it is good to focus on the positives when they happen.

The session that I have been worrying about is coming up in a few moments. Rather than dreading it, after our discussions I am strangely looking forward to the challenge. I suppose if all our sessions were straight-forward and easy the job wouldn’t be as enjoyable, would it? I’m sure there’s a quote out there about the benefits of facing challenges…. But I haven’t got time to dig, my PhD student is hopefully on his way! I will let you know how it goes….