Creativity in Academic Writing: after the workshop…

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I thought it might be useful for researchers to see what other researchers have got out of various DocSchool professional development activities this year.  To that end, I asked the attendees on the workshops “Creativity in academic writing” this academic year, to share their thoughts about the training they received, and how they feel about it some time after the workshops.

These posts are presented whole, unedited and unaltered – all I have done is copy and paste the text from the emails they sent me.  Because this isn’t a promotion exercise –  the usefulness of these comments is that they are frank and straightforward, and therefore more meaningful to researchers contemplating attending one of these courses in the future.  It’s also interesting to see how different researchers found different aspects of the same workshop to be most helpful.

Our first contributor is Philippa St George, part-time DPhil researcher, School of English.

I am a part-time DPhil student in the English Department. I attended the Creativity in Academic Writing workshop in April and thoroughly enjoyed it. More to the point, perhaps, I got a great deal out of it.

We were shown a wide range of different techniques for writing creatively and given plenty of time to practise them. One or two of the techniques were not for me but other I have been using consistently since April and found they have made a huge difference to my written output.

In particular the very simple notion of forgetting your audience and just getting your preliminary thoughts down on paper in any way, shape or form. I have found this to be a very productive technique and so liberating! Writing becomes a productive, creative and enjoyable 2 or 3 stage process rather than a grinding chore! I think it has been one of the most useful courses I have attended. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Next up, we have Liz Thackray,  DPhil researcher, School of Informatics.

I did  the workshop in April.

I went to the workshop hoping to have some fun, to meet DPhils from other disciplines and to learn more about academic writing. All 3 objectives were achieved to a greater or lesser extent.

I particularly enjoyed some of the exercises deigned to get the creative juices flowing and the amount of energy and expertise Celia brought to enabling the group to function. It gave me confidence to get on and write, rather than worrying about whether I am expressing myself properly – time to sort that out when reviewing and editing.

However, for me a big disappointment was being split into two separate groups with little interaction between the two groups. Although it was possible to chat to people from the other group over lunch, this was not as easy as if we had been mingling more during the workshop activities.

When the workshop is advertised again, it should be made clear that it is not about learning to write good, grammatical English, but about developing and exploring the writing skills we already have.

And finally, me: Sarah Robins-Hobden, DPhil researcher, School of Psychology

I’m writing this from the perspective of doctoral researcher, not DocSchool employee.  Feel free to disregard if you doubt my efforts at separating these two facets of my identity 🙂  For context, I submitted my thesis in April and did the workshop in June (thanks to people dropping out at the last minute, and folks on the waiting list not being able make it with such short notice).

The first thing that I tussled with was this: Celia asks you to write with pen, on paper.  I had taken my laptop, and so had a couple of others in our group, as that is my usual writing mode.  I had also taken a couple of fountain pens, as I use these when I have to write by hand.  I’m glad I did – ink flows from nibs, so no pressure is required to mark the paper, and therefore, thankfully, I wasn’t bothered by hand-cramp.  I don’t write much more than note-taking usually, so to sit and write whole paragraphs, and to write by hand for longer than a couple of minutes at a time, was new to me.  By the end of the two days I once again loved the process of writing by hand.  I felt more in touch with my writing, as if I had created the words myself, in the factory of my mind, rather than selected them from a cognitive lexicon.

But I was resistant at first.  At the keyboard, I’m a touch-typist of around 80 words per minute.  Which is just about as fast as I think in sentences.  When typing, I always backspace over words and retype changes as I go along.  This disrupts my flow.  Sometimes I even pause mid-sentence whilst I hunt through my head searching for the “just so” word – I’m stalled and unable to move on without it.  With pen and paper, I find the jumble of words is bottle-necked in my head just enough so as to give me time to line them up correctly, to come out as a complete sentence as I write, and I have no need to backtrack and change words – proper editing can come later.  And it’s a physical thing, in a way that typing isn’t – the feel of the paper, the flow of the nib across it, the formation of the words, my own, personal handwriting shaping each letter.

Many of the exercises made me think differently about my writing, in that I felt I was having to think about how I feel about the subject I was writing about.  I hadn’t considered this before.  At all.  I never thought it mattered.  Initially I felt blank.  Meh.  Whatever.  But in a strange way, it was the very act of writing about my topic that led me to discover how I felt about it, rather than the other way round.  Isn’t that bizarre?  So within two days, I discovered that although I couldn’t give a flying monkey about my topic anymore (you win, DPhil, you win), I did actually care about the work I had done for my thesis, and I was rather looking forward to the discourse that would come as part of my viva.

On the first day, Celia takes us through an exercise where we analyse some texts from different disciplines, looking for evidence of various things, including voice, expertise, position in relation to the topic, etc.  Then we apply the same method to a piece of our own writing.  I found this process just awful.  I hated my piece of writing.  Sadly, the text I analysed was part of a discussion in my already-submitted thesis.  I was horrified that I could find no “voice” in there, no hint of me.  I could highlight maybe only two or three short tracts in the whole 800-word sample where I thought I could glimpse a human being behind the words.  Crestfallen.  I had a hard job putting aside the my silent lament, but once I did, I felt activated.  This writing, I thought, wasn’t good enough.  I hadn’t done the work justice, and  I could do much better.

So I re-worked the piece overnight, ready for the second day.  Because on the second day, you read it out loud in very small groups, for feedback.  And there was no way I was going to read out that bland rubbish.  Lo and behold, I was proud of the reworked piece.  I still consider it to be the very best piece of academic writing I’ve done.  And I don’t mind that this came after I submitted my thesis – I’m expecting corrections, probably major corrections, but – I now feel I will be able to do  much better job of them when the time comes.

I feel the workshop has given me tools I never thought I’d use (draw a picture to represent your topic? Write an imaginary dialogue between yourself and leading thinker in your field?), and therefore bent my mind round my writing in peculiar and unfamiliar ways, but most of all, it’s given me confidence to write again (even “in public”, hence this post), and to return to my thesis when I need to, to finish it properly.

Creativity in Academic Writing

… is a two-day workshop, presented to doctoral researchers by Celia Hunt and Abi Curtis of the Centre for Continuing Education.  For more information, see the Creativity in Academic Writing webpage.

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