By Sarah Thomasson
As Kim discussed in a recent post, essay writing is perhaps the toughest challenge for undergraduate students and is one that is not necessarily directly addressed within the curriculum of many academic courses at any level. Essay writing (and increasingly other forms of written communication such as wikis and blog posts) form the basis for assessment in the academy but it is also where students develop their thinking on a subject, draw the connections between the class material and their independent research, and reach their own conclusions by developing the all important thesis statement. It is this process of ‘thinking through writing’ that remains constant whether you are writing an undergraduate essay or a PhD dissertation.
This semester working on ‘Performance Texts’ with Kim, my fellow Teaching Associates Christine and Michelle, and a group of enthusiastic first year students provided a working model of how to integrate writing into our teaching, but also teaching into our writing. Throughout the semester we deployed a number of strategies to incorporate writing exercises into our teaching that were developed in collaboration with Thinking Writing (part of Learning and Development within Student Services at QMUL) the year before. Two strategies in particular have inspired reflection on my own writing practices and how these principles are valuable for overcoming psychological writing blocks in academic writing more generally.
Performance Texts is a first-year undergraduate module (course) that centres on developing ‘reading’ strategies for a number of different texts. When responding to performances (whether professional productions or the workshop performances of their classmates), we asked students to focus on ‘critical moments’: points that stood out for each of us as spectators within the performance, and which we saw as communicating an activist message (the theme for this semester’s class). By thinking with the students about how and why our own moments stood out for us, we as teachers were able to model for students how to push past our initial gut reactions in order to develop a claim about the performance, which would in turn form the basis for articulating a strong, clear thesis statement. In asking students to transform their critical moments into a thesis statement for their first essay, this exercise ultimately broke the process of performance analysis down into three manageable steps.
Free form writing was a second strategy that we used a number of times throughout the semester to help students develop their own thinking about performance through the process of writing. One example of this was in our performance workshops when everyone (including the seminar leaders) took two minutes directly after each ten-minute performance to write down everything they could think of about a critical moment that they had just witnessed. Once everyone had formulated their own responses through this stream of consciousness writing exercise, the audience members discussed their responses in small groups and were asked to come up with good questions to ask the performers. These critical moments and the free form writing exercise that accompanied it formed the basis for our thesis statement workshop the following week and ultimately the thought work that went into writing the first essay. Importantly, this free form writing was not assessed or even shown to anyone, but was rather introduced to students as simply part of the thinking process that goes into essay writing.
My students assured me that they found these exercises and the subsequent thesis statement workshop helpful in preparing for their first essays, but I too learnt valuable lessons to feed back into my own writing. The exercises that we incorporated into Performance Texts model a number of good practices to use at any stage of writing. Firstly, they employ stream of consciousness and free form writing to lower the stakes for the participant; they encourage thinking through writing by asking the author to write out their thoughts before even planning their essay; and perhaps most importantly, they encourage everyone to get words on the page sooner rather than later. This has led me to put pen to paper/fingers to keyboard and to draft my top writing tips to share with readers of this blog. Hopefully they will be useful to anyone at any stage of their writing career.
Sarah’s Top Writing Tips (begged, borrowed, and stolen from various formal writing sessions and informal discussions over the years):
1. Lower the stakes
The self-critic over your shoulder is omnipresent and often crippling. If you are judging the piece as you go, you will never be able to get the words out. A trick is to remove the pressure by remembering that it is just a draft that you can always tidy later. It is also important to keep in mind that this piece of writing is not your life’s work – whether it is an essay as part of your degree, a public blog post, an article being submitted for publication, or a dissertation – and that it doesn’t have to change the world.
2. The ‘Throw Up and Tidy Up’ Method
This was the phrase that my MPhil Associate Supervisor used to describe what is ultimately the ‘thinking through writing’ stage of a piece and is in direct contrast to the ‘spend all day crafting one perfect sentence in the tradition of Hunter S. Thompson’ method. Now that you have lowered the stakes for yourself you can get those words on the page in whatever form that they come. This is similar to the free form writing exercises described above and involves vomiting all of your ideas onto the page and allowing the salient points to emerge. This is particularly useful when you are scared of a piece of writing, have no idea what you want to say, or the opposite – when you have so many ideas in your head that you don’t know where to start. This requires free form writing without checking back through your notes, looking up facts you aren’t sure of, or perfectly referencing each idea (this will come later, once you have a roadmap of where you are going). The thing to remember is that you don’t have to show this to ANYONE. You will not be assessed on it or judged for it. Don’t worry if the sentence structure is too simplistic (or too complicated) or if you have made questionable word choices throughout. Resist checking your dictionary/thesaurus at this stage and just focus on thinking and writing. You’ll feel better for having words on the page and will have something to work with. (Remember, too, that sometimes thinking can also emerge through the editing process, so there will be time to develop your argument further through restructuring and planning after the fact.)
3. Assume the Position
This sounds a bit questionable but is perhaps the most useful tip that I picked up from a writing seminar run by Maria Gardiner and Hugh Kearns of ThinkWell. Those of us who have important pieces of writing to do – this is as true of essays as it is of articles/dissertations/monographs – can expend an awful amount of energy doing anything but writing. Call it procrastination or writing apprehension, which is often more accurate for those of us who spend ages in the research/reading/planning stages, but we often leave the actual writing until the very last minute (although at least we now have clean ovens and freshly-baked muffins, right?). We are all guilty of/afflicted by writing apprehension at some point in our writing lives. The advice I was given when this feeling hits is to ‘assume the position’:
Step 1. Sit at your desk with your computer switched on in front of you.
Step 2. Plant your feet on the floor.
Step 3. Place your fingers on the keyboard in front of you, and have your word processor open on screen.
Step 4. Maintain this position for the next two hours, and don’t move for anything.
It sounds silly but when you don’t give yourself the option of getting out of the task of writing, it can really help. Just writing for two hours a day can get that essay/dissertation/manuscript done in no time. Do this in the morning and then you can spend the afternoon doing more enjoyable tasks like reading/admin/having your wisdom teeth removed guilt free.
4. Practice what I say not what I do.
This is a work in progress for us all.
Sarah Thomasson is a PhD candidate and Teaching Associate at Queen Mary University of London in the departments of Drama and Geography. Her dissertation compares aspects of the Edinburgh International Festival, the Adelaide Festival and their associated Fringe Festivals to interrogate the relationship between these cultural events and their host cities. She also works as an administrative assistant for Contemporary Theatre Review.