Wisdom from a writing workshop: plans, practices and places to go

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On September 24th, I joined with a fellow tribe for a one-day workshop on writing techniques. The tribe: social scientists (PhD students and post-docs) with aspirations of writing longer pieces related to health and illness.

I’m writing to share what I learned.

Multiple pressures confront us. The juggle of two or three research projects running concurrently. A brain divided between managing research and putting pen to paper. The challenge of avoiding poor writing and reaching for our best voice.

To take on these challenges, we used the day to explore ideas and practices related to writing. Matt Lane (Post-Graduate Skills Training Officer for the University of Cambridge) led the morning session with interactive lectures and small group work, with the afternoon focused on our own individual writing projects within a group setting.

A few key pieces of wisdom emerged.

Planning to write

“In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.” – Dwight E. Eisenhower

Eisenhower’s view of battle is apt for writing. Many inputs go into writing a piece: finding a topic, defining a research strategy, executing the research itself and writing smaller, cumulative pieces. Yet taking the time to plan these inputs often escapes us. “Just write!”, says the self.

But a little planning can indeed be indispensable. Lane encouraged us to view our writing projects beyond the completion date: what does wild success look like? What are all the things that need to get done to achieve this success? And perhaps most importantly: what’s the next immediate action you can take? Making this process concrete seems obvious, but is often a step that writers skip.

When it comes to finally composing a piece, Lane encouraged us to “write in layers”. Build the intellectual and rhetorical architecture, whether via an outline or topic and transition sentences. As we build the layers, Eisenhower’s voice returns: earlier plans for the piece often will get replaced with a new sense for direction. As the architecture of the argument and piece is built, attending to the body of paragraphs will come more naturally.

Practices for the moment

Before a run, I usually stretch for a few minutes. But just before starting to write, my usual thought is: let’s get started! Lane encouraged us to use “writing warm-ups” for 5-15 minutes just before digging into a writing project. A warm-up prompt could be what do I want to find out today? What did I learn yesterday? What was I thinking about in the shower or over breakfast? A few minutes of warming-up activates the brain. I’ve been trying this approach, and it’s been working!

The next practice on the list: time management. Often, when thinking about writing a longer piece, many of us imagine blocking out a week and large chunks of time during the day. But this perception can backfire. With the thought of large blocks of time, distractions more easily infiltrate the day. Uninterrupted sitting in front of the computer goes from minutes to hours. A long writing session might end with only a few minutes of real productivity. Instead, write in smaller chunks of time. Take a break after 45 minutes of focused attention. Set micro goals – completing a paragraph or section, for example – and have the discipline to walk away from the writing for a short break before returning to tackle the next goal.

Finally, in the afternoon, we tested “writing groups” to work on our individual projects. Writing in groups allows members to verbalise goals, hold each other accountable and act as a support group to work through road-blocks. While writing alone is the norm, having people around can make the process more fun and productive. I had one of my most productive afternoons of writing in weeks!

Places to go for more resources

Spending intentional time to reflect on writing practices carries many benefits, such as figuring out new practices and habits worth trying out. The other benefit are the new resources that can be used for further exploration and learning. Here are a few places to go:

Check out a Cambridge writing group

How to Write a Thesis, Rowena Murray

The Craft of Research, Booth et al.

Getting Things Done, David Allen

For some inspiration, check out one of my favorite places to go: Brainpickings. Search for pieces on writing, and you’ll be sure to find many gems.

*Victor Roy [2009] is a second year PhD student in sociology and political economy as a Gates Cambridge Scholar. He is also an MD candidate at Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago as a Paul and Daisy Soros Fellow for New Americans. Picture credit: Sakhorn38 and http://www.freedigitalphotos.net.

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