Begin with the End in Mind

As a youngster I used to write stories; stories about missing dogs, stolen possessions and long boat journeys. I’ve always loved reading but writing came a close second. My oldest daughter now churns out a story a night. Sometimes when reading them I feel almost jealous. These days I get to write about Higher Education’s use of APIs, digital preservation or Web 2.0 technologies, but not about fairies or goblins.

Writing is an important part of what many of us do. I regularly write a range of materials (from blog posts to magazine articles and peer-reviewed papers) for a range of audiences and levels. I do it because it is part of my job but I am not always sure that the published piece is good, or even good enough.

Yesterday I was lucky enough to attend an internal Writing Skills workshop facilitated by Trevor Day. Trevor is one of two Royal Literary Fund Fellows seconded to the Learning and Teaching Enhancement Office here at the University of Bath. He provided us with an introduction to writing for different audiences, the intention is to have him follow up sometime in the future on more specific areas.

Anyway here are a few snippets and suggestions that I’d like to share.

The key when writing is to be aware of your audience. Try mapping them out to start off with. Who are you when you write a piece of text, are you a guide, a friend, an expert or some body else? What does your audience expect from you in this role?

Writing is made up of three stages: planning and researching, composing and reviewing. The process is interactive and the boundaries are blurred, but we all have our own particular stage we struggle with. I tend to find reviewing very difficult, getting a lot down on paper is never the problem, distilling it into something that makes sense is.

Don’t throw away useful words. Try having an off-cuts folder for sentences that were good but just didn’t fit. Make sure you version your documents so you don’t lose anything.

Writer’s block happens to most of us at some point or other. Trevor suggested a couple of ways to free yourself from its constraints:

  • Try free writing. Write down how you feel about the block (or anything) but using sensory-based words (how you feel, what you can see, smell, hear, taste and touch).
  • Make sure your working environment is conducive to writing – turn off your emails, phone, computer if you need to.
  • If you are unsure of a word or section just leave it for the time being and come back to it. Your unconscious mind will unlock it later. I could tell you more about [blah blah blah] but I won’t.;-
  • Set yourself short, achievable goals; for example, ‘I will write one 250-word blog post in an hour’
  • Use prompts. Trevor’s advice here was to choose a good verb for the start of a sentence: This report will analyse, review, critique, summarise, compare, contrast, consider….Try to avoid using ‘look at’, it doesn’t really mean anything.

Try running the Microsoft Office readability check on your document (Tools > Options > Spelling > Show readability stats). You will end up with a Flesch-Kincaid score. Academic writing should aim for a score between 10 and 16 – this blog post gets an 8.

Walter Wellesley “Red” Smith once said “There’s nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein.” The pain of academic writing is probably more akin to a dull blow to the head but Trevor’s workshop showed us that it needn’t be.


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