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Apr 012014

ReformulatingPreviously I spoke about the problems incurred when you plan your writing to death. An interesting phenomenon I’ve found also occurs when a student is suffering from such a problem. That is they struggle to write a topic sentence from their notes – to begin a fully formed paragraph. In this post I’m going to explain how you can overcome this problem by reformulating the topic sentence.

So you’ve taken your notes, you’ve got your headings, you’ve done all the readings, you begin to write and you look at your work and you think, “Oh crap”.

You begin to think you should be holding one of those “slow” signs. Because that’s how you’re acting, and that’s how you fear your writing is going. It’s like you are stuck in road-works.

Chances are you’ve been used to writing notes, thinking in short bursts and have been thinking through your writing in small chunks – not in fully formed sentences.

If you are suffering from this affliction one of the best strategies you can do is not to write. That’s right. Not to write.

You should speak it.

Read out what you have written. Read out what you should have written.

Speak what it is you want to say.

You will find that you are saying what it is that you have wanted to write.

Then write what it is that you have said. Easy.

I found out on the weekend that this process is actually called reformulation, reformulating, or sentence reformulation.

It works because you have developed a routine for writing something that is not fully formed writing. Speaking out loud and then writing that breaks that habit. We write with speech in our head, and this process connects thought with words.

I also used this strategy to great effect when writing my thesis. When going through sections of my work together, my supervisors would get me to say what it was that I wanted to say (it’s something I now use whenever tutoring by the way). This worked extremely well when introducing paragraphs.

In the end, I took my Dictaphone and later my phone, to record these sentences which I would later write. It worked brilliantly. Once I had a well formed topic sentence, the rest of the paragraph would flow.

From time to time I use dictation software to do exactly this – to write my topic sentences. It works for me when I am struggling with my writing.

And it probably works in exactly the same way that writing on paper to get started does; as opposed to writing directly into the computer. It can take the visual aspect away from the blank page.

So if you’re struggling to write fully formed topic sentences, especially after you’ve taken plenty of notes and done plenty of planning, I encourage you to try reformulating your sentences by speaking them out loud.

Let me know how you go and if this helps in any way!

Mar 202014
Planning Writing to Death
Writing Planned to Death

It appears to me that a strange affliction amongst some of my most diligent students holds them back whenever there is an assessment due, or a deadline for submitting work approaches. I call it planning writing to death and it is a particularly pervasive procrastination technique. It is problematic because one is not aware of it when they are impacted. One may even think they are being productive when in actual fact they are not.

As a procrastination technique, planning is well known to novelists and fiction writers. But it is something that I notice grips academic writers and students especially badly.

It is almost the opposite extreme of unstructured writing which I’ve dealt with in previous posts (headings and so on as a way to organise your writing). This is a disorder where headings, plans and structure inhibit writing altogether.

Symptoms may include excessive note taking, copious amounts of reading, thinking and an absence of words on the screen.

Those most at risk include binge writers and perfectionists.

Treatment includes some of the tips described in ‘How to Write a Lot’.

Most importantly it requires you to realise that your writing sucks. But that it doesn’t matter.

My writing sucks. Most people’s writing sucks. But that’s not the point. It’s there. Starting, doing and finishing something are much more important than doing something perfectly.

Writing is like Golf – the perfect round is never going to happen. Ever. But by starting, getting things down and doing them regularly, you will improve.

I used to be a serial sufferer. It impacted on my own writing greatly. I didn’t know I was doing anything wrong. Not until my line manager (2 weeks into my first Research Assistant job) asked me what I had found out. I explained, this, that and the other. She then asked, “So what have you produced?” The penny dropped and I had to change my ways.

It doesn’t matter what you know, it only matters what you have to show.

So how do you approach this problem? There are a number of things I now prescribe when treating planning writing to death.

Ban yourself from reading any more.

Chances are you’ve already read enough. What is important is getting something down. Set yourself a writing target and don’t read anything else until you’ve met that target.

Read with a pen in hand.

Reading with a pen in your hand will encourage you to read actively, rather than passively. Look for an excuse to write something meaningful if you are devoting large tracts of time to reading.

Write a fully formed paragraph.

Write a paragraph summarising what you have just read before going on to the next article/ book chapter on your list.

Chunk it.

Under each of your headings, spend five minutes writing off the top of your head the thoughts on the topic. Do this without reference to readings and literature etc. Once you have done this, you will have material to begin with.

Get the first sentence out of the way early.

The first sentence of the day, of an article, chapter, report etc is always the most difficult. Smash it as soon as you get to your computer. Get rid of it. You don’t need the weight of it to impede the work you do for the rest of the day.

With these tips, I think your writing may well go on to survive and make a full recovery.

Have you tried these tips?

Do you have any other hints to use when you find yourself planning writing to death?

Mar 172014

Previously, I have explained the importance of developing headings and consistent contents pages to assist in writing longer pieces of work. In this post, I will explain how to go about doing this, using Microsoft Word 2007, to automatically generate a contents page. But the same can be achieved using later versions of word such as Word 2010, or Word 2013.

The first step in generating automatic contents pages is to become familiar with the ribbon at the top of the page. Under the home tab, on the right hand half of the ribbon, you will see a selection of options for text, including Heading 1, Heading 2, Heading 3 and Title.

Contents Page Headings

Reserve Heading 1 for the names of your chapters as it is much easier to generate an automatic contents page with Heading 1 than it is for the Title setting. Experiment with the characteristics you like and keep them consistent throughout your work.

One you have the layout of the headings that you are happy with, click on the references tab. On the far left of the ribbon, you will see the ‘Table of Contents’ icon. Click the icon and a drop down menu will become available. Choose the layout you prefer. A Table of Contents will automatically be generated, and displayed according to your selection of Headings in the document.

Contents Pages Headings

If you have forgotten something, and add headings later, click anywhere in the table of contents, and click “update table”. This is particularly handy when you are merging multi-chapter documents, and making sure that the formatting of a large manuscript is consistent:

Contents Pages Headings

Any updated or new headings in the document will now be added into the contents page:

Contents Pages Headings

And it really is as simple as that.

Perfect for developing contents pages for reports, theses and other documents which require headings.

Feb 262014
My Thesis Contents Page
My Thesis Contents Page

A frequent problem a student encounters when beginning to write longer assessments and more detailed written tasks is the incorrect use of contents pages and headings.

This is of particular importance for those students who want to go on to complete a thesis or further study. It is also an important skill to learn for professional writing purposes.

Your thesis or report will require a contents page, and will most likely contain several chapters – which will also require multiple sub-headings to be organised and arranged.

Anything else you are likely to write for professional purposes will also require headings. Government reports, progress reports, grant applications and acquittals will require reports with headings.

So, how do you write appropriate headings and a contents page?

The first step is to have consistency.

Having the same colour is a must. Use font size to denote importance. The larger the font size, the more important it is etc etc.

I find using sticky notes (on top of my computer) to keep track of heading sizes and formats will help keep my headings consistent.

By keeping heading sizes, fonts, colours, etc consistent you can automatically generate a contents page in Word, for longer pieces of written work. If it has been done correctly, the layout of the contents page will reflect the importance of the headings within the body of the work.

Also, make sure you have numbers attached to your headings. Organise the decimal number under the main headings. For example: 4.0 Nutrient Pollution, 4.1 Nitrogen etc etc. By doing this, the headings will be divided into chapters, so that the reader knows exactly where they are when they turn to a section of the work.

Headings also help you organise your writing.

Those students that have had structural problems with their writing would do well to spend some time looking at writing headings before writing their assessment in full.

Headings can help you avoid the fear of the blank page.

Brainstorming your heading ideas in the structure you think (or know) is correct, and then fill in the gaps from there. This also helps when you have writer’s block, as you can always write on some topic – you don’t need the previous section to be finished before you write another section. “Chunking” is something that will get you through writing larger pieces.

It is much easier to write topic sentences when you know what headings or role that paragraph will play in your work.

Over writing headings is a problem.

If I am writing on say the Darwin Harbour, I don’t need a heading for every paragraph – unless that is specifically my area of focus. For example, unless my actual topic is on tides, I don’t need a new heading for low and high tides. I would explain them under tides as a general heading.

It’s the same in most pieces of writing.

My rule of thumb is that headings should include a section that contains a: thesis, antithesis and synthesis style (or something similar). For instance, I don’t need a heading for grounded theory; a heading for critique of grounded theory and; a heading for conclusion of grounded theory. It should flow intuitively.

If you have any thoughts on writing good contents pages, ways to use headings, or another related topic, feel free to provide comments below.