writing tips

Jul 072014
 

Report WritingReport writing is an area of writing that should be expanded upon in undergraduate courses in academia. I frequently explain to my students that the majority of writing that they are likely to do in their professional careers will be report writing. Yet, universities don’t seem to value this as a skill as much as the professional world does. Report writing, and highly technical writing underpins all other writing types and formats promoted and necessitated and prioritised by universities. Even many purely research oriented journal articles are actually in a report format, so I don’t understand why it has become the black sheep of undergraduate course assessments.

Despite the importance of report writing, and the structured nature of report writing, it is the format that I find my students struggle with the most. Even mature age students who have written reports in the private sector, or for government, tend to fall apart when confronted with writing reports for an undergraduate course.

I understand that essays, critiques and analyses providing summaries and carrying arguments are important and are the backbone of undergraduate assessments. However, these can be present in reports as well. The fact that a report is structured seems to make it seem much more elementary than other writing formats. But for mine, it is the basis for presenting and demonstrating primary evidence – whether this is qualitative or quantitative.

Specificity, accuracy and succinctness are great skills developed and assisted by practice in report writing. Students who hide a lack of understanding with wordiness and vagueness tend to struggle with report writing due to the nature of what is required. Assessing report writing in an undergraduate course would encourage students to learn to focus their writing, and promote a balanced approach to argument.

Report writing is also as varied and adaptable as the other writing formats promoted in undergraduate courses. Reports can be generated for the representation of data, for the documentation of a process, or for providing recommendations and conclusions to an audience.

Being able to demonstrate ability to present primary evidence is something I would like all of my students to be able to achieve. The rise of evaluations for research programmes, community programmes, or projects undertaken by the private sector in my opinion necessitate a greater emphasis on teaching the basic parameters of report writing in greater depth.

Although I studied various science subjects, social sciences and humanities over the course over my studies, it wasn’t until I began working as a research assistant, and writing reports and evaluations for government, that I felt comfortable with writing reports. Apart from publications, I can’t remember writing anything else – which I find strange when I look at what is required in undergraduate courses.

So what do my students struggle with when writing reports?

Abstracts are the biggest problems that students face. Somewhere between an introduction and an executive summary, the abstract is hung out to dry. An executive summary is something that should be promoted as a tool to be used as an assessment piece, in and of itself, but I digress. I find that students haven’t read enough peer reviewed material to be able to write successful abstracts. Writing abstracts for students will be the subject of another post, as it is worthy of more discussion than what I can offer here.

Introductions are also problematic for many students, strangely enough. In reality, an introduction for a report should be no different to an essay or other format – just that it is structured differently. And this is where I believe reports should be used more frequently in higher education, because in the process of writing a report, students are forced to state their hypothesis or what they are attempting to prove/ disprove. The matter of factness of stating the intentions of what is being written and presented is not something that is done well by undergraduate students.

The inability to write in this way has consequences once students become involved in their own research, through further study or as a research assistant. I know that I had problems with this, and it probably took me the entire length of my thesis to realise this flaw.

The presentation of data is also something that students struggle with. It’s quite often lumped in without much thought given to it. There is often no lead in to the results presented, or context provided. Results and data are simply thrown in without much thought as to how they are to be interpreted. It’s perhaps my most common feedback in report writing assessments – that data in tables and figures must be referred to in the text of the document.

Discussions are an area where students really need a lot of guidance to be able to extend the concepts that they are analysing in their report. I don’t understand why this is so difficult for students. It’s essentially a mini essay within the report, which students should already be familiar with. However, it requires dovetailing and being tied into the investigation, experiment or other process which produces the primary evidence.

What are the opportunities for promoting report writing?

A lot is made of the technological savvy of generation y. For mine, the ability to be creative, using new technologies and data tools is an area on which this generation should actually focus. I would like to see new ways of analysis and presentation of data. Using traditional data tools and new tools alike to present and promote data in new and interesting ways. Presentation and explanation of data as a standalone assessment piece, is something I think should be promoted more explicitly in undergraduate courses.

There is a perception that report writing should be formulaic, traditional and ritualised. I think this has led to most reports going left unread and unused in the workplace. But they are an untapped resource, especially for promotional or corporate education purposes. I want to see my students playing around with different data visualisation techniques. I want to see them be able to show potential employers that they can reinterpret “boring” reports and evaluations in new and interesting ways. We live in a world which is data driven, and data is demanded by bosses and management. But we also live in a world where this data is hidden, and underutilised.

Using elements of reports as assessment items that will be required in the workforce is the area of opportunity. Students are going to demand to be provided with relevant skills to what they will require once in the workforce. I can’t think of anytime I have been asked to write an essay. But I have been asked to write evaluations, procedures and policies. All of these are potential ways to integrate report writing as an assessment task within an undergraduate degree course, which will provide long lasting value to students.

May 142014
 

Flipping SentencesFlipping SentencesFlipping Sentences

 

Flipping SentencesFlipping SentencesFlipping SentencesFlipping sentences, reversing sentences or writing your introductory sentences as concluding sentences in a paragraph is a common problem I see with my students. Flipping sentences can also occur in the first two sentences of a paragraph. It was also a problem with my own writing before I embarked on my thesis. It wasn’t until I was given feedback by my supervisors that I realised what I was actually doing wrong. I was flipping sentences. Rather than writing good, strong topic sentences, I was hiding these within the paragraph, often as concluding sentences. Doing so leads to vague language, confused paragraphs, and all too often confusing sentences with more than one idea making an unwelcome appearance. Since then I’ve made an effort to discuss with my students how this problem presents itself, and how it can be resolved. Having this problem with my writing pointed out to me and corrected has improved the ease and proficiency of my writing no end. And I’m hoping it will improve your writing as well.

 

The Problem and Cause

Flipping sentences is a legacy from when we are taught to write. The narrative, story telling approach to writing that we develop from a young age encourages us not to write up front – to hide conclusions, to present a mystery to the reader, and only to provide a resolution after all information has been presented (in some cases at least). From this a habit of writing without telling the reader what is actually happening ahead of time, or has happened, can develop.

Academic writing is different. Academic writing demands that we state what we are saying up front. For the most part, we aren’t telling a story; we are telling a factual account or explaining a critical analysis. And it’s this element which students (and myself) have the most trouble in getting their heads around.

It’s not simply a matter of stating conclusions up front. It’s a little more of an art-form than that. And you will find the best, particularly scientific writers, are able to write their topic sentences fluidly – giving you just enough information to know what their thesis or argument is, without giving away the conclusions. But at the same time, giving you enough information to know what the paragraph will be about.

As with everything, changing a writing technique, or knowing how to employ an academic writing technique takes a lot of practice.

With most forms of errors in writing, flipping sentences are hard to self diagnose. But students will often tell me some pointers that indicate they are flipping their sentences, even before I’ve looked at their work.

 

Symptoms

A classic case is being overly reliant on quotes in the topic sentence. I tell my students that I don’t want to see references or quotes in the topic sentence, if it can be helped. There is a place for it, but not in most paragraphs.

I will often hear that students are continually concluding paragraphs with a question. Posing questions as a concluding sentence is a classic example of what is most likely a topic sentence. I don’t like seeing questions written in academic papers – they should be answered, argued and explained. The questions raised should be intuitive, and flow from one paragraph to the next. This issue of leading into another paragraph is especially if they raise a counterpoint.

Another piece of consistent feedback will be that the language is too conversational, vague or non-academic. Often, this feedback is ignored because the student doesn’t know exactly what to do with it, or about how to change it.

For me, I know when I’m flipping sentences when I get feedback such as, “repetition in consecutive sentences”. I don’t notice this myself. When I’m writing I feel as though I’m elucidating subtle differences. But what it actually is, is that I’m not clear enough, active enough and positive enough to state my topic sentence clearly. For me it leads to a lack of succinctness and accuracy in detail which is a great skill to have if you can pull it off.

When flipping sentences between the first and second sentences within a paragraph, it shows a lack of confidence in what is being said. What I have found in my own writing is that I know what it is that I should say in the topic sentence, but I lack the confidence and authority to be able to state it up front. And I notice this with my students as well. I’m often telling my students to have confidence in what they are saying. Sometimes, we should listen to our own advice.

All of these symptoms (and possibly more) are the result of flipping sentences, and can be corrected by employing the use of appropriate topic and concluding sentences.

 

Tips to Improve and Correct Flipping Sentences

As with all things, the most effective way to improve writing is to practice. But there are some ways that I have been able to correct my own writing, and the writing of my students.

It is a little more advanced than simply knowing what a paragraph structure looks like, you must be able recognise what each of the elements does. However, most students do know this and require more corrective instruction, rather than outlines and generic formulas.

The first tip is to eliminate any conjunctions in the first sentence of a paragraph. Words like and, but, or join two parts of a sentence together. In the topic sentences, these words have a tendency to create passive language, confuse the writer, the reader, and often lead to a messy paragraph. By eliminating the conjunctions in the first paragraph, the writer is likely to say what the paragraph is actually about, and then explain appropriately from there.

A tip to tackle this problem is to reformulate the topic sentence.  By reading out loud, you will begin to eliminate extraneous words, shorten sentences and write how it should be read.

If you feel it necessary to have a conjunction in the first sentence, first consider if the second topic is worthy of another paragraph, and then link them – rather than potentially messing up one clear paragraph.

Avoid vague descriptors in paragraphs, but especially in the topic sentence! Words like very, many, most, some will lead to passive language. These words can point to something important, so back it up with statistics or a reference – be forceful and active by taking out these words. If it requires further specification, move it to the second or supporting sentence and write another topic sentence introducing the topic of the statistic.

Remove references and quotes from first sentences. On occasions, using references and quotes can work in a topic sentence. But generally, as a marker, I want to see that students can explain the concept, topic or element of the work in their own words. Referencing and quoting detracts from that. When I’m under time constraints to mark and grade papers, if a student has placed quotes and references in each of their topic sentences, immediately I’m looking to place their grade in the middle of the pack.

And what to do with posing questions in an essay, especially as concluding sentences in a paragraph? There are multiple ways this issue can be tackled and corrected. The question rewritten as a solution can be used as the next paragraph’s topic sentence. The question, rewritten as a problem can be used as that paragraph’s topic sentence. And it can be stated as such. If you feel a question needs to be raised, it’s often a signal that the topic hasn’t been clearly explained, it lacks detail, or it hasn’t been fully argued.

Academic writing is a process of presenting, critiquing and arguing. Once a student is into the body of their work, questions raised should almost become intuitive to the reader. It’s fantastic when I’m reading a journal article, or book, and I think, “But what about this?” And without even posing the question, the author is able to tackle the question; the points raised or further explain. It is a hard skill to achieve, but when I see students that have been able to master this art, I do feel as if they “get it”.

I’ll write in upcoming addition about tips to produce high quality introductions. In that, I state there should be a justification for what it is that is being done. If a question is to be raised, it should be in there. Different pieces of work are different, but most undergraduate assessment pieces should follow that structure.

Answers, explanations, critiques and premises of that question are then expected to be unpacked through the assessment. If a student has a persistent problem with posing questions throughout the work, I would suggest listing these questions at the beginning of the paper, and analysing which are most beneficial to be stated there, as a way of shaping and structuring the paper.

Repetition, my own writing problem when flipping sentences, is solved by a drill that I work out. I delete the first two sentences of a paragraph that contain repetition, and I write one. Sometimes it is necessary then to rewrite the paragraph, but so be it. It makes my paragraphs more concise, succinct, to the point, active and confident. These are all things that I want to be aiming for when I write, and when I’m trying to eliminate flipping sentences.

What have you found helpful when rewriting topic sentences? What symptoms do you notice in your writing when you experience some of these symptoms? Let me know, and I’ll lend some assistance in the next writing tips post.

May 082014
 

TurnitinTurnitin is the bane of many student’s and lecturer’s existence. But I am in the camp where Turnitin is one of the best advances in technology in academia since I became a University student. I am all for using technology to assist with writing. And used correctly, Turnitin is an extremely useful tool for improving the standard of written work. Turnitin is extremely useful as a teaching, correction and writing coaching tool. Primarily, Turnitin is a plagiarism detection tool and method for assigning marks and correcting work. However, it is most effective in its instruction and self correction abilities.

Turnitin does have its flaws which do irritate students and those marking – the classic being the assignment cover sheet reading as a plagiarised section. The similarity report (the overall “plagiarism” percentage) will also depend upon the order in which the assessment was submitted. Students submitting their work last will read higher in their similarity index as references and so on will be found as a false positive in colluding work between students.

What is more important than these overall numbers is the way in which these statistics appear within the student’s assignment. If a quote is not properly referenced, it will be picked up and highlighted by Turnitin. Incorrect paraphrasing will also be picked up by Turnitin. And it is this feature that highlights incorrectly paraphrased and quoted material, which is the best use of the Turnitin technology. It is the easiest and most effective way for improving a student’s writing standards.

Paraphrasing is a notoriously hard skill to teach and for students to master. Using Turnitin, it is the first thing I look for when assessing a student’s work. It is the easiest way for me to decide whether a student has fully grasped and understood the concepts and context at hand. How Turnitin highlights sentences within the document shows me whether or not a student is able to use their own voice in relation to the topic and questions at hand.

Turnitin makes it easy for a marker to identify consistent faults in paraphrasing, referencing and quoting work in the assignment. Once you have identified consistencies in the problems, it is simple to provide quick, effective feedback that is instructive to the student, and will have a lasting impact on their future submissions. The feedback is not vague or general – it is tangible. The student is able to see the highlighted portion, and the marker’s feedback in relation to it.

That is the instructional use and value of Turnitin. Students can also get value in learning to self correct work before the submit it. Turnitin is a great tool for students to use to check first drafts before submission. My advice to students is to submit their draft to Turnitin before the due date (Turnitin allows multiple submissions before the due date) to make basic error corrections, to check for referencing errors and to make sure paraphrasing mistakes have not been made. These will show up to students as they would for the markers, allowing the student to correct and change incorrectly paraphrased sentences.

The visual nature of the feedback given by Turnitin also assists students in understanding when they are relying too heavily on quotes, or on one particular source. If they are continually quoting from one author or source, the colours will show up in their work as similar. This is a great way of being able to evaluate one’s own work when submitting. You can quickly assess whether there is a good spread of references, or if you are relying for your argument on only one or few sources.

Turnitin has become so valuable for my students and my own marking that I’ve actually begun to use it to alter, edit and revise some of my own work. Not only is it useful for the student and lecturer/ marker, but I think it also provides potential value for the academic and author. Often when you are reading on one topic, referencing can become sloppy and paraphrasing problematic. Turnitin offers a way to deal with this before any unintended surprises through innocent mistakes. As technology improves and no doubt journals begin to use basic electronic scanning software to pick up mistakes, I think it is probably wise to use software and programmes like Turnitin to help analyse first drafts and pick up basic mistakes that might otherwise be missed.

As an experiment I decided to put a draft of the main chapter in my thesis through the Turnitin check (you can see this in the image for this article). Surprisingly, it did very well. I was actually expecting it to pick up my thesis somewhere on the internet, but it did not. It came out at 22% similar, a little high for my liking. However, this is largely due to it picking up a rather large reference list. Some 122 sources were identified, with five at 1% and the rest at <1%. And that is more important than the overall figure. Scanning the document reveals to me that the five sources at 1% are due to the same direct quotes being picked up in other assessments around the world. I am happy with this. There are no paraphrasing mistakes and no one source is standing out to me as overused.

Plagiarism prevention, marking and assessment organisation is really the backbone of the Turnitin software. But, it is actually most effective when used in conjunction with instructional and coaching assistance. The marker is able to focus on a student’s consistent errors in structure, referencing and paraphrasing mistakes. But the student also gets a visual representation and visual feedback that can be used in conjunction with assessment feedback, in order to self correct and improve writing into the future. I am convinced that software like Turnitin can also be effectively used for improving the standard and reduce the risk of potential problems for academics and researchers alike.

Apr 152014
 

2 Apps For Helping You WritePreviously I have explained the importance of routine to help with productivity for improving your writing output. In this post, I’m going to introduce you to 2 Apps for Helping You Write.

Both Apps are free, and both apps I use as a way of utilising the pomodoro technique. The pomodoro technique is popular amongst the #acwri crowd and you’ll find this pop up quite a bit during the #acwrimo and #nanomo.

The pomodoro technique works by excluding other activities whilst you are focussed on one. Usually, this period of time is a period of 30 minutes. At the end of the 30 minutes you can then take a break – read that text message, respond to that email, go for a walk or grab another coffee.

It is a technique that is now a part of my morning routine. I find it maximises the most productive time of my day. And you should do the same with these 2 Apps for Helping You Write.

My Minutes2 Apps For Helping You Write

My Minutes is a scheduling and timer app combined into one. I used My Minutes to great benefit when writing my thesis. It ensured that I wrote for a minimum of 30 minutes each day, and edited/ revised for 30 minutes during my lunch break. It also gave me a tracking of how I had gone over the last week towards achieving my goals. My Minutes displays red circles for an unachieved daily goal and a green circle for an achieved goal. Each circle represents a day of the week, so you can get a visual representation of what you might have been avoiding during the week, or what you might need to concentrate on for the remainder of the week.

You can also set up a daily reminder to tell you how many tasks you have on a given day. As you can see, I’ve been pretty slack. But thanks to this app, I don’t actually need it anymore because it has become habitual for me to have a routine. I had it set up for my daily knee rehabilitation exercises after having an arthroscope last year. So it isn’t just useful for writing, but anything that requires a time based routine.

Perhaps you want to stretch or do another pre-writing activity that you find helpful? This is one of the perfect 2 Apps for Helping You Write.

@Timer

Since using My Minutes and using time based routine techniques, I now need less of that app. Now I use @Timer and prioritise my daily tasks on a day to day basis.

2 Apps For Helping You WriteI use @Timer for my daily reading and editing/ revision tasks to keep me on track. I also use it for when I have completed my daily tasks and am studying my Spanish. It keeps me from doing too much of one thing and not moving onto the next task whilst I have the time. As with My minutes, such a simple thing as a timer can keep you focused on one thing at a time, without being distracted. It also gives you a simple goal.

Of course, you don’t need an app if you are disciplined and just want to set a stop watch or keep an eye on the time or what have you. But the technology is there for you to use, so why not make it work for you? If you are struggling to write, it can also contain that without giving you the awful feeling like you’ve sat down to write and achieved nothing all day. It helps to contain that feeling of uselessness which can blow up your writing if you are not careful.

Technology has many potential uses, especially as a procrastination tool. Many apps seem destined to interrupt with your writing and daily tasks. These 2 Apps for Helping You Write will hopefully improve your writing productivity and increase your output. I’m sure there are many others that people find helpful, but these are two that I’ve found helpful in my own work.

Are there any other apps that you have found that help you write? If there are, let me know below and I will check them out.

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 072014
 

How to write a lot brands itself as a “practical guide to productive academic writing”, and for the most part this is true. It could also be an exposition in keeping it simple stupid for the academic writing arena. It really is one and the same.

I read this book on the recommendation of some academic writers during #AcWriMo. Paul J. Silvia, an academic psychology specialist in writing, presents the common complaints put forward by academics as to why they don’t write, and why they don’t publish.

For mine, it is just a positive affirmation of what I already do when I’m writing productively, and what others I’ve worked with have espoused previously.  For others, and in particular for students, the book dispels many of the myths surrounding productive writers.

The message is simple – create a routine and prioritise activities that are writing, or will help you write. As the age old saying goes in academia, if you haven’t got five minutes a day to write, no one can help you. By promoting a routine of writing and writing related tasks, it becomes habitual. I notice myself that when I am writing a lot, I am competitive with myself to exceed yesterday’s output, and become agitated when my writing routine is disrupted. I look for any possible opportunity to be writing. But this is a good situation to be in. I wonder how many people do get annoyed when they aren’t writing, or if they’ve just become resigned to not writing and then put up a smokescreen of excuses that Silvia outlines in this book.

Silvia does not just outline the problems inherent in academic writing and for producing academic scholarship. He also outlines strategies and solutions for developing a culture of writing. These I think are very under rated tips. Getting together a writing group – every week or every second week – will reinforce the requirements for writing. I think this is missed by most students and academic staff. Being able to introduce some measure of accountability from a group, rather than relying on deadlines, is a great way to ensure writing becomes habitual and gets done.

Had I been told that I could get through my undergraduate degree rather easily with just writing 50 or 100 words per day during semester, I perhaps would have been much more productive and successful. But this is what the book really amounts to – explaining how to break down writing tasks to manageable sizes that then don’t become overwhelming in totality.

The importance of developing some level of self accountability is also expressed in How to Write a Lot. I think Silvia has stolen my idea of being able to chart success in writing tasks, and output. He gives his results in an SPSS format, which I think is great if you haven’t already attempted to do something similar. At one stage I kept a database of my word output, and noticed that my most productive days for writing were Wednesday and Thursday. This is perhaps one thing that is lacking in this book – the importance of analysing when in the week and during the day you are most productive in writing.

At some point down the track, I’d also like to analyse what type of exercise is the most beneficial for my writing output. I certainly notice that walking and cycling are the most beneficial for my writing output, and that cricket and golf are perhaps the worst – but I have no evidence to support this claim. It may just be the associated alcohol intake that is the problem.

How to Write a Lot addresses my biggest weakness – how to turn writing a lot into writing productively. I write a lot. But I don’t always have much to show for it. Writing sometimes becomes a procrastination tool instead of doing other more important writing. There are simple, focussed tips given in How to Write a Lot to make sure what you are writing is structured, and presented in a way that can later be used for publication. Prioritising productive writing rather than pure output is something I hadn’t given a lot of thought to.

At the same time Silvia explains the importance in depersonalising your own writing. Emotional investment is something students find quite difficult to grapple with. I certainly found this rather difficult whilst writing my thesis, but it is an important trait to be able to develop in order to write more, and write more productively. Hanging off every word becomes pointless when an editor, examiner, lecturer, tutor or boss is going to tear it apart and make you rewrite and review it in any case. Accepting this before you begin writing is probably the biggest lesson that I took out of this book. And this lesson is one that is important for anyone at any stage of their writing.

I would highly recommend this book to anyone who is looking to increase their writing output, or looking for ideas to tune up something that is not quite right. If you have a colleague or a student that is stuck on one of the many stumbling blocks of writing, I’d suggest leaving this book on their desk.

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.