“Don’t get it right, just get it written”

I recently stumbled across an academic writing group set up and run by PhD students here in the University, and went along to see how it works.

We began with a 5-minute warm-up exercise, getting into pairs and swapping plans verbally of what we wanted to write about. It’s a gentle, non-threatening way of getting into your topic by explaining it to someone else. In my session we were put into pairs consisting of one more experienced participant (in terms of writing group attendance) and one less so, which was thoughtful.

After the 5-minute exchange of plans – and two and a half minutes is really not a lot of time to say what you want to do! – we had 8 minutes of free writing. The rules for this section are:

  • you must use complete sentences, but not necessarily “academic” language
  • you can’t go back over anything you’ve written: no edits, and no spellchecking
  • you can’t stop writing until the timer goes!

What you write in this segment is for your own eyes only – not for supervisors, colleagues or anyone else to see and criticize (unless you decide otherwise afterwards). And what you write can vary tremendously. Some participants use the 8 minutes to outline what they’ll work on in the main section of the time; some use it to reflect on how they feel about their research that day. But what happens when you get stuck, or are blank to start off with, and yet you must write and keep writing? That’s what’s so interesting about this approach. The session leader described a participant who, in utter frustration, wrote “I hate this, I hate this” repeatedly for 8 minutes. Yet the action of writing, even the writing of negative or emotional sentences, brings its own release – that’s the point of the free writing.

This is very reminiscent of how Maya Angelou describes the writing process:

What I try to do is write. I may write for two weeks ‘the cat sat on the mat, that is that, not a rat.’ And it might be just the most boring and awful stuff. But I try. When I’m writing, I write. And then it’s as if the muse is convinced that I’m serious and says, ‘Okay. Okay. I’ll come.’

After the 8 minutes’ sandbox time, the final section is 45 minutes of ‘real’ writing, intended for consumption by a real audience. By this time everyone in the group was physically settled, writing materials arranged comfortably, and grounded by our earlier discussion and by the fact that we were no longer face to face with a blank page. I found it remarkably easy to focus: ideas flowed as my writing flowed, and yet – because I was writing in full sentences and with one eye on future readers – I was forced to fit the ideas into the rhythm of the writing and develop them in an orderly way. And the astonishing thing was that I was able to do this. I didn’t lose track of anything, and I ended up with a piece of coherent, well-developed writing that I could type up* and (with minor amendments) present to colleagues. Magically, I was getting it written and getting it right – pretty much; and that’s a first for me.

Rowena Murray, whose work on academic writing techniques was the inspiration for this choice of format, describes how writing can become “part of the researcher’s thinking process” (‘What can I write about?: The rhetorical question for PhD students and their supervisors‘). Yet, as she also points out, in most UK universities writing is not perceived in this way, and a dislocation between the thinking and writing processes results.

This idea of “dislocation” encapsulates my PhD experience perfectly. I was the student who couldn’t write. It seemed to me that until I had something definitive and irreproachable to say, I couldn’t go near a pen. The sight of blank pages in my research diary gave me hysterics. I read and took notes compulsively and wrote nothing – until my final year, when breaking through the barrier that I’d so painstakingly constructed was a slow and anguished business. The Muse did come, of course – in the end. But incorporating writing/thinking time on a weekly basis from the start seems a much saner way of summoning her.

* Yes, my writing is an analogue affair. Interestingly, the majority of the participants present also used pen and paper.

Writing group structure

In the writing group I attended sessions take place weekly and last an hour and a quarter. Have one person who can explain how each part of the session works and act as timekeeper (setting the timer on your phone is the easiest way).

  • 5 minutes’ discussion in pairs of what you plan to write about in the session
  • 8 minutes of free writing – complete sentences, no stopping, no editing
  • 45 minutes’ writing for an audience

The time in between is used for taking breath, stretching, and thinking about how to approach the next section.

The session finished with tea and biscuits (brought by participants) and an informal debrief where each participant described to the rest how the session went for him/her.

Title quotation: James Thurber

6 comments so far

  1. Andy Priestner on

    I found this post phenomenally useful. Thank you.

  2. Katie Birkwood on

    Me too. And thanks Andy for commenting – the post was lost in a feed-reader clear out, but, O happy day, I’d subscribed to Emma’s comments, too.

  3. […] if we know that bit more, we’ll be that much less vulnerable, right? Uh, no. I’ve blogged previously about why this approach doesn’t work. The doctoral learning journey is enough of an epic […]

  4. Julia Braham on

    Thanks for this, I am going to try and get more out of the ‘free writing’ activites I use in my workshops.I still feel I need to dig deeper to help with concerns students have about the value and quality of their writing (after free-writing), but I will put more thought into helping them differentiate between problems with ideas generation and worrying about the quality of final draft.

  5. elenizazani on

    I started my writing day with your post, just to warm up and stop staring at the screen! David Weinberger (one of my favourite modern thinkers), acknowledging the support given by his book club for writing, said that writers need emotional support even if “we pretend, we’re pretending otherwise”. I ‘m trying to say that you are lucky if you have a decent writing club/group in close proximity that you can draw support from.. Let me know if you are aware of a similar one in London (@elenizazani)

  6. […] section on writing, in particular the free writing exercise, was inspired by attending an academic writing group set up by students – these sessions are a superb way of getting into the habit of writing and […]

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