Reflections on a writing workshop

Last week I attended a two day writing workshop in Durham run by the NEDTC. It was a bit of a mixed experience, but I would like to share some reflections on the workshop that might possibly be useful for others too.

There were 45 of us from a real cross section of disciplines, with very different projects from around the UK and Europe. Most were further along with their projects than I am, hoping to submit in just a few months. However, what was very clear is that writing is a struggle for everyone, and despite the variety of projects there seemed to be many shared issues with regard to writing up data analysis.

The first day was more a reiteration of general issues in terms of the writing process, and was not dissimilar in content from my last joint supervision with Juup and Richard. Here are just a few key things that I wrote down, which I felt it was good to be reminded of:

  • writing is a kind of thinking – so get on with it!
  • make writing a practice – do it every day.
  • ask yourself: ‘Is it fit for purpose i.e. is it good enough?’ Separate the thesis you will submit, from the thesis you would like to write if time were no object.
  • be aware of the power that you have as a writer.
  • control and manage the PhD rather than letting it control you.
  • be constantly aware of your audience – what will they understand and how can you draw them in?
  • you are not writing a murder mystery i.e. not keeping people in suspense about what it’s all about until the last minute.

The second day was more creative. In fact, the most enjoyable session by far was one on creative writing. Again, the concept of audience featured highly in this session and we did various little writing experiments to explore different perspectives and ideas. So again, just a few key, generalisable points that arose from this.

  • writing expressively is about writing communicatively.
  • you need the ability to characterise yourself in the story – and you need to be able to step outside of the story to do that.
  • creative thoughts disappear very quickly so write them down.
  • don’t dismiss thoughts however silly they might seem at the time. Take them on seriously and see if they lead you somewhere.
  • beware of the inbuilt assumptions in all the words we use.

There were other sessions and some helpful ideas about how to present data, writing coherent chapters and linking chapters together, but the key encouragement that I have brought away with me in terms of the stage that I am currently at in the writing process, is that of being free to experiment. I am not writing against the clock at present, so I can be creative, experiment with different presentational forms and ideas, different ways of organising my material. I had not really started writing anything (until my last supervision) because I couldn’t work out how I wanted to write the thesis. Now I realise that I might not work that out for some months yet, but also that I’ll never work it out unless I start trying things out. And that means I just need to keep writing!