Monday, 10 May 2010

training session: writing

10 may 2010

Humanities training session
“Writing for a PhD: skills and techniques”
Monday 10th May
1 - 3 p.m. 65/1097
Instructor: Professor John McGavin

The session had 20 students. Very many people need support on their writing.
Precious tips from the beginning of the session: 1. stop thinking about yourself; 2. stop thinking about your reader. These should get you going.

We had two major group activities:

1. first part:
we were paired up with a student who is not from our same department, and swapped pieces of writing. First, we talked about our own subject area; then, we read each other’s papers.
My pair was Cristina, from Sweden. She is a first year PhD student in Archaeology, doing research on food culture from the Bronze age in Scandinavia.
My writing is not even a proper writing yet. It is only part of my thoughts on my methodology. I was hoping she would help me – give me ideas – on how to organise the writing.

Cristina's feedback on my writing: = I need to signpost my information and organise information.

I was at first frustrated with this feedback, because I hoped she would give me more, save me; suggest a structure to my mess. How could she say what I already knew? But, because she did not do so, I felt I was back in square zero. I kept thinking about her feedback and my expectations until I thought: ‘well, maybe my piece is not too bad after all. Maybe I only need to really revise it, and so what she suggests.’

What I learned from it: (a) writing is difficult, as repeated and cliché as it seems; yes, it is difficult. (b) we need other people’s eyes on our papers to point out what we can no longer see. An outside reader always proposes an alternative to our ideas. (c) I don’t know what should come first, if a draft (stream of consciousness writing) or an outline (a plan), because to organize a piece of writing from a draft is complicated and time-consuming.

From each one:
(a) reader’s need determines the info we provide
(b) linking, no hopping (between ideas / points)
(c) don’t assume too much knowledge on the reader – define terms
(d) long sentences are not preferable
(e) take care of jargon (it’s a potential danger to yourself. Jargons come in a package)
(f) simplicity is not bad
(g) reader has to understand sequence
(h) use a ragbag (good quotes in a separate file)
(i) don’t be afraid to empower the reader
(j) a problem in writing talks about a problem in thinking
(k) have a mixture between long and short sentences. Short sentences are better. Too long sentences read like writer is lost, not organized. Too short sentences mean no connection
(l) have a clear line of argument / goal, so that theory can support it
(m) keep aims up front and people can see them. Focus on argument
(n) stay aware of structure / function
(o) how to get started – revise – select – refine (???) what works best varies from person to person. Maybe you have to reorganize everything back again
(p) signpost coherent sequence.

2. second part
We formed different dyads to again exchange our pieces of writing. Peer chose (a) best sentence and (b) worst sentence. we talked about it, why I /she found this and that the worst / the best. My pair this time was Emilie, another Swedish girl, also from Archaeology. Her writing was too technical. I couldn’t understand much.

→ avoid:
- abstract words (value, concepts rather words related to the topic)
- too long footnotes. Put it in to the text
- words like: via, important
- inconfidence (get rid of that person and write to serve your reader. The ghost will disappear)

It was a very helpful training session. Maybe we should have it more often, same format / idea.

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