The importance of reading aloud

The third post in a series of tips and strategies around academic writing.

It is the last day of my regular, blissful writing retreat. It is finally like summer, warm but windy. The scent of roses (and chocolate) fills our writing room. Last night, we had our regular reading aloud session, when one member nominates an article for us to read, paragraph by paragraph, in a circle.

When did we lose the familiarity and joy of reading and being read to? It is something I love, but seldom do so now. In fact the last time I read aloud to someone was when I was reading the bravura opening chapter of the historical novel The Luminaries by @Eleanor Catton. Her chapter just begged to be voiced, with its beautifully constructed sentences and paragraphs. And that was to my partner lying next to me in bed!

Yet writing advice, academic and otherwise, consistently urges us to read our faltering sentences and paragraphs out loud so that we can hear what is right and wrong, where we have run out of breath because our sentences are too long, what doesn’t link up, where gaps in logic and argument are, or in Pat Thomson’s words: ‘klutzy syntax, missing and misplaced words’.[1] Our groups editing of paragraphs the first night of the retreat are designed to do exactly this. I always come away thinking: ‘Why didn’t I see/think of that!’

But the reading aloud of a chosen article is also very useful. It provides one model of what can be achieved. Our reading is always broken off by admiring discussion of just how an author achieved the desired effect or why we thought a passage was particularly persuasive and illuminating. Of course we do the opposite as well. We have had the odd failure, or at least, an article that wasn’t particularly compelling or praiseworthy. I really believe in reading what you think is good in order to use it as a model or something to aspire to.

This time at Tauhara I joined the group reading a piece by Sarah Ahmed, author of the blog feminist killjoys. It was a posting called ‘White Men’. What a tour de force. After nearly every paragraph we were giving her high praise not only for the content but for the rhythms of her prose. It is a very sophisticated piece of writing and lends itself well to reading out loud.

Ahmed argues that

When we talk of “white men” we are describing an institution. “White men” is an institution. By saying this, what I am saying? An institution typically refers to a persistent structure or mechanism of social order governing the behaviour of a set of individuals within a given community. So when I am saying that “white men” is an institution I am referring not only to what has already been instituted or built but the mechanisms that ensure the persistence of that structure. A building is shaped by a series of regulative norms. “White men” refers also to conduct; it is not simply who is there, who is here, who is given a place at the table, but how bodies are occupied once they have arrived; behaviour as bond.

She uses a lot of word play and alliteration and one word sentences (oh!) spaced out on the page. I urge you to read the rest and the very funny vignette with which she begins this powerful post.

So it is not just what she writes, compelling as it is, but it is the way she writes it. How do we incorporate this practice of reading aloud to find models and exemplars into our daily writing practice? I left Tauhara determined to find a way to read aloud as part of my academic life, not just as a wonderful ritual for writing retreats. I am always telling my post-graduate students to read and study models of writing that they admire, so once again, it is time I followed my own advice!

What pieces of superb writing would you nominate and why?

[1] http://patthomson.wordpress.com/2014/10/30/tactics-for-proof-reading/.

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Keeping the writing going

 The third post in a series of tips and strategies around academic writing.

What is the difference between a pomodoro and a pear? And how does a grape count? These slightly bizarre questions were thrown up during my recent writing retreat. But we were jesting in earnest: pomodoros, pears and grapes are all techniques to keep writing regularly. They are just one of the activities I use between writing retreats and meetings of my writing group. In this post I will outline the fruit strategies and some other tips I have found useful. It is important to remember, however, that you need to find something that works for you, as only you can do this.

Activities

  • Writing every day

This is an oldie, but a goodie, and one I personally struggle with. It is best to do this first thing – before coffee and definitely before email – and may be done while still in your pyjamas. Even if you can only manage 30 minutes it all adds up. This is the thing that I say at everyone final session of my writing retreats. Binge writing doesn’t work and is difficult to fit into a busy schedule. Reward yourself with coffee afterwards. Put a star on the chart or put some money into your shoe buying jar.

  • Process writing

I use this frequently with students. If you are staring at a blank screen simply start writing ‘I don’t know what this is about but what I am trying to say is…..’ Don’t pause, don’t edit and see if you can write half a page. Only then look back over what you have written, and see what bits you can cut and paste into a new document.

  •  Draft without editing

Another version of the previous one. The greatest hand break is the censor within. That voice that says ‘I can’t believe that is a sentence…. What is that cr@**%p?’ It is best to look over your draft after leaving it for a while or as part of your next daily session. Things will compost or percolate in your brain while you are showering or on the way to work and overnight. That is a very valuable stage of the process.

  •  Breadcrumbs for next time

I do this without realising that it has a proper name. When you finish a writing session, jot down some notes to help you start again straight into it. It could be bullet points of the next steps in the argument or next paragraphs. It could be a list of keywords. It could be a revision of the writing plan that you should have sitting next to your keyboard.

  •  Writing plan

I am a great believed in writing a plan or sketch of the structure of the piece you are working on, even it is revised many times while writing. Do you have notes for the intro, body and conclusion of the piece? What contribution are you making to the literature/knowledge in the area? Can you recite an ‘elevator pitch’ of your piece ( the two to three sentences/paragraph that says exactly what you are doing and why as you ride the elevator between floors)?

  •  Blogging

It took courage to start blogging, just as it did to stammer my first tweet out. But it is more relaxed, easy writing that can be done in 30 minutes and keeps your hand in. It can help you find a ‘voice’ and the almost instant feedback is gratifying and all the moral encouragement you need! Blogging about your research is also a way of having a first stab at what might end up as a more formal piece of academic writing. You can try out things and get reactions. It is also a mighty fine way of building in regularity and discipline to a writing schedule.

Tools

  •  Planning – as outlined above
  • Electronic gadgets

A pomodoro is a set time of writing (usually 25 minutes) with 5 minute breaks and is named after the Italian word for tomato partly because people used tomato shaped timers. You can also download electronic apps that don’t have the same ticking noise. The breaks are really refreshing and mean that you can concentrate and then pause. [A pear (pair) is two pomodoros, one of which may be reading (invented by me at the last retreat). A grape is working in groups of three or four and perhaps incorporating feedback.]

I use the free app Evernote to store all my documents and images; PDFs of articles, lists and schedules. It has a function that lets you clip from websites which is very handy.

I also use Pocket to store things to read later – webpages, articles, tweets, Youtube videos, whatever. I have these apps synced across my laptop, phone and tablet so that I can reach them anytime, anywhere.

  •  Write on site or shut up and write!

A research group buddy set these up in a spare room on campus once a week for two hours. We had a 5 minute break in the middle but otherwise it was just 5 of us and our laptops, working away silently and collegially. People often use local cafes too.

  •  Rewards are your friend

Whether it is coffee, a phone call to a friend, a star chart, movies, shoes or a workout, give yourself a gift for making progress.

  • Accountability group

In order to get the last part of my book manuscript finished, I enlisted the help of my work in progress group from my writing retreat. I had to email them every fortnight to report on whether I had finished the latest chapter or not. The warmth of the replies was fabulous! It gave me a set deadline that was external and public.

  • Work in progress with friends and buddies

Do you have some colleagues or friends that you could meet with to talk informally and briefly about your writing? Can you ask for feedback or suggestions for issues that you are having problems with? They will amaze you with their acuity and resourcefulness. Remember, a problem shared is a problem halved.

Inspiration and other sources of advice

  • Twitter #writingpact

I have just begun this. It is group support that is instant and full of warm fuzzies. Tweet what you are about to do with this hashtag and then success or progress when you have finished with the same hashtag. You will get lots of favourites and replies!

  • Other blogs:

I have been following and reading theses for a while and they are goldmines of advice: Patter and Thesis Whisperer. There is lots of other advice on the internet. The most important point is to stop reading and start doing! And make sure that you have a good work situation set up that encourages you to make use of it.

And you know the old adage: practice makes perfect! My best wishes to you in your endeavours to keep the writing going.

I would love you to share your best strategies and what works for you via comments below. Thank you.