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How Writing Workshops Have Lifted Lockdown

1 February 2021

6 mins

A top down view of a person using a laptop with a cat next to them

Written by Beth Woolacott. Beth is a third-year PhD student at the CMC at Loughborough University. Her research focuses on textbook design. If you are interested in this post and would like to get in touch, please email her directly at B.Woollacott@lboro.ac.uk

What is a writing workshop?

It was November 2019 when fellow PhD student, Theresa Wege, recommended Barbara Sarnecka’s book The Writing Workshop. I was initially dubious – at the time, I did not see writing as one of the biggest challenges of my PhD, and I could not imagine how a book could teach me more than the feedback from my supervisors and other mentors. But, fast-forward two weeks, and I was telling everyone to get a copy: Sarnecka’s book was (and still is) the best self-help book that I have read during my PhD.

Sarnecka’s book is an incredibly honest and eye-opening read into academic writing. I was so enthused that by the 5th of December, we had launched our own writing workshop. We meet weekly, for one hour, and the structure follows Sarnecka’s recommendation. We spend the first 15 minutes individually reporting both the struggles and successes of our week’s writing. This has become an integral factor in building our writing community, normalising failure, and sharing struggles that otherwise might provoke feelings of embarrassment or shame. This aspect of the workshop became even more important during the Covid-19 pandemic. This community certainly developed into an important support network for me during those initial weeks of UK Lockdown.

In the next fifteen minutes, we discuss an article, report, or blog post about academic writing. We started with posts from Sarnecka’s blog or book then moved on to other writing-related skills, such as data visualisation or journal articles reviews. The most important part of this discussion is the conversation it provokes; members do not need to have read the articles to join in with the conversation. The workshop is not meant to add another task onto everyone’s already overflowing to-do lists.

In the spirit of tackling to-do lists, the final half an hour is dedicated to writing so that we all sit and write together in an encouraging silence. Of course, everyone can stay and write for longer but an hour workshop is minimal enough to feel like an acceptable use of time in a busy day of meetings.

Our collective wisdom: what have we learned so far?

In a recent meeting, we discussed the writing advice we find most helpful. The following is a summary of that advice.

  • “Start with your passion!” − a great reminder that our projects (hopefully) inspired us at some point; writing down why a project is interesting and important can be a great starting point when motivation is low.
  • Lack of productivity does not equal failure − during this year, everyone experienced their first pandemic, and most of us agreed that it made writing hard. But even in ‘normal’ circumstances, everyone can be unproductive at times. That doesn’t make us lazy and we shouldn’t beat ourselves up.
  • “Just write!” Some of us find value in writing down rough thoughts and ideas so there is something on the page. Then, when the time comes to write-up, we have a starting point.
  • Papers don’t have to be written in the order they are presented. Some members write the results first and find it helps to structure their argument. Others suggested saving the nitty-gritty bits for ‘good concentration days’ and writing the easier bits on more difficult days.
  • Avoid passive voice! We agree with Sarnecka that using active voice makes writing a lot clearer for the reader and limits the need for complicated words (such as nominalisations).
  • Think clearly ⇔ write clearly. Writing can be challenging because it requires us to organise our thoughts and ensure there are no gaps in our argument. Sometimes, the difficulty is not necessarily the writing, it is ensuring that our arguments are coherent and logical. Writing can improve arguments by highlighting gaps or inconsistencies that need more work. The very act of formulating thoughts on paper will help the thinking process. So, not only does coherent thinking lead to more coherent writing, trying to write clearly should help strengthen arguments.
  • Limit connectives between sentences. Not only does this reduce sentence length and word counts but it encourages us to think about how sentences connect. Making the argument clearer, so that sentences follow on from each other, can make words like “however” or “indeed” redundant.
  • Early feedback is important; feedback on outlines and rough drafts can prevent us from spending hours writing unnecessary details, which will later be culled. It is easy to become emotionally attached to work, so early feedback is easier to accept if it doesn’t mean deleting a favourite sentence or rewriting an entire section. Viewing feedback as constructive, rather than insulting, can be difficult, but it is important to remember and adopt this mindset.
  • Finally, writing does get easier and you do get better – through practice, reflection, and discussion, a lot of us commented that writing feels easier than it used to and our writing is clearer and more coherent.

To finish, I’d like to share some reflections from the workshop members on the writing workshop’s first year. Most members agreed that the workshops have engendered a sense of community: not only is there an encouraging atmosphere, but we can benefit from the spectrum of experiences in the department (from PhD students to experienced academics). We all share ideas, tips, books, and advice. But, importantly, the discussions encourage all experience-levels to progress and improve their writing.

For some, the supportive environment, and honest reflections of others, has helped address feelings of imposter syndrome. “I couldn’t do much writing this week” is met with encouragement and support. Even the more experienced academics have admitted that they struggle with motivation and inspiration sometimes. Importantly, by sharing our failures and difficulties, the community can recommend strategies to overcome these barriers.

I have thoroughly enjoyed our first year in the writing workshop and I look forward to continuing it into the new academic year. I believe that the support, commitment, and humility of all the members has been its secret to success.

References of materials discussed this year

Ahmad, A. S. (2020, March 26). Why you should ignore all that Coronavirus- inspired productivity pressure. The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved from www.chronicle.com/article/why-you-should-ignore-all- that-coronavirus-inspired-productivity-pressure/

Guinness, H. (2020, April 07). How to edit your own writing. The New York Times. Retrieved from www.nytimes.com/2020/04/07/smarter-living/how-to-edit-your-own-writing.html

Hotaling, S. (2020). Simple rules for concise scientific writing. Limnology and Oceanography Letters, 5, 379-83.

Sarnecka, B. W. (2019). The writing workshop: Write more, write better, be happier in academia. (n.p.): Author.

Sarnecka, B. W. Sarnecka Lab Blog. Retrieved from https://sarneckala b.blogspot.com/

Wagenmakers, E. J. (2009). Teaching graduate students how to write clearly. APS Observer, 22(4), 1-7.

Centre for Mathematical Cognition

We write mostly about mathematics education, numerical cognition and general academic life. Our centre’s research is wide-ranging, so there is something for everyone: teachers, researchers and general interest. Jayne Pickering, a research fellow at the CMC, runs this blog and edits all posts. Please email j.pickering2@lboro.ac.uk if you have any feedback or if you would like information about being a guest contributor. We hope you enjoy our blog!

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