Wednesday, 21 August 2013

Writing Group - getting research done amid chaotic teaching semesters.

by Dr Rebecca Willams (@volcanologist)

This year I moved to a new part of the country, started a new job, wrote and delivered a new 4th year-level module, wrote and delivered lectures, practicals and exams on two other modules and trained for and ran my first ever marathon. That’s quite a lot to fit into the first half of 2013. Juggling all those commitments and staying sane has been difficult. On top of that, I’ve managed to stay research active and have managed to get two papers and one proposal written by July.

Talk to any academic and they’ll tell you the difficulties in finding time to write papers or grant applications during the teaching semesters. So how have I managed to do it on top of what was already a hectic year? I attribute this achievement to a writing group Dr Jane Bunting set up in our department this year.
Writing Group is an informal weekly meeting of colleagues across all the disciplines in Geography, Environment and the Earth Sciences. We meet on hump day morning, over coffee (medium caramel latte with skimmed milk please) and chat about the research writing we’ve got going on. We’re a diverse bunch and study everything from volcanoes to Italian fascism, from pollen to green buildings, from rivers to digital technologies in farming and a whole lot in between.

When we first met in February we discussed what our research goals for the coming teaching semester were. Many of us had papers we needed to write, book chapters to propose and epics of old that needed reinventing, rewriting and knocking into a submitable shape. We were all finding it a bit tricky to find time amongst the lecture writing, teaching, student supervisions and for some, job applications, to sit down and write science. We set ourselves our long term goals. What did I want to achieve by the end of the semester in May? Looking back through the pages of my filofax (don’t mock me for being old school) I see that I wanted to have my short PhD paper finally resubmitted for publication, my mega-PhD paper written and submitted to co-authors , have a NERC grant proposal written and my first post-doc paper  written in draft form. Looking back, that seems ambitious given how much other stuff was going on. But it was achievable because we had a plan.

The plan was to set ourselves small goals every week. Something that would help progress the papers on, something that could be done in between lectures, or of an evening. My first goal that first week was small - redo a figure on the short PhD paper. We would then meet the next week, report back on whether we’d done our homework and set our next goal for the following week.

Some weeks I had long lists of writing goals, other weeks I would have one tiny goal. But each week, a small step was taken towards finishing a paper. Writing Group quickly evolved into group therapy. We’d discuss the problems we were having-the structure of a paper didn’t make sense, writers block, trouble with software-and others would offer advice. The fresh ideas from colleagues who didn’t know the first thing about your paper (or often, your discipline) would make you think about your problem in a different way and a solution was quickly found. A few great writing strategies were shared. My favourites are:
  • Free-writing: Set yourself a time limit and just write. Don’t worry about sentence structure, what section of the paper this will fit into, putting in references or getting the ‘perfect phrase’. Just write and see what happens. This is a great way of getting over writers block. Some people like to do this with old fashioned pen and paper, others by typing. You can even get countdown clocks online to help (though, looking for the best one is definitely writing procrastination). Scientists seem to love 20 minute blocks, writers use 48 minutes (followed by 12 minutes off, then repeat, forever). Often, what you produce becomes the base for a section on the paper, or just breaks you out of the mental block.

  • Reverse outlining: Write section headings and one sentence summaries of your paragraphs onto post-it notes, clear your mind of your paper (works best if you’ve not worked on it for a while) and arrange your post it notes in the best order. Often, it’ll be different to the order that your paper is currently in. This is a great way of restructuring a paper or converting PhD chapters into something publishable.

  •  #madwriting: Tell twitter you are going to sit down and do nothing but write, get some people to join you, then write for an agreed amount of time, or words. Accountability works wonders

I had a couple of big writing issues this year. I had a paper that was essentially three PhD chapters crowbarred into one paper. It was too long, poorly structured and a mess. Talking it through with Writing Group and using a reverse outlining technique helped transform the mess into a submitable paper. I was also trying to write my first big grant proposal and was coming across all sorts of stumbling blocks from what exactly was meant by ‘pathways to impact’, the perils of Je-S to contacting our Research Support Office. Again, Writing Group patiently listened to my problems and offered advice, as they did to everyone’s issues. 

At the end of May, over cupcakes, we went back to our semester-long goals and reported our successes. I can happily say that the short paper was resubmitted for publication, that mega paper was completely rewritten and submitted to co-authors and the NERC proposal went in to try its luck. I have a filofax full of stickers celebrating each weeks success (hmm, we did end up having reward stickers - they are surprisingly motivational! As is the thought of reporting to Writing Group that you didn’t complete your goal that week) and a new set of goals to be achieved by the end of the summer before teaching starts again in October. Yes, one goal is that draft post-doc paper I didn’t get done, you vigilant reader; I did say the February goals were a tad ambitious.

I think the other members of Writing Group would agree that it has been spectacularly useful in their writing as well as an enjoyable, sociable weekly meet-up. Another great thing to come out of writing group is this blog! So, grab some colleagues or fellow students and start your own Writing Group!

Please share your writing strategies in the comments section...

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