One of the most enjoyable paid jobs I’ve had was as a writing coach for university academics. And for more than a decade my job in the university also included helping students to express themselves in writing for their Masters or Doctoral degree. The bit I really enjoyed was when they began to see their writing taking shape. And although this was coaching in ‘academic’ writing the issues and challenges were much the same as for any writing. What follows are some pickings from the coaching.
Finding adequate time to write is a very difficult issue for busy professionals. My students were writing up the research they had undertaken, for examination or publication. They frequently underestimated the time taken for the processes of planning and researching, analysis, working out what to say and how, and revision.
Students and colleagues frequently gave precedence to other aspects of their professional lives. They often said writing felt like an indulgence or selfish to focus on their writing. To help them reassess the place and role of writing in professional lives I often used this matrix developed from The Seven Characteristics of Highly Effective People by R. Stephen Covey. He called it a time management matrix (p151).
It is a quick and effective way to show that writing is important but frequently does not get done because it is not urgent, until that deadline looms. By setting the urgency alongside the importance of a task, it is easy to see why writing gets short shrift. But as Covey points out, in the cell * (not urgent but important) are many activities that are necessary for success, including professional development, planning, relationship building, recreation and writing.
In coaching sessions we would discuss how to carve out uninterrupted time to pay attention to the writing, or how to spending an hour or two every weekend on writing activities from the start of their university course.
The myths of academic writing
Students, and to a lesser extent university lecturers, approach what they called academic writing with all kinds of myths: you should use long words, complicated sentence structure, make frequent references to other people’s writing, and – above all – never refer to yourself in the first person. It seemed as though they did not read consciously, or never brought their critical faculties to bear on what they were reading. Clarity is the most important quality. But it is reached after a number of redrafts.
If a writer is stuck about where to start, the advice is start where you feel most confident. Or start anywhere. If it’s a research paper then you will have a proposal, or outline that you have submitted, and this can be the framework for the report. You might tell the story of how you came to do the research. The word-processing function of all computers means that cutting and pasting is easy, as is adding bits and all revisions. Start!
The first draft
Another myth is that some people find writing easy and only need to do one draft. I think it helped writers to regard the first draft as a way to work out what they have to say. This first draft is the place to think about content, shape, the purpose and audience for the writing. The focus is on the writing. Later you can think about the reading.
Put the important bits first
Clarity in non-fiction often means putting the important bits up front: in the introduction, in the opening paragraph of each section and in the opening sentence of each paragraph. A useful strategy is to read through the first sentences to check if you get a good idea of what the paper or report is about.
Long sentences, with lots of subordinate clauses are usually not as clear as short ones. Consider writing two sentences.
There are cultural differences in writing. An Italian student had me quite confused when I read her drafts until she told me that in Italy she was encouraged to use very long sentences and to reveal the conclusions at the end of the paper.
There are different ways with feedback and this is what my fellow writer Eileen Carnell said about them in a post called Getting feedback to improve our writing (May 2016) 255. She was writing about feedback we sought when we were writing our next book, The New Age of Ageing.
Everyday use of the term feedback (the dominant view) suggests the reader presents information to the writer – a one-way process. We describe this feedback as Gifts (see note). In other situations the nature of feedback has a social dimension, rather like Ping-Pong, where ideas are tossed back and forth and involve making connections. There are shared insights and new meanings established. Feedback here is a two-way process. The third example, our favoured kind, is what we define as Loops. Here there is an equal power dynamic in which new knowledge and concepts are created through dialogue.
I frequently used questions to help a novice writer think about their reader: What is the most important point in this section? Why are you telling us this? What else might cause the outcomes you are describing? And most often: SO WHAT? This last meant that the writer had implied the importance of what they were saying, but not yet shown how it connects to their main themes.
A very useful tool this, developed by my colleague and former co-author, Chris Watkins. WIRMI stands for What I Really Mean Is. It is used when the words are getting tangled, and it’s hard to sort out a sentence or a paragraph. You take your hands off the keyboard (or lay down your pen), sit back in your chair and say, ‘what I really mean is …’ and there they come: the words you need.
Many student writers feel apologetic, as though they should not really join the conversation with the elite. But I would encourage their confidence by reminding them that they knew more about their research focus than anyone else, they were in fact world experts. And I encouraged them to sit down and write a few sentences about why they are the best person to be writing this report.
Some pet hates
Exclamation marks. These are often used to imply humour or irony, but without explanation.
Scare quotes. These are often used to imply a different voice, but can be misconstrued without the voice being named.
Capital letters for everything. British teachers often tend to give every school subject, the word school on all occasions, all roles within school and just about everything else a capital letter, as in The Senior Teacher from the Upper School was taking the History lesson.
Ending with a pithy quote from a respected writer instead of closing with their own voice.
Being asked how many references per page are required.
The best bit
On reflection I think there are two key aspects to being a writing coach:
- sitting next to the writer (figuratively perhaps) and helping them work out what they wanted to say and how,
- and acting as a reader, explaining my experience of reading their texts.
In practice these two aspects of the role are not distinguishable.
The best bit of being a writing coach was helping someone improve their writing and to see how to apply their learning to their future writing.
The next best thing was the learning I did, from figuring out how to help the writers. And I quite often sit back and say ‘What I really mean is …’
Related posts and books
Getting feedback to improve our writing on this blog in May 2016
10 things to do when you don’t know what to write in December 2013
Being a Writing Coach by Beth Miller on Women Writers, Women’s Books blog. She draws on the characteristics of coach in Cheers, is sympathetic and pragmatic and heading for the bar.
The Seven Characteristics of Highly Effective People (1992) by R. Stephen Covey, published by Simon & Schuster
Askew, S & Lodge, C (2000). Gifts, Ping-Pong and Loops – linking feedback and learning, in Askew, S. (Ed) Feedback for Learning. London: Routledge
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