Respecting the Process, Respecting the Writer

by Joanne Paul

Dr Joanne Paul lectures in the History of Ideas at the New College of the Humanities in London.  She blogs about history and feminism at Past the PhD.  You can follow her on Twitter @Joanne_Paul_.

Tortured Writer in an empty pub

Ah, the tortured writer. It’s a classic image – hunched over a scribbled page, crumpled, discarded papers surround the desk, frail, undernourished, pale from lack of sunlight, at last this tortured writer, in the middle of the night, produces a flood of genius! This idea, odd and romantic as it may seem, does seem to persist amongst writers, even in universities, today. There is, what I like to call, a strange ‘academic asceticism’ that persists, that tells us to produce good work, we have to pull all-nighters, eat nothing but junk food (or nothing at all), caffeinate like crazy, lock ourselves in our rooms, in libraries, and barely sleep. It is only through restriction and gargantuan effort can we produce genius – like Athena birthed through the head of Zeus.

Birth of AthenaI once had a friend, working on a dissertation, who locked herself in a bathroom for three days with candy and diet coke. I myself have worked 14+ hour days on my own dissertation, not leaving the house for days on end. Does this work? More or less… you might be able to get something written. And it might work for a short sprint, a single essay or dissertation, as long as you have nothing else on the go (or things like friends, loved ones, pets, house plants, etc). But for anyone who needs to make a life out of writing (and would like to have a life outside of writing), this will not work. The tortured writer, ‘academic asceticism’ all of these are myths – substantiated by the rare few who made it ‘work’ (while making vast and really unnecessary sacrifices – see above re: loved ones and house plants).

There is a single, irrefutable, incontestable rule if you want to be a good writer (sorry to my fellow bloggers, I’m sure your rules are good too). This golden rule is: TAKE CARE OF YOURSELF. In other words… Eat. Drink. Be merry. This does not mean blow off your assignment and get sloshed at the pub. It does mean be fair to yourself, give yourself the breaks and space you need, and above all, respect your process.

Everyone’s process is different. For me, I spend (depending on the size of the project) days or weeks compiling notes and research, until I feel I’ve reached the limits of what I am investigating. Then, I sit down to write. And I realise it’s too big. There is too much information here to present in any kind of linear, progressive, rational fashion (more on the frustrating linearity of the academic essay, and ways to escape it, another time). No matter how I try, I can’t seem to produce genius (and we’re back to Athena again). It took several panic attacks, tantrums and ‘I’m just not smart enough’ sob sessions for me to release that this period is always temporary. Because after a day or two of this agony, I would give up on trying to produce brilliance, and I would produce something – I like to call it my ‘brain vomit’ stage. Once something is down, you can work with that. As a great writer once said ‘you can’t edit a blank page’.

Sassy sleeping on keyboardSo I realised my process necessarily required time away from the project to reflect. Absorb. Marinate. Produce. Edit. My best ideas come when I step away. Take a long shower. Do some yoga. Go for a walk. Chat it out with a friend. And they definitely only come if I’ve had enough sleep/food/drink-that-is-not-caffeinated-or-alcoholic. Finding your process means listening more to yourself than to the pressures around you, telling you that you simply aren’t trying hard enough, and a real writer would stay up all night if they had to. A real writer is just a person who communicates their thoughts with eloquence, and that’s a lot harder if you’re falling asleep on a keyboard.

Video Post: Why Write

Words by Thomas Dixon

This week our video posts return with Queen Mary academics reflecting on the reasons they write and on the rewards of writing.  The accompanying post is by guest author Dr Thomas Dixon, Senior Lecturer in History at Queen Mary, University of London.

A couple of years ago, I picked up a book at random while on holiday in a former Priory in Sussex, and found myself captivated. The book was called A Time to Keep Silence. It was published in 1957, and its author was someone I had never heard of called Patrick Leigh Fermor. This writer seemed to me to have an astonishing capacity for both simplicity and richness of expression. I read his effortlessly evocative descriptions of monasteries, their inhabitants, histories, and surrounding landscapes with growing wonder. I thought I had discovered an unknown literary genius of the 1950s. In fact, I soon discovered, Fermor was a celebrated, practically legendary figure, who had died just a few weeks previously, and was considered one of the twentieth century’s greatest travel writers.

A Time to Keep Silence

Reading a little more, including reviews of the recent biography of Fermor by Artemis Cooper, it became clear that this apparently effortless prose was the product of an arduous, sometimes agonised, and for long periods utterly fruitless process. The final part of Fermor’s great trilogy describing his journey on foot from the Netherlands to Constantinople in the 1930s, was only published posthumously. When he died at the age of ninety-six, Fermor had still not found the words he wanted to complete his account of a journey he had started when he was only eighteen. The unfinished manuscript he left behind was edited and published as The Broken Road  earlier this year.

I imagine that Fermor might quite frequently have asked himself ‘Why write?’ Why am I putting myself through this? Why can’t I find the words? Why am I trying? I don’t know for sure what Fermor’s answer would have been, although I suspect it would have had a strong element of the aesthetic about it. An answer in this vein that I would recommend myself is inspired by another moment of my own reading that has stuck with me.

I was sitting by a lavender-bordered swimming pool in France when I first read The Elements of Drawing (1857) by the prolific Victorian art critic and social reformer John Ruskin.  I was reading Ruskin in preparation for teaching a new course I was hurriedly putting together on ‘Victorian Values’. The idea of Ruskin’s that stuck with me was that the main point of learning to draw was so as to see better. In the Preface to  The Elements of Drawing, Ruskin wrote, ‘I am nearly convinced that, when once we see keenly enough, there is very little difficulty in drawing what we see; but, even supposing that this difficulty be still great, I believe that the sight is a more important thing than the drawing; and I would rather teach drawing that my pupils may learn to love Nature, than teach the looking at Nature that they may learn to draw.’

Some things you read stick with you. And this idea of Ruskin’s about drawing seems to me applicable also to writing. Why write? So as to look more carefully and see more keenly. In the act of collecting together, brushing down, shaping up, and rearranging words, we perceive things afresh. In writing we see better. This applies to external realities, but especially to the contents of our own minds. For me, at least, one of the main points of writing is to discover what I think. And one of the main obstacles to writing is not being able to see what I think.

When it goes really well, writing produces not only creativity, insight and improved powers of perception, but also memorable moments of holiday reading for future generations.

Thomas Dixon is the author of a book about study skills and writing called How to Get a First. You can follow him on Twitter @ThomasDixon2013

I Write

by Katherine Angel

Katherine Angel, this week’s guest author, is finishing a book on ‘Female Sexual Dysfunction’ in American psychiatry, and holds a Leverhulme Early Career Fellowship at Queen Mary, researching the history of psychiatric classification in the US and Europe. She is the author of Unmastered: A Book on Desire, Most Difficult To Tell, published in the UK, the US, Germany and Holland. 

In Nicolas Winding Refn’s film Drive, Ryan Gosling responds to his neighbour asking him what he does by maintaining an uncomfortably long silence, watching her carefully, and eventually saying: I Drive. When people ask me what I do, I have begun adopting this active yet evasive formulation. I Write, I say, remolding The Driver’s deliberately gnomic statement, if not his toothpick and his sideline in getaway driving.

I write. I’m a writer. Writers write because they need to write, because they have to write, because they have no choice. Marilynne Robinson once said that what writers have in common is a frustration with the ‘thinness and inadequacy of ordinary speech’. And Tom McCarthy has said that ‘If there’s one thing writing isn’t, it’s straight-up talking.’

I write in order to ask questions that I don’t think can ever be fully answered, even if we must continually seek to answer them. Is it possible to tell a historical story – a narrative – about anything, and especially about the self, given its instability, its fragmentation? Stories – true stories – are also always in some sense false, because we can’t ever tell the whole story. As soon as we start to say anything, we are omitting something else, we are leaning on one part of the world, and ignoring another. And, as Wittengstein said, ‘an explanation must end somewhere’.

The curious thing about writing is the shift of gears, after publication, from writing to speech – to Tom McCarthy’s straight-up talking. People ask you to explain what you have written; to re-cast it in ordinary spoken language. Which, in one sense, is kind of nice, and very lucky indeed. And in another is profoundly challenging. Because if I were really able to say what I had to say through speech, I wouldn’t need to write. Writing, for me, is a wrestling with the language that we have, over-determined and saturated as it is – particularly around women and sexuality – in order to try to undo that language. Writing is a way to use language in order to dismantle it; an attempt to use our shared language in order to resist the sometimes coercive, dulling effects of that language. It’s a search for language, given the frustrations of language. Just as we are creatures who desire not to desire, and to get beyond our desire, so we are creatures who want to use language to get beyond language. And we are, then, of course, doomed to fail  – though what a privilege and a pleasure to make the attempt.

Years ago, I heard Will Self say, on some radio programme or other: ‘In the economy of ideas, nothing is wasted.’ I have drafts and drafts of chapters, articles, talks, fragments – many of which bear a trace in things I have published. Sometimes a visible trace, sometimes a less visible one. It can take a long time for me to work out what form, and what voice, is the right one for the thoughts that I have. Working out how to say the thing you want to say is part of working out what it is that you want to say. It can be arduous, and it can be confusing. It’s a curious pleasure, one I don’t feel entirely in control of – which is, I think, part of its pleasure.

Two things are, I think, crucial to writing. Both involve not fighting yourself. The first is an awareness of the scale that suits your way of thinking. Twyla Tharp talks about this in her book The Creative Habit, from which, about six years ago, the phrase ‘close focal distance’ jumped out at me, and released me from some illusions. I am able to think and to write if I start off examining something up close; zooming in and trying to capture the detailed texture of it, and then, thinking from that place, moving back outwards. If I try to resist this, it’s agony, and I get nowhere but frustration. The second thing is refusing to be convinced that anything is beneath your notice.  If I have any advice for anyone writing, it’s this: pay attention to what intrigues you. Don’t be a snob about your interests. Everything is relevant – and will yield something. Maybe not in this book, in this thesis, in this essay; but at some point, it will rear its head – if it matters. So: write everything down; capture everything that strikes you, no matter how fragmentary or fleeting it might seen. Be generous with your own curiosity. On the other hand: don’t worry about writing everything down or capturing it all. Trust yourself. If you need to write about something, it’ll insist on being written about. It’ll come back, and make you write it.

Getting Things Front to Back

by Ruth Irwin

This week’s guest author, Ruth Irwin, is a final year English and History undergraduate at QMUL and editor of the Queen Mary Undergraduate History Journal (who are also on Twitter).

Writing a coursework essay can be a scary prospect. I often find it hard to get started. If you’re anything like me, then you will begin by obsessively working out exactly how much of your module, year and degree this assignment counts for. Then you’ll go and stare numbly at the lengthy recommended reading list, before noticing the even longer further reading list and starting to feel a bit sick. For me, the first way to make the beginning of this process less daunting is to start early. Then you can smugly acquire all the right books before others have swept the library bare; this avoids that horrendous week-before scrabble to find a relevant article online. Every student’s been there and it’s never fun. It’s then well worth spending a morning getting down and dirty with the post-it notes, marking up all the useful-looking pages and sections you can find. After that, the whole process gets less endless; you now know exactly how much you have to read, and can plan your time accordingly.

Once the reading’s done, though, there’s really no getting away from that blank Word Document. Introductions are tricky things. As an editor of the undergrad Queen Mary History Journal (and never one to look a plug-horse in the mouth) I’ve read a lot of essays recently, trying to decide which should go in the journal and which shouldn’t. Though an interesting process, this has given me strong feelings of sympathy towards academics. So many essays start with a shaky introduction, laden with references and lacking in direction or argument. Many of the essays I read then warmed up into interesting pieces of writing, but the best were those that began with a bang, a statement of intent. Like me, I think most of my fellow undergraduates feel daunted by the prospect of having to express informed opinions on subjects that the essay marker has usually dedicated years of their life to studying. Who am I to tell Tom Asbridge how to think about the Third Crusade? What if he disagrees with me, will I get marked down? The most exciting essays we read whilst compiling the journal, though, are pieces of work where the authors have a strong, immediately stated (and evidence-supported) opinion and stick to it.

The pattern of indecision I’d seen in other people’s work made me question my own; I went back and read some of my coursework from last year. Normally I proof-read an essay right before handing it in and then attempt to forget about it immediately, never looking at it again. Upon properly reading my own work, I discovered that I too was horribly guilty of wobbly-introduction-related crimes. I remember going to a poetry-writing workshop once where one of the exercises was to take a poem you had written and turn it upside down, moving the last line to the top and the first line to the bottom. This was a really useful thing to do because, like an essay, the tone of a poem tends to get more confident as it goes along; by the end you’ve decided what you mean, because you’ve been thinking about it for a while. It’s a trick I’d heartily recommend for coursework.  I tried it with one of my essays from last year and the conclusion made a much better introduction than the one I had originally submitted. So here’s my post-reading week writing resolution: when in doubt, go inside out!

Marked undergraduate essays on any subject can be submitted to the QMHJ at

A Place for Story-Telling

by Eleanor Betts

This week’s post is from guest author Eleanor Betts, who is currently researching a PhD with the Centre for the History of the Emotions at QMUL.

Writing has always been a big part of my life, even as a child. It was just a few weeks ago that I discovered some old schoolbooks stashed deep at the back of a cupboard. Whereas other kids sketched doodles or graffitied the name of their crush throughout their workbooks, mine were always littered with stories. It seems strange then, that I stopped writing these tales of imagination as soon as I started university. I just assumed that fiction and academia were meant to remain separate. How wrong I was.

I am now entering the third year of my PhD and I have started writing again. I don’t mean academic writing, that kind of writing seems to be a constant presence in my life! In the past few years I have written countless essays, two dissertations, and a number of chapter drafts, all in classic academic style. But I approached these in an almost mechanical way. Academic writing has strict formulas, certain rules, trained methods that get you a First. But I am not a machine, I am human. This attitude to writing was never going to last. I have now ‘seen the light’, as it were, and this post is about how writing fiction has helped, even improved, my work as a historian.

One of the tips that undergraduate and postgraduate students are told is to write a little of something every day. When I first heard this I thought, ‘psh, how am I going to manage to write a bit of an essay each day?’ But this is not what was meant by this handy piece of advice. It is promoting the practice of sitting down in front of a computer screen, or with a pen and paper, transferring thoughts into text. Yet there is no rule that says this writing has to be academic in nature. One of my colleagues writes a personal blog and is always eager to promote how this has helped the process of writing their thesis. Another writes book and film reviews. I write stories. Doing this has taught me methods to tackle periods of writer’s block. Writing no longer seems a huge hurdle to jump over. It no longer seems like this inconceivable project with a looming deadline. Writing has now become a habit. Something so natural that I’m sure I could do it in my sleep (not that I’ve tried, or course).

Perhaps the best thing that writing fiction alongside my academic work has given me is a renewed enthusiasm for history. Rather than just reading words on a page or numbers in a table, fiction has reminded me that history is the study of real lives and real people. Every character has their own tale to tell, they experienced the world in their own way. As historians it is our place to step into the shoes of these people and document the story of lives past. History is not only the study of facts and figures, it is history.

Of course, I am careful not to blur the line between fiction and non-fiction writing styles – for there is a distinction that should be maintained. I am cautious not to allow the academic writing techniques I developed in my years at university to become, as was once pointed out by a colleague, ‘flowery’. Like any genre, academic writing does have its rules and methods, but indulging in a bit of story-telling on the side can help the imaginative process that is necessary in all writing.  We are all writers, whatever our profession, and there is no reason why non-fiction should be devoid of imagination.

Getting past “getting stuck”: what can you do when you just can’t write?

This week we are taking a pause from our videos, and taking some time to think back on some of the issues they have raised. One of the themes I have been reflecting on is what happens when I get “stuck.”

One of the hardest things to do can be to write your way through a problem. Reasons to put off the moment when you actually sit down and commence the process of putting words to thought can pop up like mushrooms in a damp cupboard: there are other research tasks to be done; you do not yet know enough to begin; you have not done sufficient planning; you must first complete that other shorter task or send that all important email. I usually know I am in trouble when I decide that as well as needing a cup of tea, I also have to wash up the horrendously greasy frying pan that I had left to soak from the previous night. Procrastination can take many forms, some of them quite productive in their own ways, but once I get to stage of cleaning cookware, I know I have reached the point of self-sabotage.

Sometimes I find it is worth reflecting on why I am so unwilling to start. If it is because I am about to embark on a new project, the answer can lie in my feeling that I have not yet worked out precisely what I want to say. Those are the occasions when I can type in and delete an opening sentence over and over again, leaving me with only a blank page at the end of a morning as well as, of course, a feeling of intense frustration. At other times, in the middle of a project, it can be because I have been struggling with an idea that takes me to the limits of my research or understanding. The notion of doing the mental work to get past that problem can feel overwhelming. Or I admit there are other occasions when I know that a draft I have written needs real improvement but the idea of tearing it apart and working to build it up again feels daunting and dispiriting.

But as Iain said in a previous post, writing is supposed to be hard. Sometimes, a day wrestling with a big idea, making minor tweaks as you figure out why a structure or sentence is not working, is better understood as a part of the successful process of writing, rather than bracketed and labelled as a failure. But there is a fine line between accepting that the pace of writing varies (and gracefully accepting one or two slow days as a part of that process) and finding yourself struggling to such an extent that you simply grind to a halt. When that happens, it is important to recognise that this halt is no longer part of the process of successful writing and institute emergency measures.

Tactics and strategies…

The first is to get away from the computer and write out any thoughts on a piece of paper. The blank screen of the computer and the demanding, expectant blink of the cursor can be off putting when you are attempting to slow down and figure out a big idea. A piece of paper is more forgiving and also allows for scribbles that can be connected to one another in a more fluid way. I usually turn the paper sideways – giving myself a landscape to try out my ideas. Using arrows and lines, circles and spider diagrams can be useful when it comes to finding out how and where you are making connections between the different parts of an unknown whole.

In the same way, a second technique I have used is to write about what I think is the most important idea in my paper or chapter. Once I am writing about the project (instead of writing THE PROJECT) I feel less pressure to get it right. An art teacher of mine once said that you never paint onto a blank canvas. You paint it first with a translucent ochre wash. Then you start painting on the lines of your image. I see this free writing process as something similar. No longer concerned with the objective of creating a perfect painting or piece of writing, there is some freedom to try out new images or ideas until you find what works.

When all else fails, it is time to think about time itself. Often, it is the fear of a deadline, the sheer size of a project or all the other worrying things I have to complete that prevents me from simply getting on with the task at hand. I am so distracted by all of those other anxieties that I simply cannot concentrate. When that happens I need to change my relationship to the task at hand. By promising myself that I will only write for twenty five minutes and then stop no matter what, I can forget about all those other factors. A day broken into twenty five minute portions is far less intimidating than finishing the whole thing. This strategy, known as the Pomodoro Technique, has something of a cult following and can be really useful as a way of getting past a real obstacle. But for me, it is nothing more than that. My aim is always to get back to a place where I can do some sustained writing over a few hours at a time.

But one of the reasons the Pomodoro Technique and other strategies like it are helpful are because they are great reminders that writing is at the end of the day a habit. If you stop for too long, then getting back to it can feel challenging. But if you encourage yourself to write every day, then you practice that habit of writing past problems. Once you stop associating the process with turning out a polished and finished product every time you sit down and instead focus on the habit of writing day in and day out, then writing becomes a process of accretion. As you accumulate words, polish your text, return to it and refine it still further, writing ceases to be something to fear and something to enjoy instead.

Video Post: Tricks of the Trade

By Chris Sparks

We’re halfway through the six videos from the videos from the Writing Project series.  This week, QMUL historians share their ‘Tricks of the Trade’.

One of the things that struck me when we were recording our interviews was the sheer variety of the responses. None of our interviewees had quite the same approach to any of the questions we asked them – they wrote in different ways, in different places, and with different tools. I shouldn’t have been surprised.  Writing is personal, like all human communication, and the best writers bring something of themselves to their work. This is why we talk about writers ‘finding their voice’. Everyone has one, and the best way to find it is to start writing.

Writing can be hard, though, and no-one can tell you exactly how to do it. Just as all writing is different, there’s no one way of writing well. That’s why we don’t have a video called ‘how to write’. But one of the great things about the diversity of writing methods is that there’s always something new to discover, and hopefully some of the tips in our video will work for you.

We could only fit so much in five minutes, though, and there are plenty more tricks of the writer’s trade.  In this post, I’m going to share three of my own writing tips. It’d be great to hear some of yours, whoever you are and however much writing you’ve done. Post them in the comments below, or share them with us on Twitter.

1. Respect your readers.

All writing is going to be read, even if only by its author. It’s only polite to consider the reader when you’re writing. Imagine you were the intended reader, and ask yourself, ‘what do I want from this piece?’; ‘does it make sense?’; ‘has it engaged me?’ Above all, try not to bore them. This applies to all writing, whether it’s a novel, job application, or e-mail. And if you can’t be interesting, at least be clear and concise.  Which leads me to…

2. Spurious use of multisyllabic verbiage and abstruse terminology does not aid communication or increase readers’ respect for your intellect.

Or, to put it another way, big words don’t make you look clever. It’s tempting to stuff your sentences, particularly when writing to a word count. This won’t make your writing better or your argument more convincing. Quite the opposite: it will confuse your meaning and annoy your readers. Making sense of complex ideas using everyday language is far more impressive.  George Orwell wrote a brilliant essay about this in 1946His six ‘rules’ can help to make good writing great, though they need not be followed slavishly. And finally…

3. Ask for feedback, and act on it.

Persuade a trusted friend or colleague to read your writing, and offer to read theirs in return. Ask them to give you feedback. You don’t need to know whether they agree with your argument, but whether your piece made sense. You may not accept every suggestion, but try to take all feedback seriously. If you think, ‘she’s totally missed my point there’, then you might need to think about how you can make the point clearer.

These are just my tips.  Not every trick will work for every writer but nearly every writer will have some. Taking the time to think about what works for you may seem odd at first, especially as it is usually something we do when we think we are “doing it wrong.” But taking the time to think about your own habits can help you to see what you are doing right, which (for what it’s worth) is another useful trick for writing, and life!

Video Post: Research into Writing

By Iain Stewart

This is the second of six posts reflecting on the Writing Project series of videos, which feature historians from QMUL reflecting on their own experiences of the writing process.

When does research end and writing begin? In this week’s video some of my colleagues at Queen Mary offer contrasting responses to this question. For Miri Rubin, there is no clear boundary between the two processes: writing and research go hand-in hand. Daniel Peart and Mark White have a different approach, seeing writing and research as quite separate activities. Is this simply a matter of personal preference, or do other factors influence the way historians think about this issue? It may not be pure coincidence, for instance, that Daniel and Mark are both historians of America. Going to the USA to carry out research is more expensive and time consuming than doing it in Britain or Europe. I am writing this from Paris. I came here this morning to teach a seminar, and I’ll stay overnight to fit in a quick burst of research before I head home tomorrow evening. I couldn’t do this if my archives were in New York.  We all have different pressures on our time that will affect the way we divide our time between research and writing, and different pieces of work sometimes require us to shift that balance.

Regardless of what kind of historian one is, however, research is usually expensive, and competition for funding extremely fierce. Academic writers cannot simply decide to take a year off to research and write new books; they often need to apply to bodies like the Arts and Humanities Research Council to fund the cost of teaching cover while they are away. My own job, for instance, is paid for from funding that a senior colleague applied for so that he could work on a new book. The issue of funding further complicates the relationship between writing and research for academics, because good funding applications require an enormous amount of research to stand any chance of success. This means knowing the secondary literature inside out and having something important and original to say on a topic, whether by uncovering new sources or offering a fresh interpretation of old ones.  Writing good funding applications is itself a fine art, and successful ones are often the product of years of work on a subject.  And this is all before the “real work” has even started.

Students face challenges of their own. While these may differ from those of their teachers, we all face similar issues when turning research into writing. Doing enough reading to have something interesting to say can be hard, but it is enjoyable work.  The thrill of discovery is addictive, though, and research can become its own form of procrastination.  There comes a point when it’s time to put down the books and pick up the pen.

Of course, the relationship between research and writing does not end there: academics and students alike must reference their research in footnotes and bibliographies.  Even the most groundbreaking authors stand on the shoulders of those who have written and researched before them.

Video Post: Challenges and Inspirations

By Iain Stewart

This is the first of six video posts reflecting on the Writing Project series of videos, which feature historians from QMUL reflecting on their own experiences of the writing process.

Students have more in common with their lecturers than they think. As an undergraduate struggling through my first essays, I assumed that the writing process must be so much easier for academics. My teachers were specialists, sometimes world-leading ones. With all their knowledge, I could never have imagined them tearing their hair out trying to make sense of difficult sources, or pulling an all-nighter to meet a deadline. My grades were mixed. I got my share of firsts in the end, but I started out with 2:2s, even the occasional third. The people marking my essays seemed to belong to a different universe.

It’s been a few years now since I stopped staying up all night writing my own essays and started staying up late marking other people’s. Now I am a published author with several articles under my belt and working on my first book. It’s fair to say I didn’t picture this when I read the feedback on some of my undergraduate essays. If I write much better now than I did back then it’s because I’ve had so much more practice, and taken on board a lot of criticism in the process. But that doesn’t mean it comes easily. In fact, writing is just as difficult for me now as it was when I was a student.

What I have come to realise is that academic writing is supposed to be difficult. If it isn’t, then you’re probably not doing it right. I remember writing the first draft of the first chapter of my PhD. At the time, knowing relatively little about my subject, I found it deceptively easy. I wrote about ten thousand words in a week and sent it off to my supervisor with a sense of great satisfaction. Never before had I been so productive as a writer. Never since have I written anything quite so bad. Writing the second draft of that chapter took about six months. It was agonising. But by the time I finished the work was good enough to publish. What started as a writing disaster ended up as my first article.

Student essays and dissertations, like some of their lecturers’ articles and books, can be ‘ugly ducklings’: they don’t always begin their lives beautiful. Making the most of feedback is really important here. Most students don’t realise that the books and articles they read when researching their essays have been through a process akin to marking. Before an article or book is accepted for publication, the author usually has to make a series of minor or major changes suggested by editors and anonymous reviewers. The final product can differ significantly from the original draft, and as such is more of a collective endeavour than first meets the eye. Next time your writing comes in for criticism, remember it’s probably not long since your reader will have had to respond to some feedback of their own. Your work, like theirs, will be all the better for making the most of this.

Which “Writing Matters”?

By Chris Sparks

In our first post, Jo set out the Writing Matters philosophy.  We wanted our first post to be inspiring and engaging.  We wanted to tell you that this blog is intended to start a conversation about the process and purpose of writing, without getting bogged down in the details.  “That’s great”, you might be thinking “but who are you, and what are you actually going to do?”  This post is your answer.

This blog has been started by three members of the School of History at Queen Mary, University of London: Jo Cohen, Chris Sparks and Iain Stewart.  We are all historians and writers; Jo and Iain lecture in the department and have been its Writing Tutors, and Chris is its e-learning manager.  You can follow the links to find out a little more about us and why we are involved in the project.

We’ve lined up a varied programme of activities for the blog.  First, we are going to be posting the six videos from the Writing Project series.  They feature historians at QMUL discussing the pleasure and pain of the writing process, and sharing the ways in which they approach it.  They were developed by Jo and Chris as an aid for our students whilst Jo was writing tutor, and Jo has integrated them into our first year History in Practice module this year.  It soon became clear to us whilst we were editing the videos, though, that we should not limit our audience to Queen Mary, nor to students and academics: writing is something that we all have in common.  It was at that point that the Writing Matters idea was born.

Writing Matters will feature some reflections on the videos from their participants, as well as from our own undergraduate and postgraduate students.  We have also lined up some exciting guest authors, and we will be posting the audio of talks on writing that we have arranged for the 2013/14 academic year.

From the start, we have said that we want this blog to be a conversation, and we are open to proposals.  If you would like to write a short piece about why writing matters to you, please email Chris (or Tweet him).  We would love to hear from you.

We’ll be posting about once a week.  You can subscribe to our RSS feed, or just keep checking back here.  Spread the word.