All posts by Chris Sparks

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!

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.