Setting up academic writing communities

Academic writing with all its trials and tribulations, can sometimes be easier and more enjoyable in the company of other people. So providing students with opportunities either to write together or to talk about writing together seems to me to be an important way of overcoming some of the difficulties experienced in the writing process. There are various ways of going about establishing joint spaces for writing but I am interested in exploring options for doing a bit more than this and trying to create some kind of academic writing community.

I sometimes run writing retreats for Masters students and I’ve written about this before. Retreats are also widely used by the Higher Education Academy to support and mentor academic staff who are writing their fellowship applications. Some useful ideas for organising writing retreats for students can be found on the QMUL Thinking Writing website. Writing retreats have some similarities with Shut up and Write groups. The Thesis Whisperer offers suggestions on setting up these.

There is also lots of good advice available on the Inside Higher Ed website. Various options are described here including traditional writing groups, writing accountability groups (where you have to answer to people regularly about your writing), online writing groups, writing coaches etc. An important point made here is that we all need to work out what our actual needs are in relation to writing first.

Write Inquiry offers a toolbox of ideas to help writing and useful links and is intended for staff and students in HE who want to set up collaborative writing communities.

You could try an academic writing meet up – or set one up

The Writing Cafe at Plymouth University sounds great. It offers students the chance to come and talk to learning developers and writing mentors about their writing. It also puts on writing events.

So there are quite a few examples out there. I’m looking into organising something around writing communities with students and will update this blog with my progress during the next academic year.


It’s dissertation time again

It’s that time of year again when Masters students are busy and engrossed with their dissertations. For many of them, it is their first attempt at doing their own piece of independent research. As a dissertation supervisor and academic skills developer, I really enjoy the process of working with students as they bring their dissertation projects together – it’s really rewarding to see how many of them become so engrossed and passionate about what they are doing. As the dissertation is such a significant piece of writing, there are always challenges along the way with both the writing and the research. So each year, I look for useful resources that might be helpful to students. Often these have a different focus and they cover topics such as such as managing time when writing, writing style, putting together a coherent argument among others. Resources I’ve written about previously are listed here

Obviously, lots of universities have their own useful resources and these tend to be tailored for doing a dissertation in that particular institution.

Others I have come across recently:

Dissertation dos and don’ts from the Guardian: how to write your dissertation  

The No-Fail Secret to Writing a Dissertation – aimed primarily at PhD students but useful tips on writing every day which will also be relevant for Masters students.

Books on writing dissertations which students may find helpful:

Biggam, J. (2011) Succeeding with your masters dissertation: a step-by-step handbook. Maidenhead: Open University Press.

Bitchener, J. (2010) Writing an applied linguistics thesis or dissertation: a guide to presenting empirical research. Basingstoke: Palgrave.

Bolker, J. (1998) Writing your dissertation in fifteen minutes a day: a guide to starting, revising and finishing your doctoral thesis. New York: H Holt.

Furseth, I. (2013) Doing your masters dissertation. London: Sage.

Hart, C. (2005) Doing your masters dissertation: Realizing your potential as a social scientist. London: Sage.

Murray, R. (2006) How to write a thesis. Maidenhead: Open University Press.

Rudestam, K. (2007) Surviving your dissertation: A comprehensive guide to content and process. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Sumerson, J. (2014) Finish your dissertation, don’t let it finish you. New Jersey: Wiley.




Writing and thinking versus speaking and thinking (aka musings on using dictation software)

I haven’t written on this blog for quite a while because I recently fractured my wrist after taking a tumble walking out on the North Downs. It’s my left wrist and I’m left-handed and as it’s a carpal bone it’s taking a long time to heal. One of the many consequences of my injury is that I am unable to hand write or use a keyboard.

After what has seemed like many frustrating weeks of tapping the keyboard with my less than competent right fingers (painfully slowly!), I am now using Dragon software. For readers not familiar with this, it’s very handy dictation software. It’s been taking a bit of getting used to but I am now finding it very helpful and I have written this piece today with Dragon.

However, dictating what goes on a page involves a very different thinking process to handwriting or tapping things out on a keyboard and I’ve been thinking a lot about this difference. For straightforward tasks like the majority of emails dictating them is great and really easy. But when I’m doing more formal academic writing, I find that the actual physical process of writing helps to advance my thinking and to resolve problems. Sometimes I find the best way of getting through writing difficulty is to move away from the computer and take a notebook and pencil and simply write, cross things out and make a mess. Speaking in the form of dictating to the computer is quite a departure and I’ve been finding it a bit more difficult. For example, I’m writing up a report on some surveys for a project I manage so it’s in an academic style. It feels as though dictating what I want to write, saying it out loud is more challenging. Of course, I know from my PhD research that speaking is believed to facilitate the development of understanding (e.g. Barnes, 1992) but this is about speaking with another person and collaborating. I am not so sure about the monologue involved in speaking to the computer. Having said all this, speaking my thoughts about what I want to write is still helpful, it’s just not what I’m used to. One of the advantages I’m finding is that it’s enabling me to write in a more informal style which although not always appropriate, has its own benefits and, it could be argued, is adding a new dimension to my writing. So once my hand is healed, I will probably still find some uses for the dictation software because I think it’s giving me access to a different kind of writing and thinking.


Barnes, D. (1992) The role of talk in learning, IN: Norman, K. Ed. Thinking Voices: The Work of the National Oracy Project. Oxford: Blackwell, 123-138.

On (not) finding time to write

As someone who teaches on academic and research skills training programmes for postgraduate students, I spend a lot of my time advising students on strategies for writing – including getting started with writing, keeping going with writing, fitting short bursts of writing into a busy schedule, prioritising writing and so on. Some of these are strategies which I have made use of myself and I have found them to be helpful e.g. the Pomodoro Technique and I have commented on these before. Unfortunately, the reality is that I find it extremely difficult to make time for writing that isn’t a 100% compulsory part of my job. In other words, I’m not that great at following my own advice. The writing that I absolutely have to do like project and evaluation reports for funding bodies gets done. It’s the other stuff like completing a paper for a journal or writing a project proposal (useful and interesting but not totally necessary) that I find hard to fit in. Sometimes I am too busy with more urgent tasks, other times I get distracted by incoming emails or people coming to talk to me. Writing requires focused attention and if it’s late in the day, I can be too tired to concentrate. Yet when I get down to it, I really enjoy writing and always have ever since I was a primary school kid. I have come to the conclusion that for me, the best piece of advice I have come across is to allocate time to writing from Silva’s book How to write a lot: A practical guide to academic writing and it only works if the time I allocate is in the morning before I begin to look at emails. So that is what I have started trying to do – allocating a short period of time to writing several mornings each week. I plan to try and update this blog with my progress.

Planning and Time Management for Researchers

I’ve recently taught a workshop on planning and time management for postgraduate research students in the Faculty of Humanities at the University of Southampton. The session covered a variety of techniques to help with planning and managing time effectively as well as issues to think about with reading and writing. I’ve uploaded my presentation to Humbox. The workshop was based on similar training materials I developed for postgraduate taught students in my other job role at SOAS, University of London and which I wrote about here.

A few reflections on modern languages and elitism

I was recently asked to speak at a widening participation workshop organised by Routes into Languages East Midlands about why we need to widen participation in language learning, which is one of the key objectives of the Routes into Languages programme. In preparing my presentation for the event, I started out by simply googling ‘languages an elitist subject.’ What came up was a wide variety of media headlines from the last decade – a few of these are listed below:

These headlines do seem to indicate that there really is a media discourse about languages as socially elitist in the UK which will be challenging for those of us in the languages community to break down.

When it comes to the evidence about what is actually going on in this area, the most recent Language Trends survey (Board & Tinsley, 2014) paid some attention to this and reported that among its respondents, fee-paying independent schools were more likely than maintained state schools to offer continuity of language in the transition from Key Stage 2 to 3 and more likely to offer more than one language in KS3. Additionally, as has been much publicised, exam entries in languages at both GCSE and A level include disproportionately high numbers of entries from the independent sector. Most recent GCSE figures show a 15% gap in favour of independent schools, for example. Post-16, the situation is even more pronounced with 32% of all A-level entries in 2013 coming from the independent sector according to Language Trends.

And what of universities? Well, languages tend to be located in the more traditional universities in the UK, i.e. the Russell Group. The UCAS 2013 Application Cycle: End of Cycle Report  in December 2013 made for depressing reading and reported that students from independent schools made up 9.58% of applicants across all subjects compared with 28.34% for European Languages. A few years ago, my former University of Southampton colleague, John Canning published statistics on the social and background of language applicants in UK HE and these highlight the problems in a bit more detail and can be seen on his website.

So in answer to the question, ‘are languages elitist subjects?‘ Yes it would seem so. It is important to emphasise, however, that to some extent they always have been. Languages were traditionally taught in grammar schools and not to the whole cohort. And in the languages community we are still grappling with this aura of elitism that surrounds our subject.

A note on travels in the Gaeltacht

I’ve just returned from a trip to counties Mayo (Maigh Eo) and Sligo (Sligeach) on the west coast of Ireland.

It was my first visit to Sligo and I finally got to see the Lake Isle of Innisfree which so inspired Yeats’ beautiful poem.

P1000194My Dad’s family originate from the Gaeltacht area of Mayo but I hadn’t been for a long time and I’d forgotten that in the stunning setting of the Corraun Peninsula and Achill and amid the memorials to the Spanish Armada, so much of the signage is in Irish only.

P1000184Coming from this part of the world, my Grandfather was Irish speaking and as a linguist, I do feel that my own inability to speak any Irish at all does represent a loss of knowledge. So I am thinking about whether to do something about this and whether to have a go at the 1000 words challenge in my heritage language of Irish. I’ll update this blog with what I decide and how I get on.