To be kind to your writing, you can practice by also learning to be kind to others’ writing. In this post Aya Nassar reflects on how a different approach to reading texts could help with your academic writing…
In my previous post, I wrote about how being kind to your writing might help in approaching it with dignity, honesty, and with less suffering. In this post I want to continue reflecting on how the “Creative Analytical Writing” workshop helped me in the times of crisis when I felt that I could not find my voice.
One of the key insights Elina Penttinen offered was the idea of imagining our writing as a drama, or perhaps as a stage. As soon as we start thinking that way we realise that the space of the page we are writing, that is, the margins, the footnotes, the conventions of full stops, commas, and spaces are all not innocent bystanders. Rather, they help structure the text and its voice.
We normally spend a lot of time thinking about, and learning to become, proficient in these tricks of the trade of academic writing. Yet, it is important to know the writing conventions are there to help us communicate our ideas rather than mask them.
If you think of academic texts as a stage, then you might start asking yourself whose authority are you making space for in the text. Whose voice dominates? Who do you foreground and who is relegated to the footnote? And more importantly, where are you hiding in the text? Do you end your paragraphs with a citation of an important academic? How about pushing him/her inside the paragraph and ending it on your own terms? If your writing is a theatre play, who is getting the lead role?
One way to experiment a little with the space of our writing is to think about how we approach others’ writing. As PhD students, we read a lot. An awful lot. We are meant to be pragmatic and strategic with our readings. We read with purpose, and try to do it as quickly and as precisely as possible. One exercise Elina made us do was meant to help pause this strategic mentality for a little while, and approach the articles and chapters we love, and cite a lot, with more space and time to breathe them in.
The technique she used was to get us to write found poems based on an academic text we like. That is, by going through the text and using only words from it to write a poem that we think would capture its spirit, and what we think it wants to say.
You might think this wouldn’t work, but in fact everyone came up with amazing poems. Even with texts that they thought were clever but dry! By rearranging words, taking decisions on form, like when to break a line, and allowing alternative ways to convey meaning, we came to learn that all writing is beautiful.
We also came to learn that there are a lot of ways to grasp what we read besides the fragmentary quotes, cutting and pasting, and shredding texts. We could occasionally grasp it by suturing and amending it, and playing with it, while remaining honest to its message.
Found poetry is used sometimes as a methodology, or as a pedagogical tool. In fact, you can find amazing examples that students created in a module of Feminist Perspectives on Global Politics here. I must say that during the workshop I had trouble coming up with a poem. I was never a “poetic” person, I thought. I started only picking up sentences and phrases, but couldn’t arrange them. Nevertheless, I tried again on the following day, and now I have a found poem in my chapter draft.
Perhaps we can learn to better love our readings (not necessarily all of them) by relating to them differently. To be honest, the article I practiced the exercise on was a favourite of mine, but one that I had to re-read over and over-again. Since I used it for this exercise, I stopped forgetting it.
But also, we can learn to be more forgiving of our first bad draft when we know that there are many paths to conveying meaning. We can think more about the space we give to our own voice in our text by rearranging it. These tips might work better for people in Social Sciences and Humanities, but regardless of your discipline we all want to write in a way that get others to care, and our readers won’t care if they don’t find us in our texts.
Over to you: have you been using creative writing alongside your academic writing? Do you think it might help to use creative writing techniques? Are there more inspiring modes of reading and writing that might help make PhD writing more joyful? Send us an email at email@example.com, tweet us your suggestions via @ResearchEx or add a comment on the section below.
Aya Nassar is a PhD student in the department of Politics and International Studies (PAIS), Warwick University. Her research looks into cities, space, and the politics of the Middle East. She tweets at @A_M_Nassar