Managing your composing
Commonly, when I ask a group of students what time of day they prefer to compose, most say in the morning, a sizeable group favour the evening, and only a few prefer the afternoon. Most students have preferences as to when and how they like to compose. I am strongly in favour of finding out what you prefer, and then making those preferences work for you. Location and state of mind make a big difference. At the end of this chapter there are suggestions for creating the right environment and nurturing an appropriate state of mind for composing.
Many students I work with respond well to setting themselves short-term writing goals and then reflecting on their practice. It helps them plan their writing, and stay focused and motivated. It also encourages them to learn swiftly about the process of writing and what they need to do to improve. A few students prefer to be more open-ended and adopt the philosophy of ’I’ll see where I get to in a couple hours’. They prefer not to engage in systematic and regular goal setting and reflection. But for most students, these practices are beneficial and productive.
Setting writing goals
A common approach to goal setting uses the mnemonic (memory aid) SMART. Applying goalsetting theory (e.g. Locke and Latham, 2002; Wade, 2009), effective goals are:
For example, ’This morning, in three hours, I will write 750 words of first draft quality (with citations) on the literature review for my end-of-year project report.’ Does this goal meet the SMART criteria?
The goal is specific insofar as it says what will be written, how much and to what standard. It is measurable - the student will know whether they have written 750 words or not, and to what extent they have included relevant citations.
Is the goal achievable? The ability to judge this well beforehand comes with practice. As you reflect
on how well you complete a writing task (see below), this informs the goal setting for the next writing task. Even with practice, you will not always get it right. Writing is, after all, a creative process and how difficult a task proves to be may only become apparent after you have started. This is a good reason for beginning a task early, giving you the opportunity to adapt to unexpected challenges.
Is the goal realistic? There is, of course, a distinction between ’achievable’ and ’realistic’. Suppose that, at 9 pm one evening, you were asked to write 1,500 words by 9 am the next morning. For most of us, doing this might be achievable, but would it be realistic? Would working through the night be an effective way to carry out the task? In most cases, when completing a writing task, you have choice about when and how to do it. Be realistic about what is possible. As with deciding what is achievable, the ability to set realistic goals comes with practice and wise reflection.
Lastly, is the goal time-scaled? Yes, it is. The student has given herself three hours. For most people it is more effective to work in two chunks of about 90 minutes or three chunks of about 60 minutes, with breaks in between.
Key to goal setting and then carrying out the task is reflecting on how it went, and learning from your practice. Systematically applied, goal setting in combination with wise reflection is a way to swiftly improve your academic writing and its management.
Reflecting on your practice
Learning developers and theorists (e.g. Gibbs, 1988; Dennison and Kirk, 1990) propose that actionplanning (including setting goals) and systematic reflection are key to learning from experience. Here is how you can apply this to your writing.
After a writing session, review how it went:
What went well?
What went less well?
What would I do differently next time?
For example, let us return to the student’s goal: ’This morning, in three hours, I will write 750 words of first draft quality (with citations) on the literature review for my end-of-year project report.’ She reflects on how it went. What went well included her writing 790 words in less than three hours, and the student feeling proud of what she had achieved. When she reads her work, she sees that there are gaps, and more literature searching and reading needs to be done, but she is satisfied that she has a reasonable working draft to develop further.
What went less well? She did not have all her paper sources to hand. And at one point, she lost wifi access to her online materials. This meant that she could not insert all the citations as she went. On one occasion she was unclear about the sources of evidence underpinning her argument. She also allowed herself to be distracted by arriving emails and a text message.
What might she do differently next time? All in all, she was fairly satisfied with her performance but realised that next time she could wait until a break to answer emails, texts or phone calls. If she had done so, she might have done a slightly better job and probably saved about half an hour. Breaking off from her composing in mid-flow, and then having to regain the right frame of mind, was disruptive. Next time, she would ignore emails and put her mobile phone on mute. Also, she would make sure she had good online access and had gathered all the source material she needed for her planned writing.
By reflecting in this manner, and making adjustments, one becomes a better writer. Managing the
’nuts and bolts’ of writing, ensuring that you are in a supportive environment with everything you need, gives you the best opportunity to be creative rather than plagued by distractions.
Nurturing your composing
-Keep a notebook of ideas, questions and jottings.
-Try writing ’as if you were a writer or researcher you admire.
-Analyse the work of writers or researchers you respect.
-Analyse your own work, but be constructively critical.
-Set yourself achievable, short-term goals.
-Gradually build your writing skills - start ’small chunk’ and then aim larger.
Gain feedback from those whose opinion you value. It helps to be specific about those aspects for which you want feedback (see Chapter 12).
-Give yourself a reward after a successful bout of composing!