Sense of Humerus

Emily Streetman: Anthropology Doctoral Student

Writing Workshop

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Image from Flickr user hummyhummy, Creative Commons licensed

I attended a writing workshop held at Michigan State University’s writing center last month. It got me thinking about the writing process generally and how daunting it can seem. (It is always terrifying to me at the beginning.) Here are a few themes we discussed, and my take on them.

Writing to different audiences and in different media:

This is where tone and level of discourse come into play. All of the following platforms or media require a different touch. I forget this often– since most of what I’m reading is peer-reviewed scholarly journals, I tend to produce complex sentences with high-level vocabulary, even in quick emails to colleagues. But it’s important to recognize that the audience changes with each new “thing” you write.

  • Conferences 
  • Dissertation
  • Emails
  • Blog posts: @Captain_primate describes academic blogging as “relaxed scholarly discourse.” Somehow, maybe because I was raised to write prim and proper thank you notes to my own relatives, “relaxed” and “scholarly” have never seemed to go together. I’m working on it, though.
  • Creative writing

Finding an Audience

Naturally, there was a pitch for the Writing Center embedded in the workshop, but the point is well taken. Anything academic, especially writing, suffers from being kept isolation. Try to find someone who is at your level (graduate instead of undergraduate, for example) to read or listen to your paper, even if it’s just a draft. I ask for advice when I know I need help, so someone who is critical and gives their honest opinion works best for me. Even if this Audience is not in your field, at least they will be a listening ear. Elements like overall structure and flow benefit from an Outsider’s perspective.

On the other hand, keep in mind the structure usually seen in your field’s articles. Know what you’re aiming for stylistically (is it all prose? do you need a materials and methods section?), and don’t be afraid to speak up if the Audience doesn’t understand a field-specific technical term.

Writing centers are a great resource for such feedback. Most offer repeating appointments to keep you accountable and working continuously. There are also writing groups led by students such as @adventuresnarch – this allows you the opportunity to be on both sides of the editing table. Turning a critical eye to someone else’s work can key you in to problems that might appear in your own writing.

Writing strategies

Almost no one can sit down at a blank screen and walk away at the end of the day with a complete document. There are a variety of long-term strategies for planning out your weekly schedule and writing multiple drafts, as well as short-term solutions for writer’s block or other difficulties throughout the day.

  • Learn new strategies: books such as  Writing Your Dissertation in15 Minutes a Day include a variety of ideas for different types of people to find solutions, even in short amounts of time each day.
  • Set a  routine: try to minimize distractions during the day, or at least during your writing time. E.g. Skype with parents over meals only.
  • Join a writing group to stay accountable and create urgent deadlines when your “real” deadlines are a long time off.
  • Use organizational tools that cross platforms or software like Endnote and Zotero
  • Use a voice recorder in the car, during your commute, to “jot down” ideas to work on later.
  • Put the work aside and come back. Frustration won’t get you far.
  • Work out, cook, garden: have a hobby that allows you to take your mind off your writing in order to reset and come back with a fresh attitude.

Workshops like these are useful. They allow you to gain perspective on the topic, identify your strengths and weaknesses, and reinvigorate your process.


Author: Emily

Emily is a doctoral student in the Department of Anthropology at Michigan State University studying forensic anthropology.

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