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If a sentence sounds weird, if you stumble over a long word that twists your tongue, or if you almost suffocate before the end of the sentence – then you should revise your prose. To identify these issues, you should read your text aloud. Reading what you wrote aloud is to edit by ear – an obviously neglected tool for improving ones texts. But authors of books about writing suggest it as a valuable tool for revising (e.g. Becker’s Writing for Social Scientists, 2007).
I’ve only begun editing by ear since writing this blog. Before that I never seriously thought about reading aloud. I guess I would have felt silly talking to myself. But I found out that it makes a difference whether I just think about what I wrote or actually pronounce it. While many scholars read their texts aloud if it’s a conference paper, they might not do so when it’s a long PhD thesis or journal article.
That writers don’t necessarily like to read aloud became obvious to me when I led workshop participants to read paragraphs they provided themselves. One participant didn’t like this part. And although I explained why they should read aloud, he wasn’t convinced. Even if it takes longer to read a text this way, or if it’s embarrassing, it nonetheless helps to spot text elements that should be edited. The exercise isn’t about how well we can read, but how the prose we write sounds.
So, if you gasp for breath, you might want to shorten the sentence or make it into two. If you twist your tongue while pronouncing a long and fancy noun, you might want to look for a shorter and simpler word with the same meaning. And if the sentence doesn’t seem to make sense when reading it aloud – if it hurts your ear –, consider a more thorough revision.
Next week, I will begin another post series that deals with academic text genres. And soon I start yet another post series. I will continue with the Exercises and Tools when I have new things to say about them.
You have definitely used, or at least heard about, clustering, mind-mapping, and similar tools to collect and create ideas. We learned about them back in school. I consider these methods as widespread cultural tools for thinking on paper. Only recently, though, I learned about their origin.
As far as I know, Gabriele L. Rico was the first to present clustering in her book Writing the Natural Way (1983). Rico wrote about developing creativity methodically. She introduced clustering as a method to generate ideas, linking it to the insights of brain research. In her book she also mentions mind-mapping, which was developed by Tony Buzan in Britain at around the same time.
People often confuse the two methods of generating ideas. True, they have a lot in common and yet they differ. Clustering means freely collecting ideas that come to mind, which are connected to a key word or phrase. You don’t have to worry about right or wrong – everything is valid. As you might remember, the key term in the middle of a sheet of paper and every new term you add have a circle around them. Whenever a chain of associations is exhausted, you start anew at the key term to create another one. You can do this exercise in a specific period of time, say ten minutes, like the freewriting exercises. Whenever you don’t know another term, you draw circles around the term in the centre while thinking. But don’t think too hard or rationally; try to use the creative part of your brain.
As for the mind map, you don’t need to limit your time working on it. Although the mind map works with similar principles, it demands a more formal approach. Starting with a central term or phrase you create hierarchical chains of associations. Each new term relates to the one before, becoming a sub-category. The farther out you get from the centre, the thinner the connecting lines and the more specific the terms or ideas will be. For the mind map, thus, you think more about the relationships between ideas, whereas in clustering you don’t have to care about that.
For myself, I understand the clustering to be a simple tool to generate new ideas and associations, and the mind map a more demanding tool for generating and ordering ideas. I don’t use them that often myself, but sometimes they work well for collecting ideas for a paper or chapter. Some people use them to take notes during lectures. Depending on the purpose, both clustering and the mind map can help you find new ideas. They both allow you to ‘storm your brain’ when rational and logical thinking don’t take you further.
Next week, I will talk about a trick for text revision – revising with your ear.
Peter Elbow (1981) called it “freewriting”. Peter Boice (1990) talked about “spontaneous writing” and “generative writing”. Ulrike Scheuermann (2012) talks about “thought sprint”, “focus sprint”, and other writing exercises. Regardless of the different terminology, the exercises allow us to just write what comes to mind. No matter how silly, stylistically bad, or useless a draft, these writing forms demand that we let go of our usual constraints. So, goodbye inner censor, at least for the time being.
The task is simple: write whatever comes to your mind for five or ten minutes – as freewriting. Or choose a topic and write about that – as generative writing or the focus sprint. In both cases, write without stopping, even if you write, “I don’t know what else to write”. Don’t stop moving your pen or your fingers on the keyboard. You don’t have to rush though, just keep writing. The thoughts will follow. At worst, after five minutes you will have one or two pages of useless text in front of you. At best, you will have used writing to think about something and found out that you know more than you thought – or that you have new ideas that emerged while writing.
But don’t worry: nobody needs to read your text. This is a writing exercise for you alone. Even if you do it in a workshop, where everybody writes for five minutes, you usually don’t have to share the results. But you might want to share your experiences about doing the exercise.
Instead of doing the same standard exercise of simply writing about anything or a specific topic, you can vary it. Scheuermann (2012) presents different forms of this exercise. In each of the exercises, however, you are asked to mark the most important sentences you wrote and a key sentence at the bottom of the page. For one of the variations, “writing relay“, you use the key sentence of the first focus sprint to write another one. And then again, you use the second key sentence to write a third text. Alternatively, you use the same topic for several focus sprint versions. This is a way to explore a topic more deeply.
Now you might wonder, what are these exercises for? They can be helpful for exploring a topic you don’t yet know much about. You write down everything you know – regardless of grammar, punctuation, or sentence fragments. Alternatively, these exercises might help you when you’re stuck with a text. If you can’t begin or continue writing, take five minutes to write about why you can’t begin or continue. The exercise might inspire you or start your writing mind.
Whatever you write about in these exercises, consider writing to be a tool to think. Allow yourself to think in a written form, instead of trying to keep all your thoughts to yourself until they are in their proper places and perfectly phrased.
Next week, I will talk about clustering, mind-mapping and similar tools.
Boice, Robert (1990): Professors as Writers. A Self-Help Guide to Productive Writing. Stillwater: New Forums Press Inc.
Elbow, Peter (1981): Writing with Power. Techniques for Mastering the Writing Process. New York/ Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Scheuermann, Ulrike (2012): Schreibdenken. Schreiben als Denk- und Lernwerkzeug nutzen und vermitteln. Opladen/Toronto: Verlag Barbara Budrich.
In the advanced education course for writing consultants I started two weeks ago, I learned an exercise I’d like to share with you. You can do the exercise alone or, better still, with another writer. You need only something to write and some time.
The exercise is called writing biography (or more generally, literacy biography). In the course, I interviewed a course participant for twenty minutes, asking questions about his relationship to reading and, especially, writing. While he talked about his first reading and writing experiences up until the present day, I took notes. He then interviewed me, inquiring about my writing biography. On the basis of the interview, we had to write the other person’s writing biography from his or her perspective. The portrayed person then read the text and gave feedback.
Although it might be easier to tell someone else your story, the exercise should also work if you do it alone. First write down questions you want to answer, maybe take some notes, and then write your own writing autobiography. In either case, the exercise allows you to reflect on and explore your relationship to writing and reading. Like me, you might remember experiences you had forgotten about when asking or being asked the right questions. Maybe you will even find out that you have a different relationship to writing than you had thought.
This exercise may be a good tool for starting a new project or if you are stuck. It allows you to write about something you know well and gives you an opportunity to get into writing. You can use the exercise every once in a while and can shift your focus from your entire writing biography to a specific time or context. It allows you to reflect on your attitudes, expectations, or wishes concerning writing. The exercise might help you to clarify your role as a writer (academic or otherwise).
Next week, I will talk about an exercise similar to freewriting.