Writers’ Rough Drafts is a podcast hosted by Elisa Doucette, Founder and Executive Editor of Craft Your Content; a business that aims to do the unthinkable – make writing a less lonely process. They offer group courses, as well as one-to-one support on writing and editing projects from website copy to novels. The Craft Your Content website is also a wonderful resource in itself. As a frequent visitor to the Craft Your Content website, and an avid listener of the Writers’ Rough Drafts podcast, I jumped at the chance to talk all things writing and creativity when Elisa approached me a few months ago.
Heidi Gardner is a scientist, researcher, blogger, entrepreneur, and activist. While her “full-time gig” is as a research fellow at the Health Services Research Unit at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland, after receiving her bachelor’s degree in pharmacology and her doctorate in participant recruitment, she has a lot more going on besides her fascination and love affair with science and improving participant trial experience.
This year, Heidi embarked on an international odyssey as a Winston Churchill Memorial Trust fellow—visiting art installations, chatting to professors and female scientists, and reading tomes upon tomes worth of articles and literature in North America, Europe, and Asia—to find interesting and unique ways that people share scientific research and results so it is more accessible to, and engaging for, the general public. A regular blogger herself, she updates her site with posts not only about her work and pursuits, but also her life as a woman in science and as a human on planet Earth. Which is part of her “side hustle,” an Etsy store and ecommerce brand called “Science on a Postcard,” a fun project that helps to see science in a new light.
From the show notes:
What You’ll Learn About Writing:
Why you need confidence to break writing rules
The importance of finding gatekeepers and peers who are “on your team”
How blogs can serve as a great place for a “brain dump”
Why we should tap into our creativity and retrain our brain to think more creatively, even if you think you’re a “noncreative” person
How you should find specific sources, information, and experiences to share that no one has written about before
Why not only being creative but being able to explain parts of that creativity to others often bring you more collaboration and readers
How we, as writers, can try to write more humanly and less pretentiously no matter what industry we’re in
I write non-fiction all of the time. it’s the most consistent part of academia – backgrounds, methods, analysis, it’s the one thing I know I could do every day and never get to the end of. Academic writing is a specific type of non-fiction designed to convey information, packing in details though remaining concise. What I do much less frequently is creative non-fiction. That is, using storytelling techniques to communicate factually accurate things.
Earlier this year, I had an idea for a non-fiction book. I’m not going to say any more than that – maybe one day I’ll write it, maybe I won’t – for now I’m mulling the idea over in my head to see if it’s got legs. Anyway, after having that idea I decided I’d like to learn how to write creative non-fiction. I searched online for local training courses, regular classes that I could attend to learn the basics, and I struggled to find anything around the Aberdeen area. Most options were online, and most were cost-prohibitively expensive. I pushed the idea to the back of my mind, and a few days later whilst watching one of Jen Campbell’sYouTube videos, she mentioned that she was starting a new online writing workshop for creative non-fiction. I signed up straight away; it was only £50 and though I didn’t think that something so short (and distant) could teach me a huge amount, I figured that it would at least get my head into the right space to get started.
I completed the writing workshop whilst I was on my Fellowship travels in Singapore and Hong Kong, and I enjoyed it so much that I wanted to talk about it here.
Since this workshop is online, you can take part wherever you are in the world. There is a text-only Skype session scheduled for feedback, but if the time isn’t suitable then you are able to get feedback on your work via email instead.
The workshop includes two tasks. The first involves looking at some examples of creative non-fiction and analysing them to work out why they are (or are not) successful, the second is a bigger beast; writing your own piece of creative non-fiction of up to 2,000 words.
The first task was necessary and interesting, but it was the second task that really got me thinking. The instructions Jen gives state, ‘You might want to write about a personal experience, you might want to write an informal essay, or a piece of memoir. Do whatever you like.’ I’d never had this much freedom to write non-fiction before, and it scared me (I’m not sure why, only Jen and the other workshop participants would see my writing. It wasn’t as if the stakes were particularly high – we were all there to learn). Regardless, it took me a few days of bouncing ideas around in my head to settle on something to write about, and then I did it. I sat down at my laptop and wrote, and honestly, it felt like a form of therapy. I wrote something very personal that I doubt I’ll ever share, and I loved it. It was a rough first draft and I knew it could be significantly improved, but for the first time in months I genuinely enjoyed the process of writing.
I sent both of my completed tasks to Jen before I had time to doubt myself, and a week later I got feedback. I’ve watched Jen’s YouTube channel for a few years and I’ve read lots of her books so I know that she is good at what she does, but for something so quick (and reasonably priced), I was expecting surface level feedback at best. Instead, I logged into the Skype chat (the one good thing about my experience with jet-lag) and she explained fundamental techniques, gave in-depth, well thought through feedback, suggested edits to my text, and the promise of a second round of feedback on a future draft. There were only 3 of us on the Skype chat and it was useful to hear both Jen’s feedback for the other workshop participant, and the other participant’s feedback on my piece.
I fully intended to edit that piece of writing within a week of the Skype chat; I felt passionate about learning this new skill and I was looking forward to revising my work (seriously, when does anyone think that?). Perhaps obviously, I didn’t have the time. My Fellowship travels were in full swing, and I got caught up with writing what felt like a million other things.
Now, I’m at one of Rowena Murray’s writing retreats, and as usual, I’ve managed to get way more work done than I thought I would (if either of my PhD supervisors are reading this – I’ve finished a new draft of the qualitative paper!), so I’m using one of the last sessions to edit my piece and write this blog post.
On reflection, I’m glad that I took a forced step back from creative non-fiction as it feels like Jen’s advice has sunk in over the last few months. Now I’m excited to make time to write, whether it’s as a sort of therapeutic outlet, or to continue banging on about science and science communication in a (hopefully) more engaging way.
If you’d like to try one of Jen Campbell’s online writing workshops for yourself, take a look at her website for dates. There are currently no dates for group workshops, but she also doing individual workshops throughout the year.
Yes, absolutely. I’m actually thinking of signing up for another one of Jen’s workshops later in the year – something further out of my comfort zone; perhaps this is the year that I start writing poetry!
I also wanted to mention Jen’s podcast – BOOKS WITH JEN. If you’re at all interested in reading, writing, books, authors and/or cups of tea, you’ll like this. All of the episodes are spoiler-free too, which means it’s one of my favourite sources to find out about books before going out to buy them.
A few weeks ago I posted a blog post about the good things about freelancing whilst doing a PhD. On that post, Jennie from A Muddled Student commented asking about how I got used to writing when I didn’t feel like it, so I thought it’d be a good idea to write up a blog post with the techniques and methods I’ve used to make sure I get my writing tasks completed on time.
When you feel like writing, don’t stop
This one seems obvious but I didn’t used to do it, so maybe it’s worth mentioning. When you’re in the mood to write, keep writing; get ahead with tasks, write blog posts, pieces of text about what you do, summaries of journal articles etc. Just keep writing. I find that in one day where I’m in a good place to write, I can get really ahead of freelance work (I work on a 3-month calendar so know what content I need to write for weeks ahead). Not only that, if you write summaries of journal articles, experiences you’ve had or pieces of text about what you do, you can always use that text later down the line. Having existing blocks of text also removes that fear of the blank page that you might get when you’re not in the mood to write.
Make realistic to do lists
I navigate my entire life with the help of lists. Whether it’s things to do, what to read, shows to watch, podcasts to listen to, or tasks at work. Write lists for each day, tasks to be achieved over the week, and future deadlines. Make these to do lists realistic, and get into a routine of completing each task on them before you leave the office each day.
I was first introduced to freewriting when I attended a scientific writing course with Allan Gaw during the first year of my PhD. Freewriting is a practice that helps to get over writer’s block, increase the flow of ideas, and help you to connect themes/topics together in your writing.
With freewriting, you set a timer and put your pen to paper (I really recommend doing this with a real pen and a notebook/piece of paper – the process isn’t as beneficial when you’re typing or scribbling on an iPad etc). Until your timer goes off, you don’t stop writing. A word of warning – it’s much, much harder than you think it will be.
If you want to have a go at freewriting, I’d recommend you start with a 1-minute timed write, and then work up, minute by minute, until you reach 10 minutes. Don’t think about spelling and grammar, and if you can’t think of anything to write, simply write ‘I cannot think of anything to write’. Just keep going. Eventually your thoughts will come back and your words will begin to flow again.
On the writing course I went on, we had a few different freewriting tasks that acted as a good introduction:
1-minute timed write – write a story and include the words ‘princess’, ‘frog’ and ‘California’
2-minute timed write – write about your research area, what you do, why you like it, what made you focus on this specific area
After these tasks you can then begin to make your freewriting more focussed. For example, if you need to write a conference abstract, focus on that with a 5-minute timed write, and then work to edit and craft the text you’ve come up with.
At the beginning of my PhD/freelancing balance, I only worked with lists. It worked to a certain extent, but if I wasn’t in the mood to write I’d find myself writing right up until the deadline, and not enjoying the process as a result. After I was introduced to freewriting I used that for a while, and now I find it much easier to write when I need to, rather than when I really want to.
What tips and tricks have you picked up to help you write even when you’re not in the mood to? Leave comments below and share your ideas!