Royal Literary Fund one-to-one writing tutorials: A Student Team review
“Turn up at the page” — Lizzie’s simple words of wisdom ring loud and clear in my ears as I try to free myself from the shackles of perfectionism and write this blog post. I’ve just taken part in a one-to-one academic writing tutorial with Lizzie Nunnery, the Royal Literary Fund Fellow for the University of Manchester. Her writing portfolio is impressive and I looked forward to receiving her expert guidance on my own writing. She has written extensively for radio, theatre and film, and has won several awards for her plays. Her prose and academic writing have also been published nationally.
After a brief introduction, she does not take long to deliver her first pearl of advice: “when exploring new ideas, write by hand”, using good old-fashioned pen and paper. This reminds me of something I read in the scientific literature: writing by hand, as opposed to typing away on your laptop, enhances critical thinking abilities and reduces eye strain. Additionally, it encourages deeper cognitive processing of thoughts and stimulates creativity. Lizzie suggests using spider diagrams as a way of delving deeper into our creative reservoirs and helping us to formulate the central themes of our piece of writing.
We then chat more generally about the form of writing. She talks about thinking about critical analysis using a holistic approach. It’s not just about analysing the methods a study has used or the authors’ interpretation of the results, for example, but also how you structure your own writing in a way that flows for the reader. She espouses the benefits of stepping away from your work for a day and coming back to your writing with fresh eyes. I ask if fresh eyes could also mean asking a friend or family member to glance at your work, and whether it could help with the creative part of writing. Lizzie agrees that a fresh, objective perspective can be altogether useful once you have finished your first draft, and that creating space between your work can help you return to it with greater clarity.
With these insights under my belt, we turn to look at the abstract part of my Master’s dissertation and, in particular, the detail of my sentences. Lizzie tells me she likes to begin with a microscope approach, looking at the fine details before moving onto the overall structure. However, she is equally very accommodating and is more than happy to adapt the tutorial to suit your needs. With her keen eyes, she spots an overly-long sentence right in the middle of the abstract. The sentence spans a full 4 lines, which she says is an indicator that it will be difficult for the reader to unravel the meaning. I read the sentence again and immediately see how convoluted it is. She suggests splitting it into 3 sentences to help facilitate the reader’s understanding and advises that reading our writing out loud can give us a good idea of how it comes across to the reader. The semicolon suddenly pops into my head and I seize the opportunity to delve into Lizzie’s fount of literary knowledge to find out when it’s most appropriate to use this most neglected of punctuation marks. We muse on that piece of punctuation which a lot of students either don’t use enough of, or sprinkle liberally like confetti in their writing: the comma!
Guided by an essay map Lizzie has shared, we move on to the midsection of my dissertation, before talking about how best to approach the discussion part. Map is a very apt term, as she depicts writing as being a journey you take the reader through. Sometimes, when our ideas, or the connections between our ideas, are not coming across very clearly to the reader, it’s because the ideas are not clear in our own heads. We have to clarify the links between our thoughts ourselves first. She says that we can then make connections between our ideas clear to the reader by using language to signpost. One example is using direct connecting phrases such as ‘expanding on this point’. She warns against the pitfalls of using redundant words and overly complex language. Lizzie tells me it’s about finding the simplest way to communicate a complex idea. Towards the end of the tutorial, she will usually run through a very helpful checklist of important aspects to troubleshoot for before submitting.
With our session nearing the end, she invites me to ask her any further questions. I make the most of her literary expertise and vast experience as a playwright, poet and fiction writer by asking what advice she can give to students about dealing with writer’s block. She uses the analogy of crafts people who simply do their job and tells me the best advice she was ever given was to “turn up at work”. Writing is a craft and we are all writers at one stage or another — our job is to sit at our desk and write. Oftentimes, she says, it’s our ego which gets in the way and the only way to overcome our perfectionism is to simply write. When I tell her that I sometimes get stuck after writing a flow of words or a paragraph, she astutely observes that it may be less about not knowing what to say and more a mental block from being worried that what I write next won’t be as good as what came before it. We can always edit later, but we can’t work with a blank piece of paper. She offers further words of wisdom when she advises to always keep our purpose and audience in mind when writing, as that will help us to maintain the clarity of our ideas when trying to communicate them to our readers. As a budding writer myself, it was reassuring to hear that even such an accomplished writer as Lizzie has also struggled with the common issues we all face in the process of writing. I thank her for the time she has generously given up and leave the session feeling enlightened and empowered by insights which will help take my writing to the next level. Like any craft, all it takes is just a little practice.
Written by Olivia Mak from the Library Student Team (with special thanks to Lizzie Nunnery and Sara Knurowska)
Lizzie has now ended her contract at the University, but there will be a new Royal Literary Fellow from September for Academic Year 21/22. More details to follow!