One topic that students have discussed with me recently is how to keep their writing skills in shape during a break when they don’t have lots of assignments due. I think this is an excellent question because although you’re not going to forget everything you’ve learned about writing, you can get a bit rusty if you’re not practicing for a long period, and then getting back into can seem daunting. Also, a period when you don’t have lots assignments due could be a good opportunity to focus on your writing skills in ways that are sometimes difficult in the middle of the semester when you have assignments due and word counts and assessment criteria to worry about. Here are five tips for keeping your academic writing skills in shape.
Tip 1: Realise and accept that writing uses a lot of brain power
The first tip is to realise and accept that academic writing requires a lot of brainpower because you’ve got to think about lots of things at once, like what you’re trying to say, who the audience is, constructing full sentences, structuring paragraphs, linking paragraphs and where you’re going with it all. Whether you are student or a professional academic, writing is intense. It’s hard work and it’s tiring. Just realising and accepting that is a good tip. Don’t be too hard on yourself if you find it difficult to get started and don’t be over ambitious with any goals you might set yourself. This brings us on to tip number 2.
Tip 2: Make a routine
If you’re going to make yourself do writing of this kind just for practice, then you’re going to need a some structure to make yourself do it. So, make a routine for yourself. Start with a small target, even just ten minutes a day and say to yourself ‘I’m going to do ten minutes of writing practice every day at 8am’, for example, or whenever you’re most likely to get a chance to focus. Make sure it’s something achievable because if your target is unrealistic, you’re likely to be put off and not do any practice at all.
Tip 3: Write about a topic you know well
Write about a topic that you know well and that you feel confident about and comfortable with. It doesn’t have to be an academic topic. In fact, it’s probably better if it’s not an academic topic. It could be about films, cooking or a job you have had – something where you’re the expert. This will make writing easier and more enjoyable and it will allow you to focus your energy on the writing, rather than puzzling over what you want to say.
Tip 4: Set yourself mini assignments
Set yourself mini assignments based on the kind of assignments you encounter on your course. For example, you might write a critical evaluation of the meal your partner cooked for you last night. What were its strengths? What were its weaknesses? Can you come to an overall judgement about the success of the meal? With this example the format is academic, but the topic could be anything. Chose something that’s easy to do and fun.
Or you might try a writing a reflection on something that has happened to you recently using one of the reflective models, such as Gibbs. Or try using the key task words that often come up in assignments, such as outline, discuss or compare. You might find that writing in those formats while using a subject that’s more natural to you allows you to practice quite well. Then when it comes to writing on a more academic subject matter next semester, you will have had a bit of a warmup and you might find it easier.
Tip 5: Try ‘free writing’ if you feel stuck
The idea of free writing is to think of a topic and then write continuously about it for a set period, perhaps five or ten minutes. Don’t worry about spelling, grammar or punctuation. Just keep writing. If you’re mind goes blank, then you write about that: “My mind seems to have gone blank. I wonder why that is… Perhaps it’s because I didn’t sleep properly last night…” You keep writing about that until your thoughts come back to the topic again. This can be a good way to get started if your finding writing practice difficult to get into.
I hope that gives you some ideas. If you want more support in getting started, do feel free to book with an academic skills advisor via the library website (https://libguides.uos.ac.uk/121).
Academic Skills Adviser