Wednesday exploration: pomodoro & shut up & write

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People writing together. Image shared via Stock Snap

Writing is finally about one thing: going into a room and doing it. William Goldman.

The bottom line is that we all know this but if you have a paper or report to write, a thesis to complete or a proposal to develop how good are you at actually getting down to writing? Are you disciplined about sitting down and getting on with the task in hand or do you find a hundred and one more important things to do?

When you settle down with your computer to write if you need to look something up on the internet do you, 10 clicks later, find yourself engrossed in some amazing website that has absolutely nothing to do with what you were looking up? Then the things being shared in this weeks exploration may be of interest.

The first is PhD2Published which I discovered last November when I came across academic writing month (#AcWriMo). PhD2Published organises AcWriMo and describes it as an annual academic write-a-thon held every November which unites people by the common goal of developing better and more sustainable writing habits. Over 1000 people participate  and, if you want to be part of a writing community, it is a fun way to feel connected as part of a global community with other academics who are in supportive, writing mode. At the start of November you declare publicly your writing goal and throughout the month a range of social media are used to help you to keep motivated and on target and to share your ups and downs. If you want to find out more here is the link and I have put a reminder in my diary to flag it up again as the time approaches.

As well as AcWriMo the PhD2Published site comprises a compilation of hundreds of blog posts organised under the headings of journal articles, books, conference papers, grants, digital publishing, academic practice and resources (websites and tools). In terms of supporting your writing whether it is an abstract for a conference, a chapter in a book or a grant application it is worth exploring this site and the resources and tools it links you to.

It was whilst I was following academic writing month that I came across 2 other writing strategies which caught my attention Pomodoro and Shut up and Write. 

The Pomodoro Technique is a time management technique which can be used as a strategy to help you maintain focus when you sit down to write. The basic principle is to work in 25 minute blocks. You set a timer for 25 minutes (and yes you can actually buy a bright red pomodoro) and write without distraction for this length of time. When time is up get up and have a 5 minute break. At the end of 5 minutes reset the timer and continue writing for another 25 minutes. If you are on a roll and string 4 pomodoros together at the end of the fourth you take a 30 minute break. There is a little more to it than that, but not much, and all of the details are on the site.

Shut up and Write Tuesdays are based around the pomodoro technique and have been developed to help academics not only structure their writing time but also connect with others. Writing can be a lonely activity and this approach, started in San Fransisco,  aims to bring people together to write. The idea is to identify a suitable location and space, meet together and write in silence for an hour with a 5 minute break (2 pomodoros) and then socialise over coffee after. The rationale is that, the discipline and shared sense of purpose that comes from writing with others also keeps you accountable and reminds you that you aren’t alone. So here is a pretty straight forward idea for setting up a writing group with colleagues or fellow students.

If the  shut up and write approach appeals but you don’t have a group to write with there is also a virtual Shut up and Write group on the first and third Tuesday of each month @SUWTUK. If the time for the UK session doesn’t suit check out the other times zones as there are 3 virtual groups running in different time zones.

Three resources to support your writing. As always it would be great to hear about the things you have found useful so please share.



Wednesday exploration: sketchnotes and leadership.

DSCN0662Having changed jobs recently I was faced with a pile of old notebooks. Pages of written text with no visual clues regarding the content, often lacking headings and dates. I’m sure this reveals something about my unsystematic approach to dealing with notes but I’m hoping this may resonate with others because if you are studying or conducting research you will take notes, lots of notes.

The question I have been exploring is, is there a better way of making notes more accessible? Over the last few years there has been a growth in the utilisation of visual note takers to summarise and communicate key messages from workshops and meetings. If you haven’t come across them have a look at the website of Morethanminutes.

I have watched Claire and her colleagues at work in awe not only of their artistic talent but also of their ability to listen, distil and draw at the same time. Something which has felt unobtainable to me as my inner critic tells me constantly that I cannot draw.

Over the last month I have started to follow Tanmay Vora’s blog which is focused on ‘Leadership, Learning and Raising the Bar in a Constantly Changing World’. If you are seeking to develop your leadership skills this blog is well worth exploring. Recent posts include Leadership: start with trust exploring how leaders need to connect with people before they can lead, When does real learning happen which explores exactly that and Leaders need 3 kinds of focus which identifies 3 foci for leaders, the needs of the context, their own needs and the needs of others.

What you will see if you explore these posts is that the written content is fairly short but the visual note at the end of each post summarises and communicates concepts and ideas very effectively. There is something compelling in the way the visual notes invite you to think in a different way.

Looking at Tanmay’s visual notes, and reading about his journey into visual note taking, made me think more about this approach and how my pages of notes would have been more accessible and probably more focused if I had included visuals.

Feeling a little more confident I have been exploring ‘The Sketchnote Handbook. The illustrated guide to visual note taking” by Mike Rohde, one of several introductory texts on visual note taking. Whilst contributors include professional skektchnote takers, the basic premise is that if you can draw a circle, square, triangle, line and dot you can draw sketchnotes. The book provides an insight into the theory behind sketchnotes, the processes involved in taking sketchnotes and practical exercises to help you develop your skills.

The focus of the book is on sketchnote taking in presentations but as you can see in Tanmay’s blog the technique can also be used to summarise texts and convey your thought processes. I also think it would be helpful in analysing qualitative data.

As part of my coaching practice I keep a reflective diary and have started to experiment with including sketchnotes. It certainly makes my notes more accessible and quicker to reference and it has made me think more about the key points I want to highlight. Before supervision it is now easy to pick out the focus for discussion and, when preparing for new coaching sessions, I can connect with things far more quickly. How am I getting on? Well I am not about to launch my sketchnotes on the world but they are definitely improving.

Maybe sketches and leadership appear as strange bed fellows but this is how different things connect when you go exploring.

Losing words: writing qualitative research for publication.

Section of stained glass from Manchester Cathedral

Section of stained glass from Manchester Cathedral

There has been a theme running through the last few days of needing to loose words. I am working with a colleague to prepare a paper derived from a project we have just completed evaluating a dental outreach service for people from ‘hard to reach’ communities. Many of the service users are homeless and have complex needs and this service has evolved to try to address some of the challenges they face with dental care. So much to say.

There was a bit of a heart sink moment when we thought we had around 5,000 words to play with and then, looking at the author guidelines, we realised that, for this particular publication, the limit is actually 3,000. Two thousand words to cut, and we thought we were doing well to get it down to 5,000!

Writing within word limits is one of those things which for many of us challenges not only our language skills but our ability to ‘bottom line’ our research. Whether it is a 250 word abstract we are preparing to submit in response to a conference call or a 3,000 word limit for a paper word limits force us to make pretty fundamental decisions about how to piece together the key points, stay true to our findings and present a structured narrative which makes sense to the reader.

This is an even greater challenge, I think, when your world of research revolves around words. As a qualitative research my research is grounded in words: the stories people tell; how and where they tell them; the things they write about; the words I use to build the context, describe people, settings, emotions. If you then add to this the need to convey to the reader the credibility, trustworthiness and generalisability of your work – yet more words……..

We are walking a tightrope between providing enough information to assure reviewers and readers that our work is robust and trying hard to convey the depth of data we have gathered. Why is it that the quotes which eloquently convey a specific point are often the longest?

A while ago I wrote about bottom lining your research and the challenges of conveying a PhD in a tweet, well I guess we’re back in that territory again. Writing within any word constraint forces us to journey into the essence of our data. When push comes to shove what are THE most important things emerging from our data that we want to convey. It is a reductionist process and one that leaves me feeling frustrated about what has been left out. The colour is reduced to primary colours and the subtleties of shade and detail are missing.

The possibilities for communicating research are growing rapidly and a ground swell of researchers are exploring the potential of using multiple channels to talk about their research not only at the end of a project but across the whole trajectory.

A world of possibilities not only in terms of what we communicate but also how we communicate. Freedom to choose different styles of writing, to reach different audiences. If you are interested in exploring this world more then the LSE impact blog is a really great place to start; providing thought provoking posts and links to resources to take you on a journey of exploration.

Of course whatever form of communication we use we will always have to function within word limits, whether it is 140 characters or 3,000 words. So I’m off to loose some more words today.