How is it that a blank page, with that blinking cursor, can be so intimidating?
Free writing exercises are used by writers of all kinds of books and articles, from fiction to academic and journalistic. They help you “just write” when you can’t think of where to start; they help you put those first few words on that blank page.
I’ve recently discovered just how useful these exercises are and the timing couldn’t be better. I’ve recently started the third year of my PhD, and am faced with a seemingly endless amount of mostly ethnographic data. How am I supposed to go from these hours of interview transcripts and pages of observational fieldnotes to something resembling an analysis chapter (or three…)?
Luckily for me, I got a place on the Writing Across Boundaries workshop this year, held at Durham University (4-5 April). I spent two days with other PhD researchers and academics engaged in ethnographic research from a wide range of disciplines, from anthropology, to politics and agriculture. This year’s workshop focussed on ethnographic writing: its benefits and potential pitfalls. We looked at how ethnographic writing, using “thick description”, can draw the reader in to a time and place. This is where writing can become a method of analysis in and of itself. You write as an entry point to the data, moving from description to analysis through the writing process.
While this all sounds great in theory, how do you make it happen in practice? That’s where free writing comes in. I’ve put together a few links to useful free writing exercises that you can use regardless of what you’re working on, whether it’s an essay, literature review, analysis chapter or blog post.
Looping is particularly useful for analysis, allowing you to delve into your data through a descriptive free writing exercise, to then pull out concepts and begin writing more analytically.
- Write continuously for 5 minutes about one thing in your research. WRITE CONTINUOUSLY – EVEN IF YOU GET STUCK, KEEP WRITING.
- After 5 minutes, re-read what you’ve written, pick out one thing that stands out most and write about that.
- Re-read what you’ve written and again pick out something striking, focus on it and write about that.
- Well done, you’ve done two loops!
There’s a whole list of 10 different exercises in the link. They are intended for creative writing, but can still be useful. If you have collected photos or newspaper articles, there are few exercises in here that could be inspiring in particular. Here, I’ll describe one exercise:
Random words: get an interview transcript or some fieldnotes printed out, put a finger on the page and read that sentence (and the ones surrounding it if it needs context) and start writing about that.
Short exercises that will get you typing if you need to squeeze writing into your day. These are again intended for creative writing but they can be helpful for any kind of writing. Here’s an example and another tip I’ve heard:
- Write 750 words first thing in the morning before you do any other tasks (you can get out of bed etc. though). Set yourself a certain amount of time, say 20 mins. Even if you don’t quite manage the 750 words in that time, you will still get some writing done every day.
- Similar to 1, set a minimum time to write each day, say 30 minutes, and squeeze it in where you can.
Both of these exercises, and the others, can be used to start a daily writing habit. And, before you know it, you will have written loads and you’ll get better at writing!
Staring at a blank page isn’t fun for anyone and most social researchers hit a bump in the road with their writing at some point. Try out these exercises to free your mind, to delve into your data or the literature, and to actually start enjoying writing!
Emma Seddon is a Sociology PhD student at Newcastle and co-convenor for the BSA PGForum.