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I’m currently writing an article. Literally while I am typing these words I should be writing on my article, but I am getting distracted by something I haven’t tried before when it comes to structuring the work, and I can’t wait to share it with the readers of this blog. (Tangential Procrastination in full swing!)

The article is sort of last minute, but it is based on research that I have done a few months ago, and some of it is based on research I have done a few years ago. (Parts of it probably go back to my PhD thesis, so make that a bit more than a decade… scary.)

I am clearly in the writing up stage of this, I have a draft to work on, but I haven’t quite figured out the structure and order of the points I want to make. I have written my key words on post-it notes and gotten an overview that way. I have highlighted the key words in my text, which is very helpful when moving paragraphs around. Nothing new so far, surely storyboarding academic work in this way is common practice by now.

But now I have done something that I have never done before… I not only added section titles, but also little descriptions. Erich Kästner used to do this in his books, many of whom I grew up with. Chapters would start with a tiny little summary of what would happen in this chapter. I don’t think there were any spoilers, but it would set up the scene and add a bit of intrigue as what was to come. It was also very handy when re-reading the book and looking for your favourite bits. I didn’t quite go as far as paragraphs, but short, descriptive subtitles. And you know what? It seems to make the writing process much easier. By just reading these subtitles (which I put in bold and italics to make them easier to find) I can check whether I am still using the order planned out with my overview, or whether I need a reshuffle to make this flow as a story (I did). A small addition to my writing process, but incredibly useful – and it might just be a way to support my students with writing the dreaded argument/main body of the text section in their essays and reports!

Kästner kept his as part of his novels, I’m going to delete mine from the article, but just so that they won’t be lost forever, here they are:

  • Section One, in which the problematic of the textbook genre is introduced
  • Section Two, which contains musings on different types of knowledge and different types of teaching that go with them, introducing a focus on study skills
  • Section Three, in which we compare academic and creative practice – and come across hidden practices that need to be made visible
  • Section Four, in which I explain why the pedagogical model needed should use the workbook as delivery method.
  • Section Five, in which I explain analogies as a way of making hidden academic practice visible, and why this called for a picture book, but not a narrative.
  • Section Six, in which I discuss some design choices of Writing Essays by Pictures.
  • Section Seven, in which I sum up and highlight the need for learning resources to be designed according to pedagogical principles, not traditional templates.

and you can read the full, finished article here.

As you might know, I am currently putting together a workbook for students that collects some of the visual analogies I have been using in my teaching. I have been getting some questions about what is meant by ‘visual analogies’ and how that would translate into a book on academic writing as part of my Kickstarter campaign to raise funds to print some copies (and until the 7th May 2015 you can support this by pledging for your very own copy here). So in order to give people a better idea, here is the introduction (I will add a picture of my layout soon):

Here’s the trouble with writing academic essays at degree level: if you haven’t been to university before, you probably haven’t done it before. You will have written all sorts of things:

  • emails,
  • letters,
  • short stories,
  • social media up-dates,
  • blog posts,
  • txts,
  • reports
  • and much much more.

You might even have written essays, but if you haven’t been to uni before, you probably haven’t been writing the sort of essays that university lecturers are looking for. This might be a problem, because when they say ‘essay’ you hear ‘essay’ – but you are both talking about different things. Because quite a lot of what makes up an academic essay is specifically academic practice – using research to rigorously back up your argument, including evidence to back up your points – and even writing it to a specific blueprint.

To make matters worse, some of this practice is ‘hidden’,- academics do it, but it has become such second nature to them that they forget how to explain that they are doing it (and/or how they are doing it).

An essay might seem like a straight line when you are reading it, but really it paints a picture for the reader, a bit like a connect the dots drawing. The further you read, the more defined it becomes, and once you are finished you can see the whole picture.

Writing an essay is a bit like planning a connect the dots drawing. Only because this is research you don’t make up the image, you first find it within the evidence you consult. That means you first have to identify lots of evidence you could use, because you have to find a lot of possible points. While you are doing that you might go round and round in circles and squiggly lines, there is no real order yet, you are exploring at this stage.

Then you go through a process of ‘curation’ – you figure out what your argument is and what points you need in order to make it. This will mean looking at all the dots you have and getting rid of the ones that don’t fit into your picture.
Now you might see that there are some holes in your argument – you might need to find some more points, by doing more research.

Once you have all the dots identified that you need to show your picture you need to order them. You want your image to slowly emerge – just like you need to build on one point after the other in your essay. For your connect the dots drawing this means replacing the individual dots with numbers. For your essay it means ordering your points and writing it up accordingly.

So you as writer (and really researcher) find the evidence, identify the argument and then present it in a way that it effortlessly appears to the reader.

All these stages that go into this planning process are hidden from the reader. But for the essay to work the writer needs to go through them. This workbook is all about getting you to understand this ‘hidden’ academic practice – in a hands-on way. It contains sections to explore these stages from a number of perspectives, in the form of visual metaphors and analogies which are designed to highlight specific, important aspects of academia. Most sections also include something for you to do. Sometimes that is something you can complete in the book itself, sometimes something to keep inside envelopes inside, and sometimes (particularly towards the end) it is something to include in your next essay draft. And yes, there should be more than one draft! Just like anything else, essay writing is something that needs to be practised. That’s why a lot of things here are for you to try out, little projects to get you working on this regularly, because the more you work on it, the better it will get.

So let’s get started…