tandem writing

With Writefest 2017 in its 3rd week (the motto this week is ‘I write therefore I am’, and with our new Think Further weekly coaching prompts also focusing on writing in November, it would be difficult to have a blog post today on something else than writing. So here I am, pausing and pondering about writing. A year ago, I posted a Think Ahead blog post ‘the writer within’ advocating that “becoming a researcher is…becoming a writer”. As part of this previous blogpost, I proposed 30 ideas for writing development from the many hundreds than one may consider. Did any of you Think Ahead blog readers take up some of these ideas? It would be good to hear which you may have trialed and whether they helped.

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This weekend, I went to the track cycling world cup at the velodrome in Manchester. It was the first time I was attending such an event and I was not disappointed by the tension and excitement of seeing such impressive athletes compete. (Image credit).

While admiring the prowess of endurance of these young cyclists, looking at all the flags from so many nations and thinking about this blog on writing, some of my thoughts collided. I started to reminisce about how I felt with my scientific writing in English when I started my PhD in the USA. At the time, my spoken English was just about OK, my understanding of English was rapidly progressing, but I would be hard pressed to assess the quality of my writing at the time.

As a non-native speaker, developing my confidence in my writing style has been an ongoing challenge. Although I have now lived nearly half of my life in English speaking countries and spent my entire career using English, there is still this niggly thing of low confidence with writing in another language. After all these years abroad, I have kept a very strong French accent; maybe this contributes to this underlying sense that my English writing style is not good enough. I am not saying here that I have no confidence with my writing at all; it is more that I continue to query whether my style is ‘English enough’. I was educated in France during a period when grammar teaching was still an enormous part of the school education; in addition, like most pupils I had to take Latin lessons during my secondary schooling. Through this and working as a scientist for a number of years, I hope to have developed decent competencies with my writing. However, I continue to wonder why my confidence has remained limited.

Some non-native English speakers among PhD students and postdoctoral researchers may relate to this feeling of relative inadequacy. Prof. Stephen Heard in his book The Scientist’s guide to writing has a full chapter focusing on the like of us!

One of the race at the track cycling world cup, the Madison race made me think about an approach to writing development that is really worth exploring. In this crazy and frenetic race, teams of 2 cyclists (among maybe 15-20 others) compete together for points in a relay where each takes turns speeding around the track. Each cyclist comes in and out of the race, re-joining their team mate at an insane speed. The fascinating part of this particular race is when both team mates get hold of each other’s hands, and the cyclist exiting the sprint then propels their partner forward. At each point of change, one cyclist pushes the other forward, reducing their own speed but increasing the speed of their partner. This is a strange exchange of different momentum between cyclists reminded me of the powerful role that writing buddies can play in developing writing.

What is a writing buddy?

The concept of a writing buddy is extremely simple. You make a commitment to someone else, generally a peer/ colleague to meet regularly (face-to-face or virtually) and propose feedback on drafts and bits of writing. This is a commitment to write regularly and a commitment to think about writing on an ongoing basis. Remember: becoming a researcher is about becoming a writer. This is a mutual commitment to truly engage in reviewing the writing of someone else.

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I am advocating here for the partnering of writing buddies between native and non-native speakers that could enhance the writing and professional development of all involved. While writing buddies cannot replace the specific expertise of professional language tutors or the participation in writing programmes, it offers a different type of opportunity and professional development. (Snoopy image credit).

Why would you become a writing buddy to a peer/ colleague?

  • A writing buddy could offer you a structure to get regular feedback in small chunks on your writing, instead of writing your whole thesis or paper before sending it to your supervisor/ PI.
  • Being buddies mean that you are on an equal footing; the hierarchy that may exist in your interaction with your supervisor/ PI does not exist, so you may feel more at ease in developing your writing by exposing your vulnerabilities and challenges.
  • This could save time and effort to your supervisor/ PI as the writing you will take to them will become much more polished (instead of messy drafts) and their input may be able to be more focused.
  • The support and encouragement of a buddy could help you build your confidence steadily.
  • Developing a writing momentum is a challenge for anyone and partnering with someone else could provide a framework for integrating writing in your working life.
  • Learning to provide writing feedback is a critical part of developing as an academic. By considering the writing of someone else, you will learn to review and better assess your own writing.
  • We all “see” and “hear” writing differently so the feedback of a buddy will provide an alternative perspective on your writing style.
  • Writing is part of thinking so receiving regular feedback on your writing is just another approach to challenge your thinking about your research.

Why don’t you have a go on this tandem experiment?

Identify who could become your writing buddy, and let’s see where this takes you!

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