Working to deferred deadlines this summer?

This academic year has certainly been unsettled and unpredictable, and this has impacted on the assessment deadlines that structure our work. If your deadlines have been deferred to accommodate the disruption, or if you have an extension to a piece of coursework, this has hopefully given you the breathing space you need to complete assignments to the best of your ability (which this year, might also mean ‘good enough’). But it may also mean that these assignments are overlapping with other things you need to do this summer such as dissertations, exams, or simply having a break. Here are five resources from the WDC which might help you manage them.

Need for speed?

Sometimes, you just need to write an assignment … fast. Check out our video on doing just that:

We also have an accompanying guide outlining the essentials to focus on when producing coursework fast – probably things you already know, but sometimes it helps to boil it down!

Need to stop procrastinating?

It’s never easy, but we have some suggestions to help identify what might be putting you off so that you can make progress. 

Need to get going?

Procrastination can creep in because getting started with writing can be tricky and seeing an assignment as whole can seem daunting. Write all day?! Write 2000 words?! Why not give yourself a gentler start with a smaller, more manageable target and build your work up gradually. Our 1-Hour Writing Challenge could be just the thing to help you make a start, get some words down, and build momentum. 

Need to concentrate?

We have a range of resources for you if you’re struggling to focus and would like to create a sense of structure

Need to know what to do today?

Sometimes *everything* seems urgent. But it isn’t. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, check out our short-term planning tool to help you set priorities when everything seems a bit much.  

The 1-Hour Writing Challenge!

Photo by Kaitlyn Baker on Unsplash

In need of some writing motivation? Try our 1-Hour Writing Challenge!

Are you spending your summer working on that dissertation, project or thesis? Are there times when you just don’t know where to start, or when you can think of at least 900 things you’d rather do than write?! Never fear, our 1-Hour Writing Challenge is here to help you get focused, avoid overwhelm and make some progress with your writing.

Step One: Setting Writing Goals (5 mins)

You’re more likely to lose focus if you don’t specify a clear writing goal. And you could end up putting yourself off if the goal you do identify is too ambitious. So let’s spend the first 5 minutes of the session ensuring that your goal is SMART.

Specific: the specific idea I will write/section/paragraph I will work on is ….

Measurable: I will write _____ words

Achievable: this will be a rough draft/quick bullet points for me to work up later/polished final version/edited final draft

Relevant: where this section will fit in is …

Time- bound: I will write for 1 hour.

Step Two: Freewriting (8 minutes)

You wouldn’t run a marathon without warming up first (well, you’d be unwise to!). Similarly, diving straight in to a piece of writing can sometimes feel a bit daunting. Freewriting is a great way of helping you settle down, get focused and think a little more about what you’re going to write. For instance, you could use this time to plot out how you might structure your ideas in the section you’ve chosen to work on. Or you might use the time to help you decide which of your ideas to work on and develop further in the upcoming writing session.

Freewriting can be particularly useful if you tend towards perfectionism with your writing, as it gives you permission to write a messy first draft. This, in turn, can really help you capture your ideas without worrying that they’re not “academic enough” (you can develop your ideas and polish your writing style in the editing stage).

The rules of freewriting are:

  • Set a timer for 8 minutes
  • Start writing whatever comes to mind about the section you’re going to be working on.
  • Write in full sentences
  • Don’t stop writing
  • Don’t look back or edit
  • If you get stuck, write about that – why are you stuck? What would help you get unstuck?! You just might be able to untangle yourself!
  • If you don’t like what you’re writing, write about why

Step Three: Review (2 minutes)

Look over what you’ve just written. What points could you pull out of your freewriting that you might use in your draft? Or maybe you’ve just used the 8 minutes to ‘unload’ any anxieties you have about your writing, which is perfectly fine – and very useful – too!

Step Four: Write (40 minutes)

Write for 40 minutes and work on your draft.

Just something to bear in mind: if you really like working in timed writing sprints, but there are days when 40 minutes seems too long or, indeed, when it doesn’t seem long enough, you can always adjust the time to suit you. The important thing here is to break writing down into manageable chunks.

Step Five: Next Action List (2 minutes)

Use the final couple of minutes to leave notes to your future self about the next steps you need to take to progress this piece of writing. This helps you maintain momentum.

Writing coursework….fast!

Photo by Veri Ivanova on Unsplash

Many of you might be facing coursework as a replacement for an exam that just wouldn’t work in an online, remote format. You may have experience of writing assignments before, but not necessarily under such time limits – your writing skills need to be sharp to ensure that you can work efficiently and do your best under such conditions! Especially when you may also have exams to revise for – you don’t want to throw yourself into an assignment at the expense of revision.

Just for you, the WDC have pulled together some of our top advice for really focussed, efficient writing, from analysing the question and planning under pressure, to targetted researching, and writing and editing your work with as little waste as possible. If you are writing essays or similar things for a 24 hour take home paper too, some of these tips might be helpful.

You might also like our videos on free writing as a way of generating writing – and ideas – quickly. This is a useful technique to kickstart the writing process or work through a block.

Make progress on your assignments with the WDC!

Tuesday 29th October is shaping up to be an exciting day for us all here at the Writing Development Centre as it will mark the launch of our brand new ‘…with the WDC’ workshops. What makes the launch even more exciting is that it will introduce a brand new format into our range of provision. For these are workshops with a difference. Instead of spending most of the session sitting listening to one of us speaking, you’ll be able to bring your assignments along and use the time to make progress in a supportive, distraction-free environment. We’ll be on hand to provide you with a structured session, along with strategies and techniques you can try on your own work. You will also have the chance to reflect on and discuss your approach to studying and writing with your peers.

‘…with the WDC’ workshops will take place three times a week in the Writing Development Centre (we’re on Level 2 of the Philip Robinson Library, which is, somewhat confusingly, the entrance level). The sessions will run on a first-come, first-served basis so there’s no need to book; just turn up ready to make progress with your assignments. To do this, you will need to bring your work with you on paper or a fully charged laptop or device given that the sessions will not be taking place in computer cluster.

The sessions we have on offer for you this semester are:

Kickstart Your Assignment … with the WDC!

This session is for everyone who’s ever been given an assignment title and thought: “Where do I start?!” So, yes: this session is for everyone!! We’ll help to make this stage more manageable with a set of activities that will take you through: 

  • Narrowing the question down and finding ‘an angle’ 
  •  Analysing the question/task to work out what markers are looking for 
  • Planning your reading: considering what to read and how much to read!

Bring your current question/task along and get ready to kickstart your assignment!

This session will take place on: 

  • Tuesday 29th October: 10am-12pm 
  • Thursday 7th November: 2pm-4pm 
  • Tuesday 26th November: 10am-12pm 
  • Thursday 6th December: 2pm-4pm

Top tip! You may still like to attend this session even if you’ve already started your assignment. Our strategies and techniques can help you double-check that you’re on the right track and producing the best work that you can.

Strategic Reading and Notetaking … with the WDC!

Need to avoid getting swamped by your reading? Don’t fancy becoming a human photocopier? Want to read more critically? This is the session for you, with a set of activities that will take you through: 

  • Identifying your purpose – what are you reading for? – and the strategy to achieve it  Experimenting with critical reading techniques 
  • Reviewing your current notetaking strategy and experimenting with new ones
  • Remember to bring some of the reading for your current assignment! This session will take place on: 
  • Thursday 31st October: 2pm-4pm 
  • Tuesday 5th November: 10am-12pm 
  • Tuesday 12th November: 10am-12pm 
  • Thursday 28th November: 2pm-4pm

Write Here, Write Now! … with the WDC

Our regular writers’ group is here to: 

  • Provide you with a supportive, structured, distraction-free environment in which to get some work done 
  • Help you work towards a clearly defined writing goal for the session – such as drafting a particular section or achieving a specific word count 
  • Encourage you to reflect on your existing writing process and discuss your practice with peers
  • Highlight techniques and strategies that you can use to maintain your writing momentum – and help beat procrastination and writers’ block – beyond the session

You can use Write Here, Write Now! for any writing-related activity, including planning or outlining and editing and revising. Remember to bring your assignment materials and/or devices with you! These sessions will take place every Wednesday from 10am-12pm from 30th October to 11th December.

Editing Your Work … with the WDC!

You’ve got your thoughts down on paper and it all makes sense to you. But could someone else follow your argument? Does the structure flow? Are your points clear? Our editing session comprises a series of activities that will take you through: 

  • Writing for a reader 
  • Structuring paragraphs 
  • Transition and cohesion 
  • Ensuring relevance: need to know or just nice to know?! 
  • Unpacking and developing your points

Bring your current assignment and get ready to make it as good as it can be! These sessions will take place on: 

  • Thursday 14th November: 2pm-4pm 
  • Tuesday 19th November: 10am-12pm 
  • Thursday 21st November: 2pm-4pm

Refresh Your Revision Strategies … with the WDC!

How much am I expected to remember?! What are markers really looking for? Why isn’t it going in?! We’ve all been there. Take some of the stress out of exam season with our workshop, which features a set of activities that will take you through:

  • Establishing what exams are really testing
  • Selecting: what should be in your ‘Store Cupboard of Knowledge’?! (Don’t worry; we’ll explain!)
  • Memorising: evaluating your current approaches and considering new ones
  • Discussing and comparing revision strategies with peers

Bring your current revision notes along with you!

These sessions will run on: 

  • Tuesday 10th December: 10am-12pm 
  • Thursday 12th December: 2pm-4pm.  We’ll be running more revision sessions in January, along with sessions for Dissertation students throughout Semester 2.

Keep an eye on our website for further details. We’re really looking forward to launching these workshops and to welcoming you all along. If you have any questions about ‘..with the WDC’ or if you have any suggestions for future workshops you’d like to attend, don’t hesitate to drop us an email at wdc@ncl.ac.uk.

Relieving Academic Stress with Digital Companions

What is meant to be the start of spring can sometimes feel like the exact opposite for those with looming deadlines and exam dates. At this time of year a lot of students come to the WDC, trying to find their ways through what can feel like overwhelming amounts of demands. It’s a rough time. But it doesn’t have to be ruled by stress and guilt for taking breaks.

A problem that many students face is working out how to build in relaxation and stress-relief into their work schedule. They know they want and need to chill out, but they hit a wall when it comes to actually doing it. It’s not easy to tell guilt to get lost, and so they continue to work, though usually at a less productive level than if they’d managed even the smallest amount of relief time.

Part of the advantage of being a student today is the access to apps to cover everything. And what that means is that we don’t have to use technology just to work, or for social media activity. We can also use it as a ‘calming companion’ during one of the most stressful parts of the academic year.

This post has been fun to write, mainly because I got to try all the following apps out – trust me, they make working and revising very much calmer. I’ve divided them into three sections, to help you see which might be more relevant for the work stresses you personally face, but they can also be used in conjunction with one another, during different stages of any stressful-work process.

Atmosphere

Some students like to work in silence; some like music. Some students like to be alone in their work environment; some like the sense of others’ presence, without requirement to talk. How we work is a personal thing, the creation of our ‘working atmosphere’ is important in terms of how calm we feel while working. I tried out White Noise and Marine Aquarium to this end. Both are very soothing, though my preference was having the virtual fishes swimming around, complete with bubble noises, which are strangely calming. You can even choose what fish you want to have in the aquarium, so visually the colours can brighten your mind. This may sound rather random, but it is strangely addictive as part of a work background. Maybe try it and see….

Working aids

If work-related-guilt is really something you can’t ignore, and many of us can’t, what is important is managing that emotion (not letting it take over). To this end, SimpleMind+ for mind-mapping ideas when you can no longer force out a sentence, and Pomodoro Timer and Timer+ for breaking your working time down into more manageable, focused chunks of time are wonderful to give more of a sense of control over the working day. Escapes and Office Yoga also provide that ‘just-5-minutes-out’ that refresh without a need to leave the chair, if you really can’t face detaching from work for fear of not actually returning. And then of course there are the likes of writtenkitten.net, which will reward you with a picture of a cutey-pie cat every 100 words….now there’s an incentive. (NB. if cats aren’t your thing there’s always coffee/chocolate/reward-of-choice, though perhaps extend the reward boundary beyond 100 words for these more material items….).

Home*

Whether your working day finishes at 3pm, 5pm or 11.30pm, it can be really important to ‘calm down’ so you can get a good night’s rest, although sometimes this can be hard to achieve. The guided meditations on Relax + are extremely soothing, and also allow you choose a sleep function, which means they are framed to help you get to sleep. Headspace is a popular mindfulness app amongst students, if you are aware of or want to develop more understanding about mindfulness as a technique. I personally love journaling with Grid Diary, to concentrate on the more positive aspects of the day just gone, and the digital colouring-in apps like Pigment – there is something remarkably relaxing about not having to think about anything except what colour you want to pick, and filling in the white spaces. The short yoga/stretch routines of Asana Rebel also really help to bring stress to a close for the day. Perhaps obviously I don’t do all of these every single day, but one a day can be just enough to make the evening peaceful.

So, which ones appeal to you?

Posted by Heather

*Disclaimer: Please bear in mind that for any of the health or activity-based apps mentioned here that you are fit to use them, or that you seek medical advice prior to using.

Breaking Not Bad

Students often feel their concentration should be focused on how to manage their work, how to meet deadlines, how to navigate their ways through massive amounts of reading… However, it is also important to think carefully about the question ‘how do I manage rest?’ At the WDC we frequently hear from students who find it hard to take breaks because they feel guilty if they do – the statement ‘I should be working’ is uttered very frequently. But the truth is taking a break is not a bad thing and can actually enhance your overall productivity.

Why is it important to take breaks? There are many reasons, all of them generally answered by the comment ‘because they enhance your learning’. Some explanations are as follows:

  1. This one is very important – NO-ONE can physically study all the time. EVERYONE needs to battle exhaustion at some point, to recharge their battery, so that they are fit to continue their work productively.
  2. Many students come to the WDC because they can no longer really see what they are trying to say; they have lost sight of their focus and feel out of control of their material/reading. They no longer have their own academic voice and are allowing others to speak for them. They can’t, as the saying goes, see the wood for the trees. It is at this point that a break could really help to refresh sight of the work, to allow a view of the topic from a different angle, to encourage approaching the same material in a different way, so that, ultimately, clarification of ‘what is my overall point anyway?!’ can be achieved.
  3. This one is also important – when charged with a task to do, we often focus on the writing part (well, obviously…) but what we often forget is that whatever words are on a page must also, eventually, be read. This therefore means that we should at least give some time to think about how a reader might look at, indeed interpret, our work. A break allows us to change shoes, to step into those of the reader and approach the text as them. This can sometimes be a real eye-opener, and lead you spot things you wouldn’t have otherwise noticed.
  4. Lastly, just as a little aside, breaks allow us to enjoy eating (and see food as more than just a necessity of the day!) and to get some exercise, even if that just constitutes a little walk round the library floor. A healthy body is a healthy mind and all that….

So here are some reasons as to why stops in study are good. But how do you kick guilt to the curb and set in place a breakin’ routine? Here are some strategies you could try:

  1. Schedule a break and stick to it. That means break at the time you intended to break AND return to work at the intended end time. Breaks do work better if you neither skip nor lengthen them….
  2. Here we must reference Monty Python: ‘And now for something completely different’. Plan something to do in your break that makes you think about something else. Something that allows creativity, movement, relaxation, a change of scenery, maybe…. For me, a dance class was great for this – you have to stop thinking about your work to make sure you put your feet in the right place to avoid falling on your face. Dance doesn’t work for everyone, but the idea is that a break should be a real shift for you, taking you away from the work to allow you to come back refreshed. What would do that for you?
  3. If you are really worried about how a break might affect your work, there are a number of ways to manage your concerns. For example, you could identify where to pick up from in your work before you take a break, so that you know exactly where you are coming back to. You could even try taking a break mid-way through a sentence, so that the transition back into your work is easier – you will have to finish that sentence!

There is no set length for a break time and there is no prescription as to what you should do in one – it’s up to you to think about how break might work best for you. The important thing is to try and take them and, ultimately, give yourself a break for breaking…

posted by Heather

Dissertation toolkit: Small targets, big progress

Timed writing blocks are more productive than a whole afternoon’s procrastination…

At university you’re supposed to take charge of yourself, organise your own time and study habits, in order to meet the deadlines calmly. Many of us can find this hard though, preferring to do things that seem quick and doable, that can be ticked off a to-do list in a matter of seconds, rather than tackling the (often important or crucial) things that may at first glance make us feel apprehensive. But ultimately, the fact is the assignment deadlines do not move and at some point we’ve got to get our heads down to the in-depth stuff. Dissertations can be even more of a challenge- they are a long piece of work, but the deadline can also seem a long way away… and putting it off can be too tempting!

There are a number of strategies you can use to help build up the confidence to squash this procrastinator in you, but I’m going to focus on one in particular: sometimes it can help to think of a dissertation as a process, not an end product. Breaking a writing task (however small) into chunks can really change how manageable an assignment feels. Viewing a dissertation as a compilation of little pieces, little pieces that can all be completed at different times, not all in one go, and which are then put together to make the whole, can make the process of putting together your submission remarkably less stressful if not, dare I say it, enjoyable.

The first time I tried this out, I sat in a writing group with other students where we were given space to write continuously for 30 minutes – we were timed. Having never broken my writing sessions down into timed blocks, I found the whole experience a total revelation, going from feeling really sceptical at the start, to seeing that I was able to produce just over 400 usable words in 30 minutes. What I learned from the session was that:

1) It is possible to make time for writing.

2) Half-an-hour can be lot more productive that we generally give the time credit for.

3) Using time blocks of 30 minutes, 45 minutes or 1 hour are so much more appealing than saying ‘This shall be my writing day’. This means that every day there is guaranteed other time for non-work time. Block out the distraction and focus for a just a little bit; then go enjoy.

4) Asking yourself questions like, ‘when do I start shifting in my seat?’ or ‘when do I notice my mind starting to wander?’ can really help identify how long your writing-time blocks should be. For some an hour is great; for others, 40mins might be the max time – it’s an individual thing. For me, after one hour I move into restlessness and lose focus, so that’s the time to break, rather than forcing myself to carry on trying to write brilliance that won’t come (please remember, breaks are important!).

Using your preferred timer-tool on a daily basis, set at whatever time fits your concentration span, can help you:

  • Produce work that is structured;
  • Reach your individual writing targets;
  • Allocate procrastination to specific time slots in the day, where it doesn’t intrude on the important studies you have to handle.

Giving short writing goals a go will not only help you identify how long it takes for your focus to drop away, but it will help you organise and shape your time much more productively in order to meet that deadline. Try a timer and you may be surprised at how much you don’t miss procrastinating…

Posted by Heather