Writing at university – a piece of cake?

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What happened?

I attended a workshop (three weekends in total) on a topic that does not seem to get enough attention at university – at least it does not in Germany – and that is writing. Nobody ever talks about that, the common stance seems to be that everyone know how to write, how to string words together, and thus, everyone is also supposed to know how to deal with essays and final dissertations. This is what my own time as an undergrad and also postgrad was like – I always worked according to the “try and error” system, which was sometimes working out fine, sometimes not so much. Some essays took forever, some I wrote fairly quickly. Well, I wrote somehow, that was it.

But, the question is, is it really necessary to leave students alone with this? Is this really part of the daily “uni struggle” just because “this is the way it is”? Well, I don’t think so, and the workshop called “Supervising essays/dissertations” at Leuphana University Lüneburg, lead by Prof. Dr. Ingrid Scharlau and Christine Heß, showed me that there are quite different approaches to this.

What do I think about this?

Well, as for myself, I rarely struggle with writing. No writer’s block, nothing. Why? Well, I only thought about this during the aforementioned workshop, and I came to the conclusion that even though I have never attended any sort of formal training, I went through the “school of life”: during my master’s at the London School of Economics and Political Science, I always had to write something during term time – essays of around five pages, short answers to given questions, all-the-time. But, that was no piece of cake, and even though I learned a lot from just doing it, I would not recommend this way to everyone.

And that there definitely are other ways to deal with writing at university – this is what I learned during the workshop. The first weekend gave some theoretical background on writing and writing psychology, and so we, the participants, worked our way through the writing process. Concerning the drafting stage, we looked at techniques like mind maps and clustering, and scrutinised our own writing habits. The next step was the writing process itself, so we focused on topics like writer’s block and several strategies to deal with an essay or a bigger piece of writing. The last weekend was all about giving (and receiving) feedback – that is especially important for us lecturers!  Giving “good” (and thus, “useful”) feedback is quite a feat and does not come naturally.

For every single step we did all the proposed exercises ourselves, and often discussed them afterwards. There was a plethora of different exercises – ranging from a “writing talk” in a group, in which the question “What disrupts my writing?” was discussed (of course only by using a pen and not the mouth!), or writing a fairy tale, and so on, and so forth. I think that this was crucial, doing it all myself – yes, it was not easy to get started with “that stuff”, but now I know exactly how the exercises work and how I (and others) feel while doing them.

So, what to do with this new knowledge? I will plan and conduct my own writing workshop, where I will see which techniques and exercises work (and which don’t) for students. We will see how that works out, but I believe that students do not have to be left alone with their (writing) worries. Solutions can be easy – I would’ve never believed that just sitting down and “free write” anything that comes to my head for five minutes on a given topic would help to get my thoughts back on track!


So, why did I attend this workshop even though I am not a typical “writing worrier”? That’s easy: since I do not suffer from these problems, I also struggle with giving advice when students of mine come to me and ask for help concerning their writing. Well, I know how I do it, but that’s not how everyone writes. So I decided to learn about that, and I am actually looking forward to the next essay phase. And, well, concerning my own PhD thesis, knowing things like that never hurt…



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