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Writing - mastering 'skills' | Writing - Writing in the Disciplines/Writing across the Curriculum



Writing – Writing in the Disciplines/Writing Across the Curriculum

In our experience, although we academics tend to see writing errors - like spelling, punctuation and grammar - and identify these as student problems; the typical biggest writing problem for our students is their fear of writing and fear of failure.

Writing in and across the disciplines and the curriculum embraces the notion that we write to learn – and that we actually learn to write through meaningful writing activities – rather than being set, say, spelling, punctuation and grammar activities.

If you want to help your students develop their writing, set your classroom up such that students are aware that you will regularly be writing to learn – and that there will be regular class time set aside for writing.


  • Set up a write to learn atmosphere and help students to overcome a fear of writing.
  • Make regular time for short writing tasks in class – try the last 10mins of your seminar time, every week.
  • Set up meaningful peer review activities.
  • Involve peer mentors in supporting student writing.
  • Model successful writing practice.
  • Help students to revise early drafts of assignments.
  • Get students to write weekly blogs about their learning.
  • We have resources to structure and run all these sessions.

In this section we cover:

  • Writing in the Disciplines – activities
  • Running Free Writing & Creative workshops
  • Sing-write
  • Rich writing
  • Free writing
  • Academic free writing
  • Re-Genring & How to…

Writing in the Disciplines - Activities:

  • In your very first class – put up the final assignment – give the students ten minutes to write an answer – (deal with the horror!!) – make them write – share and discuss answers. Discuss the point of the exercise (not least that it sets students up to engage with the course more actively when they know where the reading and writing is going.
  • Longer writing activity: Allow 60-90 mins. Students to have two sheets of paper – one to write upon – one to write why they are not writing – for ten minutes they should be writing. Reassure them that their writing will not be marked. Put up the assignment question – they must write an ‘answer’ for 10’ without stopping. When they do stop – they must write the reason on the second sheet of paper. After ten minutes engage in three reviews: what did that feel like (and what can we do to harness good emotions and mitigate negative ones)? What were your reasons for stopping (and what can we do about that)? What can you take from this activity into your essay writing.
  • Set up a peer review process.
  • Build in ten minute writing spaces in every seminar – for example:

Running free writing and creative workshops
Recently we had a great discussion on the Learning Development jiscmail ( ) about Writing Retreats... Here are the ideas from that conversation – it would be great if you could share your own creative strategies for getting students to write – or just getting them to be with each other in engaged and engaging ways. Here we look at Sing-Write; Rich Writing; Free writing prompts; Academic free writing – and hot off the press – re-genring.

Sing-Write and find your voice – from John Hilsdon: 
“I’m planning a ‘sing-write’ (finding your voice) event for the Plymouth Writing Café in the autumn - and the warm-up we will do is this: 

All stand in a circle
Breathe together, in through nose and out through mouth in time with the leader for about 30 secs
Shake arms
Shake legs
Shake head
Relax all muscles and shake whole body
All say brrrrr (as if it’s cold!) and make the lips vibrate! If they won’t put a finger lightly on each cheek and try again
Make the brrrrr go all the way up to the highest note you can then all the way down to the lowest note
All sing the sound ‘ng’ like in the ‘dong’ of a bell – (leader leads with the note to sing this together)
Repeat - different notes - following the leader
All say “blah blah blah” and start to wander around the room in any direction saying this continually – try different notes and changing the ‘tune’ whilst still saying blah blah blah!
All sit and close eyes
Have one minute of silence with eyes closed
Take pen/paper and free write whatever comes to mind for 3 minutes.”

Rich writing: A variation on the sit in silence for a minute:
On our Art History MOOC - one rich writing activity that we had to do was to sit with an art work for an hour. We had to find a piece that was interesting or meaningful for us and then be with it - we could make notes or anything - but we had to quietly be with it for a whole hour. We then had to write 300 words on the artwork. 

I chose to sit with the picture of my mum - and found the exercise both moving and really useful. After the hour I had more notes than I could use in a 300-word write up. It was a really rich experience.

More Free Writing

* Choose a postcard sight unseen from a pack – turn over – see picture – write
* Choose an object from a sack – write
* Have two pieces of paper in front of you – focus on something you can see, hear, feel, smell – write… If you stop writing, write the reason for stopping on the second piece of paper. Reflect on the activity.

Academic Free writing workshop
Set up a session of one to one and a half hours long.
Ask students to have two sheets of paper in front of them - one for writing and one for writing why they are not writing.
After reassuring the students that their writing will not be marked - put up a relevant assignment question (a real assignment question works best – and is a much more authentic activity) - ask them to write without stopping for ten minutes on the question - and to write the reason why they have stopped (for they will) on the second sheet.

After ten minutes structure three reflections:

* What was your reaction to that process?
* Why did you stop writing?
* What can you take from this process into your other academic writing?

What is interesting is that whilst for academics the writing issue often is: 'Students can't write - their spelling, punctuation and grammar are awful.' The issue for students is overcoming a fear of writing - so space to discuss their feelings about writing can be the freeing activity.

Re-genring is where material expressed in one form or genre has to be interpreted and turned into another. A key example is where a novel is turned first into a movie or a TV script – and then into the audio-visual product.

Arguably students can gain deep knowledge of a topic when they have to switch genres to communicate (see Fiona English [2011] Student Writing and Genre: Reconfiguring Academic Knowledge London; Continuum). This could be one of the reasons students benefit from preparing and delivering presentations – they switch from a written genre form to an oral/aural one. Switching within modes also works – for example asking a student to re-frame an anthropology essay into the form of a Simpsons script.

  • For deep thinking about reading: Turn a chapter or article into a comic book – or into a short play – or into a simulated television interview
  • For deep thinking about writing: Re-genre animations on ‘preparing to write an essay – see below.

A Writing re-genring - How to:
Either in class or at a distance review this blogpost on 'unpacking the question'

Then issue a challenge (competition) - with prizes:

* Write a short poem in response to the 'how I write my essay' animations (one or more)
* Re-write the whole blogpost as a Comic Book suitable for a Year 1...2...3...10 group of school students
* Re-write the whole blog post as a newspaper article suitable for either a red top or a broadsheet newspaper.