Yesterday, I ran a workshop for third-year dissertation writers at King’s, and I wanted to get some thoughts about the experience while they’re still fresh in my mind.
When I was asked to run a workshop on abstract writing, my entire body spasmed with no-ness. I am a notoriously terrible abstract writer. All of my thesis abstracts have been bad. Plus, a large number of my conference abstracts. But actually, I reasoned with myself, this might be an opportunity for me to learn something as well. Maybe I could end up with a ‘do as I say, not as I do’ style class.
So I thought. I thought about converting a proposal-writing game I had developed a long, long time ago at Monash – but without having long enough lead time it wouldn’t work. That is to say, each of the students at Monash already knew what they wanted to write about, and had written proposals – the exercise here was to make their proposals sharp. So I went back to the drawing board.
Alongside this, I’d been doing quite a bit of reading and experimenting with creative non-fiction. This is part of my ongoing goal to make my writing better: more simple, more clear, more precise, more fun, more entertaining – in short, more enjoyable for me to write and more enjoyable for someone else to read. But it wasn’t until we were at a Thanksgiving dinner playing an online Pictionary-style game that this all kind of came together.
Pictionary is a game where you have to draw something, and another person has to guess what concept or thing your drawing represents. Drawing is quite a bit like writing: it relies on a reader having all the information to put your idea together and come out with the right answer (that being, the answer which you – the creator – intended). I’m sure we have all come across scholarship that we have to pass over things two or three times before we can feel like the information makes sense, and times when the information is so obscured in the complexity of the prose that it just makes no sense.
Creative non-fiction is about clear engaging prose, that’s entertaining and informative. A big part of the concept is about not distorting or adding to the facts. So, this all came together in my mind and finally formed itself into the workshop I would eventually run.
To start with I got the participants into pairs and gave each person a quote to illustrate. Each pair got the same two quotes:
It would not be fitting for the Athenians to prove traitors to the Greek people, with whom we are united in sharing the same kinship and language, with whom we have established shrines and conduct sacrifices to the gods together, and with whom we also share the same way of life. (Hdt. 8.144.2) [i.e. Greeks have common blood, common language, common gods]
I had assumed (perhaps because of my own fascination with how it’s used in scholarship) that the Herodotos quote would be much easier to draw, but I was wrong.
No one got the exact right quote, but one participant came really close to guessing the Cicero quote (‘something like, if you have loads of books and a tree then you can be happy?’). The point, really, was whether or not the drawings made sense once the guesser had the information – that is, once they knew what they were meant to be looking at did it make sense. And yes, I’m pleased to report, it did.
All in all, this activity was meant to be more of an icebreaker and a fun introduction to the need for clarity and brevity and giving your reader the right hints than anything. We moved on to some more detailed abstract writing activities, some chat about creative non-fiction (which I’ll be writing more on) and some prompted free writing – I will write the session up in a modified form and post it in the Teaching section soon!
I think this activity could probably be modified for all different kinds of things, and if you do happen to use a Pictionary-inspired activity in your classrooms I’d love to hear about it!
If you like what I do here, and on YouTube and Twitter, you can buy me a paragraph.