Acclaimed movie director Ridley Scott is a big fan of storyboards. He likes to start with thumbnail sketches which are then developed into a sketchy sequence. This is then worked up into a highly detailed storyboard. Scott focuses each frame on key visual features – he likes to work with light and shadow.
Once he has a storyboard, Scott uses it as the map for his filming. The storyboard illustrations guide the way in which each scene will be lit and shot, the angles that will be taken, what will be in the foreground and background. Sometimes of course these are changed on the day, but variations on the original story board are an improvement on something already in existence. Improvisation during filming is on the basis of something planned not being quite as good as imagined.
Before each daily shoot Scott always goes through the relevant frames in the storyboard, either talking it over with someone, or going over it mentally, step by step. He describes this as a rehearsal of what will happen when he is working on set.
Writers often work in similar ways. They may:
• start small – the #acwri equivalent of thumbnails is a list of topics, perhaps written as bullet points, perhaps as a set of phrases on post it notes or cards – this is the stuff that needs to be covered, written in summary shorthand, organised in the right order.
• amplify – the #acwri equivalent of developing a storyboard in detail is to assemble the material needed for each move in the argument. This might be through cumulative processes of free writing to a set of headings. It might be bringing together pieces or files of material – analysed data, references, chunks of preexisting writing – around each heading.
• rehearse – the #acrwi equivalent of the rehearsal could be writing a tiny text – a concise abstract – of the piece to be written. Or it could be talking through the argument with a writing mentor, peer-writing group, or with a colleague. Or it might be talking things through to yourself, perhaps while walking, swimming or doing something that doesn’t require much concentration.
The key to making these three steps work is to give them time. Getting sorted out for the act of writing is not something to be rushed. It may not feel as if this getting-ready-but-not-yet-writing is actually academic writing. It may feel as if it is putting off the Real Thing. Wrong.
Academic writing, like any creative act, is not simply located in the act of putting words on the page or screen. It is also all of the things that happen in order to make that particular stage of the writing go as well as it can. Sometimes you need to spend a lot of time in the “pre-writing” stage.
It really is worth making time in your #acwri routine for the three Ridley Scott steps.
Start small, amplify, rehearse. It’s worth a try in #AcWriMo, a great time to build up your personal repertoire of strategies for academic writing.
This post – including the 8-minute outline by Scott – made me wonder many things:
– do academic writers think in terms of story-boarding consciously, unconsciously, or not at all as they work towards their final manuscript?;
– if they don’t, then how else do they get through the huge time scale it takes to write a book, a thesis, a series of articles that together tell a research story (eg PhDs by publication)? Sculpting is another analogy that comes to mind, where you have a mass (the data) and then need to ‘massage it’ into shape (edit it);
– if academic writing is such a creative, composite, organic process, then why is it not an integral part of higher education, taught as part of UG modules and as an MA, like creative writing is?
As writing for publication becomes more and more of an imperative, I think that this kind of advice is priceless …
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