A few weeks ago I was invited to host a table discussion on stand-up comedy at York Literature Festival. It was at late notice but no-one had dropped out or been injured so I gladly accepted. I also ensured it was crystal clear that I was a comedy researcher, not a comedian, to make sure it didn’t turn into a stress dream I’ve had – where that mistake has been made and I’m instructed to do a ‘tight five’ rather than discuss my research.
One of the major draws was the fact that it was back at York St John University (the artist formerly known as York St John College), which I attended as an undergraduate. The chance to swan about the campus I’d left ten years earlier made it an easy decision. Three comedians (also with YSJ connections) performed their material and then post-interval I chaired the discussion about their work, and due to it being a literature festival, their writing.
On the night it was illuminating to see how different everyone’s writing approach was. A significant part of my research has been interviewing stand-up comics and promoters but most of the conversations have centred on the performative aspects of comedy rather than the writing side of things. For the Q&A (or “table discussion” which sounds odd as there was clearly no table… see the above table-less image) I had to make a conscious effort to bring it round to the writing side of things and ask questions that, even though I suspected the answers, might be of interest to the literary audience. In several instances I had to play devil’s advocate (an all round emphatic and predictable group “no” to the question “Can you tell from the page what will work in the performance?” provides an example here).
Overall it was a really enjoyable experience, a chance to see a diverse range of approaches and to discuss the process of page to stage. Talking to the comics Richard Massara, Geneva Rust-Orta and Seb Bloomfield about their work got me thinking about how I would respond if anyone ever asked me how I write (without simply shrugging or making the comment “solely by the grace of spellcheck go I”).
Their ability to talk eloquently about how they do what they do made me think about how I would cope if a poor-man’s Kirsty Walk was asking me the questions, rather than the other way round (not as well as they did I suspect). This event just happened to fall in the week when I was both giving tutorials to a group of students on writing their assignments and also marking the work of 35 other students (a loooong week).
I can pretty much boil my hintz and tipz (the z’s disguise the tedium of the following list) down to the following. These were the best tips people have given me over the years and thank the lord they did because they are gold.
- Break it down: Often students flip out over the word count – ‘How will I write 1,000/2,000/4,000 words on X or Y?’. The answer here is really that you need to think about writing a smaller amount of words on sub points or chapters that answer the overall question. A blank piece of paper is terrifying so start with a good old fashioned list of things you’ll cover and go from there. When these smaller points are put together, they build up to the word count. This is the only way I can conceive of writing the 80,000-100,000 word thesis I’ll be cracking out for my Ph.D. When looking at the question think the following; How can I break this down? What are the points I need to cover to answer this question? Then make a list of the points you want to make and allocate a word count to each section – then kill them off one by one like a sniper.
- Read it out: I am a product of my time. Without technology and the advent of spellcheck there is just no way I would have any of my current qualifications. However spellcheck is both friend and foe. Autocorrect often swoops on in there to deal with a badly spelt word, replacing it with a completely different word. Not just the their/there/they’re conundrum but a whole host of other words are waiting out there to be messed with by spellcheck’s warped sense of humour – my greatest ‘frienemy’ (it didn’t like that at all). The only way to catch these ‘wrong words’, to check it flows AND (crucially) that it makes sense is to READ IT OUT LOUD. Yes you will sound cray cray but it is worth it.
- Put down the breadcrumbs: One of the things that seems to stump people between A-Level and undergraduate level is referencing. They’ve not done it before and it seems super intimidating. Eventually we all get used to it and reference on autopilot but by far the best approach, even when you have cracked it, is to reference as you go along. Referencing not only ensures you aren’t plagiarising other people’s work, but it also means that your readers (and your marker) can follow the trail of academic breadcrumbs back to where these ideas originate – from the witch’s gingerbread house of your essay, back via the breadcrumbs to the woodcutters cottage where the original ideas live. (In this metaphor there are no birds following behind you eating said breadcrumbs – for the Hansle and Gretle purists out there). If you leave referencing until the end it is a huge pain and much harder to get right than if you do it incrementally whilst you go along.
I am not an expert on writing and I don’t find writing easy AT ALL but these tips are what I swear by and if they also help someone else out then great. Now I just need to follow them and crack on with writing my research up.