Natalie Gately On becoming a writer and how to keep your head in the zone

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Natalie Gately

On becoming a writer and how to keep your head in the zone

My first reflection of writing for academia was in my first year at University.  I was a mature aged student with years of employment in television (behind the scenes!) and fairly confident about my abilities at work. I juggled work and parenthood, and was now excited about coming to University for the first time.   I recall joking with my fellow students that I could change a nappy with one hand…. but I did not even know the last time I wrote an essay. As I eagerly awaited the return of my first assignment, my tutor handed me my document with the words ‘very emotive and sensational – this is suitable for the front page of the West’.  I broke into a broad smile before realising that it was not a compliment, I had barely passed the assessment and the red pen were all notifications of my ineptitude.  So I came crashing back to earth.

As an undergraduate, I never really recovered my confidence at writing.  I was told that although I was articulate in class, it did not translate into my written work.  One lecturer told me to speak into a recorder and then type what I had recorded.  It did not work.  My marker still wrote ‘conversational’ on my paper.  There were no writing consultants as we know today so I just struggled through.  I got used to words like ‘chatty’, and ‘verbose’ and as much as I tried to read my work aloud I was not able to correct my writing.  It was soul destroying.  I knew it was wrong, I just didn’t know what it was.

In my Honour’s year (yes, despite my view of my writing as limited, I made Honour’s) something clicked.  I sat down with my non-academic husband and was reading aloud when he said, “…why do you need so many words, why don’t you just say……”  I read him some more, and he reworded it again.  I began to see (what Sally Knowles would eventually teach me) was my ‘lard’ words.  Words that I used over and over again.  Descriptive words that did not add anything, sentences that if restructured could say what I wanted to communicate much more clearly and with far less words, giving it an extra ‘punch’ factor.  That was not the end of my journey, but it was a significant (another word you are not allowed to use in research – unless it is!) push in the right direction. 

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