Daily Archives: February 12, 2017

The kiss of life for my writing

I’m going to begin this blog post with PhD stuff because I’m feeling energised about it at the moment. I have been reading Helen Sword’s Stylish Academic Writing. It validates what I feel about Academese: that it doesn’t have to be dull and predictable, it can be accessible, entertaining, even contain an element of humour and anecdote. Anecdote? Really? I love this book! Anyway, at the end of each chapter there is a list of ‘things to try’; at the end of chapter 5 I came across a link to this website:


It actually diagnoses your writing style to tell you if your text is ‘flabby or fit’. You paste between 100 and 1000 words into the tester and it analyses your writing for things like strong nouns, active verbs (as opposed to passive constructions using the verb ‘to be’) and the number of prepositions used. Then it tells you if your text is ‘lean and trim’, ‘needs toning’, ‘flabby’ or on the verge of ‘heart attack’! It shows how you could redraft to achieve lean and healthy writing. I put a sample of my Selima Hill chapter in the tester. Remember, I was quite pleased with this chapter, but it came out on the verge of heart attack! Too many weak verbs using ‘to be’ in various constructions, too many prepositions, to many abstract nouns. I was shocked, but not entirely surprised. I have been taught to use passive academic language for writing assignments: ‘I’ should never appear in a piece of academic writing, I was told in the annals of history when I was writing my first undergraduate essays. Well, all that has changed: first person pronoun is acceptable, anecdote is acceptable, agency is necessary to bring your writing to life. All in moderation, of course. But the analyses of my text sent me back to the piece to redraft with strong, active verbs and less abstraction. I re-tested my writing to see if the kiss of life had worked: fit and trim in all areas. And I love how it reads now. Give it a go, would be my advice; but then, I don’t need a job in academe, so you’ll have to make up your own mind. It is a worthwhile exercise though. Just think of the assessors who have to read several theses at a time. Why shouldn’t they be entertaining as well as informative?

I’ve also got a date for meeting the supervisory team, to talk about the original draft of the Hill chapter. This Tuesday lunchtime. I’m a little trepidatious, but I need to fight my corner because I’m half way through now, and I’ve got to start to achieve some concrete success. Fingers crossed my analyses of Hill’s poetry is well accepted. I also heard back from Jean Sprackland. She is on sabbatical so won’t be in Manchester this term and as she’s based in London, we are going to have a virtual meeting via an adobe chat room on March 8th to discuss the poems I have written so far around the verse drama story. Lots happening on the PhD front, then. I’m excited and enthusiastic again, for a while.

Poetry has also loomed large in my life this week. I’m administering the online entries for the Poets&Players competition, judged by wonderful Michael Symmons Roberts, details here:

Competition 2017

Please send in your entries, the competition helps us mount our quality (free) poetry and music events. But please, READ THE RULES!! I’ve received poems of more than 40 lines, poems emblazoned with photographs and illustrations, poems containing the name of the poet, poems that bear no relation to the poems mentioned in the application form. Yesterday I came to process some entries and instead of sending the P&P entry application, the poet had sent a job application for Bolton Council. For goodness sake, read the submission guidelines; and take more care with your entries. I don’t like to disqualify anyone’s work and I try to contact miscreants and ask them to put right their faulty submission. But it’s time consuming and I’m not sure I would be so lenient if I were dealing with snail mail entries. OK, end of grousing. We have had some stunning entries and I can’t wait to get them to Michael early in March and then wait in eager anticipation for the celebration event in May.

On Monday evening Hilary, Penny and I went to Manchester for a writing workshop organised by Amy McCauley. I first met Amy when we were both doing the MA in Creative Writing from MMU, so it was good to see her again. On Sunday night, in preparation for the event I redrafted a poem I wrote at a Hilda Sheehan workshop at Kendal Poetry Festival last summer. It was an ekphrastic poem based on the Laura Ford art exhibition ‘Seen and Unseen’, a fantastic collection of soft sculptures: surreal, funny and not a little unsettling. My poem was inspired by a piece with a bride and groom; she was fully gowned up, he was in swimming trunks and beanie hat. Both of them were carrying ducks, or probably more correctly, black swans hanging limply by the neck, one in each hand.

We met at Leaf on Portland Street in Manchester. Hilary, Penny and I got the tram in together and felt like Ena Sharples, Minnie Caldwell and Martha Longhurst, all togged up against the weather. I suspect younger readers won’t have a clue who I’m talking about, so for my younger audience, if you’re out there, these three were mainstays of Coronation Street when it first aired in the early sixties. We had a lovely meal at Leaf before the workshop.

The workshop itself was interesting because it didn’t just involve poetry, there was good prose presented too. And sensitive, positive feedback. I enjoyed it, and appreciate the feedback I received on my embryonic poem. I will revisit it sometime, probably make it relevant to my PhD portfolio. I’ll post the poem at the end of the blog, but I haven’t had time to work on it from advice received at the workshop, and it doesn’t really stand alone without it’s piece of art inspiration. Perhaps I’ll post a photo of that too.

Sunday was Bill’s birthday. I won’t tell you how old, but he makes Methuselah look youthful. Anyway, I gave him two tickets to Educating Rita at Bolton Octagon. In his past life as an architect, he did some work on the Octagon, designing one of their rehearsal spaces, so we have talked about going for ages and never got round to it. On Tuesday we did. We had a meal in the little restaurant there and saw the production. Fantastic. I love the story of Educating Rita, because, really, it tells my own story of pursuing higher education without the necessary support from home. Rita juggled education and work, and had to write her essays between clients in her hairdressing salon because her husband didn’t agree with her doing it. During my first degree, I juggled education, home and children and had to write my assignments at 2.00 in the morning while husband Number 1 was on nights: trying to write them with him in the house and silently (and sometimes vociferously) objecting was too stressful. So it was strange and not a little disturbing to see my own story played out on stage and I felt quite emotional. But, of course, it is a comedy and it was a brilliant production. Jessica Baglow made the iconic Rita role her own.

Wednesday was work at the pub; Thursday I took my car back to the garage because the warning light telling me when to change gear was only working intermittently since the new coil was fitted last week. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t need a warning light to tell me when to change gear; but I was concerned that if that one wasn’t operating, other, more important ones might not be working either. So I took it in for a check; they couldn’t find a problem, but I’ll be keeping my eye on that one. At least they didn’t charge me. Friday we dog-sat Cooper again: a lovely walk into Uppermill along the canal path, this time no duckings for oncoming bitches. We went to the bank and sat under the outdoor heaters in Java for an al fresco coffee while the snow flurried around us, then walked back to the car along a lane parallel with the canal. I think, when I’ve done with study and with foreign holidays, I might get myself a dog; I like dog walking.

Anyway, another full and satisfying week. I love my life. Here’s the photo of the soft sculpture, followed by the first draft poem it inspired.




Laura Ford (Abbot Hall Gallery; July 2016)


Marry me, you said.

Share your life with me, you said.

Want for nothing ever again, you said.


Well here I am, all gowned up. I’m like

old, new, borrowed, blue but where’s the vicar?

Where’s the church, for fuck’s sake?


I didn’t think this was what you had in mind

when you said nothing big, we’ll just grab a quick

wedding breakfast. I wasn’t thinking literally

grabbed, unplucked, still swimming.

I wanted my duck à l’orange.


If we look like getting caught I’ll just lift my skirts,

expose my blue-gartered thighs and leg it.

No-one’ll recognise me in this veil.


Oh, you’re a liar.

You’re a bare faced liar. You lying bastard,

you couldn’t even wait till we’re wed

to let me down, could you?. Well, if they catch me

I’ll hand you over.

They’ll mince you and feed you to the ducks.


It’s just,

I didn’t think we’d be doing this, not today of all days.


Rachel Davies

February 2017