5. Part three: Get writing
This section is intended to help you hone your writing skills in advance of producing work for your portfolio. Of course, you may use other formats for this work, but since writing is an activity that many people feel a bit intimidated by, we’re going to make it our focus in the following section.
In many ways, the skills described in this section are easily transferred to other sorts of portfolio work, because they have to do with ordering information and presenting it clearly. So even if you don’t anticipate producing much written work for your portfolio, you may still find it helpful to work through the material that follows.
Preparing to write
Imagine you are going on a journey – for example, to Ambleside in the Lake District. You could just head off, in the hope that if you drive for long enough you’ll eventually land up in Cumbria. But it’s probably sensible to look at a map, plan a route, and have a sense of where you might stop for lunch.
Producing an assignment for your portfolio is similar. You can simply sit at your desk and get cracking. And occasionally – very occasionally – you’ll end up at a place of exquisite beauty and excitement. But more often than not, this approach ends in disaster, with a piece of work that lacks structure, has no clear line of argument, and doesn’t really get to grips with the subject matter.
So before you sit down to write, it is good to formulate a plan for your work. You don’t need to go into every detail, as you need to be open to any thoughts that occur while you’re writing. But it does help to have a good sense of each stage of the assignment, so you know how it all fits together. That way, you can link each section to the next, giving a clear sense of cohesion to the whole thing. And even better, you’ll find it much easier to write your first sentence if you already have a good idea of what you want to say.
It’s good to talk
Here’s a technique to help formulate your thoughts. It works whether you’re producing a traditional essay or another piece of portfolio work. Pretend you’re being interviewed about the subject matter of your assignment.
By talking your thoughts through, you can put them in order, and you’ll probably discover handy turns of phrase that you can then use if you’re writing an essay, or even something like a poem or meditation. By asking yourself questions like, ‘What is your core idea?’, ‘Whose writing on this subject did you find most helpful; in what way?’, ‘How does this thought connect with that thought?’ you may just find that the tectonic plates of your mind shift around and settle into a new order, helping you develop a clearer sense of the content of your assignment piece.
Structuring an essay
If you do decide to write an essay for your portfolio, it’s important to structure it effectively. Here’s a guide to doing just that.
Good essays start with a strong introduction, outlining what will come in the following discussion and setting the assignment into its context. Imagine you’re introducing someone to a conversation, bringing them up to speed about the subject matter and giving them a sense of what you might say about it. That’s what an introduction aims to do.
- Your main points
You’ll then need to move onto the main body of the essay, which is where you will introduce the reader to a number of ideas. This will involve describing the views of others, eg those you have read, and evaluating them. You should include quotations from your sources, as well as descriptions of the opinions you’ve encountered in your studies. You should also try to compare and contrast different viewpoints, to show that you understand the nuances between them.
The body of an essay needs to follow a logical structure – hence the importance of planning. Try not to jump around from one topic to another. As a general rule, link each section to the one before, and ensure it lays foundations for the one that follows. That way, your essay will have a flow or line of argument, ensuring it hangs together as a whole.
Once you’ve covered all the points you need to, it’s time to write a conclusion. This isn’t the moment to introduce any new ideas into your discussion - even if you’ve just had an amazing thought about the subject. If it hasn’t found its way into the essay by now, it’s too late to include it – or you need to go back and put it earlier. The conclusion should summarise the main thrust of the argument, and offer a sense of how it fits into a wider theological context.
Here’s a tip: write your conclusion and introduction together, revising one in light of the other. And be sure to revisit them once the essay is finished, to ensure they accurately describe its content. This ensures the integrity of the document as a whole. It’s all about producing a piece of writing that is consistent, coherent and clear.
Some tips for writing clearly
Here are a few pointers on the nuts and bolts of writing well:
- Sentences should be short and easy to understand. Read them through as you write them. If any seem long-winded, find ways to trim them back. You can say a great deal in just a few words.
- Paragraphs should contain several sentences but one main thought. When your focus shifts, it’s time to start a new paragraph. These are the building blocks of your argument, so make sure each paragraph sits well with those around it, and the whole thing hangs together with a good flow.
- Always put quotations from your sources in quotation marks, and give clear references. This helps you minimise the risk of accidental plagiarism.
Hatch a plan
Imagine you were writing a guide to cooking your favourite meal. Produce a brief plan for it, including an introduction and conclusion, with a clear sequence of related points in between. It may be helpful to draw the skeleton of a fish – with the head serving as the introduction, the tail as the conclusion, and the spiny bits in between serving as the different points you want to explore in your writing. You’ll see how easy it is to produce a plan that will structure your writing.
Describing and evaluating
There are two key skills in essay writing, and they’re equally important:
- Describing involves reporting the views of others, so that the reader understands them
- Evaluating involves critical engagement with these views, usually by comparing and contrasting them with those of other people, and perhaps by expressing your own judgement concerning their quality.
Describing is usually the thing that people find easiest in an essay, but evaluation is essential to producing strong written assignments. So it pays to practise this, by asking critical (by which we mean ‘analytical’ rather than ‘negative’) questions about the sources you’re engaging with. Try the following exercise to help you notice the difference.
Ask a friend or family member briefly to explain how they would cook an omelette. Write down a description of what they said.
Now look at Jamie Oliver’s omelette recipe. Jot down brief notes, explaining which recipe (Jamie’s, or your interviewee’s) is better, and your reasons for making this judgement.
There, you’ve done some evaluative work – and it turns out you’re a natural!
Redrafting and proofreading
There is only one thing that’s more important than actually producing a piece of work for your portfolio, and that’s revising it. This can be the hardest discipline of all: you’ve poured heart and soul into planning and constructing your work of art, and then you have to go through it to trim unnecessary content, sharpen its meaning and cut out any fripperies.
As any film-maker will tell you, though, what makes a great movie is a willingness to leave whole parts of it on the cutting-room floor. Your work will be stronger if you put the time into reviewing and editing it.
Here are some tips to help you edit your work, which are especially pertinent for written portfolio pieces:
- Try reading it aloud. This will give you a feel for its rhythm and concision. If there are bits that sound cumbersome or wordy, try to tighten them.
- Ask someone else to read it through. They don’t have to be a subject specialist. In fact, in many ways it’s better if they’re not. But a second pair of eyes can spot typos that you’re too familiar with the text to notice, and alert you to parts of the discussion that seem long-winded or unclear.
- Use a spell-checker. You can read and reread to your heart’s content, but it’s always worth running your assignment through the spell checker on your computer. These tools aren’t 100% accurate, but they will spot a good number of typos and spelling errors – and it’s important to iron these out before you submit work for assessment.
- Be careful about grammar and punctuation. None of us is perfect in this regard, so don’t be afraid to use a reference guide for assistance (for example, Fowler’s Modern English Usage (3rd edition) (Oxford, OUP, 2004) or, for a more accessible guide, Lynne Truss’s Eats, Shoots and Leaves (London, Fourth Estate, 2009). You can also pick up guidance online, but it’s worth checking that you go to a reliable source for information.
Protecting your work
Computers are wonderful tools and make the life of a writer far easier. You can draft and redraft as much as you like, and move passages of text around until you’re completely satisfied with what you’ve produced.
They do have pitfalls, however, and foremost among these is their tendency to lose information. If your computer gets struck by a virus, or has one of those meltdowns that come to all pieces of machinery in time, you want to be certain your half-written portfolio piece is safe, as well as any notes you’ve saved. One easy way to do this is to email documents to yourself at the end of each working session. That way, you can pick them up on any computer – meaning you’ll be able to retrieve them even if your own machine is broken.
Dealing with feedback
This is the moment you’ve been waiting for. Lots of hard graft ensured you handed in your work on time. And now you’re ready to get feedback on it. You may feel terrified and excited in equal measure.
So here’s the deflating news: how you perform in a single piece of work really doesn’t matter too much. Of course, if you do well, you should certainly celebrate. But if you don’t do as well as expected, remember that it’s just a small part of your overall assessment – and you will have the chance to modify it before submitting it as part of your portfolio.
That prompts a few reflections on dealing with feedback. The whole point of portfolio work is that you’re outlining where you stand on a topic, and making your contribution to the conversation about God. So it makes sense that the person offering feedback will want to continue that conversation, and the comments they make are one way of doing just that.
Therefore, try to view what is fed back to you as a constructive attempt at dialogue. Be encouraged by the positives, and try to learn from the more critical feedback. That’s how you’re likely to improve in future work.
More fundamentally, enjoy the experience of being directly involved in the theological conversation. Here you are, engaged in direct correspondence with someone about a subject matter that is the most important one of all. It’s a real privilege to be called to participate in such a dialogue.
That’s another way of saying that even participating in the process of theological learning and reflection is a great joy, and one that we urge you to savour. It should help you to get the portfolio part of proceedings into perspective, reminding you of your reasons for being involved in this course in the first place. And if you need a stronger reminder, look up from your desk at the motivations list you made earlier. Of course, it’s never pleasant to receive negative feedback about our work. But it’s worth remembering that it’s not about you as a person, and it’s very firmly intended to help you improve your practice as a preacher or worship leader. So try not to take constructive critical comments personally, and always look back over what you’ve done with the marker’s comments in mind, to help you recognise the strengths and weaknesses they identify.
Ultimately, what matters more than anything is your growth in Christ and it is in this context that you are seeking to develop the gifts and graces that belong to the particular calling of a worship leader or local preacher. Whether or not you go on to be accredited, you have been called by God to take your place in God’s own kingdom, and become more fully what he has made you to be. And as Paul writes in his letter to the Philippians: “I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work in you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ” (Philippians 1:6). When it comes to getting feedback on your work into perspective, you can’t do much better than that.
Conclusion: Get going!
To help cement your learning, here is one final exercise.
Revision: Ten steps to study skills success
Go back over your notes for the work we’ve done together, and remind yourself of the topics covered. You may like to pay particular attention to the exercises you’ve completed.
Now, on a fresh sheet of paper, write your top ten study skills pointers. This will provide an at-a-glance guide to help refresh your memory as you work through the course. It will help you refocus when you start a new module, or need to settle down to a piece of portfolio work. Once you’ve completed your ten steps, store them somewhere that’s easy to access. You never know when you may want to dig them out.
Let us pray
We close this section with a prayer, adapted by Tim Gibson from Colossians 1:9-14:
May you be filled with the knowledge of God’s will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding.
May you lead a life worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him,
as you bear fruit in every good work and as you grow in the knowledge of God.
May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power,
and may you be prepared to endure everything with patience,
while joyfully giving thanks to the Father,
who has enabled you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light.
May you have confidence that he has rescued us from the power of darkness
and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved son,
in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. Amen.