Three good reasons to write like a monk

Annemiek van Os  by Annemiek van Os / Reading Time: 5 Minutes /

It’s 5 A.M. and I am wide awake.

Usually I’m awoken roughly by the clanking sounds of a construction site near my house. Today, it’s the cheerful (yet deafening) sound of birds that announce the new day.

Usually I would have read my e-mail and checked my news apps by now, as I would be doing again and again and again later during the day. Today, I look forward to another ‘offline’ day, with my writing flow only interrupted by the soothing rhythm of coffee and food breaks.

This week, I’m doing everything differently. I’m writing Benedict-style.

Benedict (480 – 547 AD) was a saint who established a number of monasteries in his days and who gained (and still maintains to have) many followers who live according to his vision on spiritual and secular life, which he has written down in his ‘Rule for monks’. The structural elements of this rule have inspired the daily structure in the guest house where I am staying this week to write the general introduction of my dissertation. My schedule for each day is as follows:

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The daily structure advocated by Benedict is simple and strict, and this makes it utterly effective. Apparently, this daily routine is in agreement with the natural human biorhythm. The strict structure may make you feel a bit eerie in the beginning. Sometimes you can have the idea that only you can decide what the best moment is to start writing that paragraph you have been procrastinating around for days, and not the clock. The same thing goes for quitting your writing: what if you’re in a flow at that particular time? Why should you stop just because Benedict decided ages ago that it is time for coffee? Here’s three reasons why it’s a good idea to follow the structure anyway:

1. Learning the art of beginning

The structure encourages you to just start working. With a minimum of distractions (writing is the only thing on your agenda) and a doable time slot (you never write for more than two hours at a time), there is no excuse to not just pick up your pen – ha ha, I mean, log on to your computer of course – and start writing. Just do it. In essence, Benedict has eliminated the beast called procrastination that all PhDs fear:

via phdcomics.com © Jorge Cham

 2. Learning the art of stopping

Benedict was as serious about exercise as about relaxation and gets extra awesomeness points for making recreation a mandatory aspect of his daily rhythm. Taking a rest, both physically and mentally, is obviously important, otherwise you’ll eventually lose focus and you will be less productive. In Benedict’s time, the restorative breaks from work were meant as opportunities for prayer. However, you can also just take a walk, read a blog, or drink a good cup of coffee with colleagues and friends. Anything that takes your brain off work, relaxes your mind and puts the difficulties related to your research project in the right perspective will do.

3. Learning the right attitude between beginning and stopping

Between the start and stop sign is the zone where your actual work takes place. Benedict advocated doing everything with so-called relaxed dignity. To put it more New Agey, it is all about ‘now’, not ‘later’. So instead of getting stressed about all the stuff you still need to do later, you gently focus on the only thing that is truly relevant: what you can do right now (this is the relaxed-part). And whatever happens during your work hours, you should take it in stride and not get too upset about it (this is the dignity-part). Paying full attention to what you’re doing at the present moment can limit the pressure you may feel on finishing the job. It may even be surprisingly healing or productive to fully surrender yourself to that dreaded paper you need to finish.

My own experience with living according to Benedict’s rule has been nothing but amazing. It was no surprise to me to see that the super-strict structure was beneficial for my productivity. The magnitude of the difference with writing at home or at the office without that clear structure, however, has astonished me. Of course, it helps that I’m at a beautiful castle surrounded by nature, that all meals are prepared and all dishes are washed for me, and that there is no hallway buzzing with colleagues and students outside the library I’m working in. But Benedict has gotten me convinced that it is mostly the structure and the ideas behind it that are so extremely effective. And I would encourage anyone to try it out for themselves!

A final note for the cynics out there: I’ll have you know that I did not procrastinate during the ‘official schedule’ by writing this blog. I actually wrote (most of) it at 5 in the morning.

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Annemiek van Os is a PhD candidate at the department of Organization Sciences. Her research focuses on how organizational members deal with identity threat caused by errors.

This blog was inspired by the following source: Wil Derkse (2003). The rule of Benedict for beginners: Spirituality for daily life (translation by Martin Kessler). Liturgical Press.

Searching for the secret to storytelling — How to make a good story great

Marloes Spekman  by Marloes Spekman / Reading Time: 4 Minutes /

Once upon a time, in a land far far away, lived a girl with golden hair and baby blue eyes. She spent her days fantasizing about writing the most wonderful stories that everyone in the world would read and talk about. She dreamed of persuading people of the importance of her research via mind-blowing narrative constructions. And she fantasized about sharing with everyone what fascinates her about the world around her. Thus, she went on a quest to find the Secret to Storytelling.

Along the way, she had to overcome many obstacles (such as the newest version of APA). After a long and exhausting journey, she finally found what she was after all along: the Secret to Storytelling. It was found in the last place she would have expected it. This is the story of her journey.

©animatedfilmreviews.filminspector.com
©animatedfilmreviews.filminspector.com

In reality, the girl with golden hair and blue eyes is ‘just another’ PhD student striving to inspire people by sharing her research findings in the best way possible. Yes, me: Marloes Spekman, a PhD student in the field of Communication Science/Media Psychology doing a PhD project within the SELEMCA project.

Strictness of rules

In the last few years, I realized that telling stories is not as simple as it often seems. Sure, there are certain rules for telling your story, in every field or genre. A fairytale, for instance, is expected to start off with “Once upon a time”, just like I did in the introduction here. Most research papers are expected to follow a strict set of rules, such as APA 6th. Conference presentations (at least in my field) usually follow the same order of elements (i.e., introduction, method, results, and conclusion/discussion). Even photography has certain rules, such as the so-called rule of thirds that most photographers keep in mind when taking their photos. However, strictly adhering to the rules often does not deliver the best stories. Rather, doing so usually produces utterly boring end-products. Still, we keep teaching these rules to next generations, so they must be making sense in some way or another, right?

What makes a good story great?

So, I started searching for the answer to the question: What makes a good story great?  To find the answer, I took a number of courses and workshops within the Graduate School and VU University over the years (e.g., Language and Interaction, PhD Success and Personal Efficacy). Surprisingly, I didn’t find the answer there, but it came to me during a talk related to one of my hobbies: photography. Our local Media Markt had invited Eddy van Wessel, a renowned war photographer and winner of the Silver Camera in 2012, to give a talk about his work. During his talk, he showed the amateur photographers in the audience many of his pictures and shared with them under what circumstances he had made the pictures. What struck me about his images was that all of them told impressive stories¹, but very little of them adhered to the ‘photography rules’. For instance, he took pictures in Aleppo, Syria, while the city was being bombed. The images show the devastation the bombs caused, people taking refuge for yet another bomb attack, and the casualties after such attacks. Many of his pictures are either skewed, contain noise, or put the subject somewhere in the middle (while, according to the rule of thirds, the picture would be more interesting if the subject would be placed at one- or two-thirds of the image).

Rules? Stretch and bend them!

And that is when I realized: Telling a good story has nothing to do with your ability to understand and apply the rules, but rather with your ability to be creative with these rules. Sure, you may have to stick to APA rules when writing up a journal article, but that doesn’t mean you cannot be creative in writing. Why not start out with a hypothetical situation to illustrate your problem? Why not use a metaphor to make an abstract idea more tangible? Why not refer to non-academic works that help you in making your point (e.g., movies, comedians)? Why not insert an image or flow-chart to visualize the procedure participants went through? A certain bandwidth exists around the rules, so stretch them, bend them, and use them in any way you like!

After returning home from her quest, the girl with the golden hair and baby blue eyes excitedly ran to her desk, took up her quill, dipped it in the ink pot, and eagerly started writing. As her quill started flying over the paper, she felt less and less restricted in her writing. And she wrote happily ever after!


¹ Many of his photographs can be found on Eddy’s website. Please be aware that some of these images may be rather shocking, so visit at your own risk.