We asked four professional writers to create resources to help guide entrants through the process of researching, finding a form, starting to write and responding to feedback on an entry to the Orwell Youth Prize.
Hello! I am Sujana. I write across different genres ranging from poetry and scripts to essays and reports. In my day job, I work as a UX Researcher. This mainly involves talking to people from different walks of life. Doing so enables me to better understand a situation or a problem, before working out (mostly digital) solutions.
My writing practice enriches the way I carry out my research, and more importantly, my research skills and tools really feed my creative writing.
My poems have been published in different anthologies and magazines, and I have read and performed my work at various festivals and open mics. This is my favourite part about being a writer, getting to share my work with an audience. I have also written scripts for radio (you can listen to my BBC Radio 4 play here) and stage. I even acted in one of my plays, as you can see in the picture! (Sujana is on the left in a red headband.)
I enjoy writing about nature and about the different experiences I have had such as traveling and working in different countries, motherhood, and friendships. I see research as very much part of my writing process, especially when I am exploring themes new to me.
The value and importance of research
Spending some time learning about a topic helps you both widen and deepen your understanding. It makes your writing richer and enables you to be precise in your descriptions.
When I am in ’research mode’ I try and fully immerse myself in that world. What I mean by that is – if for example I am researching about apples, then I will likely do all or some of the following:
- Eat an apple in the morning for a whole week, noticing and noting down everything I see and feel – colour, shape, taste, sound it makes when I bite into it, etc.
- Find a way to learn about how and where apples grow and the different varieties, as well as how they have evolved over time.
- Talk to friends about how they like to eat apples (raw or cooked, sliced or whole etc.)
- Look up recipes about apples in cookbooks and BBC good foods.
- Interview a neighbour who has an apple tree in her garden.
- Visit a market to learn about the prices of apples.
- Visit a garden centre to learn about different pests and diseases different variety of apples can get and how to treat them.
- Use the Internet to learn about how apples are consumed in different cultures.
This kind of immersion enables me to widen the things I can say about a particular subject. It also helps me discover the necessary vocabulary and syntax, and often crystalises the understanding I already had. When I do begin to write afterwards, I am able to do so more confidently and precisely.
Researching for different forms
Research can feed into and support different forms of writing differently. When working on longer forms like essays or short stories, reading a book or an article, or talking to somebody with relevant lived experience, will help you get the facts right. It will also help you take your readers on a better journey (which is why we write, isn’t it?).
While working on a poem, on the other hand, you might wish to hone into something. More than in other forms, in poetry every word you use needs to own its place – each word needs to serve a purpose and add to your piece. As a result, your research will likely end up being more specific too. After some generic reading, my research here tends to be about finding the appropriate word and context to say what I want to say.
You will not use everything you research (but it will never go to waste)
Below I share the opening lines from my poem ‘Marshland Whispers.’
Having found her rhythm,
a snipe has taken to winnowing her secrets,
tales of silk, golden as a grass spine.
Did you know that the guttural sound made by wading bird, snipe, is called winnowing? I didn’t, until I read widely about this very shy species and visited a nature reserve to try and see them for myself (they eluded me, sadly). Ultimately, however, the only bit of research I used in my poem was the word ‘winnowing.’ That is not to say all the other research was wasted. Just recently, over two years of writing this poem, when writing about natural habitats, my old research on snipes came to good use. I don’t think anything ever goes to waste in a writer’s world!
Where to begin
Research can take many forms and what approach you take depends mainly on how much time you have and what tools you have access to. In today’s world, it’s easy to think asking Google is the obvious place to start. However, when my two children have a writing or research project, we start by reading a book together (as I do for my own projects). This often means a trip to our beloved local library!
What my children have found particularly exciting and helpful is asking our family and friends about things they have lived- or work experience on (e.g., talking to a neighbour who worked as a vet helped enrich my son’s story about a poorly cat). I will never cease to be blown away by just how willing and happy people are to share what they know. No amount of trawling YouTube or asking Google can compare to a good personal story
My top 5 research tips
- You do not need to do all your research in one sitting. Allow your mind time to mull over ideas. You can always return for some more research.
- Have a plan and a list of things you want to research before beginning. It is easy to get distracted and lose track of your work and time.
- Learn to keep notes of your research questions and learnings. You never know what you need to reflect on.
- Be careful when online and remember not everything you read on the Internet is true.
- Keep an open mind when researching: try not to go too narrow too soon.
Here’s an exercise to help sharpen your research skills:
Pick one idea from the list below (or come up with one yourself). Spend some time researching it, remembering to take notes. Then use your learnings to write a short story. Once you have done this, write a poem on the same theme.
Do you think you used your research differently for different forms?
Ideas you could choose from:
- Winters aren’t as cold as they used to be.
- Parents should always listen to their children.
- I want to be the Prime Minister.
A classroom activity: Writing a research-based collaborative short piece
Pick a theme for the class to research and write about (I’ve suggested a few ideas options below). Then divide the students into 4 to 5 groups, ideally with at least 3 in each group.
Provide each group an allocated time and the responsibility to research a sub-theme of the main theme.
After the allocated time (this could be a min. of 30 mins or up to a week), bring all the groups back together and write a collaborative piece together – with each group contributing a sentence or line at a time. A short piece, such as a poem or short essay would work best.
Provide research materials for the students such as relevant books, article print outs and pictures.
Encourage students to speak to people who had an interest or expertise on the chosen themes (this could be somebody in their family or a teacher at school).
When writing the collaborative piece, one option is to ask Group One to provide the first line or sentence, for Group Two to think of a second line in response to the first one, and so on.
Before you know it, the class will have created a new piece of writing together!
- A local hero… sub-themes could include:
- the local hero’s childhood
- what deeds made them into a hero?
- their significance today
- similarly celebrated people in other places
- Should we all be vegetarians? Sub-themes could include:
- what are the consequences of animal farming?
- what would happen if we all stopped eating meat?
- cultures that primarily eat a vegetarian diet
- Should pavements and cycle lanes be prioritised over main roads? Sub-themes could include:
- evolution of transportation
- cycle friendly cities around the world – what makes them different?
- air and noise pollution
- are there benefits to fewer people owning cars?
Thank you for reading this resource. We hope you enjoyed it and that it comes in useful as you write your entry to the Orwell Youth Prize! If you have any feedback on our resources, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sujana Crawford is a poet, playwright, researcher and facilitator, whose work is driven by a fascination with people, places, traditions and folklore. She is based in Warwickshire.
The commission of these resources was supported using public funding by the National Lottery through Arts Council England as part of the Orwell Foundation’s Regional Hubs project.