Reading and writing

Folders and books

In a fit of post-PhD arrogance1, I thought I’d write a blog about what I learned. 

My academic talents might be a bit limited but there’s a couple of things I’m good at: reading and writing. I can churn out words at a phenomenal rate. The whole concept of ‘writing up’ a PhD was completely foreign to me, because I started writing right out of the gate. Plus, I can read really fast. It’s a talent I developed when I did my first degree. It’s quite normal in an English Literature setting for assigned seminar reading to be half a dozen chunky Victorian novels which you do need to discuss in detail (plus you might want to find commentaries/articles on these books, if you want to be swotty), so it’s not a question of skimming.

And while there may be some divisions about my style (one person’s creative is another person’s self-indulgent) it’s not terrible, it’s just a different genre. My writing is modeled on essayists rather than social scientists, because I wanted to write in the style I liked reading myself, and because I had an eye to publishing for a more general readership later on.

Anyway: here are my three tips for doing a PhD, which you may or may not find useful:

1. Write until you can’t write anymore. Then read until you can’t read anymore. Rinse, lather, repeat.

That passage you are stuck on? There’s an idea somewhere in your in-pile that will work it out for you – and you’ll go into your reading mentally prepared to find it. Even reading unrelated materials – novels, poems – can sometimes give you just the a word or image that you need to express something better, or will trigger new paths of thought. And when you are reading and you feel something bubbling up, write something about it immediately, even if its a vague and half-formed idea on a post-it note.

2. Train yourself to be excited about being wrong

Finding a data-point or counter-argument that challenges your theory can feel devastating. But that initial cognitive discomfort is something to be embraced – go with it. The pop-rocks in the brain feeling of being wrong is creativity in action. It’s where you will find the new direction you need for your work. When you lose that feeling, you’re done theorising. Keep reading until everything you read is telling you the same thing.

3. Read your own writing

Even a person like me who regularly skips social engagements because I’m in the writing groove sometimes feels a bit blah about adding a few more data-points or working in someone’s suggestion. So start by reading instead: let your own work inspire you to complete it. Every time you add something read the wider context: the whole section, the chapter, whatever you have time for. You’ll iron out awkward phrasings, punch up your prose and trigger new thoughts.

Get regular sleep and go for long walks. And ignore advice on the internet. 😉


  1. This will no doubt dissipate as I go through the detailed corrections. 

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