Tag Archives: writing

Post-grad study for mature students : 15 tips


A while back, a friend and colleague who is about to start a PhD asked me if I had any advice. I said, don’t ask me, given that I had to interrupt for a year, and I’m living on borrowed time for my final draft even as I write this. But, he said, that’s exactly who he’d like to take advice from—a struggler. So, I started this list of things that I’m glad I did, wished I’d done earlier, and wished I hadn’t done as a birthday present. True to form, I missed the deadline, but I’m now publishing this for him, and for two former students of mine who asked me if I had any advice for them as they begin their part-time MAs as mature students.  The advice probably applies to young postgrads as well, except that I think balancing work and study, and the distractions and commitments of everyday life get harder as you get older. 

Here goes—and comments would be wonderful to help anyone else in the same boat. 

Five things I’m glad I did: 

  1. Used reference management software from day one, and  invested  time learning to use it well. I use Zotero (the standalone version), but you can compare others here. One of the best quick guides to Zotero in my view is this one from  the Old Bailey. The day that I discovered how to use the Library Look-up feature changed my life. I learned that from the IoE library pages. Zotero has too many cool features to mention. Put in the time early on learning to use it, and you’ll reap rewards ever after. 
  2. Decided who my heroes were  as writers and thinkers, and kept their work in mind as my inspiration. I hardly needed telling to do this, but it’s a good thing to remind yourself. My heroes were:  Howard Becker, Erving Goffman, Tia DeNora, Philip Tagg, Georgina Born, Lucy Green (who happens to be my supervisor, so I’m lucky). Very late, I discovered Jean Lave, Michael Billig, Leah Greenfield. I’d recommend Michael Billig’s Learn to Write Badly to anyone, whether they’re in the social sciences or not. 
  3. Turned off the internet to write/read. The internet, bad writing, social media, the phone, are all the enemies of any kind of work that you need to do as a researcher or writer. I think it’s Annie Dillard in The Writing Life who says that they pull you away, instead of drawing you in, and pulling away is exactly what distraction means. I used Freedom when it was free (and still have the free version installed). I’m sure there are other things available that don’t cost anything. But don’t trust yourself just to switch off the wifi. 
  4. Kept a research diary. Include all the bad stuff as well as the good. I keep mine in a local installation of WordPress on my computer, using MAMP. On depressing days when you get nothing done, you can at least write about how depressed you are. I wrote several days of entries when I tried to read Foucault. The fact that I still couldn’t cope with him several years later told me that it was a good thing I didn’t hitch my work to his particular wagon.
  5. Didn’t wait to write until I’d  done my research. “Memo writing”—ad hoc, on the fly, as-you-go writing about your research as you’re doing it— is a favoured feature of grounded theory approaches to research, and what the GT people say is correct: often, those memos end up being part of your final work. Howard Becker says in one of his excellent books on writing, that there’s nothing that says the stuff you write quickly is necessarily any worse than stuff you toiled over. E. H. Carr in What is History said something about not being able to read more than about three books before he had to start writing. It’s not a crime. 

Five things I wished I’d done earlier: 

  1. Used ONE application for all data. For a long time, I wavered between nVivo, MaxQDA, Scrivener, physical notebooks, bits of paper, Word documents, my blog, my private diary, putting things here and there. I’m clearer now: anything that is in any sense data —interviews, odd bits of information, articles, ad hoc conversations, notes written on the back of envelopes, notes on books and articles that I’ve read—goes into MaxQDA, loosely categorized, but finely separated (i.e. each event, book, topic, article, note or whatever has its own document). It’s not that I necessarily need MaxQDA to analyse it, but I need to know where all that stuff is. 
  2. Kept the equivalent of a commonplace book for everything else. Doing research makes you interested and ravenous for new things. You need to put them somewhere, and be able to find them one day. You can’t tell what might eventually go in your research after all. 
  3. Coded (i.e. categorized) my information more assiduously. I went to a lecture by music psychologist Andrea Halpern a couple of years back, who said in passing that if you don’t “code” stuff, you don’t memorize it. She said something like “it’s nice to colour sentences in with fluorescent markers, but don’t kid yourself that you’re doing anything useful. It’s just pretty. It doesn’t tell you anything about why you did it. To make it useful, you have to code it somehow.” People talk about “coding” as if it’s only something you do when you’ve got interview data. If you do it as you go with everything (like if you have a commonplace book, q.v. and you need to decide how to categorize something), it’s amazing what a difference it makes to your own comprehension of what you’re doing and reading. 
  4. Read challenging, well-written stuff first thing in the morning. Don’t take my word for it, try it and see. It’s like shutting the door and learning to hear again.  The advice came from either Dani Shapiro’s Still Writingor Annie DIllard’s The Writing Life, both of which I’d strongly recommend, alongside the practical but not so poetic The Psychology of Writing.  
  5. Sorted out details of punctuation. When I got my first article published, I had to finally commit to knowing whether the comma came inside the quotation marks or not, and a dozen other really annoying things. They’re like tripping over your shoelaces as you walk. You think early on “I’l deal with that later.” Knowing in advance means that you save yourself hours of editing later, and hours of daily annoyance now. 

Five things I wish I hadn’t done

  1. Taken on side work projects. Clear time in your schedule, and—having done it—don’t let anyone or anything in there. Vanity projects and things that are marginally related (but not useful) to your research are the worst. 
  2. Made incomplete notes. I’ve got dozens of instances in my notebooks and in files where I’ve quoted a large block of text, forgotten to say what page it was on, or in which book. At the time, because I was immersed in it, I thought I could never forget. You will. 
  3. Let other things slide. Daniel Levitin got me on to this one in The Organized MindThe temptation is to stop everything so that you can get your writing done. But all those other things (washing, tax returns, health checks, dentist, the garbage taking out etc.) need to be done. If you don’t do them, they add up in your mind as a mass of worrying distractions. It’s counter-productive to binge-write and let everything else go hang. 
  4. Started planning future projects. I’ve seen this referred to a lot: the temptation to start planning the next thing, while this one remains unfinished. You might as well do drugs. 
  5. Over-reflected. The downside to keeping a research diary is that I ended up sometimes writing more about thinking about writing than actually doing it. Treat writing like digging a road, or data entry. 


Varieties of reading: drawing in and pulling away


I’ve just finished reading Matthew Crawford’s The World Beyond Your Headwhich I’d happily say is one of the best books I’ve read in the last year.  I wonder when the subtitle changed from On becoming an individual in an age of distraction to How to flourish in an age of distraction? The latter, on the UK Penguin paperback edition, makes it sound like a self-help book. The former, which seems to be the American hardcover subtitle, is more accurate because it does greater justice to the philosophical content of the book. On the other hand, Crawford’s whole point is that the idea of individual, autonomous liberty is not necessarily liberating or ideal, whereas connection and engagement with the real world of people and things is. To flourish, you need to radically reconsider the notion of what it means to be individual and free in the first place.

My current reading list: not so much a list as a pile

My favourite part of the day. Coffee and something from this pile.

We kid ourselves if we think that we while we are humming along in neutral, our minds are in some freewheeling state where we think and act autonomously. For many of us, the world is full of things that are making claims on our  “attentional commons,” eroding our right to live in a world without ubiquitous advertising and clickbait. If you don’t believe it, maybe you haven’t heard marketing people talk about every available space, including the back of your bus ticket, as “real estate” where someone can peddle their wares at you, colonising every object you use and see with a corporate flag.

Still reading “Still writing”

What Crawford is getting at is difficult to imagine, unless you’ve had the opportunity to differentiate between different kinds of attention. I’m now riffing on the book, by introducing another, Dani Shapiro’s Still Writingwhich I would put near the top of the list of books which have most influenced me in the last year.  Although it’s not a self-help book, there is one page which made a huge difference to me. It’s where Shapiro distinguishes between two kinds of reading – the kind that draws you in, and the kind that pulls you away (incidentally, pulling away is more or less what the components of the word distraction mean).

I try (most of the time I fail, but still, I try) to begin my day reading. And by this I do not mean The New York Times online, or the Vanity Fair lying on the kitchen table or the e-mails that have accumulated overnight, and which I open at my own risk. The roulette of the in-box! An enticing invitation to a private online sale of gourmet Himalayan sea salt, a high school nemesis emerging from the ether—whatever it is, it’s the opposite of reading. It pulls you away, instead of directing you inward.

[…] When I start the morning with any one of the dozen books in rotation on my office floor, my day is made instantly better, brighter. I never regret having done it. Think about it: have you ever spent an hour reading a good book, and then had that sinking, queasy feeling of having wasted time?

 (Dani Shapiro, 2013. Still Writing, New York: Grove Press, pp. 34-35).

I also try, not always successfully, to do the same. That is, to walk downstairs, without touching a phone or a computer, and pick up a book, and read it. When I do that, I get the same feeling as when I first tried to give up smoking. A visceral twitch that could make you lurch towards the nearest cigarette shop to buy another packet.

But within minutes of picking up a book, just as Shapiro says, you get drawn in, and feel better for it. Her point is that good writing comes from good reading, and that any time you spend reading a well-written book is going to stimulate the writer that you want to be, and other forms of reading – that really need a different term to describe them, since they are so fundamentally different – have the effect of distracting you, pulling you in different directions, until you feel mentally exhausted and vacant.

So this post is by way of celebrating that today, at least, I didn’t do that, I finished The world beyond your head, and —as Shapiro promised—I feel all the better for it.

IT tips #11: Use dummy text to help you write


This much I know – it’s much harder to write an article of 250 words than one of 2,500.  The word count of articles I’ve written for Dance Gazette over the last 12 years has gone from 1750, to 1,000, 750, to 500, to 400, and now 250, and it gets more difficult with every reduction.

What I do now for anything under 1500 words is to create a dummy article so that I can see how it’s going to look on the page, and decide how to arrange the paragraphs – a short opener, thick middle and brief conclusion? Five equal paragraphs? 4 of increasing size plus a one line ending? You get the idea.

For long articles, I use the Lorem ipsum generator (lorem ipsum are the first two words of standard dummy text used in publishing). If it’s just a mini task in Word (‘write no more than 50 words of description’) I use Word’s in-built dummy-text generator, one of my favourite party-tricks

Zotero guide from The Old Bailey


This is the advantage of following Zotero’s twitter feed – you find out about brilliant resources such as the guide to using Zotero from The Old Bailey (yes, that Old Bailey).  It’s concise, clearly written and laid out, and tells you everything you need to get an overview and get started.

Zotero book on its way


Just as I was wondering when there would be such a thing, here’s the news: Jason Puckett, blogger over at Librarian X (tagline: with great power comes great bibliography) is writing  Zotero: A guide for librarians, teachers and researchers. If you can’t wait until the ALA Annual conference (June 2011) when publication is slated, you can get a sneak peak at the chapter overview and the bibliography on the page linked in the last sentence.

There are some great Zotero resources on Jason’s Zotero page, well worth checking out.

Mark Simpson: “the world’s most perceptive writer about modern masculinity”


I have been saying this ever since I bought It’s a queer world in 1996, and I say it every time I read another book, another weblog, every time I see him on one of those otherwise inane  100-top-this or 50-worst-that compilation documentaries. But who am I to say? Thankfully, I have the full weight of the ‘science of cool’ website www.scienceofthetime.com to back me up, since they’ve just listed him as No. 1 of their top reads for the weekend on the topic of males, and published this near-perfect eulogy to my hero:

Mark Simpson is probably the world’s most perceptive – and certainly the wittiest – writer about modern masculinity. Mark Simpson is by far the sharpest mind when it comes to changing masculinities. With a worldwide reputation, a long story of excellence and many international publications he is simply world wide leading.[from www.scienceofthetime.com here – nice article, too]

They go on to give an overview of his books and a selection of his best bits to get you salivating. My favourite is still his article, ‘Walk like a man’, which I quoted in another blog post (Why we need Stonewall), and I still pick up and savour It’s a queer world often. His ideas are so singularly perceptive and against the tide, reading him is strangely like being listened to at the same time as you’re listening to him. And as befits someone who thinks and writes so incisively about masculinities, I have to say I find something deeply erotic in his  unique balance of  insight, intelligence, humour, strength, vulnerability, balls and gentleness, gravitas and worldliness, moral courage and healthy filth. Whenever I read his work, I think of the way that Sontag praises Barthes:

He always wrote full out, was always concentrated, keen, indefatigable. […] it is work that, strenuously unwilling to be boring or obvious, favours compact assertion, writing that rapidly covers a great deal of ground.
(Writing Itself: On Roland Barthes reprinted in Where the stress falls, p. 65)

It’s writing that has a punch and a musicality that inspires me and that I aspire to, even if I rarely achieve it.  Good on you, Mark, and thanks for letting us know.