Monthly Archives: January 2014

You know when you are trying to sort out your page numbering in Word and you get really frustrated  and you cry a little bit or sometimes a lot… well, fear no more. If you just want to have a couple of blank pages in your document, say for the chapter title but you don’t want a number ruining the nice clean page, don’t bother doing all those section breaks etc – just simply colour over the page number!

This will definitely come in handy for the thesis.


I’m bad at speaking English but it’s the only language I know

This is what Director Spike Jonze said when accepting his Golden Globe Award and it led me to think about to what extent native speakers can improve their English when we no longer participate in English language classes and perhaps feel we don’t quite have the time to sit down and focus on learning grammar and such like.

I have heard it said many times, but can’t find any evidence for it, that Margaret Thatcher got rid of the teaching of English language in schools in the 1980s and 1990s and that is why people of my age are bad at grammar. Although I have no recollection of studying English language even though I have a GCSE grade B in it  I am not sure I can blame Margaret Thatcher for all my problems and have decided to actively improve my English.
In the ‘How to write a thesis’ book I mentioned before, the author Rowena Murray gives readers this fun quiz, how many do you know?:
  1. What are the definite and indefinite articles?
  2. When and how do you use a semi-colon?
  3. What is a personal pronoun?
  4. What is ‘the antecedent’?
  5. What is subject–verb agreement?
  6. What are the essential elements of a sentence?
  7. Give examples of sentences using the passive and active voices.
  8. What is the difference in meaning between the two?
  9. Define ‘sentence boundaries’ and say why they are important.
  10. What is a topic sentence?

I am ashamed to say that I knew only four and she says if you know five or less, then you have a problem! I won’t give the answers here as it is important for everyone to do a bit of self-study, but I have to say that my mind was blown when I discovered what a topic sentence was and already I feel that I can improve my writing but will have to actively work on it and not rest on my native speaker laurels.

In a previous post I said I would ask my supervisors the question: “What is the best and most useful way to show you what I have learned and read and have been thinking to move the project forward?”

We decided that I need to show them something in writing, so not just scrappy notes. One said that it is best to start writing from the beginning of the doctorate. But this always makes me think write what? I know nuffink so can’t write nuffink! But after a bit of a discussion I think I have finally got it. There are things I can write about. The ethics of the research, the dataset I am using, the ‘factual’ stuff about the historical context, the methodology.

We have decided that I will produce something every month for my supervisors to read. That way they can look at the content but also how I write to help me become an academic writer. Both my supervisors have a lovely clear writing style, so I am confident that we are all on the same wavelength about what we think a good academic writing style looks like which I think is important.

The book by Rowena Murray ‘Writing for Journal Articles’ (see her top 10 tips from the book on The Guardian website) was recommended to me by my supervisor. Although there are some useful things in there, the problem with some of the writing books I have been reading is that they are geared toward people who are knowledgeable on their subject and are perhaps writing about something that they have been researching for many years – they actually have something to write about and tend to focus on tackling the issue of finding time and space to write. But for a full-time student, this isn’t really an issue.

So instead I think I will buy Rowena Murray’s book ‘How to write a thesis’.

So I am feeling optimistic and excited about writing – learning by writing I should say – as at last Murray’s book about writing a thesis addresses the whole idea of what to write even if you don’t yet know what you are writing about. Yay!

© Annika Coughlin 2014

Sometimes I worry that I have nothing to show for all that I have been thinking and reading. But how do you ensure that you properly reflect to your supervisors what you have learned and discovered from your reading. How do actually present that? How do you communicate your current thinking and the connections you are making. Do you have to write an essay for them before each meeting to summarise what you have found out? What about if things are still so up in the air that all I have written down are some handwritten scribbles in a notebook or annotations in the margins of articles. I don’t think I could write everything up nice and neatly before every meeting as it is almost like nothing is quite ready yet to be put to print in a nice neat way.

This is the question I am asking my supervisors tomorrow. What is the best and most useful way to show you what I have learned and read and have been thinking to move the project forward?

© Annika Coughlin 2014

Up until quite recently, I was involved in research to do with the impact of writing retreats on academic identity and productivity. My colleague and I wrote a paper which provided a ‘how to’ guide on how to set up a writing retreat (pre-publication version available here) in order to create the correct atmosphere for a sense of community and productivity for novice researchers.

What we don’t look at in our research is how to write well – the technicalities and what it is that makes for a good writer.

I don’t think I am a very good academic writer and I am not a very good speaker either but these are two things that you are assessed on and which eventually means you earn a doctorate. But can this change? Can you learn how to become a good academic writer? I hope so.

I have a book by Patricia Goodson called ‘Becoming an academic writer: 50 exercises for paced, productive and powerful writing.’

Here is the content outline:

Chapter 1. Get Ready to Practice
Part I. Practice Becoming a Productive Academic Writer
Chapter 2. Establish and Maintain the “Write” Habit
Chapter 3. Practice Building Academic Vocabulary
Chapter 4. Polish the Grammar
Chapter 5. Get Feedback
Chapter 6. Edit and Proofread
Part II. Practice Writing Sections of Journal Articles, Research Reports, and Grant Applications
Chapter 7. Exercises for Writing Introductions, Purpose Statements, or Specific Aims Sections
Chapter 8. Exercises for Writing the Methods Section
Chapter 9. Exercises for Writing the Results/Findings Section
Chapter 10. Exercises for Writing Discussion or Conclusion Section
Chapter 11. Exercise for Writing Abstracts
Appendix: Additional Resources
Author Index
Subject Index

I will have a go at these. Much of the literature tends to be about how to improve productivity and avoid writer’s block – there is no point in producing lots of stuff that is quite frankly rubbish and not at a high standard. I am not quite sure exactly what my problems are just yet, but my mum who used to proof-read my work seemed to suggest there was much room for improvement! And as mentioned before, I don’t feel like I have a very large vocabulary which I think is a problem for speaking and writing.

Goodson suggests that like an instrument you need to practice. Just like my steelpan I suppose, in three years of being in the band I am much better than I used to be and am now even teaching others how to play. So perhaps this can happen with writing?


© Annika Coughlin 2014

This is an order to myself! In a previous post I started that I had started a worklog in an Excel spreadsheet. Of course it didn’t last. I think the main reason is that it isn’t really necessary if you trust yourself to do what you need to do. Clocking in, having managers check up on how long you spent on toilet breaks, check you aren’t chatting to your friends and such like is something that gets left behind when you leave school and if you don’t work in a place where your every action in monitored and checked against the clock (as documented about Amazon for example ). For some people with bullying bosses and a competitive working environment this can happen and not just in factory style workplaces. I don’t want to be a part of this sort of environment. I like a more flexible way of working.

I think when you are doing your PhD, the pressure to try not to disappoint your supervisors and to try to justify your existence to tax payers who pay me through the ESRC to do this research is enough.

Of course, like in all work, time-management is a challenge but guilt and a sense of duty is all I need to keep me in check –  and an occasional disapproving look from friends and family when I slip up.

But perhaps this is just idealised thinking – perhaps students should invest in a clocking in machine for the home – perhaps a sexy vintage one.

Oppression - in sexy walnut!

Oppression – in sexy walnut!

And if I am good, I could reward myself with this gold badge:gold badge

(I secretly like the idea).

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