Top Tips for Writing your First Journal Article

Prompted by a discussion with a colleague on Twitter, I thought I’d crowdsource some advice on writing your first academic article in the humanities. Thank you to everyone who replied to my tweet with their top tips! It can feel very intimidating to start working on your first journal article and you might not know where to start, so I hope that this post will offer some helpful advice and encouragement. This post isn’t exhaustive and is based on my own, and others’, personal experiences, so if you have any additional suggestions, please comment below or tweet me.

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So, what material should I base my article on?

It’s a good idea to start small, perhaps with an offshoot of your thesis or something that builds out of a 20-minute conference paper. You need to have a tight argument in an article and so the focus needs to be specific and circumscribed (and not hampered by the baggage of the entire thesis, otherwise the article will balloon! It might also end up sounding like a survey rather than a specific new intervention in the field). You’ll probably be thinking about turning the thesis into a monograph at some stage (see my post on this particular topic here) so you might not want to siphon off too much of the thesis (although of course you might want to publish a stand-alone chapter from your thesis as a way of getting your research out there and establishing your voice in the field).

My first article was based on a conference paper that I gave on The Book of Margery Kempe. I’d worked on Kempe in my thesis but this was a new idea, partly inspired by the conference and slightly adjacent to my main research area, and it focused on one specific moment in Margery’s Book. I gave a 20 minute paper on this idea and received some great feedback at the conference and I then gave a 40 minute version the following year, when I wanted to develop the surrounding context and importance of the argument for medieval devotional culture more broadly. It’s definitely worth thinking about conferences and talks as opportunities to get feedback and to develop material in this way.

Choosing a journal

You will need to choose your journal carefully so that you have the best chance of your article being accepted! You can get advice on this from your supervisor/mentors (and from twitter! I had an article published in a journal that I hadn’t really come across before asking for twitter advice. I also contacted the editor of the journal to gauge their interest in my proposed topic, as it was somewhat outside my usual area). You should also look at the research you’ve been doing- is there a journal that pops up frequently for the text/topic/approach that you’re working on? That might be a good place to start.

Research the journal. You’ll need to know practical things such as the word length that they typically accept, their house style etc, but you should also see if they are accepting submissions and how frequently. Do they publish four times a year or once a year? Have they got ‘special issues’ coming up which means that they won’t be accepting general submissions for a while? (A ‘special issue’ could of course be just the thing for your current research, so keep an eye on for those!). You should read through recent issues of the journal that you decide upon so as to see what kind of articles they are publishing and their style- how do these articles place themselves in the critical field, what sorts of research are they doing (close readings, historical studies, theoretical approaches etc). It’s no good sending a theory-heavy piece to a journal that focuses on historical readings. For my most recent article, on Christianity and medieval pity in the Harry Potter series, I read through recent issues of my chosen journal (Studies in Medievalism) to see how the articles positioned themselves in medievalism studies and in particular how they substantiated an approach which involved bringing modern and medieval texts into conversation. I hadn’t done this directly in my research before so it was great to see how other successful articles had approached this question.

Write an abstract

Just as you would do for a conference submission, it can be really helpful to write an abstract. This can help you to articulate and hone your argument. (Check out this post on writing conference abstracts, some of the same advice will apply!). If you can’t sum up the contribution that your article makes in a paragraph, you probably have more thinking to do! An article needs to have a tight-knit and specific argument otherwise it is unlikely to be accepted.

I always say to my students when they are writing their essays- what’s at stake here? Why does this argument matter, to the specific text that you’re working on and more broadly (in the critical field, in our current times). Being able to articulate this will lead to a clearer and stronger throughline in your article.

Scholarship and drafting

Make sure that you are up-to-date on recent scholarship in the field! (And especially in the journal that you are planning to submit your article to- when I read through back issues of Studies in Medievalism there was an article that asked why there weren’t more medievalism articles on religious topics, so I was able to address this question directly in my article on medieval Christian values in the Harry Potter series). It will be a red flag to a peer reviewer if your citations seem to stop at the year 2000 or if you are ignoring an important recent article in the journal you’ve submitted to! You’ll need to situate your article in relation to current debates in the field and state how your argument develops, complicates, or adds to those questions.

When you start writing the article, try not to worry too much about getting it perfect straightaway. For me, it’s all in the editing! I tend to need to write it all out- get all the material out of my head and onto the page- which is often messy and full of sections that don’t fit together! But that’s the ‘rubbish first draft’ stage and then I can start to figure out what goes where and how to make the structure work. I often do my best thinking when I’m writing so I often need to just start writing, and then I’ll figure out precisely where I’m going and what else I need to do to get there! Sometimes at this stage, I’ll write without stopping to fill in the references as that can interrupt the flow and make me start to feel more cautious or nervous. It can help to find ‘your’ voice by just writing exactly what you think first and then making sure you’ve situated yourself in the field.

When you’re redrafting, make sure that you check that you have a clear statement of your argument and purpose in the opening of the article (to signpost where you are going and make this clear to the reader and reviewer) and that your conclusion returns to these questions at the end. I often like to have an opening ‘vignette’, a passage or example that sets up the key issues and questions that I’ll be writing about, and I’ll often save a little passage of close reading for the conclusion too- something that will enable me to draw together my argument, state why it was significant, and perhaps gesture towards a broader debate.

You don’t have to do it alone!

Get advice– from your supervisor, examiners, peers and mentors, and your twitter communities! Your supervisor or examiners will be well placed to help you to identify material that will work well for an article and they may also have good suggestions for journals to target. Colleagues who have published in that journal might be able to offer you advice about their experience.

You will also want to get several friends and mentors to read your article before you submit it– both for advice on structure, argument, and content, and also for their thoughts on the clarity and precision of your writing. I often find it helpful to have a specialist reader, who will be able to tell me if I’m missing something key in a primary text or if I’ve omitted some important recent criticism, and if the argument as a whole ‘stands up.’ But it’s also great to have readers outside of your specialism who can give you a sense of whether it works as an article, without getting distracted by the contents. They won’t be bogged down in the nitty gritty of the material and it can be so helpful to have an outside opinion, especially because not everyone who reads your article will necessarily be researching your specific area (although many will be, of course). You will probably want your article to be accessible to a range of readers, for example, in my case, those who might be there for the theory or the theme rather than the particular text (or conversely, those who are there for the text but not the topic). I also personally believe that articles should be accessible to undergraduates too. (I’m privileged in this regard as I am able to teach topics from my research but I also think it’s important that my work be useful to students and general readers where it can be, otherwise I’m not quite sure what I’m doing it for!!). All of your readers can also pick up any spelling or grammatical errors because you’ll need to proof read carefully for those!

If you have an article idea, it can be helpful to present a version of it as a conference paper so that you can take advantage of the captive audience for advice and feedback, as I suggested above. This is especially helpful when you’ve finished the PhD because you don’t automatically have your supervisor to call on for feedback and so you will be looking to cultivate other communities for support. It can also be helpful to join an online writing group or to pair up with a friend to encourage each other, read each other’s work, and set each other deadlines for accountability when things get tough!

Don’t be afraid to aim high but also don’t be afraid of the feedback!

You’ll probably be aware of the top journals in your field and you shouldn’t be afraid to aim high when submitting an article (obviously assuming you’ve done your research and checked that the journal will be interested in the kind of work that you do.) You might want to make a list of journals, however, because your piece might not be accepted by the first journal you send it to, so where could you try next? I can often be a process, getting your first piece accepted, so think about the alternatives.

I’ve written elsewhere about the emotional side of article rejections and let’s face it, none of us wants to receive ‘reviewer 2’ style feedback (and peer reviewers, don’t be that person! Check out my blogpost here about doing your first peer review). But feedback from the peer review process, when done properly, is there to give you specific and constructive advice to improve your work and make it stronger and, importantly, publishable. Use it and welcome it, even though it may be difficult to hear at first. Thanks to @mediaevalrevolt on twitter for this comment: ‘Think about peer review as an opportunity to get feedback, not (just) as an obstacle to surmount in order to get published.’

I had some amazing feedback on my first peer-reviewed article, without which I never would have been able to publish it. It came back with a ‘revise and resubmit’ from the journal and one of the reviewers had spotted that one of the problems that I was having, was that I was trying to evidence two arguments, the first of which had actually already been accepted in the field (about the status of images in late medieval devotion), whereas the more interesting and original argument was the second strand of my discussion (the use of images as an opportunity for the performance of devotional identity; here’s a blogpost on my article if you’d like to find out more about that!). This feedback helped me to streamline and strengthen my argument. The reviewer also suggested that I needed to be more specific and grounded in the evidence from art history, and recommended a number of studies that I should consult and work into my piece, which I did. Following the specific and practical advice of the peer reviewer lead to a much stronger argument and an acceptance, for which I’m very grateful!

Don’t forget…

You will, of course, want your article to be the best that it can be when you send it out but remember that it doesn’t have to be absolutely perfect! You will inevitably have to make revisions during the peer review process so if you are happy with the stage that you’ve got to, you’ve run it past trusted friends and colleagues, and you’ve made sure it meets the house style, just send it off!

And if the article is rejected, that’s not the end of the story! Think about the feedback and after you’ve had a little time to regroup, work on it and send it off to another journal! This seems obvious but I wish I’d been given this advice earlier in my career. I had an article rejected from my chosen journal and I sort of thought, well that’s it, it’s no good if it’s been rejected, so I just put it in a drawer and tried to forget about it. What I should have done was returned to it, worked on it, and resubmitted it elsewhere! Just because a piece is rejected from one journal, doesn’t mean it isn’t any good at all or that it wouldn’t be perfect for another journal. Try not to be disheartened. Pick yourself up and have another go!


Dr Lieke Smits recommended this book on twitter: Writing Your Journal Article in Twelve Weeks by Wendy Laura Belcher. I haven’t read it myself but I’ve heard good things about it so it might be worth checking out! I particularly like the title and the idea because it shows that you can produce a journal article in a specific period of time if you get organised and make a plan of attack!

Thanks to all of the following for contributing their ideas and helping me to write the above post: Jenni Nuttall, Daisy Black, Emma Smith, Laura Kalas Williams, Charlie Rozier, Fiona Noble, Frank Lough, Jenny Noble, Richard Cassidy, Colin Veach, Roberta Ann Quance, Laura Tisdall, Andrew Buck, Bjorn Weiler, Elizabeth Lehfeldt, Jennifer Brown, Eleanor Baker, Dean Irwin. (Apologies if I’ve missed anyone, I hope not!)

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Teaching Linguistics in the time of Corona

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I don’t know about you but I’ve been finding a lot of comfort recently in words. In escaping to beloved locations in literature (Hogwarts via JK Rowling, Cornwall via Daphne du Maurier, naturally!) but more specifically in investigating the meanings of individual words. In etymology. In the history of words and where they come from, of what they used to mean and what they might mean now, and how they are shaping our lives in the world. (I’m sure there must be a long German word for the solace-of-etymology!) There’s something about the intellectual and scientific nature of this kind of enquiry that I’ve found to be very grounding recently (and distracting, in a productive way!).

Like all my other colleagues, I am teaching online, from home, and Trinity Term looks and feels rather different to our normal Oxford experience but I am trying to look for the positives in these changes and to make the most of opportunities to do new things with my students. Thankfully we have the technology to do classes by video-call and I can’t tell you how pleasing it was to ‘see’ all my students on my computer screen this afternoon. Sadly I can’t give them tea and biscuits as I normally would and my home webcam background is disappointingly devoid of dragons (for the time being!), but we are, as the college’s new social media hashtag puts it, #Univ_Apart_Together. As I told my students this afternoon, when I did my BA, I had a mobile phone the size of a brick and I didn’t even have a desktop computer, let alone a laptop with a webcam (I wrote my undergraduate and MA dissertations on a word processor that was basically a typewriter!!). So I am very grateful that I can ‘see’ my students, even if at a distance.

This term I am wrapping up two courses with my first years, Old English and Linguistics, and it struck me that one of the major changes that we are all coping with at the moment is the rapid change in our everyday language. Who could have imagined two or three months ago that our vocabularies would now be filled with coronavirus and covid19, that we’d be on lockdown, trying to flatten the curve, and that social distancing would be the new normal. And this unprecedented change in our language has been recognised by the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), which recently announced an extra ‘update’ to their usual quarterly publication cycle. I was astonished and delighted to read about this rapid response from the OED lexicographers and I began to do some reading online about the developments in the English Language in the UK and around the world. Given that one of the topics that I have studied this year with my first years is language change, how it happens and why, I thought that it might be worth thinking about this topic further together and so I organised an optional class for my students on the topic. (Optional in whether they did the reading, attended the class, commented within the class; this is a sensitive subject and a difficult time for all of us, so I didn’t want to put any undue pressure on my students to engage with topics that they didn’t feel comfortable with).

I thought it would be worth sharing the materials that I used, in case others are thinking about teaching the same topic or for anyone else who is interested in learning more (and thanks to the lovely people on my various social media accounts who encouraged me to share these materials).


You can read the OED’s statement about the April 2020 update here. The full list of words added is available here. This includes new word entries (Covid-19, infodemic, RO, self-isolation), new sub entries (to flatten the curve), updated sub-entries (PPE, social recession ), and additions to unrevised entries (elbow bumpWFH).

Executive editor of the OED Bernadette Paton has written a fascinating article about the new entries here: ‘Social change and linguistic change: the language of Covid-19‘ (This article also discusses the vocabulary of other diseases, such as misleadingly named Spanish flu)

There is also this post on language change in World Englishes: ‘Circuit breakers, PPEs, and Veronica Buckets: World Englishes and Covid-19‘ (I was very interested in the variations, such as the use of shelter-in-place in the US and the concept of circuit-breakers in Singapore)

Finally, the OED linguists have done a corpus analysis of the language of the pandemic, which means that they have tracked the trends in language use by analysing billions of words of web-based news content. Naturally there has been a huge increase in the use of the terms coronavirus and Covid-19 but it was interesting to see that the trend in January/February was towards words which named and described the virus, and in March towards the social impact and medical response to the pandemic. You can read the article here.

The Conversation

One of the new terms in the OED is infodemic, a term which was coined during the SARS outbreak in 2003. It’s a portmanteau word, made up of information and epidemic, and is defined as follows in the OED:

A proliferation of diverse, often unsubstantiated information relating to a crisis, controversy, or event, which disseminates rapidly and uncontrollably through news, online, and social media, and is regarded as intensifying public speculation or anxiety.

This wasn’t a word that I’d come across myself over the last few weeks but it certainly gave a name to something that I had experienced! So when looking for additional reading for my students, I started with The Conversation, a website where the articles are written by academics and researchers. I chose two pieces for us to read and discuss:

Simon Horobin’s article ‘Stay alert, infodemic, Black Death: The fascinating origins of pandemic terms‘ (Simon Horobin is a medievalist and linguist here in Oxford, and I was especially interested to read about the medieval context here).

One of the things that I have personally found very uncomfortable is the ways in which the language of war has been used to describe the fight against the virus. I found Alexandre Christoyannopoulos’ article explained those feelings and the implications of that language: ‘Stop calling coronavirus pandemic a war‘ (This also lead me to an article in the New Yorker on what’s at stake in the coronavirus’s name, here, which had some interesting material on the World Health Organisation’s best practice guidance for naming a virus).

Further thoughts

Happily my teaching today coincided with the publication of my colleague Jenni Nuttall’s new article on Gibberish, available here, so if you’d like more linguistic and etymological goodness, give it a read: On Gibberish

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And this week the OED launched it’s new antedatings project so if you fancy a bit of linguistic detective work, pop over to their website and find out more here!

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If you’ve read anything interesting about the language of coronavirus, please do drop me a line here or on twitter!

I’d like to just end with a line of Old English poetry that one of my students mentioned in the class this afternoon. It’s the refrain of the poem Deor:

þæs ofereode,      þisses swa mæg

It is usually translated: that passed away, and so may this. Which is a comforting thought in these difficult times.

Thank you for reading and I hope you are all keeping safe and well. And a huge thank you to my students at Univ for their excellent work so far this term, their patience with the new challenges we’re facing, and as ever, their enthusiasm and good cheer. The Current Situation would be much more difficult without them!

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Du Maurier’s The Scapegoat: Film and Event Review

On Sunday 2nd FImage result for scapegoat film 1959 posterebruary the Society for Analytical Psychology organised a special screening of the 1959 adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s psychological novel The Scapegoat (1957) at the Everyman Cinema in Hampstead. After the film, there was a panel discussion which explored the novel from a psychological perspective, lead by Daphne du Maurier’s grandson, the Jungian analyst Rupert Tower.

I reviewed the event for the Daphne du Maurier website and also shared some of my own research on the adaptation. Please follow this link to read my article: here.

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Tomato Timers, Research Days, and Coffee with your Project: How to balance Teaching and Research

This post is part of my advice series for ECRs and grads, check out the full list of topics here.


Image source here.

Last week I had a meeting with a colleague and we were talking about how to keep your research going during term time. Often this just isn’t possible, especially for academics with heavy teaching schedules (in particular, precarious academics, who often have to factor in a lot of travel in addition to teaching, preparation, and marking), and this is not to mention family and caring responsibilities, health and disabilities, socialising, and so on. Here in Oxford we have short but incredibly intensive terms, where it feels like it’s all systems go from the moment 0thweek begins!! But I have often found the transitions between term and ‘vacation’ quite challenging. Firstly, you’re exhausted from term, but secondly, you have to ‘gear up’ again and ‘get back into’ your research, if you haven’t had chance to do any during the term. This can feel disorientating and it used to leave me feeling inadequate because not only had I not done anything during the term, I now had to spend the beginning of the vacation figuring out what I was supposed to be doing!

It’s taken me a long time to be able to juggle research with teaching, and I don’t always do it well- or indeed manage it all of the time! But about four years ago I realised that I really needed to keep the research going at the same time as teaching– in part for my confidence (it reminds me that I’m a researcher and writer as well as a teacher) and in part because if I’m doing my own intellectual work, I think it makes me a better teacher because I’m using my brain and actively engaging with many of the issues that my students are grappling with– how to improve my writing, how to find the right angle on a text, how to interrogate secondary criticism… I’ve gradually learned that I thrive when I have multiple projects on the go and that I can derive a lot of intellectual energy from switching between different topics, but equally that I need to make sure that I block in time to relax and unwind too.

This blogpost certainly isn’t meant to guilt-trip anyone in thinking that they need to be working harder or that they should be sacrificing downtime for research time. Nor is it exactly about ‘smarter working’ (that sounds like business-speak!). But for me, I have found that if I do keep my hand in, even in a small way, with my research and personal writing, that it makes me feel more secure and in control during term (see my post on imposter syndrome here, if your struggle to carve out time to research might be tied up with those issues) and that I get into the swing of things during the vacations much more quickly. I also thought it might be a useful discussion for those of us, like me, who are not entitled to regular research leave. It’s no good ‘waiting’ til you have the perfect clear schedule and free time ahead of you, as for most of us, that just ain’t gonna happen!

So here are some suggestions of things that have worked from me, plus lots of great ideas crowdsourced from twitter. Please do tweet me or comment below if you have other ideas!

When I was chatting to my colleague, I mentioned a fantastic blog by the brilliant Raul Pacheco-Vega (if you’re not already following him on twitter, you should be!). He has a great page on Organization and Time Management on his blog which includes lots of great suggestions, including the ‘Accomplish 2 Things Before Anything Else Happens’ approach, how to balance the TOTOs (Text that I Owe to Others) and TOMs (Text that I Owe to Myself), and the amazing MEPFED and WOPED techniques. Moving Every Project Forward Every Day (MEPFED) was so helpful to me a couple of years ago when I had a term where there were a large number of significant deadlines towards the end of the term. All of the tasks needed extending thinking time and it wasn’t going to work to do an intensive week on each one- I need to keep all the balls in the air at once! At first I found this terrifying (I used to be a ‘one thing at a time’ worker!) but in the end, I realised that I was able to switch between the projects more easily as they were all percolating away in the back of my mind. The other acronym is Work on One Project Every Day and it’s well worth checking out Raul Pacheco-Vega’s post to find out more about both of these techniques.

Image result for notebook imageOne way that I keep research going in term time when I don’t have a lot of ‘brain space’ is to do small things that are not directly writing-related. Eg, printing out articles, researching on bibliographies, acquiring the relevant primary texts, so that when I do have a spare hour, rather than wondering what to do or where to do it, I have something to hand immediately. I also keep a running notebook of all my projects where I list the ‘next thing’ that needs doing. Again, that takes the ‘thinking’ out of the research and makes it less overwhelming. The ‘next thing’ might be to read a journal article or to sketch out a plan for a section or just to write a paragraph on something.

Something else that I do is to block out some time and made a real commitment to myself that I am going to make headway on a certain larger task- whether that’s writing, thinking, making decisions about a project, and so on. I’ll often tell people (and twitter!) what I’m doing so that I have accountability, and it means that I’ve made a commitment to myself to do it. Sometimes this might be a task that I’ve been worried about or have been avoiding. Having a space of time marked out stops me worrying about it on other days (‘I’ll do that thing on Friday’!) and often when I get down to it, it wasn’t as bad as I thought!

Image result for coffeeOn twitter I’ve seen the great suggestion of ‘taking your research out to lunch’ or for a coffee. I love this idea. You can take yourself off to your favourite café with a notebook and in a no-pressure environment, jot down some ideas, do some thinking, and it can be really generative. I often do free writing in a notebook and just write to myself about my work- how’s it going? What’s interesting me about it? Where do I need to go next? What’s missing in my research? Why am I excited about it? This is a great way to get your enthusiasm back if you’re flagging a bit during term.

Here are some of the great suggestions from twitter…

Liz Gloyn (@lizgloyn) tweeted: ‘block out a research day and observe it. Put it in your email signature and on your office door. Ignore email. Yes, an emergency deadline might mean you lose a morning or afternoon, but if you have the habit, you’ll get something done each week.’ I really like the idea of putting it in your email signature or on your office door- it shows your commitment to research very clearly.

Jennifer Brown (@jennifernbrown) tweeted that she tries to ‘write or read a bit every day that is researched related, even if it’s just a few notes in an article. I try to protect a research day once a week. I aspirationally submit to conferences with things I would like to write about so I have deadlines’. I definitely agree with the point about conferences. I’ve found that to be a great way of generating articles and new research ideas over the last couple of years. And just making a few notes on an article always gets me thinking (and can be better than the ‘blank page’ of Microsoft word, when you’re starting a research morning!)

Image result for two tomatoesI was talking about the Pomodoro technique or the tomato timer with my colleague, where you work for 25 minutes intensely (no phone/email/social media distractions). I also recommend this technique to my students when they need to break down a big project into small steps or if they are struggling to get started. 25 minutes is a tiny amount of time- but you can get a huge amount done if you really concentrate! Lena van Beek (@thiliel) tweeted the suggestion that you have ‘two tomatoes each morning to yourself’ and I really like this idea- it’s sustainable, won’t take over your day, but it will mean that you get a little bit of research ‘me time’!

On twitter we talked about blocking out a research day by clustering teaching, although this of course isn’t feasible for all timetables. Charlotte Cooper (@ciditcharlotte) also made the point that such days can easily be ‘engulfed in admin’ and I’ve definitely found this too (that email that you can’t put off any longer, etc!). So Charlotte tweeted that she is currently trying to do 200 words a day which has been ‘working surprisingly well’ and is a ‘very satisfying way to get to 1000 words a week.’ This sounds like magic to me and I think I’ll be giving it a go!

@alkenney made a great suggestion about going somewhere different to work on research and having a routine to do this- ‘coffee shop, headphones etc, are all part of the ritual to get me in the headspace’. She also said that she reads at night before bed, which is a way of minimising screen time. I’ve found this technique useful recently when I’ve been struggling to get to sleep at night because of particular anxieties, so reading a research article means that my mind is full of Chaucer before I turn the light out, rather than other things!! Sometimes I do need to switch off with a good crime novel though (and on the subject of which, read Elly Griffiths’ Dr Ruth Galloway series if you’re looking for a good book!). All of these suggestions need to ‘work for you.’

In terms of timing, Magdalena Ohrman (@MagdalenaOhrman) made a great comment: ‘tailor the time you block out to how you actually work best when doing research- spurts or steady stream. I work in spurts and have done so much better since blocking two days every other week rather than aiming for the traditional day.’ This is a fantastic idea and I’ve never really thought about organising my time in this way before. Having a heavy teaching week but then blocking out, say, one and a half days the following week would really work for me I think! I definitely try to keep mornings for writing where I can (I’m definitely a morning person!) but that doesn’t always work of course.

Natasha Simonova (@philistella) and I were talking about the intensity of the short terms in Oxford and that it’s important to forgive yourself if the research doesn’t happen, with all the tutorials, essay-marking, pastoral care, etc that goes on. Natasha commented that she tries to keep ‘smaller and more admin-y tasks ticking along so they don’t clutter the vacation, but proper reading and writing takes time.’ I completely agree with this and I often don’t have the brain space to do ‘big’ thinking during term, but what I can do is things like editing, making bibliographies, reading articles, printing out articles and making reading lists for when I do get chance to go to the Bod, doing a small amount of close reading…etc. Every little helps and it all counts! As Kylie Murray tweeted, even five minutes helps!

Kaitlin Walsh (@theotherkait) made a suggestion about incorporating research into your teaching. There is certainly the potential for that in the Oxford system, for example, having a week when I might teach my own research (I have a Margery Kempe and Julian of Norwich week in Michaelmas Term and I always use that opportunity to update my reading lists and make sure I’m up to date in the field) but it can also work in other less directly-related ways too. More recently, I’ve been thinking about my own written style (in part because my current project requires a different kind of writing and a different kind of voice) and this term, in conjunction with my colleagues and our artist in residence at Univ, Melissa Murray, we have been playing around with ‘creative’ responses to texts, or the ‘non-essay’ essay (more on this in another post, and some evaluation on how it has worked). I always find that talking about ideas with my students really helps and they are usually really happy to be ‘guinea pigs’ for a new theory or teaching model! Talking with them about methodologies and ways of learning is also really helpful too- I tend to find that it helps them to be more reflective on the ways in which they are learning and that this empowers them in their working practices, as well as being incredibly stimulating for me.

Thanks for reading and as ever for all the great twitter discussion. Let me know if you have any comments or suggestions! Recently, the writer Joanne Harris tweeted ‘every word you write is an act of courage’ and this resonated with me. So keep being courageous and keep being kind, folks, to each other and to yourselves.

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Academic Blogging: Top Tips and Advice

Blogging photo

In November I gave a talk on Academic Blogging as part of the English Faculty’s ‘Get Your Writing Out There’ series of talks for graduate students. (Thanks to Eleanor Baker for inviting me!). Naturally it made sense to write this up for my blog, so here are my reflections on the ways in which my own blog has evolved since I started it in 2015 and some top tips and advice if you are thinking about starting a blog as a graduate student.

One thing I would preface my remarks with, however, is that you shouldn’t feel obliged to start a blog. Graduate students are under so much pressure these days (far more than when I was a grad student a dozen years ago!) that blogging and social media can feel like one more thing to add to the ‘to do’ list, and I don’t think you should blog if you don’t want to! If you do decide to set up a blog, however, make it work for you. Think about why you want to blog and how it might benefit you, and then blog accordingly! As ever, if you have any questions or comments on the suggestions below, please comment or tweet me.

Me and My Blog

So I began my blog when I was in a bit of a slump with my research. I was struggling to finish my monograph and I needed to reinvigorate my passion for my work, and I wondered if writing in a more informal, less pressurised arena might help. And it did! My first post was a short 500 word piece about a medieval proverb that I had come across about the church. I was intrigued by the implications of this proverb and I wanted to use it in my monograph and so I wrote a post about it.

My second post was timed to coincide with National Poetry Day (which happens in October in the UK). The theme was ‘light’ and a friend of mine told me that she was going to write a blogpost for it so I decided to write a post about imagery of light associated with the Virgin Mary in late medieval religious poetry. This poetry wasn’t directly part of my research, I had come across it during my teaching, so I wrote a 1000 word post that also included some images from stained glass and manuscripts (I always think images add interest and texture to a blogpost, and they are important to me as I do interdisciplinary work). I then shared this post on twitter with the hashtag for National Poetry Day and it seemed to appeal to a general audience (I made sure that I included translations of the Middle English texts, more on this below).

My next post was topical. I had seen a tv show called Midwinter of the Spirit which was set at Hereford cathedral and involved exorcism, and the priest at the centre of the story described the sanctity of the cathedral in a way that directly related to my research. So I wrote a blogpost which connected the show’s representation of sacred space with the medieval sources I was working on.

So my first posts were related more or less tangentially to my research or to my teaching, and I took the opportunity to blog about topical issues or on relevant ‘anniversaries’ or ‘days’. I also took inspiration from fellow medieval bloggers, including Eleanor Parker, better known as ‘The Clerk of Oxford’, and Jenni Nuttall, ‘Stylisticienne.’ Eleanor writes beautiful posts about medieval religious culture and she always includes translations, which enables her posts to be accessible to all, which I think is so important. Similarly, Jenni includes translations and highlights important points in bold or a different coloured font. (I think it’s important to consider how your blog will look to its reader, does it look enticing and how can you foreground the key takeaway points?) Jenni’s blog also contains brilliant resources for teaching Middle English poetry, that have arisen out of her current book project on medieval poetics and from her work on Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde, for example her Poetics Primer. I’ve learned a lot from both Jenni and Eleanor’s writing about how to make medieval texts and ideas accessible to a non-specialist reader. One of the benefits of blogging for me is that going ‘back to basics’ really forces me to clarify my ideas and it can be very helpful to think again about familiar texts and to consider the aspects that we might take for granted.

Opportunities for Blogging

So once I had started my blog, how did I keep it going? Firstly, I kept my eyes peeled for opportunities to blog. In my field, we have a couple of yearly hashtags that I decided to blog for. One is #WhanThatAprilleDay which was set up by @LeVostreGC as a day for the celebration of Middle English poetry. For my first post, I decided to write about a Middle English lyric on the pieta which I had come across in the course of writing an article on Margery Kempe and the pieta, but I hadn’t been able to use in that piece. I focused on the emotion generated by the pieta (pity or compassion) and because I’m a big Tolkien fan, I also wrote about the importance of pity inThe Lord of the Rings(when Gandalf explains that Bilbo’s pity for Gollum, in not killing him, may yet have a role to play in the plot). One of the things I enjoy about blogging is the freedom to write about what interests me and to explore cross-period connections. (And in fact, two years later this work came in handy as I ended up writing an article on the medieval idea of pity in the Harry Potter series, which will be published next year in the journal Studies in Medievalism! I don’t think I’d have written this article if the seed hadn’t been planted by my blogpost).

Another annual day in the medieval twitter calendar is Hoccleve Recovery Day, which happens in November, and aims to bring Hoccleve’s poetry to a wider audience. This year both Jenni Nuttall and I produced new translations of Hoccleve’s poetry (Jenni’s Complaint and my Complaint Paramont). I’ve taught Hoccleve for a number of years now and in 2018 I talked about his Complaint Paramont on a roundtable at the Gender and Medieval Studies conference, focused on teaching medieval gender in the modern classroom. After the conference, I wrote up my contribution as a blogpost because this was material that, at the time, I didn’t have a home for elsewhere and I thought it would be a good opportunity to reflect on the discussions at the conference and share them with the medieval community on twitter. Since then, I have begun to make some very loose notes for an article on feminism and the Virgin Mary in Hoccleve’s Complaint, and the blogpost I wrote for my translation started the work of thinking these ideas through. Blogposts are great for exploring a work-in-progress, especially something adjacent to your main research area, which might provide helpful material for a conference paper or an article at a later date.

You will know for your own field what opportunities might be available for blogging, such as topical issues (in the news; exhibitions or new publications; anniversaries of births/deaths/battles etc; important conferences). I’ve found it useful to practice writing a quick post on a topical item because more recently I have written short pieces in response to literary events in the news, and I was glad I had done that before! Often we agonise over academic writing, so it can be liberating, and scary-but-empowering, to write a quick response to an issue of public interest.

Now at this point, rather like a Pokemon, my blog evolved!!


I started to use my blog to think about processes and practices. Having become a regular user of twitter and coming across examples of colleagues teaching with twitter, I did my own experiment with my second years on Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde and I wrote up the experience. This generated some great discussions on twitter, about using social media and modern technology in teaching, and so I started to blog about my teaching practice (including: preparing students for dissertations, and teaching race and Middle English literature).

I also began to blog about more personal topics, beginning with a very long and cathartic post about finally completing my monograph!! I was a bit nervous about this post but the feedback I received was really lovely and also, importantly, revealed that many fellow ECRs had found the process similarly challenging and that there were a lot of unanswered questions out there about the various stages of turning the thesis into a book (from writing book proposals and choosing a publisher to indexing and the more technical aspects of the process). Since then, I’ve blogged on lots of topics that I find cause a lot of worry and stress for grad students and ECRs (article rejections, imposter syndrome, to name but two), and I hope that sharing my experiences has helped. (All of my resources are linked here and please let me know if there are other topics that you’d like me to blog about! I’d also like to give a shoutout to the brilliant Rachel Moss here, whose posts on her blog have given me the courage to talk openly about issues that mean a lot to me)

These kinds of posts are targeted at an audience within the academy, so they have a different target audience for my research-based posts. I recognise that I am writing them from a position of considerable privilege (but that is one of the reasons I write them, it is a way of giving back and because when I first began my career, I struggled a lot and didn’t always feel able to talk to my peers about the things that were worrying me). Recently, the brilliant Daniel Sawyer wrote a guest post on Approaching Palaeography for new graduate students and it might be that you have an idea for a ‘how to’ post or an ‘advice’ post from your own experiences. I’ve also written a post on how to organise a conference– I organised one and learned a lot from it so thought I would share a post with the kind of information that I wished I’d had access to myself!

Why do I blog and why is it useful?

Firstly because I find it enjoyable! And secondly, and importantly, because the freedom of the form is liberating and it gets me writing.

It enables me to explore ideas that are interesting to me but are, at the moment, only tangentially related to my primary research interests (although more recently, exploring ideas in blogposts has given me ideas for future academic articles, so you never know when something might turn out to be useful!)

I’ve found blogging useful for me, for my students, and hopefully for the wider graduate and ECR community. I’ve used my research posts on religious culture in my teaching (and I’ve used other people’s blogposts as discussion points in teaching too, such as Rachel Moss’s brilliant post on Chaucer and rape). This summer I blogged about imposter syndrome, negative thinking, and anxiety and that was, in some ways, self-interested! I am always on the look out for ideas for things to blog about that might be useful to the academic community, so do let me know if there’s a topic that you’d like me to consider.

I’m also someone who thinks by writing. Those of you who know me will know that I’m quite organised and I love planning, but I also know that at a certain point, I have to start writing in order to really figure out what I want to say. The process of writing about a primary text that I may have read a dozen times always reveals something new as I try to articulate a point. So I write and I blog in order to think!

Writing for a more general audience has also been enormously helpful in enabling me to find a suitable voice for public engagement (which is especially important for my Du Maurier work and the book that I am currently writing!).

So, finally…

Tops Tips and Practical Advice

  • If you decide to blog, make it work for you! Think about why you want to do it and how it will help you with your current and future work, and make sure that there is a balance with all of your other commitments.
  • Keep it short to begin with! A 500 word post on one idea is a great place to start. Remember a blogpost is not an academic article!
  • Identify material that would make a good blogpost (and think about what material you need to ‘save’ for the thesis / other publication opportunities; you can discuss with a colleague or your supervisor if you are unsure whether to blog about something or not)
  • Keep your eyes peeled for opportunities to blog (hashtags, anniversaries etc).
  • Think about the ‘hook’: what question or idea will make someone want to read your post? (Thanks to Jenni Nuttall for this tip!)
  • Think about clarity: what are the key ideas that you will need to explain here for a non-specialist audience?
  • You can write about ‘process’ as well as ‘results’. A ‘how to’ or ‘how it worked / didn’t work for me’ post can be useful too.
  • Make it engaging and interesting! Blogging can help you share your passion for your research!
  • Promote your post via twitter and on the hashtags for your community

Thank you for reading, and if you have any comments or suggestions, please comment below or tweet me. And follow this link to see the full range of my posts for grad students and ECRs.

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Hoccleve Recovery Day: Translation of The Complaint Paramount

Image result for rogier van der weyden the deposition

The Virgin Mary from Rogier van der Weyden’s Deposition

‘Poetry is the way we help give name to the nameless so it can be thought. The farthest horizons of our hopes and fears are cobbled by our poems, carved from the rock experiences of our daily lives. As they become known to and accepted by us, our feelings and the honest exploration of them become sanctuaries and spawning grounds for the most radical and daring of ideas. They become a safe-house for that difference so necessary to change and the conceptualization of any meaningful action… Poetry is not only dream and vision; it is the skeleton architecture of our lives.’

Audre Lorde, Poetry is not a Luxury


‘Marie? Nay, but ‘marred’ I thee call. / So may I wel, for thow art, wel I woot, / Vessel of care and wo and sorwes alle.’

The Virgin Mary in Thomas Hoccleve’s Complaint Paramount (218-20)

November 1st is the fifth annual ‘Hoccleve Recovery Day’, sponsored by the International Hoccleve Society, which marks the anniversary of the medieval poet Thomas Hoccleve’s recovery after a period of mental illness (c.1415). On this day ‘we celebrate both Thomas Hoccleve’s work and his recovery, reflecting on how our own work seeks to recover Middle English poetry and evidence of late medieval life, and on the personal and public importance of that work.’

This year I wanted to share my translation of Thomas Hoccleve’s ‘Conpleynte paramont’ or the ‘superlative complaint’, in which the Virgin Mary speaks from the foot of the cross as she looks up at her son being crucified. The translation itself was an act of recovery for me because having told a dear friend of mine about this extraordinary poem, she was keen to read it and so, using Roger Ellis’s edition and notes, I produced a translation which aims to be readable and accurate, and that gives sufficient context in the footnotes (including biblical references) to be appreciated by modern readers (and indeed student readers, who I hope will find the translation helpful for a first encounter with the poem!).

LVarnam Hoccleve Translation Complaint Paramount [click to download as a PDF]

I have been teaching this poem for a number of years now and I am often struck by student responses to it. On one occasion, a student remarked ‘I have never felt Mary more’ and this got me thinking about the poem’s brilliance in making us powerfully present in Mary’s deeply painful narrative moment at the foot of the cross, witnessing her son’s agonising death, and attempting to come to terms with what that means: for her identity as a human mother, in the there-and-now, and for her nascent identity as the Mother of God, in the here-and-now. I explored these ideas in a blogpost that followed the 2018 Gender and Medieval Studies conference (here: Teaching Medieval Gender in the Modern Classroom).

In the poem, Mary puns on her own name, declaring ‘wel may men clepe and calle me Mara… syn ‘I’, which is Ihesus, is fro me fall’ (183-86). In losing her son Ihesus she loses her self, her ‘I’, and she becomes marred, or damaged.

‘Marie? Nay, but ‘marred’ I thee call.

So may I wel, for thow art, wel I woot,

Vessel of care and wo and sorwes alle.’ (218-20)

Mary becomes a vessel of ‘sorwes alle’, her own sorrows and, within medieval iconography as the weeping mother holding the body of her son in the pieta, the vessel of our sorrows as she teaches us how to feel and how to grieve. (I have written about encounters with the pieta as an opportunity for the performance of devotional identity in relation to Margery Kempe in this article).

More recently I have begun to think about the Complaint’s use of space (from spatial metaphors to the space below the cross from which Mary speaks) and the poem as space: a space for the expression and location of difficult feelings, in particular anger and defiance, which we are less accustomed to associating with the Virgin and which might offer women in particular a ‘sanctuary’ or ‘safe-house’, to quote Audre Lorde’s terms, ‘for the most radical and daring of ideas.’ Although by the end of the poem Mary has made the transition to the Mother of God- she is no longer calling for the reader to avert their eyes from the spectacle of her wounded son- what remains with me, and often with my students, is the powerful voice of the angry Virgin, who at the beginning of the poem berates the Holy Spirit and the angel Gabriel for not warning her about what was to come. For not warning her that to become the handmaid of the Lord also meant relinquishing her son to his death.

The pain that she feels at this betrayal and the sight of her son’s torment is severe and violent:

‘My matirdom me hath at the outrance.

I needs sterue moot syn I thee see

Shamely nakid, strecchid on a tree.’ (82-4)

Ellis’s edition glosses ‘outrance’ as ‘extremity’ and in the Middle English Dictionary it means ‘the greatest degree’ and is associated with destruction and in particular violent struggles in battle. (In Malory’s Morte D’Arthur for example, the knights do ‘batayle to the utteraunce’). In Hoccleve’s poem, the MED suggests that to be ‘at the outrance’ is to be ‘in the utmost extremity, in dire straits’ and in my translation I have used the phrase ‘dire straits’ because of its spatial connotations. The OED defines ‘strait’ in its physical senses as something ‘tight, narrow’ and notes that it can mean ‘scanty or inadequate in spatial capacity; affording little room; narrow’. This sense of constriction captures Mary’s feeling of confinement and oppression as her son is crucified and her identity is remodelled, seemingly without her consent.

In a brilliant article on the poem, Jennifer Bryan comments that ‘the Virgin is made to represent the private relationships that must be sacrificed for the sake of public duty, the personal history that must be written over by masculine narrative or destiny’ (p.1175). Describing the transformation in the final three stanzas of the poem, Bryan comments that Mary’s ‘voice becomes exhortative and exemplary in the service of the public spectacle of the Passion. Like the complaining heroine of secular poetry, realizing she is losing her personal experience to public memory and moralization, the Virgin takes her place at last in the dominant narrative of futurity’ (p.1178). Despite this ultimate capitulation to her fate, however, the powerful emotional space that the poem creates for the female voice is not, in my view, negated. We are brought so fully and empathetically into Mary’s present moment as we read her complaint that the poem becomes a refuge, a sanctuary, against that futurity, and a space that can harbour a resistance to the power structures that attempt to subjugate individual, particularly female, identities.

I still have a lot more thinking to do about this fascinating poem but for now I hope that my translation will help to recover the poem for a wider audience. (And if anyone has any feedback on the translation or thoughts about the ideas above, please do comment below or tweet me @lauravarnam).


Thomas Hoccleve, My Compleinte and Other Poems, ed. Roger Ellis (University of Exeter Press, 2001)

Jennifer E. Bryan, ‘Hoccleve, the Virgin, and the Politics of Complaint’, PMLA, 117 (2002), 1172-1187

Laura Varnam, ‘The Crucifix, the Pietà, and the Female Mystic: Devotional Objects and Performative Identity in The Book of Margery Kempe’, The Journal of Medieval Religious Cultures, 41.2 (2015), 208-37

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Backlisted podcast: Daphne du Maurier’s The Breaking Point


I was thrilled to be invited to take part in the popular literary podcast Backlisted, hosted by Andy Miller and John Mitchinson and with special guest Andrew Male. The Halloween episode focused on Daphne du Maurier’s brilliantly unsettling 1959 short story collection The Breaking Point and it was wonderful to take part in the discussion. You can listen to the episode online and download it here: Backlisted on Du Maurier.


As well as discussing Du Maurier’s life, work, and literary reputation (with some wonderful audio clips from her appearance on Desert Island Discs, amongst other things), we focused on particular stories in this unusual Du Maurier collection: I championed ‘The Blue Lenses’; Andrew gave a wonderful reading of ‘The Alibi’; John explored the atmosphere of ‘The Pool’; and Andy analysed the humour of ‘The Menace’. And with it being Halloween, we couldn’t resist discussing Du Maurier’s terrifying short story ‘Don’t Look Now’ from her 1971 collection Not After Midnight (you can find out more about that story and the Nicolas Roeg’s film adaptation in my article on the Du Maurier website here).

Huge thank you to Backlisted for having me and I hope Du Maurier fans will enjoy the discussion!

(Some of my editions of The Breaking Point, reissued as The Blue Lenses and other stories by Penguin)

BP images

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Top Tips for Approaching Palaeography (guest post from Daniel Sawyer)

I am delighted to be hosting this guest post on Approaching Palaeography from my colleague Daniel Sawyer, the Fitzjames Research Fellow in Medieval English Literature at Merton College, Oxford.

Daniel SawyerDaniel has taught palaeography and codicology on Oxford’s MSt in English 650-1550, and as part of the English Faculty’s ‘Material Text’ paper for undergraduates. His book, Reading English Verse in Manuscript, c1350-c1500, will be published by Oxford University Press in 2020, and will offer the first book-length history of reading for later Middle English poetry. You can find Daniel on twitter here and on his website here. Many thanks indeed to Daniel for this incredibly helpful post!

Top Tips for Approaching Palaeography, from Daniel Sawyer

It’s the time of year when new graduate students will be starting palaeography classes. This prompts tweets asking for recommended resources, but it also creates a broader, less articulated need for advice on how to think about palaeographical training. I wrote some tweets on this topic and, since they seemed to get a positive response, with Laura’s kind encouragement, I’ve assembled this fuller blog post from them.

I’m not primarily writing to suggest resources for the study of handwritten objects from any particular place or time, though I’ll append some suggestions I received on Twitter below. Rather, this post is about surviving and flourishing as a palaeographer, and it should—judging from responses online—be of some use to students working on quite a range of things.

1. Grit

Palaeography can seem extremely hard, even impossible, at first. Don’t be put off! If you’re studying as part of an organised programme, on a master’s or a doctoral course, remind yourself that previous cohorts have successfully started with incomprehension and then left as old hands at reading old hands.

It might also help to remind yourself that if palaeography seems hard, that’s because you’re learning to read a second time. Script is a remarkably complex, cognitively demanding technology, not something we’re born comprehending, and the chances are that you found learning to read pretty tough the first time round too. I suspect I did, though I can’t remember!

Learning the literacy of another time and place can be a frustrating task, especially if you’re a new graduate student and you’re setting out on new, more clearly intellectual, adventures in other parts of your study. But palaeographical work has its own intellectual implications, and though they’re sometimes quieter and slower they can also be incredibly far-reaching. In the meantime, transcription offers satisfactions and puzzle-solving opportunities which can be a welcome relief in a context of demanding academic writing.

Everyone can read something, and can learn to read more; almost no one can read everything. Moreover, some handwriting just is hard: small, rapid, idiosyncratic, faded—even senior scholars disagree over how to read some things, or throw their hands in the air in bafflement. I still occasionally experience handwriting shock: an initial minute or two when I look at an unfamiliar hand, perhaps in a script I’ve not seen recently, and am briefly convinced that I’ve forgotten how to read. This is normal, and in time you’ll get used to pushing through it.

It’s also important to remember that many questions in palaeography lack agreed answers. Which questions those are will vary somewhat depending on what your specialisation is but, to use an example from my own area, the dating of hands by palaeographical evidence alone in my field can only ever be approximate, and there’re plenty of manuscripts in which we have little else to use. Some matters can be determined one way or another, and those you will grasp in time; others feel intractable because, well, they are.

2. Study

As with most other skills, learning palaeography is a series of small, concrete, achievable tasks. Don’t focus on the big, intangible question of how you might train yourself to read everything written in your period of interest. Focus instead on the small, tangible problems—how do I distinguish these two forms? should I make flashcards for these chronologically diagnostic features?—and progress through solving those.

Practising a little and often, ideally every working day, goes a long way. If you’re on a course of some kind, your peers can be a great help: try practising with each other. Sharing the points that you each find hard might be reassuring, too!

Language study can really boost you. Knowledge of whatever past language(s) you’re working on can lead you make inspired guesses, and palaeography and language knowledge are often mutually reinforcing. But always check, re-check and re-re-check such guesses: fluent readers miss quirks!

In any transcription task, you’ll find that your eye ‘tunes in’ to the handwriting as you work. It’s therefore helpful, indeed vital, that once you’ve finished a first pass through the transcription you review all the earlier parts. Of course, any transcription for publication or assessed work needs to be checked carefully anyway, but even in practice transcriptions this re-examination is crucial.

Most of all, I recommend plunging straight in to looking at whatever you’re interested in, outside of any formal palaeographical classes you’re getting. That means not just working with handbooks and guides (though you should draw on those), but also working with any print or digital facsimiles you can find which reproduce material relevant to your other research interests. If you have the extraordinary luck to be studying for a time at an institution with substantial collections, don’t waste that time! Call up documents and/or manuscripts as soon as you can safely handle them, and work out what you can from them.

You might find that returning to some of the same things later in the course, and seeing how much more you can get from them, is a bit of a confidence-boost—or even the root of an important research finding which you go on to publish!

3. Purpose

I noted above that almost no one can read everything. Very few scholars are universal palaeographers, and most of us are best at the scripts and books closest in time, space and kind to whatever it is we work on most. There is a virtue in excellence for its own sake, and if you’re doing a course which includes an exam in transcription and dating, you’ll obviously want to be in good form for that. Nevertheless, as with languages, sometimes it’s about having as much as you need to get what you want done, and done well.

This observation leads me to my closing theme: if you’re a new graduate student you don’t need to know this yet, but you can begin thinking about what you want palaeography for.

It might be that, in truth, you’ll spend much of the rest of your research career working from modern print. That’s perfectly honourable and valuable! Every day, I use and benefit from scholarship on other topics written by people who rarely or never touch manuscripts. (And I dare to hope that my own work will in turn be useful to such scholars.) If your research life heads in this direction, your training will still be of use—it will let you know, for instance, when you should smell a rat in editions. You’ll be an informed reader.

It might be that you need to be able to comprehend, to transcribe, and to keep an eye out for obvious mis-datings—palaeography as literacy. Again, work of this sort can be really valuable, and it’s quite legitimate to feel that you want palaeography as a tool to help you pursue your central research passion by extracting information from an archive or transcribing a poem in order to edit it.

It might be that you’ll need a full, rounded grasp of the materiality of books and/or documents, because you’ll find yourself cataloguing, or drawing on an array of physical evidence to advance arguments critical, historical, linguistic, &c &c (insert your field here). In the long term, you’re probably going to need a very well-rounded grasp of codicology and palaeography, and you’re going to explore some of the intellectual implications of these fields that I mentioned above.

And it might be that your research will be truly interventionist palaeography, palaeography with an eye to palaeography: you will rewrite our understanding of how a script is dated, of how scribes worked, of how we might identify / distinguish hands &c. This can be a profoundly demanding path, but it can also be profoundly rewarding—and if you pursue it you might, one day, wind up being one of the few people who seem to the rest of us to be able to read everything…

As I said, no need to know what you’re going to do yet. Indeed, if you’re a new graduate student I encourage you not to close down any options too quickly. I think it does help, however, to remember that these options exist, and that we look at old handwriting for various reasons (all of them good ones!).


This post is about attitudes, not resources, since which resources can help you will vary wildly depending on what you work on. From the responses to my tweets, I suspect the advice above might help anyone learning to read pretty much anything, from a wide range of places and times.

Because of the nature of my academic networks, the specific resources suggested to me have tended to focus on premodern or early-modern Great Britain, and I don’t want to give the impression that the experience of ‘handwriting shock’, or the value of plunging in with whatever you care about, for example, are things limited to writing from one part of the world.

But I did get some suggested resources, which I list here in case they happen to be of use.

Elaine Treharne’s compendium of some online courses and resources – suggested by Elaine Treharne

Heather Wolfe’s notes on learning early modern secretary – suggested by Owen Williams

The German Script Course at the Moravian Archives, for German writing c.1600 to present – suggested by Liat Spiro

Scottish, a resource for Scottish writing c.1500 to c.1800 – suggested by Kevin Hall

Finally, my own advice on some things you might want to pack on trips to archives or special collections, whatever you’re going to look at!


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Top Tips for Starting a PhD

Thanks to everyone on twitter who contributed their top tips for starting a PhD in the humanities. I hope that the advice below will be helpful; please do tweet me or leave a comment below if you have additional thoughts or suggestions. As ever, this post is by no means exhaustive!

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Firstly and importantly: know that just as every person is different, every PhD is different! Just because your PhD doesn’t ‘look’ like someone else’s or you are not working in the same way or (seemingly) making the same amount of progress, it does not mean that you are ‘doing it wrong’! Try to avoid comparing yourself with others (for that way imposter syndrome lies! And on that subject, see this post).

As Daniel Sawyer tweeted, a PhD is a hoop to jump through. It’s not your magnum opus, as @InsularWorld and @abibleach put it, it just needs to pass the exam. Of course at many stages of a PhD it can feel like that ‘just’ is an impossible hurdle but try to be realistic in recognising what you need to do. Daniel also suggested looking through recent theses in your field in your department. I did this in my final year when I was looking for advice on writing the introduction to my thesis and it was really helpful. How had other people gone about it? As Daniel said, looking at completed theses shows that the task is possible and doable (but don’t freak yourself out, you have three years or more to get to that stage if you look at theses now!) It can also be useful, as @jordanmariecook commented, to look at other theses to see how they might be structured. The thesis can feel like an amorphous mass at the beginning, so looking at a range of completed examples can be very useful. (It will also reinforce that it isn’t a ‘one size fits all’ exercise as different structures will work for different projects).

It is absolutely normal to be uncertain at the start of a PhD– and indeed to be uncertain at other points too! If you knew exactly what you were doing, you’d have the PhD already! It’s a learning curve and you learn and progress by doing it, step by step. You don’t have to write the entire thesis today, you just need to keep moving forward by reading and thinking. As @theresasmets commented, it’s a marathon, not a sprint!

Cultivate a positive attitude. @Karl_Kinsella noted that it’s important to keep in mind what you enjoy most about the subject as there will always be days when it feels like a struggle and you may question why you’re doing a PhD! And don’t forget that not every single part of the work will be enjoyable, some of it just needs to be completed (-as in any job or task! But ‘find the fun’ as Mary Poppins would put it!!) It’s also important to be open minded about feedback and criticism. None of us get it right first time but by listening to the supportive feedback of our supervisor and peers, we can learn more and improve our work.

Try to set up a good routine for your working day and for the thesis itself. Experiment with working in different libraries, coffee shops, or at home. When I was a graduate, I didn’t mind working in my bedroom in college but it can be good to have a physical separation between your work space and your relaxation space, and I often used to find that my half hour walk to the library provided useful thinking time as well as good exercise.

It’s also a good idea to get to know what works best for you in terms of when you work. I work best in the mornings, so getting up and organised is important for me. When I was working on my thesis, I liked to socialise or watch tv in the evenings with friends but for some people (night owls!), taking time off in the afternoon is best before settling down to write in the evening. I also tend to write well between 5-7pm so more recently I have been working at home so that I’m not commuting during that time. For some of us, commuting is not optional so if you can work on the train, for example, get organised for that- have a folder of articles that you can dip into during this time (or use the time to read for pleasure! I’ve been reading a lot of non-fiction and fiction recently and it’s sparked off all sorts of ideas that I wasn’t expecting and, as my dear friend the novelist Diane Setterfield says, the best way to improve your writing is to read more!)

Related imageYou should maximise the time when you are most productive for writing or for tasks that you know will require a high degree of concentration. Inputting data, writing a bibliography, doing a database search etc- more mundane tasks that just need to ‘done’ can be accomplished when you feel like you need a bit of a rest. We can’t work at full capacity or be our most brilliant all of the time! I tend to have a post-lunch slump so that’s a good time for me to do those sorts of tasks. Jacob Fredrickson tweeted that it is worth taking time to figure out how you work and then planning around this.

Routines are also important on the macro scale. When I started my PhD, I had a really useful meeting with my supervisor where we decided how I would manage my time during the term and vacation. Our routine was that I would see her at the beginning of term to talk about my general ideas and what I was planning to work on next, and I would then go back in the middle of term having done some research and written up something informal like a chapter plan or an outline of ideas. We’d then discuss that work and I would write up the chapter, handing it in at the end of the following vacation, before meeting up for feedback and planning at the beginning of the next term. That set up worked for me, and for my supervisor, and importantly, for my project. I was working on a theme and I decided to discuss that theme in five texts and each text would form the basis of a chapter. Not everyone’s thesis is going to work in that way so it might be that you need to spend more time collating your primary material before you can divide it into chapters. But what I would say is that you should start writing as soon as possible anyway. Get used to articulating your ideas and engaging with the secondary reading that you’ve done, even if that writing doesn’t make it into the final thesis. Most of us do have to write something at the end of our first year to ‘transfer’ from probationary research to full researcher anyway. Writing early and often was also important for me (and still is!) because I often find that I don’t entirely know what my argument will be until I start putting it into precise words. Regular writing can also help you to avoid writer’s block and make it less scary to sit down and write. For some people, however, the bulk of the writing does happen towards the end of the project, as Laura Tisdall points out in her comment on this post below. So again, make sure that your practice works for you. And as Jacob Fredrickson tweeted, there will be days when you can’t write and that is absolutely normal. (And days when the writing feels like- in my favourite metaphors- wading through treacle / pulling teeth / getting blood out of a stone* delete as appropriate! Some days it just ain’t happening, so try again tomorrow!)

Related imageOn the subject of supervisors, I was so lucky that my supervisor was not only brilliant but also a brilliant fit for me- for my work and for my way of working. Do your research before you apply for a PhD programme and if you can, meet your potential supervisor or have a discussion with them by email or skype. If a supervisory relationship isn’t working out, then do talk to someone in your department about the possibility of switching. A couple of tweeps talked to me about making the switch and that they were glad that they had made that decision.

@TrevBroughton made the great suggestion that when you have a supervision, you should never leave without setting the next deadline, that way you avoid ‘drifting’. I also used to find it really useful not only to make notes during my supervisions but to go back through those notes reflectively after the meetings so that I could make myself a checklist of things to do and also get a sense of my progress. I would also often make a list of questions that I might want to ask during a supervision, so that I could bring those with me to the meeting.

When you’re working on your project, realise that it’s okay to change your mind! When I was writing my thesis, I had one chapter left to do and it was going to be on Julian of Norwich. Just as I was about to start it I thought, this doesn’t fit as well with the rest of my project as I had originally thought. It would have been fine to write on Julian (but just fine, y’know?), but I suddenly felt that there might be something better out there. So I told my supervisor I wanted to find something different to write on, I didn’t know what yet, but I wanted to take a couple of weeks to search for it!! My supervisor trusted my judgement and off I went to read through as many volumes of the Early English Text Society as I could- and lo and behold, I found some material that would work much better for my argument (and in the end, that material became the lynchpin of my monograph!) I’m glad I had the confidence in myself to do this even though it was scary at first! But by year three of the PhD, I felt that if I had a hunch, it was worth following it.

Sometimes it’s good to follow your nose! It can be easy to feel like you have to be super-focused in your reading all of the time but if something intrigues you, allow yourself to pursue it for an hour or so, you never know where it might lead! The chances are that when you are teaching you will need to broaden your knowledge anyway and as T.S. Wingard tweeted, it’s important not to skimp on reading survey books at the beginning of your project, so that you know how your research fits into the broader field. It’s a great idea to read recent handbooks on your topic to get a sense of where the field is now, for example.

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Be aware of the fact that there are different kinds of work at play when we do a thesis. There’s the leg work (which might be reading academic articles, visiting archives) and there’s the thinking work (and of course the two are deeply connected). Sometimes it can feel like you’re more ‘productive’ when you’re doing the leg work as it can be more easily quantified (‘I read six articles today’) but the thinking work is just as important (and can often happen, as Agatha Christie remarked, when you’re doing the dishes!) When I needed to do some thinking about my thesis, I used to go to a coffee shop with a notebook and just freewrite about my topic, noting down big ideas or questions that I had and how I might go about answering them. (I talk more about managing anxieties about our work in this post).

Liam Temple made the great suggestion of having a ‘book of ideas’ to carry round with you- get into the habit of writing down ideas as they occur to you, however big or small! This can be a great record of the thinking you’ve done in a week. It can also be helpful to have a research diary that you fill in on a weekly (or daily) basis- where am I at, at the end of this week? I often find that when I do that, I realise I’ve accomplished more than I thought I had or I might realise that there was something that was interrupting my work that work (-life happens! but also it could be that I was struggling with an idea and I now realise I need to spend more time working on it and I can adjust my schedule accordingly the following week). Being reflective on a regular basis in this way is very helpful for tracking the progress of your project. @thelawyercatrin tweeted that it can be very useful to keep a ‘research log’ which can also include reviews of articles too.

Learning to read is just as important as learning to write when you’re doing research! There are lots of different kinds of reading that you might need to do- in-depth critical reading of monographs that are fundamental to your field, for example (and I’ve written about that kind of reading here) but also scanning through articles or chapters in edited volumes to see if they will be relevant for your research. Not everything is going to be equally useful or need equal time for reading! But if you look at something that turns out not to be useful at the moment, still make a brief note of it anyway and what it focused on- you never know when you might need to go back to something! There was some discussion on twitter this week about reading materials that you can’t understand and how that might generate imposter syndrome (‘I must be stupid if I can’t understand this!’) It might be that you’re not ready to read that article yet but it also might be that that approach or kind of content is not relevant for you. Don’t beat yourself up, move on. If you think it’s a crucial piece of research, ask for advice from your supervisor or peers. I work with theory in my research but there’s definitely a kind of theory that is not for me, so I don’t spend a lot of time with it.

Something that I often find people tweeting about is reading an article or coming across another student who appears to be their PhDouble or doppelganger! You know, that feeling when you read the title of an article and your heart sinks and you think, oh god, someone else has written my thesis! Now naturally, there are articles on similar topics and themes- lots of people have written on Chaucer or Shakespeare for many years!- but this doesn’t mean that you haven’t got something to contribute. My undergraduate students often worry about ‘originality’ but I always say to them that their originality is firstly located in themselves, in how they think and how they write. Even if someone else has written about, say, authority in Chaucer before, they won’t have written about it in your way. If you do come across something that fits into your area, think of it as a challenge- how does my work differ from this article, how does my argument extend or problematise the conclusions of this article? I had this experience when I was trying to turn a chapter on my thesis into an article because in the meantime, an article had been published that drew a similar conclusion from my primary materials. So I thought, can I make a different argument instead? And in the end, that’s what I did and the research was much more interesting as a result. The field had moved on so I had to move with it!

Keep good bibliographic records and take good notes! By the time you’re a grad student you should be in the habit of this already but as well as keeping notes of things that aren’t useful now but could be later, one of the most helpful changes I made in my note-taking was to have a specific way of differentiating my ideas from the ideas in the book or article I was reading. You might think this is obvious but when you come back to your notes six months or a year down the line, you don’t want to have to read an article again and you don’t want to accidentally confuse your ideas with the ideas in the article. I (mainly) still take notes by hand so when I want to make a comment on something or ask a question or identify something as related to my work, I move onto the next line of my pad and do a wiggly arrow. This is my signal to myself that this is ‘me’ thinking. If you’re using a laptop you could do a marginal comment or switch the colour to red, etc. There’s lots of ways of doing this.

Get organised!! Organise your paperwork and your computer. I have a system for keeping PDFs of articles- I save them in a folder by name and topic (so, ‘Smith on Kempe, emotions’) as that is how I often remember an article (‘it’s the one by x on that general topic’). I also double-save sometimes so that if an article is really important, I also put it in the folder I am using for my current chapter / article. The same kind of thing goes for saving documents- we all know the meme about the document entitled ‘final, final, FINAL, with additional, FINAL revisions.doc’!! What I find helps is to save documents with the date, so ‘Kempe essay 28.9.19’ so that I can always identify the most recent one. (Laura Sangha recommended a tool called Zotero to help organise research materials; I haven’t used it myself but I will be investigating!) And hopefully it goes without saying here to make sure you have systems in place for saving your work- not just on the laptop but also on a USB stick / external hard drive / cloud- to save yourself from lots of stress if you have a computer problem. (I often email documents to myself as well, as an extra safeguard. And when I was finishing my monograph I sent it to my husband and parents as well!)

Find your people! Among your peers, among more senior grad students and postdocs, and be supportive of each other. To build a better academia we need more kindness and less competition, so cultivate those networks and connections that build you up. And of course they can be networks on twitter as well as in ‘real life’. (And in fact getting to know people on twitter has often helped to reduce my anxiety about attending conferences because I already ‘know’ a lot of other people who will be attending). Laura Sangha recommended getting involved in the life of your department: attend research seminars and events; organise reading groups or social events with your peers; get together to compare notes on how the PhD is going. Don’t isolate yourself!

Image result for ask for helpAsk for help! And don’t be afraid to do so. This is so crucial. We all need help and support, of different kinds at different stages and in different areas of our lives, so seek it out and make the most of it. If you have a disability or a mental health issue, find out what support is available from your department and university and use it. Lucy Allan has written a great post about having dyslexia as a graduate student. As @vjc_torianist tweeted, allow for flexibility, your personal life can have an impact on your work and things can not go to plan due to illness or other kinds of upset. If you can, talk to your supervisor honestly about where you are at.

There will be other kinds of help and learning opportunities available to you too, as Eleanor Baker tweeted. For example, sessions in the library on how to gain practical research skills; careers seminars in your department might focus on how to teach, how to prepare for your viva; and of course informal opportunities to talk to graduate students who are a few years ahead of you. (Ditto making the most of twitter as a hivemind of brilliant support and information!) It can be easy to feel that you are meant to know what you’re doing when you start a PhD- or even when you have the doctorate!- but we’re all learning and we all need guidance. So much of academic work is realising that there’s more we need to know and the more we do, the more questions we need to ask. See this as a positive!

@alkenney recommended sitting in on classes in order to pick up skills and this is a great idea. When I arrived in Oxford I sat in on an MA class on palaeography as this wasn’t covered in my own MA course. I’ve also been to undergraduate lectures by faculty whom I admire to pick up tips for lecturing and I was lucky enough to participate in a teaching and learning mentoring scheme where I shadowed an established tutor when I was learning to teach.

It’s important to do other things to build your CV during your PhD, particularly given the state of the job market (which couldn’t be more different than when I got my PhD 12 years ago). That might include teaching, giving a conference paper (see my posts on writing abstracts and giving papers), organising a conference (advice here), and even trying to publish an article. My advice on all of this would be that moderation is the key and be strategic about what you do. For example, you only need to teach a course once for you to have experience for your CV (although I recognise that you may need to do more teaching for financial support for your studies if you do not have access to funding). Going to conferences is important- to get your research out there, to meet people in your field and network- but it’s easy to get addicted to giving papers and then find you have no time left for the thesis!! I always reckon it takes me a minimum of a month of full time work to go to a conference- a week to write the abstract, two weeks to write the paper, a week to go to the conference and recover from it- but often longer! Have I got that time? And if I have, is it a priority to spend it on this conference? Daniel Sawyer recommended having a conversation with your supervisor fairly early on in the PhD if you are thinking about pursuing an academic career so that you can get their advice on how to juggle these additional activities. Your supervisor will have a sense, for example, of which conferences might be useful for you to attend- the yearly Medieval Congress in Leeds in my field, or the biannual New Chaucer Society- but there will also be smaller, graduate conferences in your department which will be a good place to test out your ideas first. And many of these things have a cost implication (and sadly most conferences still require registration/accommodation fees up front, even if there are graduate bursaries available).

Related to this is that if you are considering pursuing an academic career and plan to produce a monograph based on your PhD, it might be worth keeping that in mind when you are making decisions about how to structure the thesis. PhD theses are not monographs of course, there are different requirements for each task, and often it is only when we have completed the PhD and had some distance from it that we can begin to reimagine it as a monograph. When I did my PhD, I didn’t think about the idea of the monograph at all and in hindsight I wouldn’t change the way I did my thesis (despite The Journey I then went on to turn it onto a monograph!) but I think I would have had a conversation with my PhD examiners in the viva, for example, about what they would recommend. When you’re reading academic monographs (and more on this in my post here), it’s worth attending to structure and style as well as content. If you read a fantastic monograph in your field, what was it that worked so well in your opinion?

Image result for big bad i said noI would also pause here to say, learn to say NO! You need to prioritise getting the thesis done (and believe me when I say that in the post-PhD world, you will never have that extended thinking time again!!). Learn to assess how useful certain opportunities will be to you and try not to allow yourself to be exploited. You can’t do everything, think about what will work for you, in your circumstances It has taken me an awful long time to learn to say no. The entire world won’t collapse if you say you can’t do something. Talk over the pros and cons of an opportunity with your supervisor, peers, friends. (Anyone else remember the ‘Big Bad I said No’ from the cartoon Stoppit and Tidyup?! Just me?!)

It is so important to take breaks and have other interests. You must not and cannot work all of the time! Having hobbies, doing exercise, socialising (with family and also with people not on your course), are all crucial for our mental health. (This topic should probably be a blogpost in its own right!)

Finally, try not to compare yourself to others! (And this is the hardest thing and something I still struggle with!!) You must do your thesis your way. Find what works for you and have the confidence to follow your own path. Be kind to yourself, be kind to your peers, and know that you’ve got this!

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Women at Univ 1249-2019


This year we are celebrating the 40th anniversary of the admission of women students to University College, Oxford. You can find out about the latest news on our website, including a fantastic series of profiles of Univ women (from undergraduate and graduate students to staff and alumni), and on our social media (twitter and instagram).

A key part of our celebrations has been the creation of our exhibition ‘Women at Univ 1249-2019’, curated by our archivist Robin Darwall-Smith, librarian Elizabeth Adams, and myself. The exhibition celebrates the academic achievements of women students and academics post-1979 but also uncovers the hidden histories of women who have given their physical, financial, intellectual, and social labour to support the college from the Middle Ages to the present day.

If you would like to find out more, I have written an article for our college magazine The Martlet which is available online here: The Martlet, autumn 2019 (with thanks to Robin Darwall-Smith, Catherine Holmes, and Sara Dewsbery).

My Martlet piece

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