Top Tips: How to Write a PhD Proposal

It’s been a while since I’ve written a blogpost for the Resources for Grads and ECRs section of my website and I was reminded by a chat with a current MSt student here in Oxford that a post on How to Write a PhD Proposal might be useful. So here it is!

I should start by saying that I applied for my own DPhil (Oxford’s word for PhD) many years ago now (and I don’t remember the proposal being as extensive as most programmes now require!). I also don’t assess PhD applications myself but I have read a number for students and twitter pals, and of course I’ve crowdsourced suggestions from the twitter hivemind (thank you all!).

So, where do I start?

It seems obvious but of course you should start by: researching the application process!

Make sure you check out the requirements of your particular programme (especially if you’re applying to non-UK universities. I’m writing this from a UK context, but if you have suggestions for US applications, for example, please tweet me or comment below!)

On the Oxford English Faculty website, for example, the advice is as follows:

            For applicants to the DPhil, the research proposal should be an outline of your research plans (in English) of a maximum of 1,500 words. This will be assessed for the coherence and viability of the project, the originality of the project, the feasibility of its successful completion in the time available for the course (three or at most four years), evidence of understanding of appropriate research skills required for successful completion of the project, and of appropriate training at master’s level or equivalent to undertake the project.

(Note the word count to start with! You must follow the particular guidelines otherwise you’ll put the reader offside straightaway!)

I think the crucial points here are that the project has to be coherent and doable, particularly within the time frame (and indeed word count!) allowed, and you need to have some of the appropriate skills and experience to undertake it.

It needs to look like a PhD project in size and scope– so the research questions should be significant enough and broad enough to sustain a piece of work that is generally speaking book length (in Oxford, DPhils are 100,000 words). It shouldn’t, therefore, look like a proposal for four different articles roughly strung together on a shared theme! Equally, it shouldn’t be such a huge topic that there’s no way you could tackle it in three or four years- it needs to be precise and focused.

You also need a narrative about your work so far that shows why you are prepared to undertake the project- and I mean that in the sense that a) you already have relevant training (ie an MA/MSt programme) but also that b) you know the additional skills that you will need to gain while working on the project. (You can’t be fully prepared for every single aspect of a project, of course, but you do need to know where your gaps are. When I arrived in Oxford after my MA in Leeds, for example, I hadn’t done any palaeography or manuscript work- and that was fine, I just joined in with the palaeography classes with the MSt students in my first year when I was a probationary researcher. It’s good to know your own limitations – it’s no good proposing something for which you aren’t qualified, and can’t possibly become qualified in the time!).

On the question of ‘originality’, we often talk about there being a ‘gap’ in the research. Liesbeth Corens offered a really important caveat on twitter- it isn’t enough to say that ‘there is a gap’, you need to say ‘why it matters to fill that gap’, ‘what are the consequences of filling gap.’ That’s crucial because in some ways it can be easy to find a niche, unusual thing to research and go, aha! I’ve got it! But perhaps that thing hasn’t been researched because… it isn’t very interesting or important?! I’m being a bit flippant here but it needs to be clear why this topic matters- and after all, it needs to matter enough to you to work on it for three years!

As Miriam Gill commented on twitter, as well as showing that the proposal is doable in the time you need to show why it’s ‘worth doing’, that it ‘leads somewhere’, and that it is ‘rooted in honesty about what you want / are able to do’. A PhD is such a personal project in the humanities, so it’s really worth thinking about why it matters to you!

It can also be really useful to articulate this part of the project as research questions: what is it that you want to find out? And what are the possible answers to those questions that you can foresee and the potential impact those answers will have on the field as a whole. (Of course you won’t know all the answers at this stage but the ability to ask precise and focused research questions shows that you are thinking critically and like a PhD researcher!)

Questions to ask yourself:

Hester Lees-Jeffries and Daniel Sawyer both tweeted the following model that I think is really useful when thinking about PhD proposals:


‘Why this’ has been partly covered in the discussion of originality and research gaps above. But you really want to sell your idea- if you can’t answer ‘why this’, you need to keep thinking!

‘Why me’ can be answered in relation to your expertise and your work so far. Think about your ‘journey’ to the PhD application and the narrative of your work (as Hester Lees-Jeffries commented, ‘what’s brought you to this’?).

For example, when I was an undergrad at Durham, I chose medieval options wherever I could and I did my dissertation on Middle English Romance- this demonstrated my commitment to the field. When I did my MA in Medieval Literature at Leeds, I did my dissertation on space in Margery Kempe and Julian of Norwich and my PhD proposal arose directly from that work. One section of the dissertation was about the church in The Book of Margery Kempe and I realised that I wanted to pursue this further but to think in particular about sacred spaces and built environments.

(There’s a caveat here in that the PhD shouldn’t just be ‘a longer version of the MA thesis’ or the ‘MA thesis on different texts’- there needs to be more originality and drive there, but it is often the case that our MA research sparks off the curiosity to research a new-but-related area. As Hester Lees-Jeffries noted, you might have ‘unfinished business’ with a topic!).

The ‘why here’ question may be related to the supervisor that you want to work with, the department and its research environment, or the particular resources / archives / libraries / training programmes at the institution you have in mind. (More on supervisors below!). You should really think about why the department you have chosen is the right one for you and your project.

The ‘why now’ question is about the state of the field and timeliness of the project. How are you contributing to current scholarship in your area? Are you building on and developing a burgeoning critical interest? Are you examining neglected texts? Are you applying new theories to well-known materials?

For example, when I wrote my proposal (in 2004!), it coincided with the so-called ‘spatial turn’ in the humanities. Sarah Stanbury had written an excellent book called Seeing the Gawain Poet in 1991 that looked at space and sight as categories of analysis in literature. Christiania Whitehead had just published the wonderful Castles of the Mind: A Study of Medieval Architectural Allegory (2003). There was plenty of research going on around Margery Kempe but a number of critics had argued that Kempe was placed in an oppositional relationship with the church (constantly kicked out because she was annoying people!). In my proposal, I said that I would do what Whitehead had done for architectural allegory for ‘real world’ sacred spaces- in Kempe’s Book, her parish church of St Margaret’s and the sites she visited on pilgrimage; the depiction of St Paul’s cathedral in St Erkenwald, etc. I would build on Stanbury’s use of space as a mode of textual analysis but I would bring in French theorists to develop a sustained model of sacred space- Foucault’s heterotopia, Lefebvre’s Production of Space. I also wanted to write about a church foundation legend (about St Bartholomew the Great in London) that I found on the Early English Text Society shelf in Leeds’ Brotherton Library but couldn’t find anything about in any secondary reading! And I had an axe to grind about Margery Kempe’s relationship to the church that I wanted to address! (And have, in fact, since published as an article, many years later. See this post!)

In short, be specific about the key texts, critics, and approaches that you will engage with and how your research will add value to what’s gone before. (Your proposal should also have a bibliography of primary and secondary materials too).

Relatedly, you need to think about how you will undertake your research- what is your methodology? In my case, that resolved around putting modern spatial theory into conversation with medieval texts. I was also clear about the primary materials that I was using and how they would structure the thesis (I progressed from the foundation/consecration of a church to the restoration of a cathedral to an individual’s experiences with sacred space at home- parish church- and away- on pilgrimage, and the final chapter was going to expand the definition of sacred space to visionary engagements with the body of Christ. And yes, I changed that last chapter- see below!)

Your proposal needs to be a plan and you need to show that you have thought through how you plan out a project of this size! In the humanities, most of your PhD work will be done alone- you need to show that you can plan and manage your time and this project in a feasible way.

A note on titles: make the title of the project clear, indicative, and to the point! The reader should know immediately what you are planning to research (for example, mine was ‘Sacred Space in Late Middle English Religious Literature’- topic, check! Primary materials and date range, check!).

Additional Tips

Daniel Sawyer also commented that anecdotally he has heard positive things about proposals which can give ‘detailed (but concise) examples of where the work would start’, showing that it’s ‘shovel-ready’. I really like this idea. The proposal needs to give a sense of the overall shape of the project but of course that can change over time, so it’s really useful to have a clear sense, in addition to that summary, of where you would start specifically, so that you can hit the ground running when you arrive.

It’s worth thinking about a research timetable more broadly. What would you hope to achieve in your first, second, third year of the research? (Subject to change of course, see below!). Again this shows that you have thought through the project in detail and in a way that is feasible and sensible.

(A side note on changing/adapting the project when you’re actually a PhD student and it’s underway- that’s perfectly normal! In my final year of the DPhil, having completed chapters 1-4 exactly as anticipated, I suddenly realised that while I could have written a chapter on Julian of Norwich, her Revelations weren’t, in fact, as relevant to the overarching argument as I had developed over the previous two years of research. So I told my supervisor that I’d be coming up with a new idea! Luckily she trusted that I knew what I was doing- and I did find something new and it turned out to be much more productive and, ultimately, generative for my long-in-the-future-monograph, so do trust your gut instincts!)

Something else that’s really worth important to think about is your potential supervisor. Claire Millington suggested that it’s worth meeting with your proposed supervisor to discuss your topic with them before you start. (This is especially relevant for the English system where you are applying to work primarily with a specific individual for your course). I’d certainly recommend dropping potential supervisors an email to see what they think about your idea (and indeed to see if there could be any potential roadblocks- ie they’ve got a big research grant for three years and aren’t taking on any PhD students at the moment etc!). I met my supervisor (when I had two offers in hand and was trying to decide between them!) and it was the best idea- we hit it off immediately and I felt very positive about her, so it really cemented my decision to come to Oxford. Now with video-calls, it should be easier to arrange a quick chat without having to travel across the country (or to a different country!)

So, you’ve got a draft- now what?

Show it to a friend/colleague/supportive tutor! I’d certainly recommend getting a friendly pair of eyes on the proposal- perhaps your current MA dissertation supervisor, if they have the time, or a kindly person on twitter! (Hit me up!)

But as Eleanor Baker commented on twitter, don’t send it to too many people as too much feedback can muddy the waters- send it to a couple of people that you trust! (When I wrote mine, I did also share it with a friend who wasn’t a medievalist- it was useful to get some feedback from a non-specialist. Had I convinced them that the project was worth doing and that I was the person to do it?)

Mary Flannery also suggested beginning by reading other people’s proposals– you may know some PhD students in your department (or on social media!) who you can ask nicely to share their proposals. It’s often very useful to have a look at a specific example to get you started. (Ditto for writing book proposals- see my post here!)

GJ Morgan on twitter also comment that it is worth being selective about how many proposals you send out in a first round of applications because proposals are a lot of work (especially if you need to tailor them to individual departments and universities). Make a shortlist of your top choices and start with them!


Do check out if there is any specific advice about the structure of your proposal on the website of the university that you are applying to. A quick google just now turned up lots of university webpages with proposal advice, some of which included possible structures (ie the Continuing Education Department in Oxford suggested the following: title, topic statement, research aims, literature review, theoretical orientation, research methods, tentative chapter outline, bibliography; the University of Sussex‘s advice included ‘research background’ and ‘research methods’ as areas of focus; the University of Exeter suggested starting with a clear title and set of keywords and then moving onto a ‘clear statement about what you want to work on and why it is important, interesting, and relevant’ and they had a set of questions to answer too). These are just ideas I noticed from a quick google- I haven’t read all the posts out there!- so do your own research and see what you find!

Don’t forget that your proposal is yours! This is your project so you should be confident in showing that you know how to go about it and why it matters!

Thanks to everyone who responded to my tweet on this topic! If you have any additional advice or comments, please let me know. And best of luck with your proposals!

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New Beowulf Poems, A Reading, and A Margery Interview

At the end of last year I was absolutely delighted to have two more of my Beowulf poems published! The first, Her Wordhoard, was published by the marvellous online literary journal Bad Lilies: you can find it in issue ten Remembrances here. (The opening of the poem is in the screenshot below).

from ‘Her Wordhoard’ by Laura Varnam

I was also thrilled to have my poem ‘An Aefter Anum’ published in issue fourteen of the literary journal Banshee Lit. The opening of the poem is in the image below and it was inspired by thinking about grief as the emotion which is shared by all the women in the poem- the queens and, importantly, Grendel’s Mother.

from ‘An Aefter Anum’ by Laura Varnam

The title is taken from a line in the Father’s Lament passage in Beowulf which is beautifully translated by WE Leonard as ‘the lone one for the lost one’ (an means one / alone / sole and aefter means for / because of). It strikes me that despite Grendel’s Mother’s isolation in the poem, her grief binds her to the other women who also lose loved ones as a result of feuding (whether she knows it or not).


This month I did my first ever public poetry reading from my Beowulf Poetry collection at the Gender and Medieval Studies conference at Birkbeck, University of London. I’m enormously grateful to the lovely audience, the GMS committee for having me (Isabel, Elma, and Kierri), and my partners-in-crime Laura Kalas and Robert Shearman for their support and encouragement. Here I am ready to perform!

Thanks to my friend Teresa for the photo! (I’m clearly living my best life!)

If you’d like to read more of my published Beowulf poetry, there are links here.


At the conference I also gave a paper on a wonderful modern poetry sequence inspired by the fifteenth-century mystic Margery Kempe: ‘margerykempething’ by Pattie McCarthy, from her book Wifthing. I’m very grateful to Pattie for her generosity in chatting to me about the collection when I was writing my paper. I really recommend Wifthing, it’s a fascinating reading of Margery Kempe and her Book and I hope to write more about it in the future!

This week also saw the publication of Victoria MacKenzie’s new novel inspired by Margery Kempe and Julian of Norwich’s meeting in 1413: For Thy Great Pain Have Mercy on My Little Pain (Bloomsbury, 2023). I was so pleased to interview Victoria about the novel for the Margery Kempe Society website. You can read the interview here and I really recommend the novel!

I’ve also been writing poetry about Margery (and Julian) as part of a new creative-critical academic project and I hope to be able to share some of it soon!

Thank you for reading and to everyone who has been so supportive of my poetry. It means such a lot to me!

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New poems and article: ‘Poems for the Women of Beowulf’ in postmedieval

‘Hwaet’ by Laura Varnam

HWAET everyone! I am delighted to share the open access link to my new poems and creative-critical article in the journal postmedieval: ‘Poems for the Women of Beowulf: A ‘Contemporary Medieval’ Project’. Available here.

The piece focuses on seven new poems from my collection (including ‘Hwaet’, above) and discusses how I came to begin my project (as a result of my teaching!), as well as situating my feminist adaptation in the context of modern translations/revoicings (such as Maria Dahvana Headley’s). Here’s the abstract:

I open the article by declaring that: Beowulf is a poem that gets into your bones. If you’re not careful, it changes you: both as a reader and a writer.’

It has changed me, that’s for sure, and I’m still finding new ways of adapting, rewriting, and translating the poem. I suggest in my article that my poems have become a form of intimate close reading of the original and that’s certainly how I’ve come to feel about the word ‘hwaet’ which has so many possible translations and functions. Listen! Behold! Heaney’s ‘So.’ Headley’s ‘Bro’. Thomas Meyer’s ‘HEY now hear’.

And this morning I made a new-to-me discovery while reading a super little edition of David Wright’s 1957 prose translation that I picked up last week in a charity shop for a mere £1!

Cover art by Michael Leonard. (Isn’t it incredible!)

Wright opens his translation: ‘HEAR! We know of the bygone glory of the Danish kings, and the heroic exploits of those princes.’

The Old English is ‘Hwaet! We Gar-Dena [we of the Spear-Danes] in geardagum [in former days], þeodcyninga [of the kings of that people] þrym gefrunon [their glory we have heard], hu þa aeþelingas [how the princes] ellen [courageous deeds] fremedon [performed].’

So my working literal translation would be: Hwaet! We have heard of the Spear-Danes in former days, of the glory of the kings of that people, how the princes performed courageous deeds.

I was intrigued that Wright opens with ‘HEAR!’ and then has ‘we know’ of the Danish kings rather than ‘we have heard’. I wondered if he wasn’t keen to have hear/heard in close proximity, but personally, I rather like that echo! But then I thought there’s a difference between ‘we know’ and ‘we have heard’ and I prefer the latter because it situates us within a listening community who have heard tales of the Danes, which admits more ambiguity and mystery than ‘we know’ does.

But then I suddenly thought, does ‘gefrunon’ definitely mean ‘heard of’? When I looked up the verb, it turns out that ‘gefrignan’ means ‘learn by asking, obtain knowledge of, hear of’. Now this fascinated me because you could then translate ‘we have learnt by asking of the Danes’. It’s a little awkward but it’s active and implies that the audience has interrogated the poet to find out more!

This then made me think of the Old English Maxims, which opens as follows (translation by Tom Shippey):

Frige mec frodum wordum. Ne laet þinne ferþ onhaelne, / degol þaet þu deopest cunne. Nelle ic þe min dyrne gesecgan, / gif þu me þinne hygecraeft hylest ond þine heortan geþohtas. / Gleawe men sceolon gieddum wrixlan.

Question me with wise words. But do not let your opinion remain hidden, or what you know most profoundly stay obscure. I will not tell you my secret knowledge if you hide the strength of your mind from me, and the thoughts of your heart. Men of perception ought to exchange their sayings.

[or, that last sentence, ‘wise men must exchange riddles/tales/stories‘. The noun ‘giedd’ in Old English is especially multiple in its meanings!]

Suddenly, I’m rethinking what we ‘have heard’ of the Danes! Perhaps the poet is reminding us that what we ‘know’ comes from what we have heard as a result of asking questions of the wise poet? I think this is a really powerful idea in Beowulf because knowledge / lack of knowledge is a key preoccupation in the poem. The poet frequently uses the words ‘cuþ’ and ‘uncuþ’ (known and unknown) when thinking about the monsters and the borderlands which are ‘known’ in the sense of mapped, recognised, and understood.

Translating- close readingBeowulf always pays off, even when you’ve been reading (and teaching) the poem for over fifteen years as I have! My sense of that opening has shifted again this morning, thanks to David Wright’s edition, and I’ve already got another poem ‘brewing’ on the question of where knowledge comes from in poetry!


If you’d like to read my article (which includes more discussions of the possible meanings of HWAET), check out this open access web link: here. You can read more of my Beowulf poems via the links on my Beowulf page here (and in the post directly below!). I have three more poems from my collection coming out in literary journals later this month and in the autumn, so keep your eyes peeled!

Huge thanks to everyone at postmedieval– the editors and peer reviewers- for their support, invaluable feedback, and generosity. Thanks to everyone who has read, retweeted, and got in touch about my work- it’s lovely to hear from readers and to see what strikes a chord!- and I’m looking forward to more discussions with colleagues about revoicing medieval texts over the coming academic year.

Back cover illustration by Michael Leonard.
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Two new Beowulf poems published

HWAET everyone!

I’m delighted to have had two more poems from my Beowulf-inspired poetry collection published over the last week!

Both poems were inspired by the moment when the unnamed Geatish woman mourns at Beowulf’s funeral pyre. This is the passage in RM Liuzza’s translation (which I use with my students as it’s an accurate, verse translation):

Beowulf, lines 3150-55

In my first poem, ‘A New Woman at Beowulf’s Funeral Pyre’, I give this woman a voice, both as a mourner (and there’s lots of discussion of this ‘traditional’ role for women in criticism of Old English poetry) but also to look forward into a future that might be less bleak. You can find the poem here, published by The Mechanic’s Institute Review online. Thank you to the editors to choosing my poem!


The second poem examines the same scene but from a different perspective. The manuscript is considerably damaged at this point of the poem. This is the version of the Old English in my student edition (edited by George Jack), which includes some ellipses but also fills in lots of things in square brackets and italics.

From George Jack’s student edition (including my annotations!)

There’s a brilliant feminist article by Helen Bennett in Exemplaria called ‘The Female Mourner at Beowulf’s Funeral: Filling in the Blanks / Hearing the Spaces’ (issue 4, 1992), in which she begins by declaring that this passage ‘does not actually exist’. So much text has been lost and damaged that what we see in most editions is ‘in one sense… the dream of patriarchal scholars: the holes in the text allow them to insert their own inverted reflection to fulfil the supposed desire of the text while confirming their own ideologies. These reconstructions have yielded another example of the passive female victim in Old English poetry’ (p.35).

I was inspired by Bennett’s article to write an altogether different poem, taking the only Old English words that we can definitely be sure of, and then writing my own words in the gaps! ‘The King is Dead [Watch this Space]’ is published by Osmosis Press here. Thanks so much to the editors for accepting my poem!

The Old English words are in italics with a translation directly below then and then my own words appear in square brackets (with a deliberate refusal to close the final bracket in the last line, leaving the poem open for more interpretations!). You can read the poem in different ways- just the Old English, just my glosses/insertions, or all together! It was a fascinating process to think about the gaps/spaces in the manuscript in a different way (and in a deliberately puzzling way!).

More of my Beowulf poems are available online via the links on my Beowulf page. Thank you for reading!

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New blog introducing Encountering The Book of Margery Kempe

Manchester University Press virtual booth for the IMC

Next week will see lots of medievalists jet off to the International Medieval Congress in Leeds. Sadly I won’t be attending but my partner-in-crime Laura Kalas and I were delighted to have the opportunity to write a blogpost for the Manchester University Press website, introducing our new volume of essays Encountering The Book of Margery Kempe. You can read the post here and there’s a 40% discount available on the volume with the code Med22 via the MUP virtual conference booth.

Laura and I will, however, be attending the New Visions of Julian of Norwich conference in mid July here in Oxford (perhaps not wearing our ‘Team Margery’ badges but you never know!!). Laura is giving a paper on reading pain generatively in Julian’s Revelations and I will be talking about the famous meeting between Margery and Julian, as represented in modern adaptations and what such creative responses might tell us about reading Julian’s text through Margery (in a reversal of the usual dynamic of comparison!) It’ll be a speculative and rather experimental piece, but I’m looking forward to it!

Do pop over to the Margery Kempe Society website too where we have an update on the Society’s activities over the last year, links to our blogpost series (including mine on teaching The Book), and we’re showcasing our new Society logo, produced by our brilliant assistant Emily M Harless! Thanks Emily! We’re looking forward to seeing what the next year will bring!

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When ‘revisions’ are really about ‘re-vision’

So last week, June 2022, I resubmitted an article… an article that I had a ‘revise and resubmit’ decision on in July 2021! I posted a twitter thread on the resubmission and thought I’d write it up here, not least because I think as academics we could talk more about the process of drafting and redrafting work- and the fact that a published article or chapter is very rarely the first incarnation of a piece of work! (And most of our work that is out there has a complex ‘backstory’ that can’t be seen by its readers out in the world!)

I wrote a blogpost back in 2018 about an article that had been more than ten years in the making, starting life as a chapter of my PhD, being rejected in a first incarnation and then hidden away out of shame, being re-imagined when scholarship had overtaken my first idea, and finally seeing the light of day in a much improved form. In that blogpost I was talking more about rejection and how hard it is.

But I also think it’s also worth talking about revisions and how hard they can be too- even when they’re positive and you haven’t been completely floored by the notorious reviewer 2! In the case of the article that I’ve just resubmitted, it was an even more complex process. The article had already gone through a round of peer review at a journal that requires three reports- and aside from minor revisions, it was mostly praised (hurrah!). I did the required revisions, which were approved, but the article was too long. And in the end, for various reasons, I parted company with the journal as the publishers weren’t prepared to take the piece in its current form and I wasn’t prepared to cut it. (What can you do! It just didn’t feel right).

So I found another journal to send it to! The second journal were warm and enthusiastic about it but they suggested some revisions. Some were minor (adding some discursive footnotes on particular topics, being more careful about terminology in one particular area) but some were more significant and they concerned the argument. Both reviewers felt that the argument came into its own in the conclusion and that it would be much better if the conclusion became the introduction. And they were right! (Damn! I’d done exactly what I warn my students not to do- leave the best ’til last, like the final ‘aha!’ in a crime novel). One of the reviewers also noted, quite rightly, that the final third of the article because a little ‘compare and contrast’. (Again, I often tell my students to make sure that every single paragraph is driven by argument… Insert Hermione gif, ‘what. an. idiot.’)

So surely these things were easy to fix, right? Not exactly…

I received the feedback last July and a) I had other work on last summer and b) (for Reasons), I wasn’t really in the right headspace to tackle the revisions. So I decided to have a go at them in term time. (Cue absolutely appropriate laughter!) I did, however, have a few clear days that I circled for research in November and I read back over the article. The reviewers were correct that the conclusion should be the introduction and as soon as I shifted the material, I realised that there were other points that I could make to reinforce the opening. So far so good!

Then, of course, the rest of term happened, admissions interviewing happened, it was Christmas, I had another deadline at the end of January, then I had to submit a conference abstract… And while I went back to the article a couple of times, could I figure out how to fix the final third? Absolutely not. No idea whatsoever.

And you know why? I think it was for three reasons. Firstly, that psychologically, I just hadn’t quite squared myself with the fact that the article needed fixing at all (it had already been accepted by another journal, surely it was basically fine?!) and secondly, that in order to make the material in the final third work, I needed a stronger throughline. And perhaps even more importantly, the article just wasn’t ‘in my head’ any more. I wrote it originally pre-pandemic- in January/February 2020, and I revised it over Easter 2020. I couldn’t really remember the details and I was trying to do the revisions without really giving myself over, properly, to the material. I wasn’t immersed in it anymore, so no wonder I couldn’t figure out how to fix it!

Also- and this is significant- it mattered to me in a different way now. When I first wrote the piece, I was just desperate to write up my take on a fascinating text but it wasn’t anything more than that, really. By the time I came to revise it, the article had potentially become the building block for a bigger project- perhaps a monograph! So it needed to do more and to be more than merely a stand-alone piece.

Another factor is that I’d written two quite different pieces in the interim that had really developed my writing style in different ways. I could see that the main argument that I came to in the original version was, surprisingly, speaking to my new interests and new ways of interacting with texts– so perhaps I could lean into those ideas in the new version? Perhaps I should!

So at Easter, I went back to the article and started from the ground up. I reread the primary text, I reread some of the criticism, and I read some articles and a couple of books that I had been reading for one of my other projects but I thought might be relevant here. I got some material together and I wrote lots of random paragraphs in a word doc– copying out secondary quotes and saying something about them; typing up primary quotes that I hadn’t used in the original piece. But it still wasn’t quite fizzing for me, it felt routine somehow.

I consulted the twitter hivemind on how to get back into a piece that wasn’t quite working and the brilliant Emily M. Harless recommending reading something completely new– and that, quite honestly, was a revelation! What a great idea. Emily also happened to have recommended a book to me that turned out to be absolutely perfect because it spoke to the argument that I had identified as the driving force of the article but hadn’t quite been able to articulate in enough depth.

I then rewrote the introduction to incorporate this new theoretical material and started typing out the second section of the article (which just needed a few slight readjustments to account for the new argument) and then when I got to the third section… I realised that actually, it wasn’t really relevant anymore! Damn!

I tried rewriting it and I tried to come up with reasons it was there but then I realised that it was actually a hangover from an argument in my monograph. It had very little to do with the new argument I was advancing here! (There was certainly an article’s worth of material in the topic and if I were still pursuing representations of sacred space as a primary research interest, I’d have been well away! But that wasn’t what I was interested in here.)

So it had to go! I used a small part of it in response to the reviewer’s comments and then I ended up reimagining the third part of the article as a conversation between two key ideas that exemplified two interconnected strands of my argument. This then led to a more interesting conclusion and- after rereading the primary text again (yes, *facepalm*)- I realised I could develop the conclusion too and incorporate new material

(All the random paragraphs of stuff that I’d typed up over Easter came into their own here too. There were all sorts of things that I was able to weave in, as I was typing. And as a side note, when I’m editing on a deep level, I can’t just fiddle around with correcting text that is already there- either printed or on screen- I need to retype it word for word. It always helps!)

I should note at this stage that I have resubmitted the article but I have no idea what the editors think!! But I think the crucial point for me is that I’ve produced a much stronger, more precise, and nuanced piece of work, that I think could be a stepping stone for a larger project. And I’m quite proud of it, actually! I think it works!! (Let’s hope the editors think so!!)

So what have I learned from this process?

  • Definitely not to berate myself if I can’t do the revisions immediately. (I’m a conscientious and organised person and I felt like it was hanging over my head all year, but I was not in the right headspace last summer to do it- both personally and intellectually, and that’s okay!)
  • To step back and think about the revisions holistically. Sometimes even minor revisions aren’t a quick editing job, you may need to do more- and that’s okay too. Trust your gut!
  • To properly re-engage with the material. You can’t revise properly if you’re not immersed in the topic. (This was definitely a case of ‘revision’ as ‘re-vision’. A surface approach was not going to work).
  • To read something new as a way of getting my brain working again!
  • To recognise and embrace the fact that I had changed as a writer over the eighteen months since the first version was written and edited, and indeed since I received the revisions themselves
  • To really think about the purpose of the article– not just in scholarly terms, although that’s important, but for me. For my own work and where that work might be going. It’s better to slow down and consider than rush on in the hope of getting another publication out more quickly).*
  • To remember that things take time! (Says the person whose monograph took ten years. I know this and yet I’m easily impatient and want to rush on to the next thing!)
  • That sometimes the reviewers spot a point for improvement which might seem straightforward but sometimes requires considerable rethinking, and that it’s okay to take the opportunity to do that.

* This point might also occasion a conversation about when it’s time to just put something down for good. Sometimes, I think you have to know when to cut your losses with a piece or when to decide that actually, you don’t want to pursue it any further. I had a conference paper that I gave a few years ago- it was really hard to get the abstract accepted and the paper was hard to write. The conference went well and I was invited to submit a proposal for a book chapter. But every time I thought about writing it, I was overwhelmed with a feeling of dread. I knew, deep down, that the conference paper version was my limit and that I didn’t truly know enough to be able to develop the piece. And that was fine! I got onto the conference and I appreciated that very much. But that was the limit for me at that moment!

I’d be really interested to hear your thoughts on revision or on your writing process! I don’t think we talk about these things enough. Everyone has a unique process but I think we can all learn from sharing not only ‘best practice’ and what works for us, but also the reality of what revising an article might really mean.

TL/DR: sometimes revisions take time and that’s fine!

(Ps. Wish me luck with the editors!!!)

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Encountering The Book of Margery Kempe: It’s Out!

I was absolutely delighted to receive my editor copies of Encountering The Book of Margery Kempe (Manchester University Press, 2021) this week! And indeed on the very day- the one day per year!- that I get to teach Margery Kempe! Talk about serendipitous!

It has been wonderful to see copies making their way to contributors in the UK, US, and Europe! (See below, incl. my co-editor’s lovely kitten!)

#TeamMargery across the world!

If you’d like to find out more about the volume, check out the Manchester University Press webpage here and you can also hear Laura and I talking about Margery, her Book, and the volume on the My Favourite Mystic podcast, hosted by AJ Langley. Listen here.

And thanks to MUP, we can currently offer 40% off if you purchase the book via their website with the code: Kempe21.

We are also having a book launch! Laura Kalas and I will be hosting and many of our contributors will be there to introduce their chapters and to raise a glass to the volume and to Margery! The book launch will take place at 5pm on Thursday 16th December via Zoom. You can register via Eventbrite at this link.

We’re so excited to see the book out in the world, four years after we had the initial idea! A huge thanks to my co-editor Laura Kalas, all our fantastic contributors, and the brilliant team at Manchester University Press. And, of course, to Margery herself!

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Advice for Grads on Social Media (and Blogging): English Faculty Talk

Last week I gave a talk in the English Faculty about Academic Blogging and Social Media for graduate students. I gave a similar talk on blogging a couple of years ago and wrote up my advice in this post.

In this post, I’ll give my advice on Social Media and link to other useful online resources. As ever, a huge thank you to everyone on twitter who offered helpful advice and guidance!

Firstly, I’d like to highlight two brilliant resources: Liesbeth Corens’ Twitter for Students post and Paula Curtis’ Best Practice guide. Both are excellent and well worth reading.

I’ll be talking mostly about Twitter here as that’s where I do most of my academic outreach and social media work. I do have an Instagram (@drlauravarnam) and I use that account differently to my Twitter. I think I have a different audience on Instragram, in part because of the lovely folks that I interact with: many of whom are part of the #bookstagram community, reviewing and talking about books. Over there I share what I’m currently reading (for pleasure and for teaching, if I think there are books that readers would enjoy) and I also share photographs of my Daphne du Maurier books and ephemera.

I am also followed by a number of teachers and I tweet about Oxford and my teaching as a way of dispelling myths about the university and studying English here (#englishatoxford). I have run online ‘readalongs‘ on Instagram (including one on Rebecca, for which you can access the resources here on my blog). For those events, I have posted photographs with prompts for readers to discuss a particular novel over the course of a week. My Instagram is also a little more personal in that I share photographs of my hobbies (there’s many a photograph of a crocheted ripple blanket! See below!).

I think the key here is to think about the identity of your audience, whichever social media you are using. (Many of my younger medieval Twitter colleagues have recommended Tiktok as excellent for public engagement. I’m way too old to know what Tiktok really is but do explore alternative modes of getting your work out there on social media!)

A snapshot of my Instagram account

One thing that I didn’t mention when giving my talk was to consider your bio when you’re setting up your account. This is my Twitter bio:

My Twitter bio

Because I tend to use my Twitter for more strictly academic purposes, I have my institutional affiliation in my bio plus a link to the Society that I run, and my web address is my personal website. Because you can’t link websites in the same way on Instagram, my link tends to change depending on what I’m talking about. (In the screenshot above, I have a link to my latest poetry publication, for example, but that will no doubt change soon!) So have your audience in mind when writing your bio and think about the affiliations you want to highlight and how you want to present yourself and your research in snapshot.

Top Tips for Twitter

I started my talk by outlining some of the benefits of Twitter and the ways in which you can participate positively and productively in the conversation (with many thanks to everyone who contributed their thoughts on this!):

  • Use twitter to build networks: remember the ‘social’ in social media. Retweet, promote, and engage in conversation to build your community.
  • Find your people! For me, this starts with hashtags: #medievaltwitter, #TeamMargery, #twitterstorians (grads might want to check out #phdchat, #academicchatter)
  • Twitter is great for finding out about opportunities: conferences, Zoom events, public engagement opportunities, podcasts etc
  • Use Twitter to ask questions and crowdsource! For research, teaching, advice- most tweeps are very generous in offering their experience and ideas. Many of my advice blogposts are crowdsourced!
  • Use Twitter to share your knowledge and link to useful resources (I often do threads when I’ve taught a class with a large online component so that others can see the kinds of material I’ve used)
  • A really positive thing that you can do is to tweet about great books and articles that you’ve read. That can start useful conferences and build networks too.
  • Twitter is a great way to get to know people in your field, especially before conferences! (I was so glad that I had networked online before the big Chaucer conference in my field- it gave me a great ‘in’ for talking to people, especially academics more senior than me: ‘oh hello, I follow you on Twitter, it’s nice to meet you in person’
  • Livetweeting at conferences is a great way to participate- or to follow along if you’re unable to attend. (But do make sure that you check the social media policy for the conference and only tweet the content of a paper if the presenter is happy for audience members to do so. This is a great post by Sjoerd Levelt on Twitter at conferences)
  • I have often used Twitter for personal accountability when I’ve been struggling to focus or complete a difficult task- I’ll tweet my plans for the morning and once I’ve said it publicly, I feel bound to honour my tweet!! My pal Alicia Spencer-Hall and I completed our monographs in the summer of 2016 by tweeting at each other every day in this way!
  • A really great hashtag for working collectively on twitter is #remoteretreat which was set up by the lovely Lucy Hinnie. Remote retreat provides a timetable for a working day- and in between sessions, you tweet your progress and check in with fellow participants. It’s brilliant and very motivating! Find out more on Lucy’s website here. I’ve done many a tricky bit of writing ‘alongside’ remote retreat pals.

Practical Tips for using Twitter

Here are some of the practical tips that I shared (again with thanks to my lovely followers for their suggestions):

  • Scheduling tools such as Tweetdeck of Hootsuite are useful if you’re running a society or event account or if you want to send out some regular tweets at particular times.
  • Make sure you reference sources and images- this is one way in which we as academics can fight against fake news on the internet!
  • Twitter can be overwhelming and distracting, try not to let it take over! It’s okay to ‘lurk’ or to ‘sign out‘ (I often do this when I know I’m procrastinating by scrolling and I need to sign out for a week or so- I just tweet that I’m signing out and I’ll see people later. This is useful if you’re a very ‘online’ person, so that people don’t worry!). You don’t have to reply to everything or take a position on every current issue. A good piece advice that I received from a friend was to treat a social media comment as like a knock at the front door– you are not obliged to open that door to everyone!
  • Do think about the value you’re adding to a conversation and the tweeters whose voices and material you want to amplify and promote. And do be aware of your privilege– you bring that onto Twitter as into the real world.
  • Social media is public: it’s potentially out there for good! So think about what you’re tweeting- would you want your supervisor / your grandmother / your prospective employer to read your tweets?
  • On a related note, be kind and respectful. Particularly of those who have less privilege than you and come from marginalised communities. Don’t punch down.
  • You could consider having a private account and a public account if you want to differentiate between your tweets and your different identities.
  • One of the questions at the talk was about whether I tweet about personal interests and follow non-academic accounts. I do but then I have a privileged position, given my job etc. I don’t mind my followers knowing that I watch Strictly Come Dancing and I think medieval memes are funny! But you could think about curating your profile (to use a buzzword that I don’t particularly like!!) To build an identity online, you might want to coin a hashtag or tweet about particular kinds of things on certain days to demonstrate your expertise (I often tweet from my collection on #DuMaurierMonday on Instagram for example). It’s worth thinking about these questions before you start mindlessly tweeting!!
  • Know how to lock your account and block/report where necessary. Twitter can be a horrid and angry place (as was raised in the questions at my talk) but I try not to engage where it will add fuel to the fire (ie if I’m being mansplained- they are looking for oxygen and will keep replying!!)

I hope the points in this post are useful. If you have any additional advice or thoughts, please comment below or tweet me! Thanks for reading and do check out my other posts of Advice for Grads and ECRs here on my blog.

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Hallowe’en Backlisted episode: Elizabeth Jane Howard

I was thrilled to be invited back to join the Hallowe’en gang at Backlisted for their episode on Elizabeth Jane Howard’s 1969 novel Something in Disguise, alongside regular Hallowe’en guest Andrew Male. You can listen to the episode at this link.

In the episode we mined the weird and psychological seam of Elizabeth Jane Howard’s fiction, including the strange stories that she published with Robert Aickman in 1951 (We Are For the Dark). My personal favourite was Howard’s extraordinary novel Falling, published in 1999 and inspired by her own experiences with a conman. It genuinely gave me nightmares!

NB the episode is full of spoilers!!! So please read at least Something in Disguise before you dive in! (And don’t find out anything about that novel before you read it- don’t even read the blurb! You won’t regret it!)

It was a huge pleasure and privilege to contribute to this discussion. Elizabeth Jane Howard is a truly magnificent novelist and I shall be reading, and rereading, her work for years to come!

If you’d like to check out the previous episodes of Backlisted on which I was lucky enough to make an appearance, there’s the Daphne du Maurier episode and the epic Beowulf episode.

Thanks again to Andy, John, Andrew, and Nicky for a fantastic experience!

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Margery Kempe Society- Teaching Blogpost

My partner-in-crime Laura Kalas and I run the Margery Kempe Society and we have finally got our blog up and running over at our website!

We will be hosting some great blogposts over the coming months from early career researchers talking about their research into Margery and her Book. We also wanted to open the conversation about teaching Kempe, however, so I wrote a post exploring how I prepare my students for approaching Margery Kempe by teaching a class on late medieval religious culture. I find that this is useful way of giving students the context for understanding Margery’s devotional practices and beliefs (her pilgrimages, her interaction with religious objects and her parish church, her personal relationship with Christ, her visions of the Virgin Mary, and so on). Find out more by visiting the Margery Kempe Society website and reading the blog here.

This particular way of teaching The Book naturally arises from my own research interests (I’ve published on Margery and devotional objects here, and her relationship with her parish church here). I’ve recently taught Kempe and her Book to new first year students at Oxford, however, and I am planning a blogpost based on that experience later in the year. If you’ve taught Margery’s Book, please do join in on the hashtag #TeachingMargery over on twitter (and tag in @MargerySociety) and let us know your experiences!

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