We are all guilty of not practising what we preach from time to time, but never am I more aware of this than when I’m passing sage old advice on to my undergraduate students. I preach time management and essay construction, and often think, ‘wow, this stuff is golden.’ Things like:
1. Make a Project Plan, then start today.
Ahead of a major project, I tell my students to consider other looming deadlines, work schedules, and having to make time to go home for Uncle Frank’s 60th Birthday. Then I tell them to honestly assess their priorities, and determine when their project can and will get done. The majority of us are guilty of procrastinating, and meeting minor deadlines (such as writing a blog post) can give us a false sense of achievement when really time is quickly ticking down to deadline hell. Creating a project plan with several smaller, more achievable goals can help make a mammoth task seem manageable, and still leave time to buy an outfit for Frank’s party. The key is to start today.
2. Write a Thesis Statement. At some point in my lost youth I wrote a PhD proposal with a thesis title and a 50 word summary of what it is I’m supposed to be doing. This is my thesis statement. It is the very essence of what I’m trying to achieve. Most of the time I can’t think of it off the top of my head, which is frightening. I could explain it to you over coffee in about 20 minutes. Since I began telling my students about this concept, I have referred back to my own original thesis statement often. It’s good stuff. I knew what I was talking about. I’m trying to keep my writing relevant to that now. It’s revolutionary.
3. PEAR. The PEAR Model is the ideal paragraph structure, as introduced to me by Dermot Burns in the English Department. It stands for:
Refer back to the Question.
As your writing develops it changes a little. It might take two paragraphs, or it might draw together two interconnected points – but the basic structure is the same. Your argument is made up of several points. You back those points up with evidence. You analyse that evidence. Then you refer the analysis back to the main question (or, in my case, my thesis statement). Then you just do that a few hundred times and *poof* thesis!
4. The answer to Analysis is Why? Excuse my horrendous sentence structure, but in essence the secret to providing good analysis is constantly asking the question, ‘Why?’. Why is this relevant? Why does this matter? Why is this important? Why should my reader care? The course book my students use is Tory Young’s Studying English Literature : A Practical Guide and it’s a really good book for reminding one, as a literary student, what the purpose of one’s existence is. It’s very easy to forget that! We’re not curing cancer, we’re not building bridges, we’re not solving crimes (although I’d like to do this when I grow up) but we do have a purpose, and that purpose is analysis. You know what they say about the unexamined life, right?
5. Keep track of your sources. Have you ever jotted down a particularly eloquent or provocative thought and neglected to scribble down where you got it from? At some point you will try to use this argument in your own work. You know you didn’t come up with it. You know someone did. You have no recollection of who that person is. You know what that means? You can’t use it. Nope, you just have to let it go. Certainly Google can help, and as the internet gets better and we become better at using it you can indeed dump random thoughts into the magic search box and there is a good chance it’ll spit out the critic who so inspired you. But it can’t spit out the poorly paraphrased argument you had with your friend Dave in the pub, and until it can we need to practice keeping track of our sources. I tell my students to write the full bibliographic details of whatever book, article or lecture they happen to be researching at the top of a blank page before they doodle anything. What a clever suggestion!