Lessons in Doing Doctoral Writin





Alex Tang



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Lessons in Doing Doctoral Writing


Thanks to Sivin who points me to Michael Jensen who gave some interesting comments on The Blogging Parson: Twelve Steps For Doctoral Students on his blog, The Blogging Parson


Lessons I have learnt about doctoral study on the way:


1. Few books, but good. Learn to be a good re-reader rather than try to read absolutely everything. Who cares if you can read 1000s of mediocre books and articles? Find the best. Read them carefully.


2. It may not look it, but thinking is hard work. Thinking takes time to be good. So you will need rest, and holidays, and fun, and diversions. And these will actually help the work progress! Even TV is good.


3. Footnotes should be fun. Slathering everything in footnotes is a bad habit that helps nothing. References are sometimes necessary, but if a footnote is merely a sign of indecision - 'I couldn't work out whether to put it in or not, so I put in a footnote' - cut it out or add it in.


4. Don't wait for inspiration, start writing from day one! Getting words down on paper is really important, because you actually do much of your thinking while you are writing. This business of leaving writing till the third year is weird to me.


5. Read outside you topic. Attend seminars and lectures. It is amazing how much benefit I have gained from this. It is amazing how unforeseen connections will spring up from completely unrelated contexts. Also, if you are aspiring to be a teacher in a certain area, use the free time to fill in the holes in your knowledge.


6. Find readers for your work/read others' work. Your supervisor will read your work twice a term, perhaps. You will need more than that! The price you might have to pay, is that you will have to read someone else's work: but the pay-off there is that it is comforting to see how they are struggling too!


7. Overcome the evangelical tendency to polemicise. We tend to see life as a series of battles between the forces of good and the forces of evil. But good scholarship is not about polemics first and foremost. Simple either/ors are a bad habit, because the truth is rarely that simple. Your work will gain in sophistication and ultimately in its polemical usefulness if you can avoid a 'goodies' /'badies' mentality.


8. Find surpring friends. Look for surprising agreements or harmonies with your work in other writers/thinkers. Show how someone completely different to you comes to the same conclusion. This is a very powerful strategy for apologetics, too.


9. Find the toughest opponent. Fall under their sway, if only for a week or two: be convinced by their case for a time. Then your reply will carry authority. Your work is only as strong as the opponents you defeat! My tendency when I started was to find any nutter to have a debate with, because debating nutters is always easier than debating reasonable people whose assumptions on the whole I share but who come to different conclusions...


10. Don't talk about you work when you don't feel up to it. One of the shattering experiences for a graduate student is when a family member or friend asks you, 'so, what are actually doing then'? and NOTHING COHERENT comes out of your mouth. This happens to me ALL THE TIME. And you walk away feeling very discouraged about it. Have a prepared speech perhaps! However: I have found writing and talking about my project in other contexts extremely helpful - I find blogging like this. It is a way of accessing other areas of your brain because it is writing/talking in a different mode, somehow.


11. Trust your methodological instincts; go with what you know. You got this far because you have some idea of what theological work is about. You have read quite a bit already. So, use what you already have to your advantage! I often feel intimdated by those theologians who know more philosophy than me (that's most of 'em): I forget that my training was far more in the area of biblical studies and biblical theology. I need to lean more on this, and see it as an advantage, while at the same time not neglecting to deepen my philosophical understanding.


12. Keep doing ministry. Keep serving the people of God, because the tendency of the doctoral student is to wallow in the solitary self-indulgence of it all. Keep preaching/teaching/ministering. After all, what are we doing it all for? If you aren't already doing some ministry in the church, my question is: what are doing entering into graduate theological study? Are you sure you are called to this? Addenda: I was going to say something about prayer, but I feel foolish and not a little shame hectoring anyone about prayer. I was also going to say as matter of importance: learn to write well. There is an AWFUL lot of bad and unclear and dull writing out there. Write well. (emphasis is mine)


I like his emphasis on reading a few good books. However I must add that one must read a few good books critically. Unfortunately this does not exclude reading the other 1000 books. His comment on footnotes is interesting. I have been told that if it is good enough to be in the footnote, it should be in the text. My greatest joy is to find friends or conversation partners. It never ceases to amaze me that some great world authority figure will take time to answer an email from a humble PhD student. We also need to find a 'devil's advocate', a friend who will mercilessly critique your writing.


Writing is hard work. However as Michael has pointed out, writing is essential because it helps us to think and focus so as to put our ideas onto paper (or word processing software). Then we need to revise, rearrange, rethink, rewrite, revise, and rewrite. Michael's advice on keep doing ministry is controversial. There are some who advocate taking the 3 years off totally while there are others who advise to remain in ministry. Personally I feel that doing a doctorate is a timeout from ministry, a sabbatical. It should be time devoted solely to research, thinking and writing. Then, by the grace of God we should return to ministry a better person for it.



|posted 23 April 2007|


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