Reading, not Writing

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I think we’ve all been there. There is always a desperation, at least for me, to get things down, get them on paper, otherwise the thoughts that you have will fly away forever, and the wonderful thesis you had in mind will be so much less rich. We’ve all thought that as soon as you head to do your PhD, that’s it – the plan is to write and write and write some more.

Actually, though, you need to take time to read, to prepare for the actual writing. I started in the October, and didn’t write a jot, apart from notes, until the following February or March. I just read, and found my feet, working out what other people in my fields had said, and what made sense to me. I was preparing the ground in order that I had something to say when I wrote my first piece for my supervisor. I needed to fill my mind.

It isn’t that PhD students are blank slates, as such, but there is a need for them to read around in the subject area in order to get ready to produce something good. There are several reasons for this.

So that you have a comprehensive knowledge of the subject area

This doesn’t mean that you have to know everything about the field, simply that you need to have an awareness of the existing literature and important thinkers. You need to know how the field works if you are going to change it, what the standard practices an unspoken assumptions and rules are. As Eliot once said, “freedom is only truly freedom when it appears against the background of an artificial limitation.”

So that you know your terminologies

This stems from the previous reason. Know your lexicon! And know it well. I’ve a tendency to be louche with terms myself, but I’ve learnt from the German philosophers how important the actual precise meaning of words is. So when you use a technical term, make sure you know it – reading will help you with this (and perhaps writing your own glossary will too).

So that you have some theoretical framework for your project

Anything as long and absorbing as a PhD needs to be built on solid conceptual foundations. If you mess up or skip out on the preliminary readings, holes will appear at a later stage. Best get any misconceptions or holes in knowledge out the way as early as possible. Reading will also give you ideas as to how to frame your own project, which theories to use, and how to combine them. It will give you some model authors, too, which leads me to…

So that you gain a nuanced appreciation of writing styles

Not all academic writing sounds the same. It’s worth trying to find models; the authors like whom you would like to write, but also working out the forms of academic writing you really don’t like, and which don’t work for your project. Reading is also about writing, in this regard; but do learn to adapt, not imitate.

So that you don’t reinvent the wheel

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, you need to gain a clear idea of the field in which you are working so that you don’t do that which has been done before. A huge marker for a successful PhD thesis is how original and unique it is – solid reading, and a knowledge of what has been done will lessen the possibility that you’ll make the mistake of retreading old ground. I find there to be little more depressing than reading a contemporary paper which could have been written twenty years ago. It makes me fear that in reality, nothing changes.

So read. Read voraciously. Enjoy the freedom to read and wallow in the words of others. I read things I would never have dreamed of only a few years ago, and they opened whole new realms of thought to me.

"I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library.” — Jorge Luis Borges

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