Things I Learned While Writing My Latest Papers

My Masters year at the Shakespeare Institute is proving to be something of a learning experience. Not only have I found myself immersed in the relatively unfamiliar world of English literature, I’ve also had to figure out how to deal with multiple-essay deadlines. This time last year I thought having two essays due within the same week was pretty tough. Three or four essays due on the same day is, predictably, even less fun.

Having twice now gone through the process of researching for, writing, and editing several essays simultaneously, I feel like I’ve learned a few important things about how I work best. I’ve found new ways to make myself more productive each day, and I’ve played around with different strategies to make my projects as interesting to me as they can be. Here are some of the most important things I’ve come to realise:

1. I really, really prefer working with paper stuff (sorry, trees!)

In the run-up to my first MA deadline, I kept all of my research materials, plans, and drafts on my laptop. My thinking was that I could take it all with me anywhere I went, and that it’d be safe as I keep all current work in a Dropbox folder. I’ve since found, though, that paper is my friend. I can scribble all over it in colour-coded pens and flick absent-mindedly through mind-maps, checklists, and articles if I’m in need of a little inspiration. I can’t spot links in my research very as easily if all I can see is this:

Screen Shot 2016-05-08 at 01.30.04

This, though? Now you’re talking:


Together with my fabulous colour-coded whiteboard for day-planning, and outrageously useful reference manager (Zotero), this has made me a happy, super-organised camper.


2. The Pomodoro Technique is man’s greatest invention

I’ve mentioned it before, and I’ll put it out there again. I LOVE THE POMODORO TECHNIQUE. It’s a simple but fantastic way of managing time that’s had a massive impact on my productivity. Using an app to manage my timings, I work solidly for 25 minutes without interruptions (no Facebook or Pinterest!), and then take a break for 8 minutes. (This equals one ‘pomodoro’.) Rinse and repeat 10 times per day, taking extended 30-minute breaks after every 4 pomodoros. Et voila! Productivity and sensible work hours; I can finish up at 7pm and feel like I’ve made good progress.

I like to keep track of my pomodoro achievements in my diary so I can feel good about how much work I’ve been doing (look for the teeny tomatoes!):


And on a related side-note – my Filofax continues to be awesome. It lives in my handbag and brings organisation and pretty colours to my life on a daily basis. Woo!

3. Writing about things that excite me always works best

I love my work, and I think that’s important. Thinking about Shakespeare and stage design and theatre and the Elizabethan period gives me warm fuzzy feelings that I try to nurture wherever I can. This is something that will (I hope) fuel me through my PhD and MA dissertation projects, but, in the meantime, I’ve been working on picking out subjects to write about that really interest me. If a module isn’t 100% in tune with my main interests, then I think long and hard about how to bring them in when I come to write my final essay. Does a set essay question allow me to focus specifically on set design, or can I write my own question and apply the course rubric to an alternative period or element of theatre? Usually, yes. This Easter, I fell madly and deeply for my essay topics. I would quite happily spend hours in a coffee shop reading about techniques used in transposing Shakespeare into film or novel forms, and fill train journeys writing about nineteenth-century approaches to stage design. Basically, I got emotionally engaged in my work and felt sort of compelled to give my research the best write-up I could. THAT’S REALLY COOL AND NOT NERDY AT ALL, RIGHT?

Regardless of how this is all reflected in my grades (gulp), I found the whole process so much less traumatising this time around. I was less stressed because I knew that I was spending a decent amount of time working and developing my ideas, I could see a big chunk of decent research in my ever-expanding project folder, and I was actually enjoying the stuff I was writing about. I’m absolutely not yet a multiple-essay-deadline expert yet, though. I still pulled an all-nighter the night before the deadline and submitted my last essay with less than ten minutes to spare. (I do not recommend this approach…) I’m happy to say, though, that I wasn’t actually WRITING the essays during that time. They’d all existed in various draft forms for ages, and I was just editing like a madwoman until my time ran out.

I live in hope that I will one day revert to my angelic undergraduate self and meet deadlines with 24 hours to spare. Thankfully, however, it seems I’ve now come to the end of the multiple-essay-deadline part of my MA. Now I just have to write my dissertation, which, although pretty long (15,000 words), is a single piece of work. How am I going to go about researching for and writing it? My plan is to throw every one of the work techniques I’ve been refining these past few weeks at it, to make it the best it can possibly be. What can go wrong?