Lisa Kazianka is an MPhil student and currently working on her thesis focusing on letter novels in young adult literature. She procrastinated by writing this very long blog post.
It’s Easter Term!!! And what does that mean? It’s time for thesis writing! I can’t believe how quickly time has passed since I first got off the plane and on a bus to Cambridge, and embarked on this beautiful journey that is the Children’s Literature MPhil. Essays 1 and 2 seemed so far off that first day of term 1 – but now, seven months later, we’ve made it. After hours and hours of reading, thinking, writing, cutting and editing, we’ve arrived at the final challenge, carrying all those lessons we’ve learned in our metaphorical backpack, ready to grab the necessary tools and put that knowledge to use. (At least in theory J.)
This post is not supposed to be a list of dos and don’t’s about thesis writing. I wish I could provide you with that, but a) by no means do I feel like an authority on the topic and b) thesis writing is a very individual process and strategies that might be working for me, might not do so for anyone else.
Instead, I decided to provide you with a list of my favourite working/writing spots in Cambridge. There’s many, many things I love about this city – and the variety of places to study and write at is definitely one of them.
I am one of those people that don’t have a problem with working in their College room – it is convenient after all: you don’t have to go/cycle anywhere, you don’t have to carry your books anywhere, you can have all the food and tea you want there. But most of the time it’s nice to get out anyway, if only to avoid the dilemma of the ‘lonely writer’ or to enjoy the (surprisingly regular amount of) sunshine somewhere while working.
For different stages or tasks in the writing process I have different preferences/requirements regarding the workspace.
Initial reading and note-taking
If, say, I want to do some initial reading of secondary sources including some note-taking, I’d go to a café and bring a few books and my laptop with me. Always in my bag is my thesis-writing notebook, where I jot down any mind-blowing, brilliant thoughts, questions and ideas that might come to me at any time of the day and that otherwise I would forget. It also helps me keep track of my progress. For example, I write down which texts I read on a given day (including how relevant/useful they could be) or how many words I managed to produce. If I reach a motivational low because I think I’ve not really done anything so far (which can often feel like it in the beginning stages, when we’re mostly reading), I look back on my week and pat myself on the shoulder, saying ‘It was actually okay. Just keep going.’ It (mostly) helps.
So, my favourite cafés in Cambridge for this task are (in no particular order):
- the Grads Café, with its beautiful view over the river – although it’s not always easy to get a table near a plug for your laptop, but the good working atmosphere totally makes up for that.
- West Café, which some might consider to be a bit far out but it’s actually not that long a cycle from town. It’s a huge glass building, which means that there’s lots of light and it’s spacious, so you’ll usually get a good spot on a big table where you can spread all those books and notes (and coffees and croissants).
- the Copper Kettle, with a view of King’s and 10% off if you show your student card – yay! The great thing about the Copper Kettle is that during the week, especially before lunch, it’s virtually empty, even though it’s on King’s Parade. (I’d say, avoid trying to work there on the weekend, though.)
- the Espresso Library, just off Parker’s Piece. I feel very productive and motivated when working there because I always get the impression that almost everyone who goes there does so with the intention to work, write and revise. Plus, they’ve got healthy, yummy smoothies to keep you going.
Reading Primary Texts
Another important task is, of course, the reading and rereading (and rereading and rereading) of primary texts. In my thesis, I’m looking at epistolary novels, i.e. novels written in letters. Because I’ve still not decided which ones exactly I am going to use in my analysis, I am rereading the ones I’ve already read a while ago and – I know I shouldn’t because there’s so little time but I’m doing it anyway – finding new ones and reading those to see if they might be a good fit.
The novel I’m currently reading is We Are Still Tornadoes (2016) by Michael Kun and Susan Mullen. My selection of texts also includes the following books: The Perks of Being a Wallflower (1999) by Stephen Chbosky, Ketchup Clouds (2012) by Annabel Pitcher, Love Letters to the Dead (2014) by Ava Dellaira, Because You’ll Never Meet Me (2015) and its sequel Nowhere Near You (2017) by Leah Thomas, and the To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before series by Jenny Han (2014-2017). (Obviously these are way too many primary
sources for an MPhil thesis – I’ll have to make my decision soon!!)
If you’ve read any of these or have any book recommendations, I’d love to hear about it in the comments section!
- My favourite place for reading primary texts is Bill’s. They have a nice corner with comfy armchairs and the best thing – I never have any phone signal and the Wi-Fi never works! This means: no distractions! I can just sit there for hours with a cup of tea and read, read, read and forget about the outside world.
- Alternatively, and especially now that it’s getting quite springy/summery, I’d suggest to take a book to one of the many parks in Cambridge, for a bit of fresh air and green surroundings. One of the beauties of studying children’s literature is that we’re not restricted to labs and we don’t have to book times to use expensive machines – we just take all our books and writing equipment and go wherever we want!
Writing and editing
It’s nice to work and read in cafés, but sometimes, of course, it can be hard to concentrate because of all the noise or because of the temptation of nice food or because you end up talking to the people you’re there with more than actually doing some work. For actual writing, i.e. working on thesis drafts, and for editing as well, I prefer working in libraries (or sometimes my room).
Here’s my favourite Cambridge libraries (again, in no particular order):
- the library that’s part of my College accommodation – because you can literally go there in your pyjamas.
- my actual College library. I’m a member of Girton College, and we have a separate Graduate campus with its own library (see above). The library at main college is about a 20-minute cycle away (I am a VERY slow cyclist), but it’s beautiful and very good to work in. Plus, if I go there, I don’t just go to work for half an hour, but to do a proper writing day. If I need a break, I take a walk around our beautiful college grounds. I know, I know, Girton is ‘far away’ – especially if we take the Faculty of Education as a point of departure – but if you ever feel like a nice little cycle… 😉 Otherwise, I’m sure you have a great College library as well!
- the Faculty library. I LOVE working there. It’s such a nice environment, you usually run into people you know and can chat with them about your writing, the staff is really nice and helpful and when you sit at the computers by the windows on the ground floor you can watch all those cute little squirrels running around in the grass if you need a little bit of happiness or distraction. Also, there’s bean bags and lots of (picture)books for whenever you need a break. A good place to work all day!
- Homerton College library. There’s ALL the books and you can literally sit there 24/7 and write, write, write. Many a long writing session for the essays has happened there for me and I’m assuming/hoping I’ll get some good writing done there for the thesis as well! Lovely staff, lots of space, very good working atmosphere.
Okay. This blog post turned out waaay longer than I expected. Thesis-writing procrastination for today – check! If any of you actually made it through this post – congratulations and thank you, and well done on procrastinating with me J.
On a final note…
Good luck! And lots of motivation to my course mates and everyone currently working on their thesis or similar assignments. If you think about it, writing a thesis might be challenging and a lot of work, but it is also very very interesting and very very rewarding.
And on that note, I’d better get back to it! J