Wednesday, 6 August 2014

Writing - the final frontier....

The last 12 months or so of the Cwm project have been almost entirely focused on writing - the dreaded end stage of any major project, the point where you have to present your evidence to the wider world, and prove that you have spent the last three years in a worthy endeavour that is going to change their lives/ideas/minds for ever. 

And so it is with the Cwm project. As a funded research project with the aim of revealing the hidden history and importance of the Welsh Jesuit district, the College of St Francis Xavier, the expected outcome is a scholarly thesis, describing the research undertaken and the results in some detail (100,000 words). Other forms of engaging the wider world with my research are also likely, such as journal articles and this blog. 

That is a lot of writing, and for me personally, it has been writing that comes with a particular pressure. Before I began the project in October 2011, it had been several years since I had undertaken any major  writing of any kind, and so part of the process was about learning the technique of successful writing, as much as the writing itself. I have had to learn what kind of writer I am, what techniques and tools work best with my style of writing, when I write best, how to increase my writing productivity, how to manage drafts and turn them into a half decent chapter and so on. I would like to share with you some hints and tips I picked up along the way, and how they work for me:

1. Read about writing
I cannot recommend this highly enough. Sometimes doing a PhD, or other similarly large projects, can be a lonely and isolating process, particularly if you are not based near your university, or if your project is collaborative and involves moving about between several bases. The feeling of isolation particularly manifested itself when I came to writing - sat at my desk, with nothing but a blank word document and a flashing cursor to judge me, panic and writers block soon set in. There are some truly fantastic blogs out there which can help to counteract this feeling, and provide inspiration for writing techniques, make you feel you are not alone and sometimes just give you a kick to get the creative juices flowing. 

Top of my list is the wonderful Thesis Whisperer blog ( The blog covers pretty much anything and everything to do with academic research of all kinds, as well as the writing and 'public outreach' elements like writing and presenting. Thanks to this blog, I have discovered that I am a 'get it on paper and tidy it up later' sort of writer and found ways of using this to my advantage, such as having multiple drafts of different chapters on the go, not worrying about the final appearance of a sentence until the end and just getting words on paper. Another great blog is 100 days to the doctorate ( which has a similar function, and covers the entire range of academic experience. 

Both blogs are on Twitter, another great way to stay in touch with the wider academic community. @PhDForum and #phdchat are a good place to start as both are followed by thousands of academics around the world at various stages of their career and working in a range of disciplines - a vast body of knowledge and experience just waiting to be explored! Twitter and the #twitterstorian handle have been hugely influential in shaping my research and connecting me with an enormous community of academics, researchers and writers - so much so, that when asked by a masters student what my top piece of advice was for doing a phd, my reply was get yourself on Twitter. 

2. Organise your stuff 
This seems like a really obvious thing to say, but it is something I have only really started to appreciate since the main writing phase of my work has begun. Understanding the way you work, and organising your research and notes around that, is absolutely vital, and will hopefully mean that by the time you come to the writing bits, you can easily find all the relevant research on each topic, and how this relates to other bits of a similar topic, and so on. I am still learning the best way to do this, but two huge discoveries for me in the last 18 months have been Evernote and Dropbox. Before I started the Cwm project, I was very much a paper and pen kinda gal, and was forever scribbling bits of notes, or things to follow up on, interesting points etc in notebooks, on the back of articles I had printed out (or the nearest envelope!) This is all well and good, but when it came to writing, the best I could manage was a vague 'I'm sure I read something about this at some point...', usually followed by scrambling through piles of paper and notes.... 

Evernote is the best solution to this problem for me - you can have a huge number of notebooks (which function like folders on a computer) and then notes within each notebook. My main writing tools are my ancient net book, which rarely leaves my desk; my iPad, which goes everywhere with me and occasionally my phone. Evernote synchs across all devices, so if I only have my phone with me, I can scribble a note in Evernote, and it will appear on my iPad and my net book when I next open them. Notes can also be tagged with key terms, so for example, if I am writing about the Somerset family, I can search 'Somerset' in Evernote, and it brings up all entries in tags, main note content and inside any PDFs I have saved. I also use Evernote to manage my bibliography - I have a bibliography notebook, and a note for each 'theme' of my phd with a list of books, articles, websites and things that relate to it - so the search will also bring up items in my bibliography. You can link notes to each other, so if I take notes on an article or chapter I am reading, I can tag it with key terms and also link it to the entry for the book or article in my bibliography - no more searching for bits of paper everywhere! 

Dropbox is similar in that it synchs across all devices, and also works on my net book, iPad and phone. This is particularly useful for working on chapter drafts, which I do either in Word or Pages. I create, edit and save the document in Dropbox, and can open it easily on either my net book (Word) or iPad (Pages). I took the scary step of moving all my desktop folders into Dropbox and deleting them off my desktop, so any new folders, documents, photographs or downloads all go straight into Dropbox now - it means my entire desktop is portable and easily accessible, even from my phone. It is also super useful for conferences - you can save agendas, maps and contact details in Dropbox and any notes from the conference in Evernote, and they can form a vital part of remembering current thoughts and research in your field. 

Even with new tools, finding the best way to adapt them and use them to work for you is a big learning curve - for example, getting into the habit of resisting the urge to scribble a note on a post-it, rather than in Evernote - I still have to spend a few minutes copying the odd bundle of notes into Evernote every now and again! The most important thing is finding your own methods and ways of working - setting up a document for each chapter in Dropbox means I have been able to write on whichever theme I was focusing on, or jump in and out of different chapter drafts depending on what I have been reading, and search for extra material I might have read on an archive trip a few months previously, or a snippet from an article I read last week. So far it seems to be working - all eight chapters of my thesis have been drafted, and the introduction and conclusion is nearly ready - just the final push to the finish line to go! 

Friday, 1 August 2014

Catholic Record Society Annual Conference

For the last few weeks I have been involved in organising the Catholic Record Society's 57th annual conference,which took place this week at Downing College, Cambridge. My report on the conference follows, which will also be published in Recusant History in October 2014.

The 57th Annual Conference of the Catholic Record Society was held at Downing College, Cambridge, 28th-30th July 2014.  For the first time in it's history, the Society sent out a call for papers to the wider academic community for full papers, short communications or works in progress, which resulted in many new academics attending who had not previously been to the CRS conference. Set in the beautiful surroundings of Downing College and aided by their helpful and accommodating staff, the conference featured several panels over three days, ending with our traditional excursion to a place of recusant interest.
         Our first panel focused on the role of female religious from early modern and modern perspectives. The first paper was from Dr Victoria van Hyning, who as the recipient of a Williams award in 2013, presented the outcome of her research on Augustinian convent biography. Dr van Hyning presented a variety of fascinating case studies of seventeenth-century Augustinian biographies, predominantly composed at the request of superiors to further a nun's own spiritual development, or to assist other sisters on their own spiritual journeys. Van Hyning presented a persuasive argument for moving beyond the vita por mandato modela, in which even anonymous accounts of religious life could be considered autobiographical, given their role within the religious community. The second paper of the panel was a short communication from Dr Carmen Mangion, who has recently begun a project on female religious life post-1940. Dr Mangion outlined the scope and focus of her project, which will look at international perspectives of female religious life during and after Vatican II. The project has just been granted a Williams award for 2014, and will, when finished, hopefully be the subject of a full paper at a future CRS conference. After a short coffee break, the first afternoon's papers concluded with a fascinating overview of the newly repurposed Ushaw College collections, which are currently being catalogued and evaluated. Dr Jonathan Bush and Claire Marsland presented a detailed look at the archive and object collections in particular, highlighting the enormous range of material that survives at Ushaw - a particular favourite of the delegates was a photograph of ice-skating seminarians! The collection has huge research potential across many areas and disciplines and I am sure will be essential to many future projects.  
          Monday evening saw a first for the Catholic Record Society - a book launch. It was extremely apt for the Society to host the official launch of Dr Alana Harris's recent publication Faith in the Family: A Lived Religious History of English Catholicism, 1945-1982 (Manchester University Press) - Dr Harris presented her first academic paper as a PhD student at the 2005 conference, and came back last year to present one particular aspect of the book's findings. The launch included an amusing musical interlude with Tom Lehrer's The Vatican Rag entertaining the delegates, and was supported by Manchester University Press.
           The second day of the conference began with a paper from Dr Susan Royal, examining Catholic perceptions of Lollardy. Dr Royal noted that early evangelicals faced with the task of disentangling themselves from their predecessors' associations with treason and rebellion, outlining several interesting case studies, including one cleric who participated in the burning of his own books! The second paper of the day was a biographical study of the life and career of Cardinal Francis Bourne, presented by Fr Mark Vickers of the Diocese of Westminster. Bourne, created cardinal in 1911, is the subject of Fr Mark's biography of him, entitled By the Thames Divided (Gracewing). Fr Mark drew attention to the many historical controversies surrounding Bourne, and hopes that his new biography will restore him to his rightful place in British Catholic history.
          The rest of the afternoon was a panel focused on private and public writing. The first paper in the panel was presented by Clarinda Calma, Jolanta Rzegocka and Teresa Bela, who presented a fascinating study of two distinct Polish editions of Campion's Rationes Decem, both printed within a few years of the original. The Polish editions were not just a scholarly linguistic exercise, but each played a vital role in confessional debates within Poland. The next paper in the panel was from Dr Serenhedd James, who presented an overview of the letters of George Errington, a nineteenth-century churchman, which form part of Dr James's forthcoming biography on Errington. James also made some interesting points about preserving original order when digitising archives, as this had led him to some unexpected discoveries.
          After a short break, Dr Emilie Murphy presented her research into the soundscapes of early modern Catholicism, using the Catholicism and networks of the Blundell family as a case study. Dr Murphy drew attention to the ease with which appropriately Catholic messages could be spread by repurposing existing ballad tunes, which could also recall pre-Reformation traditions. The paper was accompanied by several excellent musical examples, and served to highlight the importance of this under-studied element of post-Reformation religious life. The final two papers of the day presented a snapshot of two ongoing research projects. The first was from Katie McKeogh, a PhD candidate at the University of Oxford. McKeogh presented her ongoing research into the Brudenell manuscript in the Bodleian Library, postulating that it was probably composed by someone close to Tresham, such as a servant or a relative, rather than by Tresham himself. Second, we heard from Ruth Barbour, a PhD candidate at the University of Warwick. Barbour presented her research into the fascinating character of John Whittingham, an eighteenth century Catholic who had a hugely successful career as a nurseryman and importer of plants. Barbour's examples suggested that his faith allowed him to trade with a large international community, and in some cases, made his work easier. Both papers were well received, and it is hoped both speakers will return to present the conclusion of their researches at a future conference.
         The final session took place on the third day of the conference. First up was Martin Dodwell, who outlined his recent research and new discoveries of the life and career of Anne Line, as well as his research into her presence among Shakespeare's more cryptic works. Dodwell particularly drew attention to coded references to Line in The Phoenix and the Turtle, revealing that she was known by several different names and had also had a son with her husband Roger Line, before their separation at his exile. A lively discussion followed before we moved on to our penultimate paper, presented by Giada Pizzoni, a PhD student at the University of St Andrews. Pizzoni, who was the recipient of a Rogers award in 2012, presented her fascinating research into the economic strategies employed by the Catholic community in the long eighteenth century, particularly focusing on the successful investments of Bishop Richard Challoner. The final paper of the conference was a study of Our Lady Vulnerata and her connections with the English College at Valladolid. The paper was read by the conference director on behalf of Fr Peter Harris, who was unable to be with us in person. 
The conference ended with our traditional excursion to a place of recusant interest. This year, delegates were led by Dr Francis Young to Ely Cathedral and the Bishop's Palace, which had been the prison for notable Catholics such as Thomas Tresham and John Feckenham. Dr Young led us on a very informative and interesting tour, pointing out many interesting architectural features that had only been uncovered during recent renovations. Delegates were able to explore the beautiful surroundings of the main cathedral as well, before returning to Downing. 


A total of 61 delegates attended the conference, many for the first time. Delegates who were unable to be with us in person can now follow proceedings on Twitter, from the Society @CatholicRS and by searching for #crs2014.  Several summaries have been posted by delegates on their own blogs or web pages, such as Dr Francis Young (, Liesbeth Corens ( and Hannah Thomas ( The conference director would like to personally thank all speakers, chairs, tweeters and contributors for their contributions to a very successful and thoroughly enjoyable conference. The 58th annual conference will take place at Downing College, Cambridge, 20-22 July 2015.