Advice to Literature Students
11 Tips From Someone Who's Been there
September: herald of autumn, a month defined for me by the snap of tags coming off new stationery and the “back to school” feeling that has lingered despite it having been four (four!!!) years since I was last in full-time education.
There are no prizes for guessing what I studied at university. I have “excitable English student” written all over me – I’m literally wearing corduroy as I write this – so this month I thought I’d put my degree to good use and write about the advice I wish I’d had arriving at the University of York as a fresh-faced English undergrad.
Here are 11 pieces of advice for English Literature students starting at university this year, from myself and some of my fellow English Lit grads.
1. Don’t feel bad if you’ve not read all the “classics” before you start.
Starting strong with a suggestion from one of my fav bookstagrammers @in.the.novel.
Not to spoil one of the first major revelations of an English degree for you, but the canon of “classic” literature is very flawed. It’s overwhelmingly pale, male, and stale, so if that’s not your jam, that is fine, it doesn’t make you unprepared for your degree. The only books you need to read are the ones on your syllabus – which brings me to my next point.
2. Do the reading. Seriously.
This one may be obvious but it’s harder than it sounds. University is basically an obstacle course of distractions from the thing you’re ostensibly there to do, and striking a balance between getting enough work done and living your life like the bright young thing you are is hard. You don’t have to be a perfect student and read everything on the (intimidatingly long) list the uni will send you, but if you want to get something out of your lectures and seminars, you should at least read the key texts.
Find a way to do this that is realistic for you. I’m very motivated by deadlines, so I found it next to impossible to read my set texts in advance. I did almost all my reading the week before the relevant class, with the exception of behemoths like Middlemarch or Moby Dick. Admittedly, it sometimes meant I was up all night trying to finish a book before a seminar (for instance, there was one party where I had to duck out every hour or so to read a few more pages of The Sound and the Fury), but it also meant that the books were fresh in my mind when I was discussing them. Whatever you have to do to get them read, do it, because you’ll get much more out of the discussion if you do!
3. Always be reading something for fun
This is maybe the most important piece of advice I have. English Lit degrees are famous for putting people off reading because it turns it into a chore. If 100% of your reading is for work, reading itself will come to feel like something you have to do, instead of something that can be fun.
One of the best things I did to preserve my love of reading during my degree was always having something that wasn’t work reading on the go, even if I only picked it up once or twice a term. Keep that door open, or you might be shocked by how long it takes you to get back into reading for pleasure once your degree is over!
4. Speak up in seminars
It pays to be a Chatty Cathy in an English Lit degree. One big shift from school learning to university is that you’re put in the driver’s seat, and if you sit back in silence during all your academic discussions, you’ll miss out! At least in my case, I had a lot of great discussions, made real connections with professors (VERY useful come dissertation and master’s application time!), and got to know other students by speaking up in seminars. Looking back, it probably helped me become a more confident person because I was expressing my opinion so much. That awkward silence that happens when everyone’s just sat down and the tutor throws out the first question isn’t as hard to break as it feels in the moment, so just do it.
5. How you feel about a book is not analysis
This was a suggestion from bookstagram user @whatcarlaread and I couldn’t agree more.
One of the things that I took away from my degree was that what you love to read and what you love to study are often two completely different things. For instance, I love to read mostly contemporary women authors, often LGBT+, often exploring themes like friendship or romantic fulfilment. What did I love to study? Post-war American literature written by dead white men ruminating on the American Dream and themselves.
Love and interest often go hand in hand, but not always, and you cannot sustain an essay on love alone. You have to have something to SAY about the material at hand, so follow where your interest leads you and don’t be afraid if it wildly diverges from your usual taste. In fact, that might even be a good thing – see number 3 on this list!
And, on the other side of the coin…
6. Just because a book has literary value doesn’t mean you have to like it
This was a suggestion from bookstagrammer @anthe.reads!
Just as your feelings about a book don’t necessarily translate to analysis of it, acknowledging that a book has literary value doesn’t obligate you to love it. I hated Moby Dick. Dragged myself through every single page of it. It is undoubtedly a giant of American literature, and for good reason. You’re not missing something if you don’t emotionally respond to a “great” work of literature – all art is subjective, after all.
7. Reference as you write
I hate to get technical, but there’s no point in sugar-coating it: essays will kick your ass and you need to be prepared.
One of the best ways to do this is to get familiar with the referencing system you need to use and start using it straight away. Don’t be that guy who’s up all night before a deadline because they didn’t note page numbers and don’t have a clue how to put together a list of Works Cited – if you can, when you’re doing research for your essay, write up the citation and the page numbers so you can just slot it all in as you draft.
8. Don’t be afraid to argue with your sources
In my first few essays, I was super scared to argue with the people I was citing. They were professors, and I was eighteen! It made me feel unsure about my argument to find dissenting voices.
I shouldn’t have worried. A disagreeable source can be as useful to you as an agreeable one if you argue with it well, and it will show your markers that you understand the critical landscape of the topic that you’re talking about if you can give a range of perspectives in your secondary reading. So get aggy with that secondary source! They’re wrong and you should let them know it!
9. The essays that you find the most brain-bending will invariably be your best ones
I believe that there comes a point in any good essay where it feels like a really tight and complicated knot you’re not sure if you’ll ever untangle. These moments are scary and, depending on how close you are to the deadline, might make you consider faking your own death and running for the hills. But I really believe this means you’re onto something!
Untangling the knot of your argument is what makes an essay good: it means that you’re challenging yourself and pushing to really understand the concepts you’re working with. A lot of the essays where I didn’t have this moment were only fine; all my best marks came from the ones that made my skull feel like a blender and my brain like a grey matter smoothie. Soothe yourself with this idea when you’re frazzled at a 9am hand-in and feel like you may as well just post a steaming cow pat to the English department.
10. Go to office hours even when you get good marks back
Essay feedback, good and bad, is what’ll help you improve. Talking to the tutor that marked your work about it and what you could have done to make it better is important whether you got an astronomical score or a really low one – make the most of the opportunity to pick this person’s brain, particularly if you’re considering further study after your undergrad degree!
11. Whenever you think you have the least time for a break, that’s when you need one the most
Finally, it’s important to remember that you’re not a machine you can feed books into and get perfect essays out of.
As a confessed procrastinator and someone who worked right up to the deadline on almost every essay I ever did, I know that sometimes it can feel like if you take your eyes off your work for even a second it’ll be the difference between scraping through and abject failure. This is never the case. If you’re tired, get some rest. If you’re hungry, eat. You won’t produce your best work if you’re fatigued and half-starved and thinking in circles because you’ve been looking at a screen for too long. If at all humanly possible, take a full day away from your essays before you go in for a final, pre-submission edit. Your work will benefit and so will you.