Advice for New Students of English Literature

AP English Books
English Books (Photo credit: Dave Kleinschmidt)

Read Widely

Perhaps the most important advice for English literature students is to read widely.  While you will certainly be doing a great deal of reading for each of your modules, don’t forget about your own personal reading interests.  Periodicals such as The New Yorker, The Times Literary Supplement, The Atlantic Monthly, and Monocle are known for their high-quality features and book reviews.  Newspapers such as The Times, The New York Times, La Monde, and The Financial Times are world-famous for their reportage.  And, as we are living in a digital age, don’t forget about relevant blogs and other important online news sources such as Slate and Salon.  There are two main goals in casting your net widely: 1) you can begin to observe and appreciate how professional writers communicate, and 2) you never know what might spark an idea for your next great essay.

Write Regularly

Writing is an art form, and, as such, it must be practised regularly. For centuries, writers have kept journals (sometimes called ‘commonplace books’, ‘morning pages’, or ‘author’s day books’) that keep a record of insights, ideas, and observations.  It doesn’t really matter what the subject matter is—you choose. The important thing is to get a feel for how you write and to get into the habit of crafting and re-crafting your sentences and paragraphs. Be prepared to be your own worst critic! Show other people your writing and see what they think. Above all, learn to see writing as an active creative and intellectual process. You will improve if you keep practising.
 A regular record of what you have read and what insights you have come to will not only allow you to practise the art of writing, but will prove to be an invaluable tool for working through new and complex ideas explored in your modules.

Take Downtime

It can be very easy for English literature students to begin to lose sight of what led them to their degree in the first place: a genuine love of language and literature.  Don’t forget about reading for pleasure, and allowing yourself time to relax and to step away from your coursework. Begin to think about what speaks to you in your recreational reading. What draws you in?  Sometimes the greatest insights come during those moments when the mind is relaxed and simply enjoying something fun.

Develop Critical Interests in Other Areas

As you begin to read widely, and to discover new writers and publications, it is very likely that you will come across subjects that you find very interesting.  Vinology, evolutionary psychology, trench warfare, fashion history, Kabuki theatre—it could be anything!  Trust your instincts and follow your interests.  You never know what important new insights will come out of your own critical interests in other areas, or how your own personal study of an intriguing topic might contribute to your coursework.   The study of English language and literature is not an insular field—it speaks in many important ways to a wide variety of topics.

Develop a System

Developing a coherent, consistent system of note taking is an essential first step in achieving academic success.   Everyone’s note taking system will be personal and unique, sometimes even to the extent that it doesn’t make sense to anyone else.  What is most important, though, is that your system works for you, and allows you to keep track not only of your class notes, but also your own independent reading and research. While notebooks are often still the preferred method for many students, you may find it worthwhile to investigate some digital options. Evernote (free), Mendeley (free), and DevonThink (around £30) are some of the most popular digital note taking systems used by professional writers and academics.

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