The Faustian Bargain

A blog about life outside the academy

Entries in writing (6)


Blogging out of the post-PhD hole

In my previous post I started to talk about my personal circumstances after finishing my PhD. If I made the transition from institutionalised student to real-life earner sound easy, it wasn't. I had to hit rock bottom first.

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Introducing: Life after the PhD

I'll admit it – the Red Pen, Blue Pen blog, such as it has been, has lacked focus. Blogging about proofreading is sort of difficult. There are few relevant news items to build posts around, and the confessional approach doesn't really work either ("Reader, I spellchecked him ...").

What I really want to write about is wordsmithery in general – editing and writing together (a red pen and a blue pen, see?) is the thinking behind this site after all. And in particular, I want to write about how I'm relying on words to build a career as a PhD scholar who is happy outside the academy. With education funding and the economy being what they are, this is a tough time for a lot of recent or soon-to-be PhDs. As a result, blogs and online support networks (some more commercial than others) have been mushrooming into life – including Escape the Ivory Tower, On the Fence, Post AcademicAdventures in Gradland and Sell Out Your Soul.

You can read my professional biography elsewhere on this site, but here's a more personal life story to give you an idea of where I'm from.

I started my PhD (a reception history of Eastern European music during the Cold War) in 2003. I was studying part-time so I also worked as an editor for the Grove Music online encyclopedia. For the five years that I was working on my thesis, my plan was to find an academic post, preferably in London or the Southeast, and settle down. The PhD – as I saw it then – was a line on my CV and the essential credential for an academic career. The only problem was that I wasn’t getting anywhere in my search for a job. Not even an interview. 

This will be familiar stuff for many postgraduates. It's what happened in the 18 months after finishing my PhD, from summer 2008 to winter 2009/10, that finally locked me on the course on which I am now on.

First, my daughter was born (just a week after my viva; in fact I had half-expected a call to come to the hospital while I was being examined. I don't know whether that would have increased or decreased my levels of stress that day ...). Then the academic job market ground to a complete halt. Then we moved house and took on a larger mortgage. Then my regular work from Grove abruptly dried up. In November and December 2009 I had to do some tough thinking about how to move forward.

Calm downHaving reviewed my options, Red Pen, Blue Pen is one of the results. I now make two livings, as a writer (I write about contemporary music) and an editor. Neither is big enough to stand on its own, but they are remarkably complementary. There's something very Daoist about alternating your days between creating your own work and polishing the work of others. It's a yin-yang thing that is very satisfying (and since I started training in kung fu last year it's also intellectually pleasing to see some of its principles playing out elsewhere in my life). I could be more financially secure and I could certainly have a little more free time, but I am at least fashioning a living for myself using the skills that I acquired from five years' work as a PhD student.  

What, precisely, I think those skills are is a story for another day...


Why Rewriting and Editing are Important

"The best writing is rewriting" -- E.B.White

Today I came across this nice post on the joy and importance of rewriting by writer and editor Caitlin Kelly. As she points out,

every writer always needs someone who'll read or listen to their stuff with a critical but constructive attitude. It can be your room-mate, spouse, best friend, sister or anyone whose intellectual opinion you respect. The ideal first reader is someone who reads a lot of good writing, whether for work or for pleasure. Above all, your first reader must offer your work their full and undivided attention.

And she's not wrong: it's impossible for the lone writer to really see how their work comes across, or how it can be made even better. Kelly advises:

Always read a hard printed copy with a highlighter marker or pen in hand to catch typos, grammatical glitches and places it just doesn't flow. Don't just rely on your spell-check and other software helpers.

Having your work looked at by a decent copy-editor won't do any harm either ...


Article on Aleks Kolkowski and Leon Michener in today's Guardian

My latest feature for Guardian Film and Music went to press today – a preview of the ‘Visual Music’ concert and installation taking place at this year’s Spitalfields Festival:

There is a photograph, taken in the late 1970s, of Iannis Xenakis demonstrating his newest innovation to three schoolchildren. As the composer stands in front of a chunky microcomputer, mysteriously hooked up to a large architect’s drafting table, a small boy cheekily reaches up to touch the keyboard. The grinning Xenakis – a far cry from the ultra-rational modernist of legend – is clearly in his element.

Continue reading here.

Details of the concert can be found here. This year’s Spitalfields Festival has a special focus on Xenakis, including a Xenakis Pavilion, designed by architect Chris Dyson, and a performance by students of the Royal Academy of Music of the percussion masterpiece Pléïades.


Writing Workshops at Darmstadt 2010

For the first time in its 45-year history, musicologists and critics are to be incorporated into the Darmstadt Summer School for New Music. According to the IMD website, the idea for bringing writers into the Ferienkürse fold 'came about through the analysis of the dissatisfactory current situation of writing about music in general, and New Music in particular'. The aims of the course will include training in basic working methods – writing concert reviews, specialist articles, journalistic pieces, etc. – as well as the application of this instruction to practical outcomes. This is therefore an exciting prospect not only for young journalists and critics, but also for non-attendees, who will benefit from the fruits of blogs, internet broadcasts and a dedicated course magazine all produced in the course of the Summer School. The full press release is below the fold:

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