Shhh! Don’t tell anyone I did this but…
This is the story of how my university contextual studies essay formed the basis of an idea that became a magazine.
When I was studying for my 10,000 word Masters Degree thesis, I read a few books, but probably not as many as you might imagine I would, to create an essay of that length.
My overarching topic was ghostwriting. I chose this as a theme at the start because it intrigued me, and when I began reading, it soon became apparent:
a. Why I was drawn to the topic (because of my interest in writing and authorship)
b. What other topics of interest to me connect to it (anonymity, commercialisation of art, artistic identity, digital vs analogue worlds)
c. What opinions I might draw about how these topics connect and intersect
The key reference texts I used to write my essay included:
- Roland Barthes The Death of the Author: a classic piece of cultural theory about authorship and identity
- Paul Auster City of Glass: a detective novel and example of metafiction (writing that poses questions about its relationship between fiction and reality)
- Jenny Erdal Ghosting: a memoir about Erdal’s experience as a ghostwriter
- Zoe Margolis Girl with a One Track Mind: an anonymous sex blog (Zoe was outed as the blog’s author after her blog went into print)
- Michel Foucault What is an Author?: another classic cultural theory essay
These five resources formed the structure of my essay, with me writing a chapter on each text, bookended by an introduction and conclusion. Within each chapter I quoted lightly from a number of other relevant sources, such as from George Orwell’s Why I Write and Anonymity by John Mullan.
Athough I referenced much more material, my thesis was essentially a comparative study between two cultural theory texts. I studied Barthes and Foucault’s essays on authorship in relationship to three different kinds of writer: a novelist, blogger and ghostwriter. I too considered a number of questions, including:
- How did Barthes and Foucault interpret the concept of authorship differently?
- What does it mean and what does it feel like to write under different ‘guises’?
- What affect does the status of and identity of an author have on the reading of his or her work?
- What degree of satisfaction is gleaned from the creative experience of writing for pleasure or for profit?
- In the digital world, more of us have become authors, but many online writers do so anonymously. How does this affect the quality and integrity of the work produced?
I imagine this is enough chatter about my MA thesis to illustrate my point that what you choose to write about for contextual studies can have a positive influence on what you then go on to produce in the studio, and in the professional world when you leave college.
For me, I was so involved with the research for my thesis that when it ended, I didn’t want to stop. To fill the gap it had left in my life, I developed a magazine concept based on the ideas I had explored in my essay. I then worked with a close friend – and many other generous contributors – to produce an anonymous magazine that we launched at our MA show. We went on to publish two further copies of it, before we realised it was an utterly lovely yet completely uncommercial idea.
But what does all this mean in terms of helping you to decide what you need to read about in order to form the basis of your final year essay?
My thesis was over three times as long as the one you are expected to write. You don’t need to go into anywhere near as much detail, consider as many resources, or answer as many questions as I attempted to do at MA. Nevertheless, I felt that it would be useful to share this experience with you as an example of how your reading will form the shape of what you write, so you must start with books that interest you.
I chose to decode two rather dense cultural theory texts for my essay, so I lightened the reading work – and the resulting essay – by combining these with other texts that were more entertaining.
You can do the same: choose perhaps two key books related to your topic that really spark your interest, then compliment them with lighter articles taken from respected sources.
Stay close to home
If you really enjoy a topic, chances are you already have one or more books about it at home. The books you have at home are likely to be ones you are familiar with, have read all or part of already, and are therefore great ‘essay resource’ candidates.
If you don’t have books on your topic at home, find some in the college library. You do not have to buy books, or spend time ordering in obscure texts for the purpose of this essay. If you are already really involved in your research and you feel it’s just something you have to do, go ahead and buy. Do not delay starting because you can’t find a book.
While you read
- Establish a few key facts about your topic and take notes
- Collect pithy quotes to evidence these facts as well as to illustrate other writer’s opinions on the topic
- Note down the page numbers, author(s), publication date and title of the book next to the quotes taken from it. You will need this information later
- Look out for references to other material and/or authors referenced within the text that you may want to look up as well
- As you read, you will naturally start to form an opinion about the topic you are learning about – this is good!
- Note down your thoughts as you read including anything you agree/disagree with and anything important that you do not understand fully. Your opinion will form the backbone of your essay