Skip to content

Using a diary to process your reading

Helena Attlee

If you are starting the research for a PhD thesis or a book, your reading will probably lead you into unfamiliar territory. This is always exciting, but let’s be honest, it can be overwhelming too. It’s not easy to be confronted by your own ignorance at every turn, and in the past, this early stage of the research process has often left me feeling anxious and insecure.

The new book I’m writing has a volcano in it, but it’s not a volcanology book. It’s not a history book either, or a book about economics, food, travel, agriculture, politics or literature, although there will be something of all those things in it. I signed the contract in November 2020 and embarked immediately on the usual long days of reading and assiduous note-taking. Like every other book I have ever written, this one encompasses plenty of subjects entirely new to me, but this time I managed to bypass all the usual anxieties because of my ‘volcano diary’.

I could have called my diary a reading or research journal, but as you will see, it became a little more than that. If you decide to write a diary, you could call it anything you like, but give it a name that amuses you and links it firmly to your PhD.

Starting a diary

Diaries are generally written at night, but this diary demands a different routine:

Open your diary as soon as you reach your desk each morning. You will have spent the previous day reading and taking notes, but now you must write rapidly – without looking back at those notes, without stopping and without consideration – about everything you can remember from your reading, simply pouring it all onto the page.

Why not do this at the end of the day? Because the unconscious is one of your most valuable tools as a writer. It needs time and space to work, and unlike the conscious mind, it has no respect for office hours. When you leave your desk each evening, it will continue to churn away, processing your reading overnight and creating its own unique narrative. Writing first thing in the morning as I have described is the best way to access this valuable resource. Here’s how it works:

  1. As well as allowing you to process the new material you have been gathering, this uninhibited method of freewriting will also reveal places where you haven’t absorbed your reading from the previous day, expose areas of confusion and highlight contradictions in your thinking.
  2. By writing quickly and unselfconsciously, you will also be able to capture thoughts, connections and satisfying turns of phrase as they occur to you, and to consider where the things you have learned might sit in the overall scheme of your thesis.
  3. Your diary will also be a place to record your thoughts about the authors you meet on the page, to explore anxieties and misgivings, and even pin down the practical problems and distractions getting in the way of your work.
  4. What you write may be unexpected, as you find yourself drilling down into what you really think, facing up to problems and uncovering new ideas. And as an additional bonus, freewriting often produces new-minted sentences that you will eventually be able to drop straight into your writing.

Sense of progress

Writing a volcano diary transformed the early weeks of my research. Without it, things would have followed the usual pattern, and I would soon have been undermined by the weight of other people’s knowledge. Instead I began each new day with a sense of the progress I had made the day before. The habit of recording my reading also helped me metabolise all the new knowledge I was amassing more rapidly, enabling me to make it my own and shape it to fit my purpose.

Vignettes of your reading and thinking

The next stage of my research required foreign travel, but that was impossible during lockdown and its aftermath. When restrictions lifted, I was able to book tickets, but by then I had been teaching and working on other projects for months, divorcing myself so successfully from the book that I was quite indifferent about it. All the excitement I had felt and the knowledge I had accrued were gone, and yet the contract and its deadline were still there, the book was still a wonderful project and a magnificent opportunity that couldn’t be ignored.

Packing in a rush, I flung the volcano diary into my suitcase. I pulled it out again on the journey and read it from cover to cover. In it, I found vignettes of all the reading and thinking I had done, the connections I had made in those locked-down months at the end of the year, and a record of all the research that could only be done on the ground. The impact was miraculous. The diary rekindled my enthusiasm and brought me back up to speed with my research.

Taking stock

After a couple of research trips, I have been able to start writing my book, but I continue to write in my volcano diary every morning. It is still a place to take stock and look back on the previous day. If writing went well, I simply note my own progress and any new thoughts that have occurred to me overnight. If the process was very slow or difficult, I consider why that might be. Freewriting is always a good warm-up, and so the diary has also become a place to rev up for each new day of writing.

Try it

Whether you are embarking on a thesis or a book, research and writing can be a lonely business. By starting a diary, you will create a kind of companion at your desk, a sounding board and a record of the whole writing process, from beginning to end.

10 February 2022

Related articles

Developing a critical mindset

Developing a critical mindset involves drawing on qualities including confidence, motivation, curiosity and effort.

Beating pandemic procrastination

Are you failing to progress with your writing? This enhanced freewriting technique can help you get back on track.

Writing from the bottom up

Working from the bottom up can be a creative way to grow a project. You write notes as you read to create a rough draft as you go.

Back To Top