28 January 2014

Some tips for research and writing:
making it ‘As Easy as Pie’

‘As Easy as Pie’ … set out our project like you would set out the ingredients and recipe for baking a cake

Patrick Comerford

1, Don’t panic:

Start in time and pace yourself. A good jockey in a race knows how many furlongs there are to the end, and how many fences are left to jump. You would not bake a cake without first setting out your ingredients, and setting out the baking instructions in the recipe.

Work out how long you have to complete your task, and work out the stages you have to pass through by particular days or weeks. If you are still researching your topic with only a week or two to go for submitting your dissertation, or a day or two to go to submitting your essay, then you have not paced your research.

And if the deadline is looming, and you are behind in the race, you start to panic. When we are running and panicking we are most likely to trip and fall.

Preparing the ingredients, understanding the baking instructions, having a recipe in front of you means it all ought to be as “Easy as Pie”

2, Don’t put it off:

You can spend a lot of time, thinking about a topic, mulling it over, or even delaying your reading and writing because the task seems so daunting. Set aside time each day for reading and time each day for writing. They will accumulate over the days and weeks, and it also means your project will seep into the back of your mind, so you can live with it without panicking.

3, Don’t roll it all out:

It is very tempting to repeat everything you have read and learned about a research topic. But just because you have stumbled across it does not make it original, interesting or even exciting. Part of a researcher’s skill is sifting and showing discernment.

4, Don’t hide behind the thinking of others:

Too often it is easy to write an essay as a string of quotations and citations, and then think because they have been placed in a correct order you have made a cogent argument. Not so. I want to know what you think, I want to know whether you agree or not, and why. There is no point in saying something like: “Moltmann is correct when he says …” Tell me why you think he is correct to say so.

5, Don’t rush in:

Don’t set about writing a paper because you find the topic interesting. Read around it for a while before settling on your topic. This is particularly true for a dissertation topic. If you are going to eat, sleep, drink and walk with a topic for 9-12 months, make sure it is one you are happy to live with, not one you wish you could get a quick divorce from.

6, Don’t lose your focus:

Keep your eye on the research title. Too often we are inclined to see words in an essay title, for example, that appeal to us, and then use those words to hang everything we know on one issue on them. Research topics are not a washing line. Focus on the topic in hand, keep your eyes on it, and do not be distracted by extraneous topics.

7, Don’t get fixed on words and length:

‘Never Mind the Quality, Feel the Width’ … never mind the quantity, pay attention to the quality of your research and its presentation

When it comes to essays, I have sometimes heard student say things like “I have only another 500/400/300/100 to write.” There was a 1960s television sitcom series about an Irish and a Jewish tailor, Never Mind the Quality, feel the Width. I can assure you will get more marks for quality in your essay or dissertation than for the quantity of words. Albert Einstein was able to express a major thought in a simple formula: E = mc2.

Albert Einstein put it simply and succinctly

8, Don’t restrict your reading:

If you do not read, you cannot allow other people’s ideas to reach out to you and inhabit your space. If you search only on the internet or on your Kindle for the books you already know fit your bill, you are not engaging in reading and research – you are engaging in proof texting. Don’t just browse the internet, browse the open shelves in the library, read beyond your comfort zone. Be challenged, be open to being challenged. Otherwise the Church will not be challenged by what you have to say. A limited bibliography is a sign of a closed mind.

9, Don’t repeat the lecture notes:

If you choose a topic that has been covered in your lectures, and you then reference and footnote the online lecture notes, I am going to say: “So what? I know this already. I told you so.”

10, Don’t generalise:

There is a song by Leonard Cohen, Everybody Knows. Don’t tell me “Everybody knows.” Well, if it is, why did you state it? “It is well known …, all Christians believe, … It is right and proper, … it is meek and right so to do …” Why? Give me reasons. Or was your research not completed?

11, Don’t co-opt your reader:

Generalisations can stoop to co-opting your reader. It is only one step to move from saying “Everyone knows” to saying “Every Christian believes.” Remember your essays and dissertations are being written first for the university, and secondly for the general public. If you say something like “Every Christian believes,” I may arch my back and say: “Oh no I don’t …” and quickly find places where I do not accept your other premises.

12, Don’t miss out on basic details:

Facts are not facts unless they are referenced. And references are fictional if they are not factual. If you are presenting statistical analysis, make sure your calculations add up, and are numbered properly. If you quote an author, get the author’s name right, and the title of the book, and the publisher’s name, and the place of publication, and the date of publication. An author may have changed his/her view in a later edition. Use the most up-to-date version of books, especially standard reference books in your field.

13, Don’t show me you don’t care:

Getting basic facts wrong shows me you do not care about your topic. You might ask: “Does it really matter?” If you find yourself asking that question, you really don’t care.

14, Don’t forget your language:

It is easy to stoop to folk-language and colloquialism. It may work at home, but it does not work here, and it does not work with the external examiner, or with the general reader. The best way to improve your English is to read. Don’t just read to mine facts and information for your research. Notice how other people write, and which writing styles you find easy to read.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism, Liturgy and Church History, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and an Adjunct Assistant Professor, Trinity College Dublin These notes were prepared for a seminar on research and writing with Year II MTh students.

A Lichfield
eccentric who gave
his name to an
Irish town

Stowe House ... home in the 1770s to Richard Edgeworth, who also gave his name to a town in Ireland (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

I am equally at home in Lichfield and in Ireland, and so I have often been fascinated by some of the Irish names I find on houses and streets in Lichfield, including Donegal House in Bore Street, and Ardmore Cottage and Ardmore House, which have been Grade II Listed Buildings with Nether Beacon House since 1973.

Donegal House takes its name from the Chichester family, who held large estates near Lichfield but who were a politically powerful family in Ireland, where they had the titles of Marquis of Donegall and Earl of Belfast.

However, I have never discovered how the pretty seaside village of Ardmore in Co Waterford – the inspiration for many novels by Norah Roberts – gave its name to two timber-framed houses daring from the late 17th or early 18th century.

But naming and exchanging names works both ways. The Chichester family of Fisherwick Hall, who had a vault in Saint Michael’s Church, Lichfield, gave their name to squares, streets and side streets in Belfast, including Chichester Street and Fisherwick Place.

So, why should I wonder that a family with strong Lichfield associations has given its name to Edgeworth House on Oakenfield in Lichfield and to a small market town in the Irish Midlands?

Richard Lovell Edgeworth (1744-1817) ... the most famous resident of Stowe House, Lichfield

Stowe House, overlooking Stowe Pool in Lichfield, is a Grade II listed building that was built in the 1750s by Elizabeth Aston. At first, Stowe House was home to the Revd Thomas Hinton of Saint Chad’s, who died in 1757.

However, the most famous resident of Stowe House must be Richard Lovell Edgeworth (1744-1817). Although he never owned Stowe House, Edgeworth came to live there in 1770 with his large, growing family, and his friend Thomas Day, and he stayed on in Lichfield for many years.

Edgeworth was a failure as a student at both Trinity College Dublin and Oxford. He was still an undergraduate at Oxford, when he eloped with Anna Maria Elers, and the two were married in Gretna Green in 1763, and a church wedding took place on 21 February 1764. Their first child followed immediately, a son named Dick, who was born on 29 May just before Richard’s twentieth birthday.

The two-storey Market House at the south end of Edgeworthstown, designed by James Bell, bears the Edgeworth family arms (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Richard first visited Lichfield in 1776 at invitation of Erasmus Darwin, who introduced him to the intellectual and cultural circles centred in the Close. In Darwin’s house, he saw the doctor revive his drunken brother, found “nearly suffocated in a ditch.” At dinner with the Seward family in the Bishop’s Palace, he flirted briefly with the poet and biographer of Erasmus Darwin, Anna Seward (1747-1809), the “Swan of Lichfield” – until Darwin’s wife Polly revealed that Edgeworth was married.

Richard later reminisced: “How much of my future life has depended on this visit to Lichfield.” He returned regularly to Lichfield, and came to live in Stowe House in 1770. He was a tall, dark and handsome Irishman who made friends easily, and befriended other members of the Lunar Society. He channelled his energies into several inventive projects, and was a pioneer in a number of fields, including telegraph communications, agricultural machinery, and transport. He also flirted with Anna Seward’s attractive young ward and cousin, Honora Sneyd, and fell in love with her although he was married man with children.

The Edgeworth family’s coat of arms on the Market House in Edgeworthstown (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Richard’s wife, Anna Maria Edgeworth, who was the mother of four small children, was only 29 when she died in March 1773. On her deathbed, she was attended by Dr Darwin, who tried in vain to save her. Within weeks, Richard married Honora in the Lady Chapel in Lichfield Cathedral, with Anna’s father, Canon Thomas Seward, officiating at the wedding on 17 July.

Honora, who had earlier rejected Thomas Day’s proposal, had lived with the Sewards in the Close from the age of nine. Richard took her back to live on the large estate her inherited from his father in Ireland, and there they had two more children.

The former Bishop’s Palace … home to Anna Seward and her cousins, Honora and Elizabeth Sneyd (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

By 1779, Honora was dying from tuberculosis, but still Richard visited Lichfield alone in 1779, calling on Anna Seward in the Close. Honora died on 30 April 1780 in Beighterton, near Shifnal, 30 miles west of Lichfield – once again attended by Darwin. Anna blamed Richard’s neglect for her ill-health and her death. By then, Anna was causing scandal though her relationship with John Saville, a married man and a Vicar Choral of Lichfield Cathedral, for whom she bought No 6 The Close.

Darwin House … Richard Edgeworth was first invited to Lichfield by Erasmus Darwin in 1766 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Oddly, Honora had suggested that Richard should marry her sister Elizabeth. This they did eight months later, on Christmas Day 1780, in Saint Andrew’s Church, Holborn – where no-one knew them and no-one could oppose the banns. Elizabeth too had earlier rejected a proposal from Thomas Day.

Richard and Elizabeth – who had six more children between 1781 and 1794 – moved to Ireland in 1782. Elizabeth died there in 1797, and Richard – never the man to be a heart-broken widower – married for the fourth time a few months later on 31 May 1798, this time marrying Frances Ann Beaufort, the daughter of an Irish archdeacon. But he kept in touch with his friends in the Lunar Society, and when Darwin died in 1802 he wrote his obituary in the Monthly Magazine.

When John Saville died in 1803, Anna erected a monument to his memory in the cathedral. But she never forgave Richard, and she carried that grudge until she died in 1809.

Richard Lovell Edgeworth and his third wife, Elizabeth Sneyd, with some of his many children (Adam Buck, 1787)

Richard died on 13 June 1817, and was buried in the family vault in Edgeworthstown churchyard. He had fathered 22 children in all. His kinsman, the AbbĂ© Edgeworth, attended Louis XVI on the scaffold during the French revolution and later escaped to Russia. Richard’s widow Frances outlived him by many years, and died in 1865.

Richard’s daughter Maria, who shared his interest in education, was the daughter of his first wife, Anna Maria. Today she is best remembered for her novel Castle Rackrent, but in her day she was recognised as a talented author, respected and admired by writers such as Sir Walter Scott, who wrote her epitaph in the cathedral, and Jane Austen.

Ardmore Cottage, Beacon Street … how did it acquire the name of an Irish seaside village? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Edgeworthstown, a small market town in the Irish Midlands, recalls the most famous resident of Stowe House. The town, in east Co Longford, developed on Richard’s large Irish estate. When he was an MP in the Irish Parliament (1798-1800) it was known as St Johnstown, and the Anglican parish church he built there is still known as Saint John’s. In the 19th century, the place became Edgeworthstown.

Donegal House … named after a family that also gives its names to squares, streets and side-streets in Belfast (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

In a fit of nationalist pique in 1935, Longford County Council changed the town’s name to Mostrim. But local residents reused to cast aside the memory Richard and his family. The new name was seldom used, and in 1974, a government order restored the name of Edgeworthstown.

Rev Canon Professor Patrick Comerford lives in Dublin, and returns regularly to Lichfield where he has family roots.

Edgeworthstown House … the former Edgeworth family mansion is now a nursing home and has lost much of its character

Further Reading

Teresa Barnard, Anna Seward: A Constructed Life: A Critical Biography (Ashgate, 2013).
Howard Clayton, Cathedral city: a look at Victorian Lichfield (Lichfield, ca 1977).
Howard Clayton, Coaching City: A glimpse of Georgian Lichfield (Lichfield: Abbotsford, 2009, 4th ed).
Maria Edgeworth, Castle Rackrent(1800), (Oxford, 1995).
MW Greenslade (ed), The Victoria History of the County of Stafford (Oxford, 1990), Vol 14, Lichfield.
Wendy Moore, How to Create the Perfect Wife (Hachette, 2013).
Marion Roberts, ‘Close Encounters: Anna Seward, 1742-1809, a woman in provincial cultural life’ (unpublished MLitt thesis, University of Birmingham (December 2010).
Jenny Uglow, The Lunar Men (London: Faber and Faber, 2002).
Philip K Wilson, Collecting the Instruments of Life Around Me: Anna Seward’s Creation of a Life in her Memoirs of Dr Erasmus Darwin (1804) (Lichfield, 2007).

This essay and these photographs were published as a two-page feature in the January/February 2014 edition of the Lichfield Gazette (No 63), pp 42-43.