During AcWriMo, PhD2Published has been running a series of posts from Wendy Laura Belcher, offering tips on academic writing. The post of Belcher’s that I have found most helpful thus far discusses the notion of social support for writers. Writing is so intrinsically solitary that finding its valuable social dimension is legitimately a challenge. Charlotte Frost and Jesse Stommel also had some great advice this week about writing more publicly. While increased openness about writing and its struggles is essential, such openness can unfortunately leave some people feeling even worse about their progress. James Hayton from The Three Month Thesis wrote recently about his concern that a natural reporting bias would make the AcWriMo Twitter feed a sea of positivity. In other words, we might hear more from those for whom it was going well; those of us (ahem) who aren’t being quite so productive might be keeping a low profile. While lots of participants are clearly making an effort to report the unvarnished truth, the Twitter feed has been pretty upbeat. I’ve certainly noticed some people commenting that the productivity of others has made them feel worse about their own lack of productivity.
So what do we say to people who feel worse when they see others doing well? There’s no point in moralizing, and there’s certainly no benefit in halting the sharing. But there is another option: maybe we should take other people’s good news in stride because, chances are, there is way more to the story than they are telling us. One of the most consistent practices that I see in graduate students is the habit of making harmful comparisons between their own ‘insides’ and other people’s ‘outsides’. At the simplest level, this means comparing our own awful first drafts with other people’s polished final drafts. I always ask student how many genuine first drafts (other than their own) they have seen; the answer is often zero, and yet they still believe their first drafts are uniquely bad. After I make my usual, run-of-the-mill, banal observations about the struggles of academic writing, I often hear in reply ‘Thank you for saying that—I thought I was the only one who felt that way about my writing’. Clearly, we need more honesty about the normal struggles of writing, so people don’t feel isolated and so those normal levels of struggle aren’t allowed to turn into something more problematic. However, in the context of increased openness, we still need to remember that we shouldn’t draw simple comparisons between our own private experience and the public face presented by others.
While I was thinking about these topics this week, I encountered a few other posts that relate to how we conceive of ease and struggle in our writing lives. (With all the different writing schemes going on, November really is an awesome month to be a reader—I don’t know how I’m supposed to get any writing done!) The Thesis Whisperer had a thoughtful post this week on the way that happiness tends to be the exception against which the more interesting struggles of life are measured. Jo Van Every had an interesting post this week on dealing gracefully with the unexpected and undesirable. Finally, Kathleen Fitzpatrick had a poignant post on the role of stress in our lives. I was particularly taken with her formulation that “Stress has become the contemporary sign of our salvation.” According to Fitzpatrick, not only are many of us managing stress poorly, some of us are even seeking it out as proof of our worthiness.
Recent links from @explorstyle on Twitter
From Inside Higher Ed, the second in their series on perfectionism in academia: concrete advice on ‘breaking the cycle’.
From the New York Times, a fascinating discussion of note-taking. Is it fair to compare excessive note-taking to hoarding?
From Inside Higher Ed, a thoughtful piece on the particular perils of perfectionism for academics.