Monthly Archives: December 2013

Confronting the Anxiety of Academic Writing

Last week I gave a webinar for the Text and Academic Authors Association on confronting the anxiety of academic writing. Since the presentation, which I’ll embed below, was relatively short, I thought I would use this post to point to the places on the blog where I elaborate on its key points.

I began the presentation by discussing the key dilemma of academic writing: although writing can be the decisive factor in professional academic success, we often lack both training in the act of writing and time to complete the necessary writing tasks. As a result, we often dislike our own writing or find the process of creating acceptable writing unduly onerous. To make matters worse, these problems are often compounded by the sense that our difficulties are illegitimate, that we should already know how to write. Since we often aren’t expert writers, especially early in our academic careers, we tend to think of ourselves as bad writers. People are generally quick to call themselves bad writers, but they may not be so willing to embrace the broader category of academic writer, with all that entails. To identify yourself as a bad writer without making the commitment to being a writer seems a recipe for dissatisfaction.

The overarching theme of this presentation was that the challenges are real; we all struggle with our writing technique and with managing our writing time. Unfortunately, even though everyone has these struggles, many people think of themselves as alone in their writing challenges. One of the reasons that we remain convinced that these challenges are ours alone is that we engage in a lot of unfair comparisons. Instead of assuming that others must be struggling in much the same way that we are, we compare our insides with their outsides and thus conclude that we are uniquely inept.

How then to confront the anxiety that this negativity and isolation creates in academic writers? It can be helpful to begin by distinguishing between intellectual difficulties with writing—figuring out how to do it—and practical difficulties with writing—simply finding time to do it. Most of us struggle with both, but it is still helpful to tackle them separately. It’s also crucial to tackle them with novel strategies. New strategies are key because otherwise we are left with no avenue for improvement except renewed effort. And renewed effort only works if a lack of effort was the original problem. We all have days, of course, when a lack of effort is definitely the problem. But overall a lack of effort is generally a symptom of some other underlying difficulty. Simply put, trying harder won’t solve most writing problems and when it fails we end up feeling even worse about the whole thing.

One way to tackle our intellectual difficulties with writing is to try to think differently about the whole enterprise. Sticking with an approach, whatever it may be, that has caused us difficulty in the past isn’t likely to give us dramatically new results. As regular readers know, my approach relies on three principles that I’ve borrowed from Joseph Williams: using writing to clarify thinking; committing to extensive revision; and understanding the needs of the reader. These sentiments are all easily found in Williams’s excellent formulation: “We write the first draft for ourselves; the drafts thereafter increasingly for the reader.” This quote has the potential to change the way we conceive of the activity of writing; in my view, that reconceptualization can be a necessary first step in shaking free of writing anxiety.

Such a  reconceptualization is potentially very valuable but also needs to be connected to concrete strategies. If we are going to write to clarify thinking, we will need to be aware of the challenges of exploratory writing. And we will need strategies to keep our texts manageable. If we are going to commit to extensive revision, we are going to need to improve our basic understanding of the editing process. How can we make revision part of our regular writing routine? How can we make sure that we are engaging in structural edits and not just tinkering around the edges? How can we prepare ourselves to let go of the material in our writing that is no longer serving us well? Finally, if we are going to be more aware of our readers’ needs, we will have to grasp the differences between the reader and the writer. How do we understand the breakdown of responsibilities between reader and writer? What guidance do we give our readers as they make their way through our texts? Are we constructing our paragraphs in a way that acknowledges their importance to our readers?

After this discussion of avenues for improving the act of writing, I turned to a discussion of productivity. Most anxious writers find that the time available for academic writing is never sufficient. Since finding more time is like trying to get blood from a stone, most of us need to find strategies to use our existing time better. There’s a world of productivity advice to be found, and it’s crucial that we expose ourselves to that world. We just need to do so with an understanding that there are no one-size-fits-all approaches. Be wary of advice, even as you seek it out. Even if you do find a helpful source of advice, remain attuned to your own style of working and respect your own intuitions about what will make you more effective.

I ended the presentation with a polemical question: What don’t you know about writing? If writing is, for you, laden with anxiety, it will be helpful to confront the gaps in your knowledge. You are generally expected to have picked up enough about writing along the way to get the job done, but few people thrive as writers without systematically addressing themselves to improving their technique and to finding effective productivity strategies. At the end of the presentation, I was asked to comment on a familiar dilemma: writing may be really important, but so is everything else and there just isn’t enough time to focus on writing. I’m not at all unsympathetic to this sentiment, but I’m also pretty sure that time spent on writing is time well spent. I think that is true for all of us, but it is particularly true for those who are anxious about writing. Anxiety is itself very time-consuming and inefficient. Tackling the source of that anxiety—by becoming a more proficient and productive writer—is likely to be a valuable investment of time, even when that time is in short supply.

Putting this post together reminded me of an important part of any good productivity strategy: taking the time to look back at and appreciate past accomplishments. Being able to assemble this collection of posts—with all their flaws—was a useful reminder of what I have accomplished thus far with the blog. For many of us, the next few weeks will be a time of reflection. As we look towards the new year and perhaps think about all the writing that has inevitably gone undone this year and about our plans to remedy this state of affairs, we should also spend some time thinking about all we have done. Those accomplishments are what we have to build upon, and they should not be neglected. I wish you all a very happy and productive winter break!

Thank you to the Text and Academic Authors Association for allowing me to share this presentation here:

A Change is as Good as a Rest

Thinking back over a month’s worth of AcWriMo conversations, I was struck by how frequently people mentioned the need to negotiate the demands of multiple projects. In particular, I was interested in the notion that we often wish to work on tasks other than the ones we are currently doing. Is this true for you, that the grass is always greener? That nothing sounds better than writing when you actually can’t write? That working on an article makes the simple task of preparing a class handout seem relatively easy? That other projects become more appealing as soon as you need to work on this project? That you fritter writing time away only to find yourself dying to write while stuck folding laundry or running endless errands on the weekend?

In part, this response is surely just human nature. Working on the other project can seem like a way to avoid the inherent difficulties involved in working on this project. We could, of course, strive to cure ourselves of this wrongheadedness. Or—and this is the simpler path—we can harness the allure of the other project by allowing ourselves to move between multiple projects. Anything that allows us to capitalize on this perverse tendency has to be good. If you are labouring away at one task, a different task can start to look a bit like a shiny object that you want to play with. Better that than the gazillion shiny objects that make up the Internet.

So clearly I’m a fan of switching from one thing to another when the situation demands it. And there’s always something else that we can do: editing earlier writing; working on the literature; thinking about teaching; marking student papers; keeping up with administrative work; and so forth. I think it’s better to have that other task for when we are stalled because, ultimately, it’s better to get something done than nothing. But that doesn’t answer the perennial question about whether it is actually better to work on just one writing project at a time or to have multiple writing projects on the go. There is absolutely no correct answer to the mono- vs. multi-task question. But there are some other questions to help each of us figure out what will work best for us.

1. Do you have to do multiple projects? Sometimes the question is not about work flow, but about priorities. How many additional projects should a doctoral student take on? How many conferences a year? How should publication plans be integrated with ongoing dissertation writing? What about blogging or contributing to edited collections? Those priorities need to be addressed with a supervisor rather than approached as a question of work flow.

2. What does your standard work week look like?  Do you like to work in long stretches or in short bursts? What role do your family responsibilities play? Do you have a job outside of graduate school? What are your non-writing graduate student activities? Your writing schedule should be planned with your actual schedule in mind; that may sound obvious, but in my experience many writers create writing schedules that are destined to fail because they don’t take reality fully into account.

3. Are other people involved in your deadlines? Do you have to get something to your supervisor, co-author, or writing group? If you know that your work will spend significant time out of your hands, it can make sense to have multiple projects to fill those gaps.

4. Finally, and most importantly, what do you prefer? For the sake of argument, imagine that you have a conference abstract and an article submission that you want out the door by the end of the year. Can you imagine setting up a leapfrog system in which one lies dormant while the other is active and then vice versa? Or would you just like to get one done completely before moving on? Again, I don’t think there is a right answer, but I do think that each of us needs to answer this question for ourselves in order to optimize our work flow.

If a student asks me about multi-tasking (and has absolutely no preference or decisive external factors), I suggest trying the leapfrog, for two reasons. First, most of us produce better writing when we can let it rest before turning our attention to revision. Second, to return to my original theme, having multiple projects means that we have worthwhile activities to turn to when our current task becomes intolerable. If you find that the other project never gleams so brightly as when you can’t attend to it, you might as well make that state of mind work to your advantage. After all, if you can’t have a rest, why not enjoy a change of scenery?

Lastly, a quick thanks to Charlotte Frost of PhD2Published, to all the other AcWriMo ‘ambassadors’, and especially to all the AcWriMo participants. It was another inspiring and thought-provoking month. If you haven’t had a chance, I urge you to look through the #AcWriMo Twitter feed for successes, challenges, calls for carrying the momentum into December and beyond, and reflections on the whole experience. I’m already looking forward to next November!