Tag Archives: Anxiety

Write Your Way Out

I recently had a request to give a talk to graduate students about writer’s block. This term is frequently mentioned in the context of graduate writing, presumably because of the general sense that something is inhibiting the writing processes of students at this level. While I was explaining why I didn’t want to give a talk on writer’s block, I realized that I spend quite a lot of time telling various people that I’m sceptical about the concept of academic writer’s block. Having recently read two interesting takes on writer’s block in academia in the past year (from Helen Kara and Julia Molinari), I decided that my own disinclination to use this concept might be worth exploring here on the blog.

In general, I am resistant to identifying common graduate writing difficulties as writer’s block. Most graduate writers who are struggling with their writing are actually struggling with their thinking. That isn’t just a semantic quibble: it matters that we grasp exactly what is inhibiting our writing processes. When we diagnose ourselves as having writer’s block, we can start to believe that we aren’t currently able to write. If you find yourself with a sore leg, it may well be that avoiding walking is a sound strategy. If you find yourself unable to write, might it be a sound strategy to avoid writing? The answer to that question is almost always no. Not writing has little-to-no curative power, in my experience. I’m not saying that we don’t need to take breaks; there are many things that we can do away from our desks to clear our minds and loosen up our ideas. But when we are committed to working, the act of writing is often the most immediate way to tackle the problems in our thinking. The risk of identifying inevitable writing challenges as writer’s block is that doing so can lessen the chance that we will use writing to move our ideas forward.

The idea of writer’s block can thus be seen as having the potential to detach writing from its broader intellectual context. When we treat writing challenges as psychological rather than intellectual, we run the risk of minimizing the conceptual work involved in graduate writing. I have, of course, encountered graduate writers who appear to have a disposition towards writing that is so fraught that they may need some sort of psychological shift in order to develop an effective writing routine. But for most graduate writers, writing is being hampered primarily by the challenge of sorting out what they think (or what they think they should think or what others think or what their supervisor thinks about what they think). In other words, they don’t have a psychological block; they simply have the intellectual confusions endemic to the process of communicating sophisticated research. Those intellectual confusions are real, and they can have deleterious consequences for writing. But when we treat these problems as conceptual problems in our thinking, we create the space to use writing as a strategy to solve those problems. Writing can move from being the problematic thing to being a means to solve the problem.

To use writing in this way, I suggest introducing a new font that will signal that you are writing in an exploratory vein for your own benefit. The variant font will remind you that your eventual reader need never see these ruminations, thus lessening your own reticence. Using this new font, try writing something like this: “I’m worried that what I’m saying here …”

“… is inconsistent with what I said on p. 37.”

“… might be confusing the cause with the effect.”

“… may lead the reader to think that my research is less significant than I’ve claimed.”

“… is the sort of thing that annoys my supervisor.”

Staying in this provisional, for-your-own-eyes-only font, try writing a follow-up sentence or passage: “To figure this out, I need to …”

“… re-read the sections on and around p. 37 and decide which formulation works best. Does this shift represent an actual shift in my thinking or just a different way of expressing things?”

“… satisfy myself about the direction of causality in my argument and think of a way to flag all the places where this may have become confused.”

“… revisit my initial claims for significance to see if they are affected by the current line of reasoning.”

“… decide how I feel about that potential reaction, whether that annoyance is something I want to withstand or something that should guide me in a different direction.”

The key, for me, is that this writing is just that: writing. We can’t, arguably, have writer’s block when we are actively writing. Instead, we may have unresolved issues that are making us want to avoid writing. Using writing as the means of addressing these issues  gives us a strategy for inevitable conceptual hurdles. Even in those cases in which writing-about-writing highlights serious problems, we have still made progress by identifying what is wrong. In the end, my concern is simply that the writer’s block label may be further alienating us from our own writing. While it may not be possible to write our way out of all problems, I’m convinced that it is near-impossible to solve writing problems without using writing as our central strategy.

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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: