This week I’m taking a bit of a break from the news and paper-writing to recover from the past six weeks of work. I’ve been pondering the writing “process” and why/how it works (or doesn’t) for me and others.
A friend wrote a few days ago and asked if I had any advice about getting over the fear of writing that tends to alienate us from the process. At first I thought I didn’t have any advice to give, since I still struggle with writing so much myself. My ideas seem to require long periods of percolation and then writing often happens in short, intense bursts, which is inconvenient in the academic context. Like many others I also suffer from the fear that everything I write is somehow inept and ill-formed, unworthy of being paraded in front of an audience other than myself — and I constantly question every point I’m trying to make. But I’ve had to make writing “work” somehow, so what does that process involve?
I actually have little “rituals” that I use to get myself into gear for writing when I know I have a lot to do. I think those mundane, taken-for-granted habits are interesting to share, because they reflect our relationship with writing as a process and they tell us something about approaches to learning and thinking.
For example, the physical space in which I write has an effect on how much I can focus. I’ve been attributing this, perhaps erroneously, to the fact that I lean heavily towards “visual-spatial” modes of thinking and understanding — and I always feel as if physical disarray only exacerbates a kind of mental clutter from which I’m already suffering. I think this is why I often do housework before sitting down to write, and on writing breaks. For me, cleaning is a great way to take a break because it’s a bit mindless, it provides some physical activity, and there’s some immediate gratification from the results.
When I’m actually piecing together what I’m writing, I struggle the most with structuring my ideas. I’ve always had a problem translating what I’m thinking about into the relatively linear approach that seems to be demanded by words on a page. I end up using a lot of charts and mind-maps, and the process of (literally) drawing out ideas helps me to understand them more and to make connections and solidify points. In the past I’ve had charts all over the walls around my desk, reminding me of the “big picture” I’m trying to look at even as I work to refine some small element.
Most of us have experienced “writer’s block” at some point, so how do we generate the momentum to return to our writing over and over, re-articulating the same ideas in better ways, or trying to develop new ones? One way I like to do this is by going through mental exercises — like returning to the “big questions” that triggered my interest in what I’m working on. What question was it that grabbed my attention? What connection provoked a response? Another approach involves allowing myself to jot a lot of notes without having to connect them; then I can cut and paste them into groups that make sense later on. Often when I’ve written a draft, even if I’m not happy with it, I’m afraid to chop it up for re-editing in case I “lose” something; so I start another document instead, and allow myself to cut and paste as much as I want.
A lot of “blocks” — and procrastination — are caused by underlying fear that nothing we can write (or think) will be good enough. Perfectionism, which can be fuelled by that fear, is an oft-cited problem for graduate students and this manifests regularly in the act of writing.
I try to deal with my own perfectionist tendencies by finding ways to take the pressure off myself. I pretend that no one will read what I’m writing, other than me — not that this necessarily helps, since I’m my own worst critic. During a conversation on Twitter Andrea Zellner raised this issue, saying she “actively [ignores her] inner critic in a big way.” Since “no writing will ever be perfect” we need to know when it’s “good enough” so that we can move on, share it with others, then accept criticism if and when it comes (deadlines often help with this!).
Fear also begins to wear off when we receive supportive and constructive feedback over time. That’s what helps us to build up enough fortitude that we begin to overcome our fears about public exposure (for me, blogging has really helped). For graduate students, writing is often an anxious process because of the awareness of a new level of competence required, and new audiences to which one’s writing (and one’s self?) will be exposed — peers and colleagues, journal editors and readers, conference attendees. The art and craft of writing is highly personal and is approached in different ways according to temperament, experience, convenience, compulsion and emotion. What methods do you use — and do they work for others?
I find that trying to block out or resist my inner critic takes up a lot of energy and results in frustration rather than success. What I do instead is simply write out the self-critical thoughts into my essay, in brackets, and then continue to make the point I’m trying to articulate. After about a page or so, the critical dialogue fades away (or the laughable absurdity of the interjections becomes apparent) and I’m able to sustain a writing/thinking mindset for two or three hours, with short breaks in between. This works even when I have a vague feeling that my work is worthless, stupid etc. which is contributing to the block, as opposed to an entire internal dialogue. It helps to articulate the vague feeling of worthlessness and accept the fact that it is there, instead of trying to fight it.
It sounds silly, but I urge everyone with a loud inner-critic to try it out. But don’t forget to edit out the criticism before sending off your work!
“I pretend that no one will read what I’m writing, other than me.”
Indeed. What’s great is that nobody else will read our writing until we’re happy with it. Yet that’s the easy to forget part. The pesky inner critic spends so much time wanting you to be right first time that it brings on the classic perfectionist doubt before the first words have even graced the page.
However, the first draft is for your eyes only. The inner critic can cast an eye upon the draft later if it must. Then you can re-draft and re-edit as many times as necessary (remembering that ‘perfect’ doesn’t happen and you have to stop at some point).
Even writing a comment like this, there is no harm in typing away and making a quick edit afterwards. I don’t have to tell you that it took seventeen drafts and several thousand words before submitting. Neither do I have to say the words came out exactly how I wanted them on the first attempt.
What matters is the final outcome. And since that won’t be perfect either, all I can do is shrug and keep on trying!
Judging by your track record here with this blog, I would say that you do not seem to demonstrate any difficulties in conveying ideas in a well-structured, informative, and critically engaging way. Of course, we are not privy to the process behind the scenes! I don’t think there is a one-size-fits-all method for academic writing (although there are a few “universals” with respect to the expectations of any field), and it is best to approach the task of translating thought into words by playing to your writing rhythms. Some prefer to construct the mind-maps or record thoughts on scraps of paper when the mind is in its appropriate mode, while others seem to have the gift of sitting down and laying out a near spotless draft in a structured, linear fashion. The “fear” never abates as such regardless of the accolades one receives from colleagues and an international academic community (in fact, that can place more stress and anxiety to perform at the same level). Ultimately, perhaps, we should write for ourselves first, and then consider the reception by an audience in the revision process. One can always ask, “do I stand behind what I have written?” and “is this work operating at the peak of my own writing and critical standards”? It need not be “perfect”, but “just good enough.” One has to lay it down on paper (or screen) first before any of the nagging inner critic judgements can come into play. Only you see the process notes, the stumbling and grasping. It takes just as much faith and trust in one’s research practice as it does the hard work to achieve the finished product.
I’ve never suffered from writer’s block for some reason, although I’ve definitely suffered from ‘writing crap’. I’m obviously no perfectionist. In turn, I’m not sure where the fear of being judged for what you write comes from; rejection is a key part of the whole publishing process. Failure is one of the best ways to learn after all. I worked out recently that I’ve had about 25% of all my academic submissions rejected. It’s meant I’ve had to develop a sense of humour and restrain myself from sending vituperative emails to editors, but that’s about it.
I think that just writing is the most important thing to do (which sounds silly I know). But, just sit down and start writing, it doesn’t matter (in many ways) what comes out until later. Revising & redrafting is actually probably more important than the first stage of writing. In my view, this is because part of the thinking process is entwined with the writing process, so just doing it is the most important thing; refining it comes later. Even starting with something inane, like “my cat is sitting on my keyboard”, is something. Then go from there.
There are practicalities that need to be borne in mind though. I find that being away from email or proper internet connection is great (no distractions) and that having a good block of time dedicated to writing is crucial (like a week).
Great topic and I will use this for my students. I really resonated with the housework/chore thing as when I was writing my dissertation I had fairly particular rituals around that alongside the sporadic load of laundry. I wrote 10 pages a day with my Ph.D – some of it awful, some of it awesome. It all got edited in the end. I took it out the other day to get a reference and still see typos but letting go of the perfect product is pretty key. Maybe it is not “writer’s block” but, as you point out, “perfectionism block” or some other name. On a funny aside about cats on keyboards, my dog chased the cat into the office one day and the cat managed to claw off a couple of keys. The night before my defence I had a dream that all the keys slide off my keyboard! No anxiety in the writing process!