Every academic, whether a grad student struggling with dissertation writing, or a professor trying to publish, has a good reason for not writing (that is, working on their long-term project, whether article, book or dissertation) daily.. You have classes to prepare, essays to grade, meetings to attend, emails to read and respond to, recommendations to write, conferences to attend, complaining students to attend to, and a life on top of all that.
Actually it really is downright impossible to accomplish your research and writing in addition to your other duties.
The sad fact remains, however, that writing is what will get you tenure or promotion. If you are a graduate student, writing is what will get your dissertation written. There’s no escape.
So how do you reconcile these two competing facts? That is;
It is impossible to write.
You must write.
You can’t change the second fact – it’s not in your control. Therefore you must work on changing the first.
How can we make the impossible possible?
By changing how you think about writing.
I’ll look at this in two ways: First I’ll refute four commonly-held myths about the writing process, and then I’ll look at four myths about your own writing.
If you can stop believing in these myths, you’ll have eight fewer reasons not to write.
Four Myths About the Writing Process
Here are myths that most academics believe about the writing process. As long as you believe these myths, you will believe that it is impossible to write enough.
(Also see “Ten Ways of Thinking That Lead to Procrastination,” whic you receive as a gift when you subscribe to this newsletter (see box in upper left-hand corner of this web page.)
1. I need at least 45 minutes to write, and 2 hours is even better.
Wrong! Time and time again our clients and Writing Club members re-discover how much they can accomplish in short time periods. The work then remains fresher in their mind, it’s easier to get to the next time, and they find they are more creative. When they do have time for the occasional longer stint at writing, they are much more pleased with that they are able to accomplish.
2. I must be in the mood to write.
Wrong! You’ll be amazed what you produce even if you sit down to write in the most writing-hating mood possible. A professor in the Writing Club recently wrote that it was like pulling out her fingernails with pliers. (The next day she realized she had finished her article.)
3. I can make steady progress by writing once a week.
Wrong! Although it is not unheard of, those who do so are the exception that proves the rule. If you allow a week to pass between writing sessions, you will be more prone to avoiding the work altogether, and when you do get to the work, you will spend a lot of time getting up to speed.
4. I will finish this article/chapter more quickly if I write it and send it to my advisor or editor without showing it to anyone.
Wrong! It might seem counterintuitive, but the time you spend waiting for a peer or colleague to read your work saves you time in the long run. You can relax as you write; knowing that a friendly reader will catch glitches or errors in logic. You can reduce your frustration and speed your progress, by asking others about sticking points and dilemmas. Discussion with objective readers can help you deal with these seemingly insolvable problems. And you can spend the time waiting for their feedback fixing your citations.
Four Myths About Your Own Writing
More insidious is the damage done by your secret, or even unconscious beliefs about your own research and writing process.
5. The reason that I hate my work is that it’s terribly uninteresting, boring, and dumb.
Wrong! Of course, I don’t know your individual work. But I will tell you that most academics feel this way on and off during the course of their project. A wild guess tells me that 90% of graduate students hate their dissertation by the time it’s done, and can barely look at it afterwards. Partly this is due to the torturous process that people engage in while working on a huge, complex, long-term project (see Myths 1 through 4.) And partly this is because you are too close to your own work to see it objectively.
6. Most people write easily, and I don’t, so there’s something wrong with me.
Wrong! The vast majority of academics struggle with their writing. They write and re-write, edit, send their work to advisors and colleagues, revise and write some more. Then they go back and read and decide that they don’t know enough, and read some more and write some more. You’re all suffering silently together, but none of you wants to admit it to anyone else.
7. I write too slowly.
Wrong! This has to be the most frequent comment that people make about their own writing during the Writing Clubs. Each person seems to think that they are the only person who has to write one sentence at a time. For most types of academic writing, there’s no such thing as quick writing. Slow is the only way it goes. Beating yourself up because of how slow your writing is will only make you feel crummy and slow you down! Of course, there are optimum ways to write, such as free writing, then editing – see my newsletter archives for articles on these techniques and many, many others.
8. I missed my last self-imposed deadline, so I might as well give up.
Wrong! I hear this all the time. Please change the way you think about self-imposed deadlines. They are signposts to guide you, not signs telling you that you’re a failure. Without these signposts, you might wander, so they help to keep you on track. You need to constantly readjust your deadlines to reflect the reality of your writing habits.
Take care of the daily writing and beware of the myths you believe, and you will finish; maybe not exactly when you planned, but within shouting distance. And finishing (especially with pride and sanity intact!) is what it’s all about.