Fear of Exposure

in Articles from our Newsletter

I will go out on a limb and say that all academics have a fear of being exposed. Exposed as what? Here are the typical fears:

  • A fraud
  • An idiot
  • An impostor
  • Not knowledgeable of your field        
  • Not as big an expert as they thought you were

You may not experience it as fear. You may just notice that for whatever reason, you don’t seem to be getting much writing done. Or you may realize, in retrospect, that you hesitate to speak up about your most recent ideas at more informal gatherings, thinking that people may criticize, laugh and point at you. Ok, maybe not point at you.

I have written before about the reasons that academics may be particularly prone to fear of exposure. Today I’d like to give you some ideas about what you should be doing instead of avoiding it. These recommendations apply to all academic writers, including dissertation writers, post docs, and faculty.

Share Your Ideas

Get in the habit of talking about your ideas when they are partly formed. You won’t be as attached to them at that point, and the reactions of others will help you fine tune your thinking even as you are writing your first rough drafts. Those of you in the lab sciences have an advantage, because you are not as isolated in your research environment, and you often have co-authors. Some people use their blogs in order to communicate their ideas at an early stage, although some would worry about “idea-stealing” in such a public forum.

Share Your Writing

Ok, I know that you know that you *should* share your writing. On the other hand, so many of you hesitate to do this. The best summary of how and why you should share your writing comes from the book I recommended in my last newsletter, Publish and Flourish: Become a Prolific Scholar, by Tara Gray. Her book has 12 steps to becoming prolific, and Step 8 is “Share early drafts with non-experts and later drafts with experts” (p. 55.)

I will summarize some of the points Gray makes under Step 8. I recommend you read her book to get the details, and that you memorize the book’s 11 other steps.

Share early with non-experts:

  • Start sharing much earlier than you thought possible.
  • Share very early drafts with non-experts, such as a spouse or non-academic friend.
  • Sharing early saves you time in the long run.
  • Sharing early helps you find mistakes in logic before it’s too late.
  • Non-experts will notice lack of clarity and organization, and will be less hesitant to say they don’t understand.
  • Ask specific, open-ended questions of your readers. For example, don’t ask “Did you like it?” but ask “What did you like best about this part?”

Share middle drafts with experts:

  • These are “little-e experts,” as Gray calls them – colleagues in your department, or graduate school peers, for example.
  • You can share earlier with them than with “capital-E Experts,” because you know them.
  • These experts can also help with clarity and organization.
  • Make it safe for them not to understand some things and to ask questions; don’t forget you are more expert at this point in the area you are focusing on. If they don’t understand something, neither will some of your readers.
  • Little-e experts can refer you to others, help you decide where to publish, and give you ideas of what else to read (this happens frequently in our ABD and tenure coaching groups).
  • Here’s an example of how to find expert readers. One of my clients walked into an informal faculty meeting and asked, “Who would like to read my chapter?” The department chair agreed to read it, which in the case of my client, was a good thing!

Share with Experts

  • These are readers that Gray calls the “capital-E Experts;” i.e. the “best known scholars in the entire discipline” (p. 56.)
  • Write to two experts, to improve your chances of getting a response from one of them.
  • Don’t wait until you have the final draft; send almost-finished draft.
  • Send a tailor-made letter to each Expert.
  • Show your knowledge of their work and how yours is related to it.
  • Ask for a two-to-three-week turnaround time.
  • Write a thank-you note if they read it!

Gray goes into more detail about how exactly to get the “capital-E Experts” to read your work, and how to get the most helpful feedback. I especially like her idea of why it’s good to get an enemy to read your draft.

It Gets Easier

The more you share your ideas and your drafts, the more practice you get hearing dismaying counterarguments, examples that disprove your ideas and different definitions of your favorite terminology (The Craft of Research, see sidebar), the better you will get at welcoming such feedback. Always keep the following idea in mind: It’s better now than later.


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