Writing anxiety is extremely common among graduate students and professional researchers alike. Whether your task is to produce a 200-word abstract, an entire dissertation, or something in between, the thought of facing The Blank Page can be stressful and overwhelming.
Have you ever been sitting at your desk, struggling to write, when you suddenly feel like nothing could possibly be more fun or important than cleaning your bathroom right now?
You are not alone! If writing were easy, there would not be an entire genre of books and articles on writing strategy and overcoming procrastination. Even experienced, prolific, and famous writers acknowledge that they have love-hate relationships with their craft.
Changing how you approach the writing process can make a world of difference. Here are three tips.
1. Write to stimulate thinking and solve problems.
When I was struggling to write my own dissertation several years ago, a fellow graduate student gave me some great advice: “writing produces thinking, not the other way around.” It is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that you must have everything “worked out,” crystal-clear in your mind, before you can write even a sentence. Not true!
Although perhaps counterintuitive, the creative act and process of writing will help you to discover new ideas and ways of organizing and expressing them. You may find yourself working out problems and obstacles simply by stringing words together.
Remember, writing is a craft like any other. Like a sculptor, painter, composer, or any other artist, you need to give yourself the freedom and permission to work with your media – words and ideas – without the pressure of producing a perfect final product on your first try.
Many writers struggle with perfectionism, but this usually leads to the “paralysis of analysis:” obsessing over the perfect word or sentence structure. It’s okay to be this obsessive when you are polishing your manuscript for publication, but in the initial stages of drafting, try to keep moving quickly, using whatever words and phrases come to you naturally. (AJE can help you with editing later).
Here is a trick that has worked for me: set a timer for 20 minutes, and write as much as possible during that time, without worrying about grammar, phrasing, or vocabulary. Just go for it! No one ever has to see it but you, and it will get your ideas flowing.
In fact, once you take the first step and have put something, anything, down on paper, you will most likely find that the ideas keep coming when you aren’t even actively working – like interest on your initial investment – so be ready to capture them with a notebook or your phone.
Key take-away: Writing is part of thinking. Don’t wait to write until you feel “ready.” Ask yourself “Can I write for just 20 minutes?” and go for it.
2. Make it modular.
Once you’ve decided to let go of perfectionism and do some free-form writing, how do you know where to start? Thinking about your entire writing project from start to finish is usually too overwhelming. There is no rule that you have to write it in sequence!
One of my favorite professors introduced me to the idea of “modular writing.” Think of your paper as a set of building blocks. Dreading writing the introduction? Skip it for now. It’s often easier to write once you’ve finished the rest of the article anyway.
If you are really struggling, ask yourself “What is the easiest part of this manuscript to write?” and start there. Maybe it’s the methodology, or even the limitations of your research – that’s fine, just start writing it.
If you keep up this habit, even for 20 or 30 minutes a day (see point 1 above about setting a timer), you will soon have a nice collection of “modules” or building blocks that you can combine into a manuscript. Again, don’t worry about the language too much at this point. Just write. Editing will come later.
It is also a great idea to reward yourself when you complete a discrete task, such as finishing a section. This reward can be small – an episode or chapter of a TV show or book you’re into, your favorite edible treat or drink – the point is to establish a cycle of positive reinforcement. Are you “bribing” yourself? Maybe! But if it helps you write, it’s worth it.
Key take-away: “Modular writing” is a great way to break your paper down into manageable tasks. Write the sections of your paper in the order that is easiest for you, and put them together, in sequence, later.
3. Set yourself up for success.
I used to feel very stressed looking at a blank Microsoft Word document on my computer. I felt like a pianist about to perform at Carnegie Hall, but the keyboard was my piano, and everything had to be perfect from the first word. That is no way to encourage productive writing! But with a pen and a notebook, I felt more relaxed, and the writing flowed more naturally.
The bottom line is that you should use whatever tools and tricks work for you and your individual writing process. You can even write in an email to yourself if that helps you relax more than a word processing document (yes, I’ve done this).
Is there a particular type of pen or pencil that just makes you want to write because of the smoothness of its ink on real paper? Use it! Do you love writing on a whiteboard with dry-erase markers? Do it! The point is to start writing.
The great thing about all of the technology available to us today is that it gives us so much freedom to be creative and productive in new ways. Although there are a lot of rules for formatting and submitting your manuscript (and AJE can help you with those), there are no rules for writing a draft. Remember, it’s a lot easier to edit a draft that exists than one that doesn’t!
Key take-away: There are no rules when writing your draft. The best writing habits are the ones that work for you.
Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day, by Joan Bolker, Owl Books, 1998. This book is somewhat geared toward the humanities and social sciences, and is a bit dated by now, but it is still a must-read for anyone writing a dissertation or master’s thesis and inspired several of the strategies discussed above.
How to Write a Lot: A Practical Guide to Productive Academic Writing, by Paul J. Silvia, American Psychological Association, 2007. Relevant to all academic disciplines.