Questions, confidence, and building a list of projects

Back in January, I posted about my thought process in response to a question I had about the Georgia runoff elections. My intention was to illustrate both the crucial role that imagination plays in developing research and ways that imagination combines with analysis to generate myriad hypothetical explanations, each of which could be examined and researched.  This post is partly following in those footsteps, but pays more attention to the emotional elements in this process, especially with respect to questions that arise in the process.

As you can see from the title, I’m trying to pack a lot of different ideas in here, but the basic message is that the process of research moves forward by generating a variety of possible avenues of exploration and by choosing one of those avenues. If you recognize that dynamic, you can benefit from it. A crucial part of that approach is the element of confidence needed to make choices in the face of uncertainty. The researcher needs to be able to see a wide array of different possible questions in order to develop a robust argument that can withstand reasonable criticism, but also needs to be able to choose specific limits to each project without any objective logic to determine them. Such limits can be frustrating—they can feel almost arbitrary, or at least arbitrary with respect to purely intellectual issues—but, from a practical perspective, they allow completion. From the perspective of a long-term research practice that wants to produce multiple publications (as expected of professors), these different limits suggest new projects; each acknowledged limit indicates a project that tries to move past that limit. 

A “trivial” question

This post was partly triggered by the recent Super Bowl, in which Tom Brady won again. Brady has won the championship an amazing  7 times in 19 seasons, more than 1/3 of the possible titles in those years.  According to much of the sports media, Brady is the GOAT (Greatest Of All Time) in football—that he’s the best player ever at the game’s most important position. When I started thinking about that first, I wondered where he stood amongst the wider realm of GOATs: which GOATs are the greatest GOATs? Is Tom Brady greater than Babe Ruth? greater than Serena Williams? It’s a question that could be viewed as trivial: how important is it, really, to identify the GOAT? At the same time, it’s the kind of loose question that could spark research by leading to more detailed questions about how to measure greatness across fields. That question depends on having some idea of how to measure greatness within one field. Which sparks more questions, for example, how do we weigh the peak performance of a player vs. the long-term contribution? How does a player who was really, really great for a relatively short time (Sandy Koufax, Penny Hardaway, Kurt Warner) compare to someone who was just very good for a very long time (Warren Spahn, Jason Kidd, Eli Manning)?  And more questions: how do you measure peak greatness? How do you measure long-term greatness? Drilling into any of these questions leads to yet more questions. For the researcher, this can be a bonanza of different potential projects.  Or at least could be, if the emotional element is in place: if you tell yourself that a question is trivial, you’re not going to work on it. (I’m not going to be doing significant research on sports GOATs because the questions aren’t sufficiently important to me.) Some questions are trivial, but assuming that a question is trivial too soon can mean ignoring potential courses of research.

Confidence

Partly this post was sparked was sparked by feedback a writer received on a paper, particularly the phrases “It might have be useful to further discuss…” and “it would have been great to further explore…” Phrases like this are reflections of the process of discovering additional questions: every time we commit ourselves to a new sentence on the page, we offer a target to criticism (but wait…is that true? Every time I commit to a sentence? Are there exceptions?…). Whether or when to answer such questions is largely a negotiation between the author and the audience, taking into account the specific context. It means different things to a student receiving a grade on a paper (that will not be revised) and an author responding to a revise-and-resubmit. 

I titled this section “confidence” because the key factor, in a way, is in having the confidence to make decisions of whether and when to pursue these further questions. At any moment in time, there is a limit to what you can do. And in writing, there is almost always a word count limit, sometimes formally stated, sometimes implicit. Therefore, choices must be made: which avenues do you explore and when? Confidence is a necessary guide: without confidence to make your own decisions, you wander aimlessly in response to the most recent stimulus; with confidence, you pursue your own goals and are not swayed by others telling you that your work is trivial.  If a question is important to you—if you’re passionate about seeking an answer—that may lead you to ideas that are important.

Sports Analytics

When I was in college, the whole idea of sports analytics was still relatively obscure. Sports teams didn’t have entire analytics departments; there were no sports analysis websites; there weren’t sports analytics conferences hosted by prestigious universities. Such questions weren’t viewed as particularly important by most involved in sports, and those who didn’t care about sports quite naturally didn’t view those questions as important.  Today, of course, sports analytics are a huge industry, and therefore consequential to the many who are involved in sports (though people who don’t think sports are important probably still think that sports analytics aren’t important).

But, when I was in college, sports analytics was just beginning to burst on the scene. The baseball writer Bill James, for example, who started self-publishing his analytics work a few years before I entered college to reach out to a relatively small group of statistical analysts, was starting to gain popularity. James had had the confidence to pursue his work despite the extensive scorn it generated (especially in the early years). James, his colleagues, and those who followed, built sports analytics into a huge industry simply by pursuing questions they found interesting.  James would ask simple things like “is batting average the best way to judge a player?” or, more generally, “how do we identify good players?” And he explored those ideas, exploring and developing different analytical methods, revising and refining or even redefining his theories and techniques. He, and the many others who joined that pursuit, simply kept saying “it would be great to further explore…” Indeed, James’s writing often included statements like “when I have time, I want to do a better analysis of X.”

Getting questioned

Choosing to pursue a question takes confidence, particularly if others doubt or ask questions. It’s harder to maintain motivation if someone tells you that your work is worthless or uninteresting, and it’s pretty much guaranteed that if you tell enough people about your work, some will find it worthless and uninteresting. It’s not all that uncommon for scholars (particularly graduate students, I think, though I have no empirical evidence) to start to think that their work is so narrowly focused that it is essentially worthless. Questions are inevitable. The question is what to do with them, and confidence is key.

Practically speaking, the scholar faced with a question can do one of three things: they can ignore it; they can pursue it; or they can get bogged down by it. The third can be a big problem. Pursuing questions can take a lot of time and effort. Ignoring questions can actually be good because it allows continued focus on one specific project.

Putting off questions and building a list of projects

When I speak of “ignoring” a question, I don’t necessarily mean entirely ignoring it, but rather temporarily putting it to the side so that it doesn’t derail or delay a current project. Often such a delay can be explicitly acknowledged in writing: every “it would be interesting to explore…” question can be treated with a sort of promissory note by writing “It would be interesting to explore __X__, but that is outside the scope of this project.”  Such a response can deflect reasonable concerns by presenting them as the practical choice of a scholar with limited resources (and all scholars have limited resources, especially time): it’s not that you ignored the problem, but that you made the choice to set that concern aside for a time.

From the long-term perspective of a scholar, each of those deferred questions can serve as the seed for a new project. If your system of evaluating football greatness has trouble comparing value across different positions, that’s a project. If your system has trouble comparing across eras (“How do we compare Unitas to Staubach to Montana to Brady when the rules of the game were different?”), that’s a project.

Conclusion

Imagination is a double-edged sword for a researcher: it offers so many questions for further exploration that paralysis can set in. It takes confidence to choose to pursue questions that others view as unimportant, and to set aside questions that others view as important.  Still, all questions provide the potential seeds for future projects. Every limit you put on your current project suggests a future project. For someone considering a career as a researcher, it’s valuable to see that dynamic: the question you ask yourself and the questions of others can be viewed as possible future projects rather than flaws in your current work. Every research project has limits or it never gets finished, so it’s crucial to be able to accept questions as limits to the current project even if those questions are obviously important and relevant. I often say that one of the most important phrases for scholarly writing is “but that’s outside the scope of this project,” but at a deeper level, it’s not just about the phrase but about the perspective that it represents. Projects do have limits; it takes confidence to move forward despite limits and doubts. Building a list of future projects from current questions can help build confidence that you are acting responsibly as a scholar or researcher.

Tips for dealing with writer’s block: Summary

Back in October, I started writing a series of tips for dealing with writer’s block.  In this post, I want to summarize what I’ve done so far.  For the prospective reader, I offer this summary as an attempt to capture the big ideas in a brief and clear form. For myself, as a matter of both intellectual exploration and writing practice, the attempt to write a summary will help me clarify and refine my message. Additionally, it might suggest new tips that could be added to the list.

What is writer’s block?

In this series of posts, I have been looking at writer’s block, generally speaking, as any sort of emotional/intellectual barrier that prevents a previously successful writer from writing. Writer’s block is the experience of a writer making time to write but, for emotional and/or intellectual reasons, being unable to write productively in the time allotted.

 I use the term emotional/intellectual to highlight that these barriers are not primarily physiological in nature (acknowledging the interconnection between emotion/intellect and physiology). Physical injury or disease that prevent writing are not writer’s blocks, even if they are barriers to writing. When writing triggers significant anxiety, depression, or despair—emotional states that interfere with writing—that complex of responses is what I am considering “writer’s block” in these posts.  There may be a physiological element—emotions have physiological manifestations—but what I hope my tips for dealing with writer’s block to address are intellectual and emotional triggers—ideas that leads to emotional responses.

In this definition, I use the term “successful” in a generous sense to encompasses almost any perception of writing success. People who get writer’s block have written before, and believed in their ability as a writer to accept new writing challenges.  The grad student stuck on a dissertation and the junior faculty struggling to publish have both had significant previous success, at least as measured by both their choice to pursue an academic degree or career, and their ability to advance to the point they have reached. A graduate student who has advanced to candidacy has decided to pursue a thesis or dissertation, at least partly based on previous success writing course papers, not to mention administrative correspondence, including, perhaps, fellowship or grant applications. Such past successes are not to be dismissed as irrelevant for being less than current challenges, but rather ought to be viewed as the natural steps leading up to those current challenges.

These past successes are important in clarifying that writer’s block is not lack of self-discipline. I’ve read plenty of advice that dismisses the idea of writer’s block and says, basically, “work harder.” But, in my view, you can’t get writer’s block unless you have demonstrable, evident self-discipline. Yes, there are lazy people in this world who need to be pushed harder, but there are people who have regularly demonstrated self-discipline over many years—who has written, who has met departmental requirements, who has taught courses, who may be doubling with another career, not to mention familial responsibilities, etc.—and then get stuck on a writing project. I have worked with many such people. While it’s true that “try harder” is a viable approach, it’s an unsubtle, ungentle response. Instead, I look for causes that the self-discipline that prevails in most of a person’s life has stopped working when it’s time to write. The tips that I offer are based in developing an effective perspective on the process of writing.

Causes of writer’s block

There are any number of different ideas that can trigger anxiety. There is fear of rejection. There is disillusionment with the project. There is dislike (or even fear) of writing. And there are also ideas about writing that can interfere with productivity and thereby create anxiety, for example, perfectionism in any of its many guises. 

Obvious and hidden writer’s block

Sometimes writer’s block is obvious—you stare at the blank screen. Other times it is less so: you make a new outline, do some reading or start again from scratch. In both cases, it takes an adjustment of perspective to throw off the delaying concerns.

First and second tips: Understand the process of writing and identify writing blocks

I argued that understanding the causes of writer’s block was important in relieving it.  There are many different ideas that can contribute to writing blocks, and the better you can distinguish those ideas and identify which are affecting you, the better you can deal with those that are significant and ignore those that are worth ignoring.

Third tip: Develop a healthy and positive practice of writing 

If you develop a better relationship with writing, many of the emotional blocks will fall away.  Indeed, one emotional block that some experience is the idea that writing itself is a painful activity.  It’s true that writing is difficult and often frustrating, but it is also true that, with practice, you can learn to like writing.

Fourth tip: Write for learning, not for communication (especially in the early stages of a project) 

The fear of rejection offers a significant obstacle for many. While some fear of rejection is not unreasonable, there is a lot of writing that can be done outside the draft that you send to someone. Writing is a tool for learning as well as for communication. Sometimes you want to write for learning—to develop your ideas. Sometimes you write for communication. Separating these two kinds of writing can reduce some of the fear of rejection.

Fifth and sixth tips: Principles for a healthy practice 

The third tip focused on the importance of believing that writing could be a positive and healthy practice.  The fifth and sixth followed up on that idea by suggesting a few principles around which to build a healthy practice, most particularly focusing on finding the right motivations and applying the right amount of persistence and self-discipline. A healthy practice grows out of work that pursues a passion while also keeping the work in balance with other commitments. The sixth tip specifically looked at situations in which “try harder” is not always the best advice for writers facing writer’s blocks.

Seventh tip: Accept (or even embrace) uncertainty 

focused on dealing with uncertainty. To some extent, the advice was a little too close to “it’s unavoidable; deal with it.”  But when it comes to dealing with uncertainty, it is important to recognize that logical certainty is elusive.  People who act certain may be emotionally certain, but they are not logically certain (at least not in any empirical study).

Eighth tip: Experiment in writing  

If you don’t have certainty, what do you have?  One thing a writer has is a chance to revise and rewrite.  There is plenty of opportunity to put something down on the page just to see how it looks. It’s a good learning experience and the results can be eliminated if not promising. The willingness to experiment and rewrite reduces the emotional stakes during the process: you needn’t worry about pleasing others. Experimentation gives space for exploring and developing your own ideas and your own voice.

Ninth tip: Imagine writing to a friendly audience  

A lot of writers get hung up thinking about the negative responses their work has received in the past. While it is important to learn from the negative feedback you receive, that’s not the most motivating perspective, and doesn’t provide great insight into how to reach the people who would be most interested in your work.  Writing to convince a hostile audience is a very different thing than writing for a friendly audience, both in terms of emotions while writing and in terms of what you put on the page.  Write for a friendly audience.

Tenth tip: Believe in your own intelligence and ability 

If you don’t believe you’re smart enough to do the work, then it’s really hard to move forward. You’ll get blocked by doubt at every decision. But if you’re trying to write, chances are good that you already have the intelligence you need. There are two sides of this argument. One side is that academic work doesn’t require vast brilliance—most scholars are not Einstein-level brilliant, they’re just reasonably smart people, and most scholarship is just careful development of previous work done in the field.  The other side is that people who have advanced in academia to graduate school or beyond usually have sufficient intelligence to do the work or they wouldn’t have advanced. (In a related essay, I discussed the basics of analysis and why it’s something that almost everyone can do with a little attention and care.)

Eleventh tip: You have something worth saying

This is the most recent in the series to date. Writers can come to doubt that they have something worth saying.  There are several potential dimensions to this (another one of which—the sense that one’s subject matter is worthless or pointless or at least would only appeal to a tiny audience—might be worth future discussion). In this tip, I discuss the problem of having too many things to say. Lots of writers have experienced a blankness as they face the page.  But realistically, most people have a lot to say—often writers have so many different things to say that when they try to write, the different ideas compete and interfere, and it feels like they have nothing worth saying because they’re trying to say too many things at once.

Conclusion

At one point, I was calling this series “Tips for anxious writers.” Although I have shifted to calling this “Tips for dealing with writer’s block,” the general purpose and scope have remained the same, as I defined writer’s block as largely consisting of anxiety or other emotions that interfere with the writing process.  Over the years, combining my own internal dialogue as I struggle to write with comments from other writers also struggling to write, I identified many different ideas that have a negative impact on the writing process and that despite some elements of truth, lead writers astray.

Writing is hard and often frustrating, but that doesn’t mean it’s an ordeal or lacking its pleasures and rewards.  Like many other difficult endeavors, writing can be personally and professionally rewarding if you approach it right.  This series of tips aimed at replacing ideas that interfere with ideas that help. The approaches suggested do not eliminate work or even frustration, but they can improve your relationship with writing and reduce writing-related anxieties and doubts.

Dealing with writers block, tip 11: You have something worth saying

Some writers cry in despair, “I have nothing to say.” I have worked with more than one writer experiencing this distress. This doubt is a close relative of the doubt about whether or not you are intelligent (which I discussed in my previous tip for dealing with writer’s block), and is accurate about as often (which is to say, almost never).  If you are even considering writing as part of your career, it’s almost certain that you have something to say—so much to say, indeed, that if you’re like many writers who think they have nothing to say, you probably have problems managing all your different ideas.

A writer once told me that she experienced a traffic jam of ideas, and I think that’s a vivid description of something that I have experienced, and a metaphor that resonates with other writers, as well. You can only write one idea at a time, and if you have lots of ideas, they will compete for attention, with each blocking the way of others. To deal with the traffic jam of ideas, sort: first, separate out all the different ideas, then choose which are most worth the effort.

The many ideas in your head get caught as the highway of imagination narrows down to the bottleneck of words on the page.

You have something to say

Is it possible that you have nothing to say? It seems unlikely. Do you never speak to your friends and family? Do you have no ideas about subjects that interest you? Nothing to say about that movie you watched, that meal you ate, that book you read? Everyone has something to say. As a scholar, of course, you’re not engaging in casual conversation, so you might say that you have nothing to say that is scholarly. But you probably have something to say about that article you read or that lecture you saw.  You probably have a lot of things to say about that article or book, though you may not want to discuss them all (for example, if the editor at the journal just said your article needs to mention Dr. X, you probably don’t want to say “Dr. X is a clown and their book is trash,” even if you think it).

Reasons not to speak

There are plenty of reasons not to speak that have nothing to do with what could be said. Courtesy and politics are significant considerations (that deserve their own discussion, but not here).There is the difficult question about what is worth saying (writing). There are, after all, people who say things that are not worth saying, and who wants to be one of them? (Ironically, people with the self-critical eye that prevents writing trash often also struggle with writing anxiety and related writing blocks, whereas it is the person with no self-critical filter and high self-opinion that blithely produces volumes of polished and banal work.) 

In this post, I want to focus on the specific problem of having too many things to say, which can lead to the sense of having nothing to say. 

Often, “I have nothing to say,” actually means something like “every time I try to write, what comes out is banal, trite, and not worth writing.”  That is something very different from having nothing to say.  There can be a number of causes of thinking that everything you write is banal or worthless. I want to focus on one very common contributor to this experience: the problem of having too many things to say.

When you have many things to say, there are two intertwined problems: the first is that it is hard to write well and clearly, so a first draft of a great idea can sound banal. The second problems is that it can be difficult to sort out the most valuable statements from those of less value, especially when the writing is rough.

The long-term solution to these problems is to develop your voice, and to write enough different things that you can feel like you’ve at least touched on some of the many things that will interest you (and, yes, I will take it for granted that many things interest you; if not, there may be better advice than I offer here). In the short term, the place to start is with writing exercises that can help sort out the banal from the nuggets of value.

Exercises to sort things out

Exercises help separate the experience of writing from the product that can be criticized. An exercise is an exploration: it doesn’t matter whether the thing you write during the exercise is valuable; the value lies in the exploration or experimentation. As with all forms of exploration or experimentation, the results are inconsistent: sometimes things work out, and sometimes they don’t. But in the process of experimentation or exploration, you learn and often develop new insights. A writing exercise can simultaneously produce bad writing and a good idea. Exercises develop both your reasoning and your ability to express ideas: even if the result is a lousy piece of writing, in the process of creation and self-criticism, you gain insight into what went wrong, and what you could do differently.

Writing exercises can also help sort the good ideas from the bad. If you’re telling yourself you have nothing worth saying, then write some of that valueless stuff down.  You might find a nugget of value among the dross. A place to start is writing exercises, in which it’s OK to write poorly, because the exercise is to learn.

Exercise 1: Say (write) anything

If you’re feeling stuck writing, feeling like you don’t have anything worth writing, it’s important to start by giving yourself the opportunity to write stuff that’s not worth writing. Write in a context where you don’t need to say anything coherent, much less impressive or profound. Write nonsense. Write “I have nothing to write about” a few times until you feel like writing something else (like “this is boring”). Begin putting ideas into words on the page with the focus on developing a practice, not on producing a great result.

Start by clearing away some of the thoughts that are stopping you from writing. If you sit staring at the page telling yourself, “I have nothing worth saying,” it’s going to make it hard to say anything else. Put that on the page. Does that lead anywhere? If you’re worried you’re not smart enough, write that down, and look for something else to write. If you’re worried that some single person will criticize or mock you, write that down. 

Don’t just write about obstacles, though. What other ideas are intruding? Write about things you want or need. Write about the weather. Write about your friends. Write about anything at all, but write. Put words on the page. You can write sentences or phrases if you want, but don’t worry about making sentences or phrases. It’s an exercise for the sake of practice, like a musician playing scales or a tennis player returning shots from a machine. What you write doesn’t really matter, just that you write. First, get the words and ideas flowing. The more you practice, the more consistently you will be able to write. Free writing is a useful tool, but it’s not really where you want to stop, just like musicians want to move past playing scales.

Exercise 2: Focus on your work

Once you’ve started putting words on the page, start focusing a bit. Try to write about your project or your work.  You’re still trying to get a flow of ideas—still trying to break the traffic jam, not yet trying to produce a solid draft—so give yourself space to write about the project from all dimensions, including writing about both your hopes and your fears.

Start by writing about the project generally: what is it? What is the subject? What is the context in which you work?  Just getting a start here is likely to bring up both hopes and fears. 

Exercise 3: Remember your foundations

Projects don’t spring out of nothing.Write down what your early hopes for your project were. How did you get to this project? What inspired you to get here? Focus your attention on the positive motivations that guided you here (if problems come up, write about those, too—see below—but try to focus on the hopes). Writing about your hopes for your project can give an emotional boost.  Remember: this is an exercise to get ideas moving and to remind yourself of all the things that interest you, and that you would say if your audience were a younger version of yourself.

Exercise 4: What are the problems?

This is an area that can be emotionally fraught—it is, indeed the very core of writing blocks. People who have trouble writing for work still do fine writing emails to friends, for example.  If there are significant doubts interfering with your writing, you need to deal with them.

If you have concerns, make a list: what are all the things that are already wrong with your project? And what are the things that could go wrong?  Approach this exercise with caution: it takes some emotional strength to list potentially negative aspects of your work or doubts about it. But it can be valuable to make such a list, too. Firstly, having written down a problem, it may seem unreasonable or unlikely. Secondly, if a problem does seem reasonable or likely, you can start to think about ways to address it, which is more proactive and can give an emotional boost. Thirdly, sometimes writing something down to be addressed later can help clear it from the front of your mind, allowing your focus to shift elsewhere (hopefully to something more productive). 

You want to get the negative ideas out of the way, somehow, so other ideas can flow. Some negative ideas can be included in scholarly work (reflective discussions of limitations and problems with research are common), so there might be something there worth writing. But get the negative ideas on the page and out of the traffic jam of ideas. 

Exercise 5: Consider your interlocutors

If you’re a scholar or researcher, you’ve come to where you are at least partly through reading scholars in your field.  Think about the ways in which you relate to the work of others in your field.  What works are similar? In what ways similar? What were the positive influences—the works whose ideas you’ve incorporated? In what ways is your work similar, and in what ways different? What would you say to the authors of those works if speaking with them?  Are there any significant negative influences—works that seemed wrong to you and that you wanted to correct? In what ways is your work similar or different? What would you say to those authors?

Remember that these are exercises and explorations. Feel free to write “You’re so brilliant, I want to get it on with you,” to authors you respect and “you’re an idiot,” to those you don’t. (It’s an exercise where grammar and spelling don’t matter, so “Dr. X, your a moron,” works, too.)

Exercise 6: Imagine your futures

What are the different projects in which you could engage?  Instead of thinking about how you can get all your ideas into one project—“My book/dissertation needs to cover everything I’ve worked on these last five years!”—think about how many different projects could be made. Could you write an article about your methodological choices and what you’ve learned? Could you write multiple articles about different aspects of your project?  If you’re doubting the value of your work, this may seem unlikely, but it’s common for scholars to start envisioning a short work that expands as they look at it more closely, and this expansion is one of the causes of the traffic jam of ideas.

Conclusion

There’s a lot of writing that could go into these preceding exercises, but if you’re feeling blocked and feeling pressure to produce, what have you got to lose? (OK, actually, you could spend your time on a fruitless endeavor, but if you’re not having success writing, doesn’t it make sense to at least give these exercises a chance?) The more you work through them, the greater your chance of finding something of interest.  

Of course, you can’t be too critical of yourself: you have to take the chance of being wrong. Write ideas until you find something that does seem worth working on, then work on that idea. Explore and experiment. Think about what other scholars have done and how you might do something different but built on their precedent. Remember: it does not need to be earth shaking innovation to be worthwhile.  There is a lot of value in doing simple work—both to build your own skills and to provide foundations on which you and other scholars can build.

Develop your voice; develop your ideas. Explore, experiment, and produce a lot of stuff. Then look for the few most valuable nuggets.

Everyone has something to say. Scholars generally have many worthwhile things to say, but they also have some things that probably aren’t worth saying. They have to sort out those many different things so that ideas don’t interfere with each other, and so that the best ideas can be developed enough that their value can be recognized.

Dealing with writer’s block, tip 10: You are smart enough

One common source of doubt for scholar is the general lament, “I’m not smart enough,” or the corresponding question, “am I smart enough?” This is one version of the common problem known as “imposter syndrome” (a different version is to say “I don’t work hard enough”).  If you doubt you have the intelligence to do your work, then you’ll anticipate failure, which can certainly trigger anxiety. But chances are that you do have enough or more than enough intelligence.  A rational eye towards the actual standards of academia is useful when doubts about your intelligence step in and interfere with writing.  I cannot prove that you—unknown reader—are smart enough, but a lot of people who are smart enough (at least as judged by their careers) have also doubted themselves, it is possible, even likely, that you might be another.

What does it mean to be smart, anyway?

To know whether you are “smart enough,” it helps to know what it means to “be smart” and to have some sense of how to quantify or measure “smart,” but “smart” is hard to define, and hard to measure.  Any number of standardized tests have been developed for measuring intelligence. But is a score on a test an accurate measure of usable intelligence? 

Universities are placing less and less emphasis on standardized tests in their admissions, which suggests that they don’t think tests offer valuable insight into ability.  Of course, universities have historically used such tests, so if you happen to be in academia, you probably scored high enough on the test to satisfy the admissions committee, which is an indication that, at least according to the test, you are smart enough.

I don’t want to go down a rabbit hole of trying to define “smart” or “smart enough,” but, if you’re worrying that you’re not smart enough, it is worth thinking about “smart” critically: What makes someone smart? Ability to do logic puzzles? Large vocabulary? Good memory? What about “emotional intelligence” or kinds of intelligence? There are probably many different things that the average person would consider “smart.” So, whatever “being smart enough” means, it’s a complex multidimensional thing.  

Pragmatic measures

Instead of asking whether you’re smart enough, ask whether you can achieve the goals you set for yourself, and what you would need to accomplish those goals. If you take this pragmatic perspective, it doesn’t really matter how much innate talent or “smartness” you have, what matters is what you do with your abilities.

Pragmatic measures are relevant because they give you empirical evidence regarding your ability to meet successive challenges and grow. Each step you take provides some evidence about how you can deal with the next step.  If you did well in undergraduate studies, you have evidence that you could do well in graduate studies, and you can ask what more you might need for that next step.  If you have done well in graduate studies, you have evidence that you can write a graduate thesis, and you can ask what more do you need to take the next step. If you have written a graduate thesis, you have evidence that you can get published, and you can ask what more you need to do.

The evidence you gather at each step is not conclusive—success at one level of competence doesn’t guarantee success at the next, a high school athletic star won’t necessarily be a university athletic star—but it is suggestive.  Universities are pretty good at identifying students who have the ability to finish degrees (even in the case of doctoral students, who only receive a degree about 50% of the time: of the students who don’t finish, many could have finished if not for life circumstances).

Believe in the empirical evidence of your past successes, rather than in your doubts about moving to the next level. And trust the skills that got you where are.

Intelligence and self-confidence

In many ways, success in academia is as much dependent on self-confidence than on any innate “intelligence.” The arrogant fool pushes ahead, blind to their own failings and the weaknesses in their own work. They produce and share work, and then proclaim its greatness. And others accept that claim. Meanwhile, the insightful, discriminating and self-doubting scholar keeps working trying to eliminate problems, rather than sharing it. As a result, no one can find it interesting because no one knows it exists. The arrogant fool can end up publishing many times when the careful scholar is still working on a single piece.

Ideally, a scholar balances the discerning self-doubt/self-criticism needed to maintain quality with the self-confidence to share work despite imperfections. It’s easier to maintain that balance if you remember the inevitable uncertainty in research and the crucial role that confidence plays in proceeding despite uncertainty. As I have argued elsewhere, research, at best, offers strong and convincing evidence; it does not offer certainty. To proceed in the face of these uncertainties, a scholar needs confidence. Your confidence can be supported by remembering that uncertainty springs up in research no matter how smart you are. Heisenberg was plenty smart, but he’s still known for his uncertainty principle.  Accepting the uncertainty in research can support the confidence to discuss the limits of your work: if you expect to experience limits, and you know other scholars in your field also struggle with limits, it’s much easier to discuss and examine those limits as product of the difficulties of research rather than a reflection of any lack of intelligence.

Writing and the critical eye

There are a lot of people who, when trying to write, think “I’m not smart enough for this,” but who, when they’re reading, think “this work could be better; the author(s) ought to have considered XYZ,” or, when they’re talking with colleagues/peers in informal settings, feel confident enough to criticize the work or the theories of others.  This is, I think, partly the product of the general ability to criticize: when someone presents their work to you, you have a chance to find problems with it. This is useful when reading other people’s work—the ability to criticize is a crucial tool for finding the proverbial “gap in the literature,” to which scholars respond.  However, when you write, suddenly it’s your own words and ideas that are on the page ready to be criticized. Too often, writers take that opportunity to criticize themselves into paralysis.

You know your own work better and in greater detail than you know the work of others, and when you’re writing about your own work, there is no rhetorical device that can head off your own criticisms.  This perspective makes your own work look weak, and in the moment of writing it’s likely that you’re focused on your own work, not on the weaknesses of other people’s work (despite the fact that the motivating force behind most research is some sort of weakness or “gap” in previously published literature).

What abilities do you need to be a scholar?

Good research and scholarship do not require brilliance. Mostly, scholarship requires careful attention to detail, reasonable ability to discriminate, a decent memory, and a little imagination. You can’t be an idiot to be a scholar, but you don’t have to be a genius.  

Scholarship mostly depends on doing careful conscientious work. It doesn’t take great intelligence to identify a “gap in the literature”—i.e., an unanswered question—it just takes enough intelligence to understand publications in the field, along with the persistence to read a bunch of them. Questions abound: lots of scholarship leaves questions that could be asked in the future, sometimes formalized as “suggestions for future research.”  

Once you’ve identified something to study, it might take some imagination to figure out how to make a research study out of an idea, but mostly what’s needed is attention to detail to flesh out the research plan and enough confidence to accept imperfect plans. 

Good analysis of data can be difficult, but often it merely requires following a prescribed method. It’s worth keeping in mind, too, that a lot of good analysis happens implicitly: if you think something is important, that’s analysis; if you think there’s a problem, that’s analysis.  Insights that seem dreadfully obvious to you are not necessarily obvious to others.

There are many moments in the scholarly process where imagination is valuable—coming up with interesting questions, novel hypotheses or methods, or insightful analyses of data—but a lot of scholarship requires only careful pursuit of questions and methods for answering questions. Focus, discrimination, persistence, and careful attention are absolutely required for research, but once-in-a-generation brilliance is not.

Conclusion

Doubting your own intelligence can trigger anxiety, but asking whether you’re smart enough is the wrong question to ask.  Ask what you can do with the abilities you have. Focus on the abilities you have used in the past, and try to expand them a little at a time. If you have ever had success in academics, those successes suggest that you have enough intelligence to continue moving forward. Look for ways to build on past successes and trust the abilities that got you there.  Your limits may keep you from pursuing certain projects, but it’s most likely that the limits you face will be practical, not intellectual.

Note

Although I’m convinced that this is a subject worth discussing, I’m not very happy with this essay I’ve written. Nonetheless, I’m sharing it with you in part because I want to demonstrate my willingness to proceed in the face of doubt.

Dealing with writer’s block, tip 9: Write for a friendly audience

A lot of writers get stuck because they’re imagining a hostile audience as they write. They remember the worst feedback they ever received, or imagine even worse.  The anticipation of cruel, harshly critical feedback had brought many a writer to a grinding halt. If you are such a writer, focus your attention and your efforts towards writing what a friendly audience would want. 

 Many writers start with some motivating idea to express, but the thought of a hostile, unhelpful response triggers defensive concerns (“how do I respond to that criticism?”) instead of positive ones (“how do I explain the part that I find interesting or important?”), which can trigger anxiety. But not all audiences are harshly critical. If you imagine writing to a friendly and interested audience, you might be able to reduce anxiety.

Real and imagined audiences

You don’t necessarily get to choose your audience.  Often—especially if you’re a student—you’re forced to write for someone who has already demonstrated a harsh, unsupportive response to your work.  Many writers get stuck writing in response to a critical professor or hostile reviewer. If you already struggle with anxiety, anticipating a harsh response can trigger overwhelming anxiety.

You don’t have to focus on writing for your real audience, however. Instead, you can imagine an audience that will appreciate and benefit from your work. It takes some effort to focus on an imagined positive audience if you have the habit of imagining a hostile response, but it gets easier with practice, as you develop a clearer sense of your ideal positive audience by repeatedly returning to the same idea.

Speaking personally, I know that my writing about writing and writing blocks (like this essay) simply isn’t relevant to a lot of people, most of whom would simply ignore it (while not exactly hostile, this is hardly encouraging). Other people, I imagine, would criticize or mock it as poorly reasoned or poorly executed or somehow detached from reality. I could imagine these people mocking me, as well as criticizing my own work. Sometimes, my mind wanders while writing and slips to people who have rejected or criticized my work, which does make it harder to keep moving.

But, instead of thinking of the people who wouldn’t want or like my work, I imagine people who might like it and who might benefit from it, starting with myself. I’m not sure I always like my writing, but I do benefit from the ideas I try to share. I have a lot of writing anxiety, and a lot of my ability to write depends on my approach, as I try to describe in my writing. I try to share these ideas because they helped me in the past and continue to help me in the present. To some extent, then, the audience I imagine is myself, or, more precisely, the part of me who would benefit and appreciate the ideas (not the part of me that would harshly criticize the weaknesses in my writing or reasoning). Additionally, I can imagine people I’ve helped—people who were stuck for years, overwhelmed with anxiety, and thinking of giving up, but who benefitted from the same ideas I’m trying to capture in my writing, and were able to complete their work and move on to new projects.

Imagining a positive audience

If I think about people I have helped (or about helping myself), it gives me focus and motivation: motivation because it feels good to help people who are struggling and even suffering because of writing-related anxiety, and focus because I try to imagine what I could say that would help (or remember what I said previously that did helped someone).

Most people aren’t writing to help people in the same direct way that I’m trying to help writers struggling with anxiety, but there are other ways of helping.  If you’re a scholar, there’s a good chance that there may be a small group of other scholars who would benefit from your work—people interested in similar subjects whose research might be able to build on yours. Many scholars feel dismay that their work is separate from the everyday concerns of most people, and that their audience is only the handful of scholars who do similar work. But that small group of people—people who share your interests and with whom you can cooperate with and help in their work—are a good audience to imagine. Perhaps you’re not helping a vast number, but if you really help a few, isn’t that a worthy effort? (Doubt about the value in studying something understood by only a few is itself a cause of anxiety for many writers. A full discussion is outside the scope of this essay, but my short answer is that the value of a subject is not measured by the number of people who study it or care about it.)  

It takes some optimism to believe that someone might appreciate esoteric research, but it’s not an unreasonable hope.  Hoping for an audience of millions may be unrealistic for most scholars, but hoping for a small and enthusiastic audience is entirely within the realm of possibility. Who are people who might be interested in your work? If you’re having trouble imagining a positive audience, think about the authors of work that you like and respect.  If you are relying heavily on the work of another scholar, there is a good chance that they will be both interested and a bit flattered. One way to find some motivation and focus is to imagine that you are writing to the author of something that influenced you in a positive way, and think about how they would appreciate your expansion of their work. (It’s an exercise of imagination, so you can imagine them being nice people just as well as you can imagine them being cruel.)

Exercise 1

Who would be interested or even excited to read your work?

  • What authors have you read who might be interested in your work? Does your work cite them? Why would they like your work/what would they like about it?
  • In the abstract, what are the characteristics of someone who might like your work? What ideas are important to them? What scholars are important to them?

Write for the audience you want

Writing for the audience you want allows you to focus on the issues that seem most important to you, and if you want to be a writer or scholar, you need to learn to trust that intuition of what is important. Writers, after all, are valued for showing us new things (or at least presenting old things in new lights), and your best and only source for new, original perspectives is your own insight.  When you are writing for an supportive and interested audience, your attention is more likely to go to the stuff that you care about most.  

Exercise 2

Consider what it’s like to talk about your research to a friendly peer: if you’re emotionally comfortable with someone, you can express your enthusiasms and pet theories.  Those enthusiasms and pet theories are what you want to get down on the page. Imagine that you’re getting a friendly peer to help you with some part of the project: what would they need to know?

  • What do you care most about your project? What do you hope to accomplish?
  • What literature would they need to know to work on your project? Why do they need that?
  • What methods would they need to know? Why? 
  • What data sources would they need? Why?

When should you write for a hostile audience?

Whenever possible, focus on writing for the audience you want. If you’re looking for publication, imagine your work going to a journal or publisher who is interested in material like yours.  There are probably several options. It’s worth looking into such options, because knowing your audience provides guidance into how to shape your work. But why anticipate sending your publication to someone who wouldn’t be interested? Don’t let self-doubt creep in by imagining a hostile response: publishers and journals want material to publish, and are happy to receive material that they like. While writing, you can focus on asking yourself what they would find interesting and compelling, and imagine that they would be interested in the same or similar concerns as you.

If you’re writing for publication, why ever think about what a hostile audience might say?  They’re not the people to whom your work will be sold.  Admittedly, if enough people read your work, some of them will probably be hostile—large groups are like that. But if  lot of people are seeing your work, some will also be friendly and interested, and they’re the ones to write for.

There are times, however, where you have a commitment to or investment in a project and a hostile audience needs to be taken into consideration. Graduate students are the most likely to face this problem because they don’t really have the option of submitting to a different audience.  In such cases, although you need to take the hostile audience into account, you want to do so as late in the process as possible.  Your first draft can be written to the audience you want, and then, once that progress has been made, revisions can attempt to accommodate the hostile audience. Aalthough you can’t avoid the hostile audience for ever, you certainly should ignore it if anxiety about a harsh response is stopping you from writing. 

Conclusion

There are hostile people in the world, and no matter what you do, there’s a good chance that someone will complain. But don’t write for such people. It’s emotionally exhausting to imagine all the possible attacks that could be directed at you and to write trying to defend against complaints. Writing in that context becomes distracted from the main points and bogged down in detail. Yes, of course it’s good to consider weaknesses in your work and to try to eliminate them. And yes, it’s difficult to draw the line between reasonable self-criticism and a paralyzing focus on potential complaints. But if you’re struggling with anxiety-related writing blocks, then you don’t want spend your time thinking about people who will give you a hard time. Think about a friendly audience and about ways in which they might appreciate your work.

Dealing with writer’s block, tip 8: Experiment

This post is, in a way, the inverse of my previous post, which argued that it was necessary to act (to write) in the face of unavoidable uncertainty. In this post, I’m going to argue in favor of a specific kind of action in the face of uncertainty: experimentation. Developing a practice of experimentation can help reduce anxiety that triggers anxiety-related writing blocks.

Experimentation

Experimentation is, when speaking of research, a process of gathering data that will give insight into some unanswered question. In this sense, it is explicitly a step into the unknown: the experimenter doesn’t know with certainty what the outcome will be. In science and research, experiments are commonly used to gather empirical data from which to draw conclusions. But a researcher can also benefit from experimentation in writing.

There are two kinds of experimentation that can serve a scholar: thought experiments and writing experiments. Both kinds of experimentation produce material (whether ideas or words on the page) that may or may not be directly or obviously useful. Because experimentation does not guarantee a positive result, many writers avoid it as inefficient—“It takes me so long to write, that I can’t spend time experimenting with something I’ll never use. I need to get it right quickly.”

Trying to get it right

For a lot of writers who are struggling with anxiety-related writing blocks, there’s a feedback loop in which low productivity and high anxiety about results lead a writer slow down their writing process to ensure that the product of their writing efforts is immediately useful, and that sense of needing to get it right can trigger anxiety and slow the pace of working, while also drawing attention to lesser details and away from the main ideas. This slow pace of working (often coupled with anxiety) then loops back to the continued experience of low productivity, high anxiety writing. Ironically, this focus on getting things right does not ensure good writing, but rather inhibits the learning process of the writer.

Cycle of excessive caution and lowered productivity.

There are times when every writer should be concerned with getting it right—the last review of a draft before sending it off—but most of the time, it’s best for a writer to be thinking about the ideas they want to communicate (rather than on details of presentation). One of the main values of experimentation as a writer—writing quickly to see what you get rather than trying to “get it right”—is that it can reduce anxiety about “getting it right” (since you’re no longer trying to “get it right”), as well as anxiety about low productivity (since you’re putting a lot of words on the page).

Thought experiments

In philosophy, there is a long tradition of what are called “thought experiments.” As their name suggests, these “experiments” are purely intellectual: they are a process of imagination, of asking “what if…”  They are a crucial tool for any researcher or scholar, on levels both theoretical and practical.  Theoretically, the imagination of a thought experiment precedes the development of any hypothesis: “what if the world worked this way,”  leads to “then we would see this response, and we could test it this way…” 

A famous example of a thought experiment was Einstein’s imagining what it would be like to ride on a beam of light. That imaginative exercise aided the development of theories that continue to be used to this day.

Thought experiments require the imagination to consider different possibilities—even possibilities that seem unlikely or impossible.

Exercise 1: Thought experiment

[The key dimension in this exercise it to build your imagination, so it doesn’t need to be written out, but if you write out your thought experiment, you will also build your skill as a writer.]

1. Setting aside all the stuff you have read on your subject, what is your particular subject of study, and how do you think it all works (with respect to the specifics? If you study human behavior, why do humans behave in the way that interests you? If you study, historical processes, why did the history turn out the way it did? If you analyze texts, what do you expect the analysis to show?

2. Come up with some alternatives for the explanation you produced in step one. What’s an alternative that you have seen in the literature? What is an absurd alternative (use your imagination: is rain caused by a god washing her car? Is depression caused by watching Gilligan’s Island? Does Dickens’s Hard Times celebrate the beauty of capitalism)? Come up with as many different absurd explanations as you can.

Writing experiments

The harder writing seems, the easier it is to get attached to the words that you do get onto the page. If you struggle for an hour to produce one sentence, it’s a lot harder to give up on that sentence than if you only spent one minute. Being committed to what you have already written—“I can’t get rid of this; I worked so hard on it!”—inhibits learning in the process, or at least inhibits the willingness to use what has been learned. “I’m not sure it’s right, but I have to keep it because I worked so hard on it.”  But writing usually involves learning, so a tension builds between the old writing (and the old ideas) and what has been learned. This tension can trigger anxiety, in addition to anxiety about “getting it right.”

If you think of the practice of writing as involving a strong commitment to keep what you have already written, that can lead to putting emphasis on getting each new sentence right on the first try, which might lead to struggling over a single for an hour, which reinforces the commitment to keeping what has been written, and to a sense that writing is a very slow, high-stakes process. The higher the stakes of writing anything, the greater the anxiety involved, and the greater the chance of triggering a writing block.

Approaching some (most) writing as an experiment helps reduce the importance placed on “getting it right.”  Instead of trying to get it right, an experiment tries something just to see what results.  It’s a process of trying and comparing ideas.  Instead of just writing one version of a sentence (or paragraph), you write multiples versions and compare them.  This kind of experimentation is obviously easiest with a small amount of text—a title, an abstract, a cover letter—because it’s easy and fast to create multiple versions.  If I’m experimenting with a title, I can try out many different versions in only a few minutes.  If I spend an hour trying to come up with a title, I can generate dozens of alternatives. This is more difficult with longer pieces. If I need to write a section of an article or chapter, it may take several hours to write one version, which makes it harder to casually write another version, but if that perspective places a lot of importance on keeping what you’ve written, it raises the emotional stakes and corresponding anxiety. 

If you’re experimenting—just writing to see what something looks like—you’re not committed to the outcome; you’re willing to throw it away and try again.  That attitude can reduce anxiety and increase the quantity of words written. It may sacrifice quality, but that’s only a short-term drawback.  If you can shift from writing one really strong sentence an hour to writing 500 words an hour, you are, in the long run, going to produce a lot more strong sentences, even if you also write a lot of lousy sentences along the way.  (Remember, experimenting does not preclude a later stage of trying to refine and polish your work.) And, in the long run, if you write 500 words an hour, your skill as a writer will increase, and you will be able to craft good sentences and paragraphs more quickly.

Exercise 2

Write several different versions of a single sentence, title, section header, or definition of some concept. Experiment with different structures and word choices. 

(For example, I could rephrase this exercise in the following ways:

  • Write many variations on one sentence or other short piece of writing by altering word choice and sentence structure.
  • Pick one idea and try to express that idea in a single sentence. Repeat, writing a new sentence with different structure and word choice.
  • Generate several distinct versions of a title for your current work or a single single sentence. Experiment with different vocabulary, structure, and style.)

Slight changes in wording and structure can alter meaning, but that alteration of meaning can often give insight into both the issue you want to express and the ways you express it to your audience.

Spend 10 minutes on this, or generate four (4) alternatives, which ever takes less time.

Conclusion

One aspect of writing that is stressful and unpleasant for many is the worry about “getting it right,” from spelling to punctuation to grammar, and beyond. But a lot of writing is better done without such concerns. Writing isn’t a matter of following rules of spelling or grammar—those rules (and all the exceptions to them) are tools to help the writer—it’s a matter of exploring and developing ideas; it’s a matter of experimenting different modes of expression.  Practicing the experimental side of writing—the willingness to throw some words onto the page quickly and without hesitation—can help bring the positive dimensions of writing into focus and help reduce anxiety.

Dealing with writer’s block, tip 7: Don’t get stopped by uncertainty

Writer’s block—strong emotional responses that interfere with writing—grows from any number of doubts about the self—that one will be rejected, that one doesn’t work hard enough, that one isn’t smart enough. In this post, I am going to focus on philosophical doubt and on the place of certainty in scholarly work.  Intellectual doubt can trigger emotional doubts: if you have unanswered questions, it’s natural to think “I don’t know enough.” It’s good to think you don’t know enough—doubt sparks growth and learning—but it shouldn’t stop you from sharing what you do know. All scholars work in the face of uncertainty, but too many let their doubts stop them from sharing what they do know. 

The frustration of uncertainty and intellectual doubt

Uncertainty is emotionally draining. Each new question that arises can drain energy and enthusiasm, and every answer can inspire new questions. Research can feel like a treadmill, where no matter what you have done, you still continue to chase knowledge. You want somewhere solid to stand, and the never-ending doubt can make you feel like you’re sinking into a morass. And, if you’re self-critical, it’s easy to think that this constant doubt is a personal failure: “I wouldn’t have this problem if I were smarter/had worked harder.”

You can’t eliminate intellectual doubt

Doubt lies at the heart of research: if you already knew the answer, there would be no reason to research a subject. When you get into the details of any area of research, questions begin to arise: how do you define the terms of greatest concern or interest? What theories or models do you use to explain the phenomena of interest? What are the limits of your research? What are the limits of authorities on which you rely (any sources you cite for methods, theories, definitions)? 

The famous skeptic, David Hume, pointed out that one can never be certain that the future will resemble the past (or, at least, that future empirical observations will resemble past observations), leaving scientists a legacy of doubt so strong that many researchers don’t even try to prove that things are true, they simply attempt to prove things are false, and then argue in favor of the alternative. The idea of a “null hypothesis” that is disproven in order to accept an alternative process (as often seen in inferential statistics), is a response to this problem, known as “the problem of induction,” and often called “Hume’s problem.”

If you are a scholar and you have doubts and questions and uncertainty, it’s the nature of the work, not a failing on your part. A lot of writers get stuck on their projects because of intellectual doubt: “I don’t know enough,” they say, “I have to read this article/book/etc. I can’t write until I’ve done that reading.” But research doesn’t eliminate doubt.  Published research does not eliminate doubt.  Yes, there are authors who argue their cases confidently and claim certainty, but that certainty is emotional, not logical.

Show your work

Your research may be incomplete, uncertain, and built on dubious foundations, but it still contributes to greater understanding of the world.  Indeed, your incomplete, uncertain, and dubiously founded work, shares those characteristics with all research, so it is valuable to other researchers looking to explain the same phenomena as you.

Often, as you may recognize from your own experience, research can be valuable because of some specific aspect—for example, an author with weak results, might offer a very good definition of a concept, or might offer an interesting methodological perspective, or might just ask a really good question (even if they do a poor job of trying to answer the question). 

A lot of research explicitly discusses its own limitations, its questions left unanswered, as well as new questions raised because other researchers can use that discussion of limitations to develop complementary research or to otherwise address weaknesses in the original work.

While it can be emotionally unsettling to write about all the weaknesses in your research project, it is actually a valuable and useful part of the work—both for its role in helping you understand your own work better and clean up errors, and for its role in communicating with others. Instead of letting your doubt on some issue stop you from writing, write about those doubts, be willing to explore them all in writing. Show your readers the variety of issues you considered, the problems they created, and your responses. Show the depth and complexity of your thinking, including the contradictions and doubts. Put it all on the page.  It’s entirely possible that other researchers will find your processes of reasoning interesting and valuable.

Obviously, it can be intimidating to focus on the weaknesses of your work and to think about discussing those weaknesses with other people. In an ideal world, the people who see your work would be supportive and interested in helping you improve your work, and therefore you wouldn’t need to fear writing about the weaknesses of your work. But in the real world, of course, people can be quite aggressive and competitive. Of course, that doesn’t go away even for work of the highest quality—there’s almost always someone who is going to say you’re wrong, whatever you say—so you might as well just get it over with and share your work.

Filling the gaps

In academia, it is common to talk about how research “fills the gaps in the literature,” or addresses questions unanswered by previous scholarship.  If you are addressing such a gap—especially if it’s a gap that other scholars think is important—then your attempt to fill the gap is valuable to the community of scholars, regardless of whether it succeeds.  If your work does succeed, the gap is filled, and if your work doesn’t succeed, scholars who follow you may be able to use your attempt to avoid the problems you faced and try a different way of attempting to fill the gap.  In both cases, your work helps the larger community.

It is true that there is a publication bias for successful work, but the issue is not that you wouldn’t prefer to have successful work, but what do you do if the work you have done has problems?  Because your work is going to have problems, if, as I argued above, intellectual uncertainty cannot be eliminated. So the value in your work, for other scholars, lies not only in the conclusions that you draw, but in the whole fabric of your search—in all your theoretical and methodological choices, and how they shaped your research, and the insights they give not only into the questions asked, but into the ways that we try to answer those questions.

Conclusion

Intellectual uncertainty is unavoidable, and to try to capture any absolute ultimate truth in words may be impossible. As early as the 6th century, BCE, Lao Tzu wrote in the very first verse of the Tao Te Ching, “The Tao that can be spoken is not the absolute Tao,” or, to take a little liberty, “the truth that can be put into words is not the absolute truth.”  If you’re making a conscientious effort to do good scholarship, which means critically questioning your own work as well as the work of others, you will certainly find places to doubt your own work, where intellectual certainty is impossible, and all you’re left with is work that is intellectually uncertain. But intellectual uncertainty can be paired with emotional confidence—the confidence that you made responsible and reasonable choices as you tried to understand the world better, and that your work, though susceptible to doubt, is also worthy of consideration for its contribution to the communal discourse in search of understanding.

Intellectual uncertainty is denied all scholars.  A lot of success in academia goes to those who have emotional confidence, despite the intellectual limits of their work. Instead of letting uncertainty stop you, show your audience how you tried to deal with the limits of your (and your research community’s) knowledge.

The tarot's fool steps blindly toward the edge of a cliff. Researchers also advance without a clear vision of what lies ahead.

The Fool

While a researcher ought not be blindly stepping off a cliff, like the fool from the tarot, they do have to be willing to step into the unknown and risk the fall. Choose the course of action that seems best to you, and risk it, because no course of action guarantees a perfect outcome. Fortunately, as a writer, you’re unlikely to die if you take a chance by sharing an imperfect draft.

Dealing with writer’s block, tip 6: Work hard, but not too hard

It is commonly accepted that writers do best when they write every day.  The “write regularly” trope appears in almost every book on writing that I have read (I can think of only one exception, and that book, in my opinion, is a piece of junk). 

While the advice to write regularly is good advice, too often it seems that “write regularly” gets conflated with “if you’re not writing regularly, you’re not trying hard enough.”  Although there may be people who want to be writers who aren’t trying hard enough, there are also a lot of people whose issue is not a lack of effort or self-discipline. It is necessary to try, but if you’re struggling with emotional writing blocks, putting pressure on yourself to try harder can be counter-productive. In a healthy practice, writing flows from the motivation to express ideas, and self-criticism for not trying hard enough can interfere with the imagination and conceptual freedom a writer needs.

“Try harder” is not always good advice

People who suffer from writer’s block often have plenty of self-discipline. The issue is not a lack of self-discipline, but the extent of the emotional barrier to writing. The same people who experience writing blocks often demonstrate exemplary self-discipline in many aspects of their lives.  

As analogy, consider a runner who wants to improve. Obviously, this takes effort and training and self-discipline to succeed, and “try harder; dig deeper,” is often useful coaching advice or encouragement. But what if that runner has a broken bone in their foot or leg? In that situation, “try harder; dig deeper” is pretty bad advice because it can aggravate the injury and delay the desired improvement. Instead, the runner needs to work on rehabilitation to rebuild lost strength.

Writer’s block is not a physical injury, but like the runner’s broken leg, it is an injury that can be exacerbated by a simplistic “try harder” approach.  If writing has become painful for you, and you force yourself to do it despite the pain, you give yourself an unpleasant experience that may reinforce your emotional resistance to writing. Each attempt saying “try harder; dig deeper” may contribute to future resistance to writing, until the resistance becomes so great that it stops progress. Some people who have success saying “try harder, no mater how much it hurts; no pain, no gain,” eventually hit a wall of writer’s block where their resistance has grown greater than their self-discipline.

People with writer’s block have enough self-discipline

The way I see it, you can only get writer’s block if you have written successfully in the past.  If you have never written anything, you struggle because you have to learn how to write, not because of writer’s block. And if you’re not writing because you don’t put in effort and don’t make a serious attempt, then you’re not experiencing writer’s block, you’re just being lazy.

For most advanced academics—graduate students and professors alike—it’s reasonable to consider the possibility of writer’s block, because you don’t become a graduate student or professor without having written successfully, and without having the self-discipline to take care of the responsibilities needed to get into a graduate program or professorial position. Ok, sure, there are exceptions, but the majority of graduate students and professors have successfully fulfilled all sorts of responsibilities that required self-discipline over the course of years.  If you have successfully written course papers and applications and fulfilled previous expectations, but then you start to struggle to write, especially due to anxiety, it’s reasonable to say that you’re experiencing a writing block: you are struggling with something that makes it difficult for you to manifest abilities that you have previously demonstrated.

In this context, it makes sense to ask why those abilities—the self-discipline and the ability to write—do not continue to work. For most scholars struggling to write, the self-discipline generally continues to operate: the struggling writer still teaches classes, grades student work, and fulfills administrative responsibilities, all of which require self-discipline and often some writing, too. But, faced with some specific writing project—a dissertation or work for publication to survive the publish-or-perish world of academia—anxiety kicks in, and writer’s block ensues.

Yes, you could say “I need more self-discipline than I used in the past; I need to be stronger.” But you could also say “I want to reduce the barriers that keep me from working effectively on this one project, because my self-discipline is enough for all my other responsibilities.”

Look for ways to use the discipline you do have to lower barriers

As I have been arguing in this series, you can develop a positive relationship with writing and, by identifying specific causes of anxiety, you can begin to reduce writing-related anxieties that inhibit writing.

One specific anxiety that affects many is the notion that they are not trying hard enough or that they do not have enough self-discipline. This anxiety can create a negative feedback loop: each time you tell yourself you don’t have enough discipline, it can increase the level of anxiety, which makes it harder to write and reinforces the narrative that you don’t have enough self-discipline.

I don’t know how much self-discipline you have and I admit that most people would benefit from increasing their self-discipline, but all the same, I think a pragmatic and realistic approach is to ask how much you can accomplish with the self-discipline that you already have.

Rather than berating yourself for lack of self-discipline (and then retreating from your writing project), ask yourself whether there are any small steps you can take that are within your scope. If sitting down to work on the current draft of your book or article or dissertation leaves you feeling overwhelmed with stress, can you sit down to write a to-do list of tasks related to your writing project? Can you do some free-writing about your concerns or your hopes for the project? Can you find any low-hanging fruit related to the project that you can accomplish—for example, maybe you wanted to find the page number for a quotation you’re using or correct a reference in the list of works cited. Maybe the challenge is just to open the file in which your work is saved—if that feels like a challenge, then do it, and chalk it down as an accomplishment on which you can build. Today, just open the file. Tomorrow, open the file, and find on typographic error to fix. The next day, do the same, or maybe find two errors.

If you’re battling significant emotional blocks—if anxiety overwhelms you when you sit to write—don’t turn it into a massive pitched battle where you beat yourself up to face the anxiety for hour after hour, instead (to continue the battle metaphor), strike quickly and retreat: pick one small task that can be quickly accomplished and then sit back to celebrate your small victory.  In the long run, each small victory reduces the larger task, each small victory also reminds you that you can make progress, and, with time and repetition (and maybe a little luck), these small victories can reduce some of the anxieties surrounding the project and even build a little confidence. 

Don’t overwork

Writing takes imagination and concentration. When those operate effectively for you, you can accomplish a tremendous amount in a few hours.  And, often, if you try to work more than a few hours, imagination and concentration become less effective.  You don’t need to write eight hours a day to have success as a writer. Indeed many successful writers in and out of academia, only spend three to four hours a day writing.  If things are going smoothly, it’s quite possible for a writer to write over 1000 words in an hour.  Those 1000 words might need revision, but if you can write 1000 words in an hour, you can complete a book draft in 100 (good) hours or less. If you write two good hours each day, that’s a book draft completed in 50 days.

Effective writing need not be a torturous grind; it can be a rapid outpouring of ideas.  And the more you recognize that self-discipline is not the most important concern, the easier it is to look for more important concerns, like developing ideas that you want to put on the page, and finding words that help you express those ideas.

Conclusion

Writing takes effort—consistent effort over time—which requires self-discipline. Overcoming writing blocks, however, is not predominantly a question of self-discipline. If you think the answer is more self-discipline, you create stress that is antithetical to the imaginative intellectual freedom that is the most important characteristic of the writer and scholar.  Writing blocks are built of anxiety and a self-critical idea that more self-discipline is the answer builds anxiety and distracts you from the focus on the ideas that could be driving you.  Yes, it’s important to have self-discipline enough to sit down and try to write, but it is far more important to have ideas that you want to write about. Self-discipline does not create such ideas, for all that it is crucial in putting the ideas on the page. Don’t work harder; work imaginatively and easily. If you have writer’s block, don’t just try harder, instead look for ways to develop a writing practice that takes effort but also feels relatively easy.

Dealing with writer’s block, tip 5: Principles for a healthy writing practice

When I started this series, my plan was to offer suggestions for dealing with specific anxieties, such as the fear of rejection, or the belief that writing is inherently unpleasant.  Such specific anxieties deserve attention: approaching them in the right way can reduce their negative emotional impact and thus reduce barriers to writing. However, I realized that such suggestions need to be part of a framework that offers a larger vision of a positive writing practice, not only some sense of how to deal with the negatives.  This realization led to my third tip, in which I argued that writing is a process that can be enjoyable, despite its frustrations, in the same way that other skilled activities are also enjoyable, despite their frustrations, difficulties, and demands. In this post, I consider the overarching concern for a writer struggling with a writing block, which is to generate a good relationship with the work.

The search for a positive writing practice

I can’t fit all the ideas I have about a positive writing practice into one post. There are many different issues to consider. Here, I look at some of the basic principles that guide positive writing practices, starting with the basic principle that it is possible to have a positive writing practice. 

Find something that you care about

Part of the answer to having a positive writing practice is to do something that you care about. For a scholar or academic, the desire to understand things better and to answer questions provides a strong motivation (at least for those who pursue research questions that interest them). If you care, that provides motivation to help deal with the inevitable difficulties.

Many scholars, especially early in their career, come to believe the common critiques of academia that research is disconnected from the real world, and that because the audience for the work is small, therefore the work is unimportant. A full refutation of these critiques might be an essay in itself. Here, I will argue, on the one hand, that the relevance and importance of a work are not always obvious to a large audience, and that the value of work is not measured only by the size of the audience.

If you don’t care about your work—if you don’t think it’s interesting or important—that’s a heavy burden that may well contribute to writing blocks. Many scholars who have come to doubt the value of their work have also lost sight of the motivations that initially inspired them, so if you suffer from such doubt, it can be valuable to look back to your initial motivations.  But dealing with this specific problem—loss of interest in your work—is one of the writing blocks that I hope to address individually.  Here, I only want to emphasize that having positive motivation is central to positive practice.

Care for your health, both physical and mental

Part of developing a practice that is healthy and sustainable is to remember that the practice should be positive, healthy, and sustainable. What is fun is not always healthy and sustainable, and what is healthy and sustainable is not always enjoyable, but the ideal sweet spot for a writing practice (or any practice) is to be both healthy and enjoyable.  A positive practice will reinforce itself over time by delivering positive rewards greater than the investment of effort and difficulty necessary to maintain the practice. 

Practice takes effort and persistence

It takes effort to be a good writer, just as it takes effort to excel in any skilled activity.  The work of a writer may not be too physically demanding, but the intellectual demands are large, both in developing ideas that are worth expressing, and in expressing those ideas. A scholarly analysis of some question or body of evidence takes time and effort, both to execute planned steps of analysis and to attempt to deal with any surprises that may come up.  And writing out a description of the research and its conclusions so that others can understand  is also difficult. (Effort invested in writing about research often helps develop thinking about he research, so the analysis and the writing are not entirely independent.)

Persistence is needed to keep going in the face of difficulties, which inevitably arise.  A good practice is not free from difficulties—indeed, one characteristic of positive practice experiences is the element of challenge and the possibility of failure (based on Csikszentmihalyi’s idea of flow). One aspect of a healthy practice, however, is that difficulties are not always unpleasant to deal with.

Practice involves activities that might seem boring to an outsider

Often practice demands activities that individually dull, but because of the interest in the overall outcome, these efforts do not seem overly onerous, even if sometimes tedious. In the best circumstances, dealing with tedious issues feels rewarding because of the progress towards a desired goal. An athlete in training may find individual drills or exercises tedious, but will enthusiastically engage for their role in developing skill and ability. A musician might find playing scales and arpeggios boring, but will enthusiastically engage because those tasks will facilitate the more enjoyable goals of playing much-loved music. A scholarly writer may dislike the work of matching specific style guidelines, but that work facilitates publication.

Imagine a hypothetical Scrabble player who wants to be competitive at a high level. In order to win games, they start practicing. One element of that practice, of course, is playing games of Scrabble against opponents (friends on social media, for example). Presumably, this hypothetical Scrabble competitor enjoys playing Scrabble, but despite any general enjoyment, playing many practice games takes time that might be spent doing other things, and the more games played, the better the chance that some are frustrating (bad luck drawing tiles), or boring (a slow opponent, or one who is no challenge). Beyond playing games, our hypothetical player might also choose to spend time studying a Scrabble dictionary or other lists of words. To me, studying a Scrabble dictionary seems tedious and dull, but to the enthusiastic player, the motivation to succeed might turn the study into an activity in which they engage enthusiastically.

In my own experience as a writer and editor, I definitely do things that many people would find boring (beyond writing itself, of course), such as studying style manuals and references on grammar, or, as part of the process of writing, rewriting and revising the same sentence or phrase several times with slight variations in word choice or structure. At times, I find these things tedious or boring, too, but I persist because I want to get better as a writer and editor and these skills are at the heart of my professional work. This occasional tedium, however, is not constant because I enjoy the challenges of writing well and helping others write well.

A healthy practice built on positive motivations will have its difficulties and frustrations, but many aspects of that practice that seem boring or unpleasant, will not seem nearly as boring if they are part of a healthy and positive practice. Often that which seems boring to the outsider is calming and comforting to the practitioner who is absorbed in the task.

Practice is regular

Part of the emotional reward of a regular practice is the sense of engaging in something that is comfortable through familiarity. For me, writing has that comfort: despite all the frustrations I often feel when writing, I know from experience that I can become absorbed in the work and have an hour or two pass with my attention entirely focused on the exploration of some idea and ways to express that idea for others. The hour doesn’t really pass enjoyably—when things are going well, it’s more an excitement or exhilaration or hope than fun—but it is a positive experience. When things are going well, as a writer, I also feel like I’m doing something worthwhile, in the sense that I’m working to forward my career, and that I’m doing something that might help other people have more success in their lives.  These remembered emotions flavor all my work as a writer, making it a task that offers some emotional comfort despite the necessary effort.  

This comfort grows with regularity. If I stop writing for a while—even a few days—the comfort is reduced as difficult questions of where to focus my efforts arise.

Practices are not only a matter of the intellect or behavior—they are also matters of physiology and neurophysiology: practice shapes our physical manifestation as we build physiological structures (including neurological structures) that support the behavior. If we write by hand or type on a keyboard, our body builds structures that make writing/typing easier. If we use our imagination around some topic, the neurological system that supports that activity is used and enhanced as a result of use. Regular use of a physiological system builds it; lack of use lets the system decay.

Good practice is disciplined and persistent but also gentle: It pushes just hard enough

A good practice pushes to the limits of the practitioner in one way or another. As mentioned above, it takes effort. A practice doesn’t build to success without seriously pushing. Writing isn’t ever going to be very easy, though there may be some writing tasks that come relatively easily.  On the large scale, if you’re trying to get better as a writer, that means trying things that are difficult and/or unfamiliar in order to build your skill set—even if “unfamiliar” only means trying to find a better way to phrase things than your last draft. 

But at the same time that it needs to firmly push forward, a practice needs to be sufficiently gentle that you can go back to it with a sense of comfort. There is a world of difference between thinking “last time I wrote, I got a bit frustrated,” and “last time I wrote, it was painful.”  If writing is consistently painful to you, that’s naturally going to build emotional resistance.  For a good practice, it’s important to keep healthy, and that means respecting limits, both emotional and physical.

Conclusion

To write well and to have a good experience as a writer, it’s valuable to develop a healthy practice—a practice that calls upon you for regular effort. The practice helps you develop written works and also helps you develop your skill and comfort working as a writer. A healthy practice pushes at your limits but not so far as to cause long-term harm. It pushes enough to promote growth without pushing so far as to cause damage.  A careful balance needs to be maintained at the edge of your ability, so that you can gain the benefit of a flow activity without suffering traumatizing injury (whether emotional or physical).  For writers dealing with emotional writing blocks, a healthy practice builds gently by accepting current limits and trying to expand areas of comfort. If you are dealing with emotional writing blocks, you can help ourself by focusing on the goal of creating a healthy and postive writing practice.

Dealing with writer’s block, tip 4: Facing fear of rejection

For many people, fear of rejection is a big barrier to writing. I’m not going to tell you that you shouldn’t have any fear of rejection, but with the right approach, you might be able to reduce or manage that fear more effectively, thus reducing the block to writing. Fear of rejection is, in fact, quite reasonable in many circumstances.  I am going to argue, however, that you want to try to contextualize that fear in order to limit it.

Not all writing involves rejection

There are, speaking loosely, three distinct main purposes for writing: memory, development of ideas, and communication. Of these three, only one—communication—is subject to rejection. When you’re writing to aid memory or to develop ideas, the writing is not for anyone else, and therefore the question of rejection isn’t really relevant, and therefore, fear of rejection ought not be a significant issue.

Of course, saying that one “ought not” have a certain emotion is pretty poor advice. People don’t just turn emotions on or off at will, especially not significant fears or anxieties that are strong enough to interfere with writing. In this post, I’m going to suggest thinking about writing with respect to these three basic purposes, and trying, at times, to focus on the two kinds of writing that don’t involve the possibility of rejection.

Dividing up your writing process

In the end, you probably want to give your writing to other people—if you didn’t, fear of rejection could hardly be a problem. By dividing up your writing process to attend to the non-communicative dimensions of writing, you can give yourself space to work without fear of rejection immediately looming. 

Generally, this calls for a more expansive and practice-oriented view of writing: rather than writing focused on the final product that you share with others, write as an exercise—as a way to build skill and to experiment with different possibilities. If you always write while thinking of the possible response of other people, your attention is taken away from the ideas that most motivate you, and can weigh on you emotionally. But writing doesn’t just have to be about sharing, especially not in the early stages of any specific process.  When you’re just beginning a project—when a final draft is potentially months or even years away (if you’re writing a book-length work, especially)—concern for future readers can take a back seat to building skill and exploring ideas and modes of expression.

The exploration of ideas is a strong positive motivation for many. (If exploring ideas doesn’t motivate you, that’s a different barrier to writing than fear of rejection, one that requires a separate discussion.) Writing can be a tool for exploring an idea in a fashion similar to an artist or an architect making initial study sketches of their work.  The artist’s early sketches provide the artist feedback on issues of composition and appearance—they’re not for the rest of the world, they are for the artist’s own introspective processes. 

When approached this way, writing out a theory that seems flawed leads to curiosity about how to fx the theory. And writing a weak explanation leads to questions and attempts to provide a better explanation. In this mode of writing, attention isn’t on future readers of the work, but rather on finding answers are to unanswered questions, and to new questions that arise in the thought process. To be sure, this exploration of ideas can be frustrating because it’s almost always possible to find new questions, but if you’re driven by your interest in and curiosity about the subject you’re studying and writing about, then new questions aren’t terrible—they often open new ways of looking at old ideas. (Letting new questions constantly derail focus on a current project is a separate kind of writing block related to dealing with uncertainty, but that’s a separate issue from fear of rejection.)

Writing Exercise 1: Breaking up the process

[An exercise is an attempt to explore something and to develop skill. Like the musician’s scales or the athlete’s practices, it’s not meant to be the product in itself, but rather a tool to develop skill. This exercise can provide value both as a thought experiment, and as an exercise that builds the skill of putting ideas into words/sentences/paragraphs on the page.]

In your experience, are there any parts of the writing process during which you’re not thinking about the people who will read it? Which parts?

Have you ever written anything without a fear of rejection? A journal or diary? To-do lists? E-mail? Social media posts? What is the difference between writing that triggers fear of rejection and writing that does not?

Different layers of rejection fear

In some cases, writers fear multiple potential sources of rejection.  There’s the editor at the publishing house or journal.  There’s the larger audience. There are friends and family who might disdain or disrespect the work. For some, there are fears based on past experience—the teacher who criticized so harshly last year or the year before.

Additionally, fear of rejection may have multiple dimensions and aspects. There is, of course, the direct fear of rejection—you say “will you accept it;” they say “no”—but there are also fears of what follows rejection, such as: your efforts will have been wasted; you won’t get the job or the promotion; your career will be finished; your parents will be upset; your romantic flame will be unimpressed; your spouse will complain you’re a failure; etc. 

As with any anxiety-related writing block, fear of rejection may seem worse when left unaddressed than when analyzed. By analyzing your own fears of rejection, you may be able to separate out those that make perfect sense (the editor at the publishing house will turn you down) from others that are less reasonable (the effort was wasted; your career is finished). Analyzing potential bad outcomes can trigger some anxiety, but if you make the fears explicit, often there is comfort in being able to address concrete specific issues rather than just facing the big undefined fear that things will go wrong.

Writing exercise 2: What are your rejection fears?

Part a: Who might reject your work? Who do you fear will reject your work? When you’re writing, do you ever feel anxiety that your work will be rejected or criticized by someone who will not actually see that work (a former teacher or professor, for example), or who will not be in a position to impact you (a professor who might see the work, but won’t be in a position to create problems)?

Part b: Why is getting your work rejected bad? Because of the immediate emotional impact of rejection? Because of the impact on your career? What are the potential consequences of rejection that contribute to your fear? Which make you most nervous?

Writing blocks and rejection by default

People with anxiety-related writing blocks often don’t write at all, which can lead to rejection by default: if you write nothing and submit nothing, your work can’t be rejected, but you can suffer any or all the negative consequences of rejection, along with any emotional burden of having an unfinished project.  

Getting rejected carries an emotional sting, and it is often accompanied by harsh criticism or some show of disrespect. But submitting nothing at all is no protection. Indeed, it is reasonable to expect that many people in your life—especially those who love you—will be more frustrated with and critical of your failure to submit than of a rejection.  Sometimes, even rejected is accompanied by positive and useful feedback or support. The editor at the journal or publishing house may suggest a different journal or offer encouragement. Reviews may include useful feedback, even if not all the feedback is helpful. The professor who rejects a work has a better reason to support your continued work on that same project than to support you if you submit nothing.

The pain of rejection is sharp and immediate, while the pain of facing a writing block continues as long as you retain the hope of finishing, and sometimes even after. 

I don’t like to focus on negative motivations, but if the fear of rejection rises, try to focus on the fear of rejection by default—focus instead on the things that happen if you don’t write, submit work, and risk rejection. [Ideally, you can learn to write from more positive motivations, but sometimes fear of rejection can be countered by fear of inaction.]

Conclusion

Fear of rejection often interferes with writing processes, and because it’s a realistic and reasonable concern, one cannot simply ignore the risk that comes with trying to communicate and share your ideas with another person. However, blocks associated with fear of rejection can be limited in a few ways. First, remember that part of the writing process is an exploration—a way for you to develop your ideas and build skill as a writer. Second, analyze your fears of rejection: separate those that are realistic from those that are not. Finally, if the fear of rejection raises it’s head, think of the danger of rejection by default—the rejection that comes from not writing.