Many writers get stuck with doubts, while other plow through. How you respond to doubt as a writer—the confidence with which you approach difficulties that you face—has a crucial impact on your ability to write effectively. In this post, I want to briefly compare two writers of high quality who faced similar issues and responded very differently. I can’t say with certainty that the difference between the two was purely a matter of confidence, but I believe the comparison is instructive. Perhaps it’s a reflection on perfectionism, not confidence, but I think the two are related: the more confident person is able to say “eh, it ain’t perfect, but it is good enough to move forward.
Russel and Wittgenstein
Bertrand Russell won a Nobel Prize for literature for his voluminous writings and was extremely widely published as a leading 20th-century philosopher. Ludwig Wittgenstein, who was one of Russell’s students in the early 20th century, by contrast published only one book during his life, and that book (The Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, which was dedicated to Russell) is not regarded as his most important work. In terms of their publication output during their lives, Russell was a giant, and Wittgenstein a shrimp. But from the current moment in history, however, their prestige as philosophers is equal, or perhaps Wittgenstein is given more respect.
The Limits of Logic
In the 1910s, when Wittgenstein studied with Russell, their project was logic and, to some extent, the mathematization of logical thought. The concern was how to prove (or disprove) the truth of a statement.
Russell’s book The Philosophy of Logical Atomism, published in 1914, is roughly contemporary with Wittgenstein’s Tractatus, published in 1918, and their subject matter is quite similar—both are works of analytic philosophy discussing logical proof. The question of interest here is how they handle the boundaries of logic.
At the beginning of Logical Atomism, Russell acknowledges an inevitable and unavoidable subjectivity at the foundation of what he is doing. If we want to prove the truth of a statement, we need to have some starting place—some statements that we know are true. But how do we know if something is true without having proved it? And how can we start the project of proving the truth of any statement unless we have something that we have already proven true? His response is to say, approximately, “we start with something undeniable.” Not true, only undeniable. He discusses what he means by undeniable for a paragraph or two, and then he moves on to other issues. Essentially, he says, “well, we can’t follow the rules of proof for our first statement, so we’ll just ignore those rules and accept our first statement as true because it seems undeniable.” Practically speaking, that makes perfect sense; logically speaking, it’s almost inexcusable. Emotionally speaking, I would say that this is the choice of a person who has confidence in the value of their work, despite some flaws.
In the penultimate sixth chapter of the Tractatus, Wittgenstein similarly struggles with what is either the same, or a very similar problem: he sees the logician as existing within the system being examined, creating the same sort of unavoidable subjectivity that concerned Russell. His response to this, however, quite different. In the sixth chapter, he discusses how one cannot get the necessary objectivity, and that lacking that, one has no grounds on which to speak. And he concludes the book with his seventh chapter, which I reproduce in full here: “Of that whereof one can’t speak, one must remain silent.” That’s the whole seventh chapter. One sentence. And Wittgenstein never again published in his lifetime. Logically speaking, this is perfectly sound. Practically speaking, however, it leads to paralysis. Emotionally speaking, I would say this is the choice of a person who doubts the value of their work.
Perfectionism and Confidence
To me, this is a story about confidence and a willingness to accept a logical flaw. Both Russell and Wittgenstein recognized a similar logical limit, but Russell said “I will still proceed” while Wittgenstein said “This project is meaningless.” To me, logically speaking, Wittgenstein is in the right here. If you are interested in a system of building certain truth through proof, the whole structure of truth fails if it is built on something that is not provably true. Wittgenstein recognizes this and essentially says “this project isn’t worth the effort because it’s ultimately fruitless.”
Russell’s response is very different, and I view it as a manifestation of confidence or even arrogance. Russell says, “weak foundations be damned, I’m still going to pursue this project.”
I don’t know what emotions and thoughts swayed the two men, or whether the issue was really confidence. But as a lesson for struggling writers, I think it can be instructive: the writer who pushes forward ignoring problems, produces work for publication, while the writer who takes those problems seriously gets stuck, and even is blocked from publishing.
Getting projects finished and published simply takes a willingness to push ahead, despite problems and weaknesses in your research.
This is not to excuse shoddy work, but rather to acknowledge the impossibility of creating perfection, and to prefer flawed productivity with inactivity brought on by doubts and imperfections.
A scholar in a fit of despair, writes “who cares about my work?” It is a poignant lament, and I do not downplay the emotional distress that would trigger such an outburst. This is, I think, a doubt that strikes many scholars—the fear that their work is unimportant and/or only matters to a tiny audience of specialists. Elsewhere, I have written about this from the angle of the inherent value of research.
Here, I want to look at this differently. I want to look at this lament as a possible starting place for an exercise of exploration, of scholarly/academic thinking, and of practical writing skills. Generally, I would say that, in the abstract, a true philosopher would be interested to explore any unanswered question: what is this, how does this work, and how does this interact with the world? Whatever your work might be—let’s call it “topic X” or just “X”—we can explore what it is, where it came from, how it operates, and how it interacts with the rest of the world. To an open, inquisitive mind, such questions can be asked about anything. A child doesn’t ask about the importance of some enthusiasm they find, they simply pursue it and try to learn more about it. The older we get, the more likely that we feel pressure to do something that others will think important, and thus we lose some of the freedom of inquiry that makes exploration not just possible but interesting.
Before getting into some of the specifics that I want to talk about, I want to note, generally, how value is at least partly dependent on those who perceive it. I say “partly” because I want to avoid debate over whether value is entirely subjective. For the purposes of this post, I am purely interested in the subjective aspect of value, which is what counts if your concern is that no one cares about your work or if your interest is to get published, sell books, and inform, educate, or entertain others. Things are valuable if someone values them. Of course, different people value different things, so values attributed to various ideas may vary widely. The fact that many people do not recognize value in some X does not mean that X has no value.
Many scholars pursue topics from personal interest/value, even though their interests seem unimportant to few or no other people. This propensity to study that which others think important contributes to the stereotype of the “Ivory Tower” divorced from the “real world.” Having an unusual perspective almost guarantees that someone will accuse you of being out of touch with the real world (even if your unusual perspective is based on empirical study of the real world). When doing independent and original work, there is always the danger that your topic, whatever its validity or potential value, will not catch the popular trend of whatever research is in style, and may not get the respect your work might have earned had research trends developed in a different direction. At the same time, however, doing original work also has the potential reward of other people recognizing value where they had not seen it before. Scholars are supposed to do original work precisely because that originality—that value others had not seen before—is how the research community evolves.
In short, value has a large subjective element. Being original means seeing value where others have not, and then working to make that value apparent to other people, too. But seeing value where others have not also brings up the danger that other people won’t care (at least until they’re convinced that there is real value).
As a cry of despair, “who cares about X?” is an expression of the thought “no one cares about X; X is not important.” But as a question, it is amenable to the kind of analysis that scholars tend to carry out, and can provide insight into the topic at hand.
What happens when we take the question “who cares about X?” as the start of an intellectual exploration? What happens if we do as scholars do, and enumerate those who fall into the category of interest (i.e., the grouop of people who do care)? And when we examine reasons that people fall into the category? We may never be 100% sure of the motivations of others, but as scholars we can absolutely explore the possible motivations of people (including ourselves) and thus gain some insight into the possible importance of a subject. Simply examining who does care can offer a lot of insight.
Caring about some issue that doesn’t interest others can feel selfish, especially if that issue is somehow related to personal experience. People sometimes talk about “me-search” as a bad thing, but a question that is important to one person is often important to many, so “me-search” about some experience that you had may provide insight into an experience that many others also have.
Saying “I care because of my history,” that’s a weak foundation for research and seems fraught with personal bias. But if you go one analytical step, and say “I care because of my history, and my history of has characteristics X, Y, and Z,” then you move toward an academic statement in which something more general is being defined. Those characteristics X, Y, and Z, each may be relevant to many other people. The characteristics themselves are also subject to further analysis or definition, which could indicate other issues of relevance. The more you pursue that analytical approach, the more likely you are to find some connection to other issues and to issues that other people have found important. Your life experience may be unique, but even so, it shares similarities with the life experience of others. In those similarities lie the elements of ideas that concern many people.
Face your fears: exercise
If you lament that nobody cares about your work, you might benefit from facing those fears directly as part of an attempt to objectively analyze the potential audience from many different angles:
Are there authors who have written about your subject? Who are they? We can assume they care about your work, or at least would be interested in other work in their field.
Are there any authors who have written about specific aspects of your work (e.g., using a method from a different field or in a novel way, methodologists might be interested even if they’re not interested in your general topic)?
Are there any people who would benefit from your insights?
It’s possibly also useful to make a matching list of people who don’t care. But in making such a list, don’t assume that people won’t care; stick to people that you know don’t care (e.g., colleagues who have explicitly expressed disdain; friends who just have different interests). If you want to exercise your imagination, exercise it trying to think about who might value your work, rather than those who would not.
In physics, “conservation of momentum” refers to the basic principle that energy (like momentum) moves around within a system, but is never actually lost. In writing, momentum is a much more personal, emotional thing and it can be all too easily lost, especially for writers who struggle with anxiety-related writing blocks. Writing momentum is valuable in that your whole neurophysiology begins to resonate with the project on which you’re working. If you have worked on your project every day, or at least worked with some degree of productivity, the ideas about what to do and where to go and different options and different issues are much more clear and present in mind than they are if you have spent the last week focusing on seeing tourist attractions while on vacation.
For a writer who has been writing successfully for a long time, there’s a lot of momentum built up. The body and mind of such a writer have deeply worn patterns of behavior that are relatively easy to reactivate after some time off. For a writer who struggles with anxiety and who is prone to writer’s block—me, among others—breaks in momentum can be very difficult.
Over the last year or so, I’ve been writing about dealing with anxiety blocks—about how to get past anxiety to engage with writing in the first place. That’s a subject with which I have extensive personal experience, having struggled with anxiety-related writing blocks multiple times in my life. Indeed, this spring, I suffered some minor health problems—just enough to derail me for a time, and I stopped writing. And then, having lost my momentum, and struggling with anxiety, I found it difficult to get back into it. I have been rebuilding momentum, though, and I hope to get my writing levels and consistency back up. It can be hard to get momentum, but once you’ve got it, it eases the process. It is good to conserve momentum.
What does momentum feel like?
In my experience, momentum feels good. Momentum is characterized by recent progress on a project, when both the project feels good and the progress I’ve made feels like progress (i.e., I don’t feel like I’m just spinning my wheels, even if I have just decided to throw away a weak draft). When you have momentum, you think about your project in the spare moments. If you’re running errands, having momentum means that you may have some idea about your project while standing on line at the store, or while waiting for the gas tank to fill, or while riding public transit. If you have momentum, you might have dreams related to your project—even dreams that offer some insight. If you have momentum, you can focus more quickly and precisely on a specific project and zero-in on the details and concerns of that individual project.
By contrast, if you don’t have momentum, it’s more likely that you will scan a wide range of possible projects, and even if you pick one project as the one to work on, you will be thinking generally about the project, rather than focusing in on specific issues. To be sure, thinking generally about a project is a good thing, and is an important part of the writing process—you need to have a big vision—but when you’re making progress—when you have momentum—that big vision is implicit and your other concerns can flow naturally from that driving force.
Momentum feels confident, at least on the small scale: the confidence to take some action to move the project forward. This is a confidence built out of regular process and practice: if you have consistently made steps that move the project forward, it’s easy to feel that you can take yet one more step.
Momentum is neurophysiological activity
When you do the same thing repeatedly, your body gets used to doing it. If you spend a lot of your time thinking about one specific project or subject, then, not surprisingly, you’re more likely to think about that subject given a free moment. In idle moments, your thoughts are likely to turn to something that has recently been on your mind. This is especially valuable, I think, if it is a good thing and something you feel good about, because then you build confidence and comfort. By contrast, feeling bad about your project is a way to build negative momentum: if you force yourself to suffer through work, that is likely to build aversion that reduces motivation and ultimately reduces momentum.
Ideally, you can approach your project with enthusiasm, and then work on it regularly and build good momentum. Lots of people do this. If you have ever talked with someone who is genuinely excited about their work, then there’s a good chance you’re talking with someone that has developed good project momentum. If all you ever think about is your work, you may be boring at parties, but it makes writing easier.
Momentum does not require obsession, however. Momentum requires a good balance—enough work to keep re-activating the appropriate neurophysiology, but also enough rest to allow those physiological systems to rest and regenerate. For many writers, good writing momentum is something that involves three or four hours of writing a day. Writing is not generally a work-all-day task. It is, indeed, only one part of the responsibilities of an academic or a professional writers in other fields.
Conserve your momentum
It takes effort to get momentum going: the first steps of getting started are the most difficult. Starting a project can be hard because you’re not sure where to go. You may have the enthusiasm that goes with new projects, but you have to battle with making many many decisions about the direction for the work to take. That takes a lot of effort. Having made those decisions, and having the whole train of reasoning relatively fresh in your mind is a large part of the momentum you gather. If you don’t take action to keep that momentum—namely working on your project every day or almost every day—you will lose the momentum and have to invest the extra effort to get started again.
Restarting a project, too, takes extra effort. If you’ve left a project aside for a while, you may need to refamiliarize yourself with it. You may need to reconstruct or refresh your vision of what you want to accomplish and how you plan on accomplishing it. Again, once you get moving, a lot of the questions become clearer when they are freshly considered.
I want to acknowledge that there are good times to set aside a project for a little while, despite the loss of momentum, but those spots should be picked carefully. In particular, it is often good to take a little time away from a project after completing a draft. Stepping away from a draft for a time can give you a new perspective, which is useful. The momentum that I have been describing does encompass a perspective and focus that helps you produce work. But when it comes time to criticize that work, it is good to shift perspective—to see the work with fresh eyes, as the expression goes. That’s a break in momentum, but it’s less problematic because it occurs at a natural break in the process, so it’s less disruptive than dropping a project in its midst. It’s easier to regain momentum at such break points because taking a break is part of the plan. Still, even at those break points, it’s pretty important not to let too much time elapse before you get back to work.
Building momentum takes effort, but it need not be some grueling torture. If you are currently stuck and have no current momentum, every little step you takes helps build it. You’re writing nothing? Write an e-mail to a friend. That helps build momentum. You can write social media posts but not your work? Write some social media posts and remind yourself that it is writing, too. And then try to write a sentence or two about your work. There are two keys to build good, sustainable momentum: (1) do something; make some effort; if yesterday was unproductive, try to do just a little today; if yesterday was productive, try to keep that level of productivity going; and (2) do it gently, so that it is a process that may be difficult but is not painful.
If you’ve lost your momentum, you can build it again with patience and persistence. And if you have it, value it and build on it. Writing momentum helps you write, but it takes effort to maintain it. Conserve your writing momentum by writing regularly.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.