Thanks to Daniel Shea for inviting me! In the podcast we discuss my book, Literature Review and Research Design especially focusing on the scholar’s interactions with other scholars in their field.
Dealing with writer’s block, tip 16: Scholarship is valuable
My previous post—about weaponization of doubt—was written just a few days ago, while I started writing this post months ago. I got stuck mostly because it had gotten bloated and I wanted to either cut it short or cut it into two pieces. I haven’t done that, but I feel like this is a related subject, and I wanted to follow up a little. Doubt is one of the big barriers that scholars face—uncertainty cannot be eliminated by empirical science—and if scholarship isn’t producing any objective, certain truth, then why is it any better than just making up random stories? In this post, I’m not really addressing the philosophical question of whether or how research is better than fiction—that would take me more space than this long post, and I’m not sure that I could do a good job arguing the point. Instead, I want to accept that there is something that makes the works of scholars valuable, and talk about some of the other doubts that arise even for scholars who aren’t bothered by the philosophical/logical uncertainty suggested by the problem of induction (or by other critiques of philosophical attempts at “truth,” such as the post-modern challenges to the idea of objective truth.
The block: “My research isn’t important”
I’ve known more than one dissertation writer who was on the verge of quitting because they felt their work was so far divorced from the “real world” that it was essentially meaningless. The common notion that the “ivory tower” of academia is somehow out of touch with the real world is a big emotional issue. If you believe your work is so esoteric that no one will care, or so narrowly focused that it will have minimal real-world impact, then you face a serious barrier to motivation: Why work through the frustration of research and writing to no effect? If your work doesn’t matter, why do it?
In this post, I argue that the value of scholarship is great enough to justify the effort and frustration. This post is closely related to my earlier tip 11: You have something worth saying. In that post, I focused on internal doubt and feeling overwhelmed by ideas. In this post, I’m looking more specifically at doubts about the value of academia and academic research. The better you feel about academia and research, the easier it is to invest effort in it. And the easier it is to invest effort, the easier it is to develop a positive and productive writing practice. (Additionally, but off the topic of writer’s block, the better you feel about your work, the easier it is to write things that other people will appreciate…but that’s a separate issue, perhaps for a future post. Please let me know if you would be interested.)
Why do people think scholarship is meaningless or valueless?
There are several reasons that people come to think their scholarly work is meaningless. Some are external, for example, the scholar who worries that no one will read or appreciate their work. Some are internal reason. For example, when you learn something new, your old work may seem off-base to you. Or you think that your work is incredibly narrow, or too abstruse, or otherwise limited. In this post, I am more interested in the internal question of whether there is any inherent value in research. If you believe in the value of your work, the size of your audience will be less important. (But as I suggest above, believing in your work will help attract an audience. Again—that’s a subject for a different post.)
The existential crisis
I have heard more than one scholar cry, “Why am I doing this? It doesn’t mean anything; it won’t help anyone; it won’t have an impact on the world. It’s all just mental masturbation!” If you have a cry of despair anything like this, it’s hard to move forward. It’s difficult to maintain motivation for things that seem meaningless (in the sense of having value within some larger framework, i.e., “my life is meaningful,” not in the sense of sense vs. nonsense). Existential crises are hardly the exclusive domain of academia. People in all walks of life can struggle with doubt that their life is meaningful, which can be a tremendous source of distress. The field of existential psychology generally argues that emotional health is highly dependent on whether a person sees meaning in their experiences (see, e.g., Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning). If you doubt that your research is meaningful—if you think it has no value—then it’s pretty depressing to work on it.
Why does the crisis arise?
There are many different reasons that people come to doubt their research’s value, and to try to address them all would reach far beyond the scope of a single blog post (and this is already a long post). Generally, however, there is some trigger that leads a researcher to think that their work isn’t valuable, which drains motivation and creates anxiety about the future. I want to exclude from this discussion doubt about your abilities. Thinking you lack ability may make you feel your efforts are meaningless (“why bother, I never will do it right!”), but that’s not a critique of academia. In this post, I want to specifically focus on doubts about academia and research, and the idea that academia is so flawed that it’s meaningless.
What is academia?
In academia, ideally, we seek abstract objective truth—things that are true for everyone. Laws of nature. The sciences are, in a way, most emblematic of academia—seeking evidence by which we discover the operation of nature in a way that is generally true. A chemist looking for a compound with certain properties will assume that laboratory experiments reflect the general behavior of the compound. A computer scientist developing an algorithm will assume that the properties (runtime, for example) will be consistent with general principles. Even in fields where the very idea of objective truth is explicitly rejected, there is an underlying presumption that scholarly work—the use of evidence and reason—has some underlying general value. Even a Jacques Derrida, who wrote work far outside of scholarly norms and who questioned ideas of absolute objective truth, retains some underlying sense of right and wrong perspectives—after all, why argue against objective truth if you really believe that all ideas are purely subjective?
The limits of academia
The search for answers to questions or solutions to problems, however, is limited in many different ways. There is the inevitable uncertainty—it’s disappointing to find out that academia rarely offers certainty. There are the political dimensions: academic institutions, like all institutions made of people, are made up of different people with different motivations, purposes, and desires, which creates the political reality of academia: your work isn’t evaluated in a vacuum, but rather by self-interested people. There are the practical dimensions of research: the ideal experiment may not be possible, and we’re forced to do projects that only make small steps towards that ideal.
The practical dimensions of research—our ability to gather and process information—force scholars to focus narrowly even when they are generally interested in broad questions. The grand and noble search for, e.g., a cure to cancer, a solution to homelessness, or the best possible economic policy, etc., gets reduced to one specific analysis of one specific factor among the many, in an attempt to produce research that contributes to understanding a larger whole. It’s disheartening to think that the one specific factor you’re studying is only one among many, and also disheartening to think that the one experiment only reveals a little about the large picture (and even perhaps only a little about that one specific factor).
The sense that research is meaningless is also partly an unfortunate outgrowth of the nature of research practice, or, more generally, a natural progression of human experience: as humans, we change and grow, including the things we value. And, in particular, we experience a big difference between novelty and familiarity. It is said that “variety is the spice of life,” and “familiarity breeds contempt.” Both sayings address the general shift from new to known. With the new, we’re likely to focus our attention on the best parts, and not notice problems. With the known, however, we it’s harder to avoid problematic aspects. The product that looked so promising when you researched it, stops working smoothly. The journey that promised such fun when you set out, suffers through periods of hot, dusty, boredom. The relationship that starts with passionate love, ends in boredom or hatred. And the research that starts with enthusiasm, gets bogged down in details, bureaucracy, politics, etc.
The value of research
At risk of over-generalizing, I will argue that whatever the cause of your existential crisis, you can ease it by focusing on the value of research.
What is the value of research? Why might it meaningful to you? There are number of different possibilities, in two main classes:
- Personal value
- you want to satisfy curiosity/learn
- you enjoy it
- it provides career opportunities
- it provides a sense of self-worth
- it develops useful skills (e.g., critical thinking, communication)
- Value for others
- it solves social problems
- it helps others solve personal problems
- it entertains/amuses/educates other people
Research, despite all its limitations, offers the potential for all of these. It is important to remember them when the practical and political realities of academia can easily make it seem like your work isn’t important. It is, for example, easier to believe that your work is valuable if you think lots of people will read it than if you’re thinking that no one will. If you’re find enjoyment in the work, or you think it will help you to a better career, then you may not need to think many people will read it (for example, a dissertation may have a big impact on a career, even if it only has a small audience). The more dimensions of value you see, the easier it is to maintain motivation. If you say only “I enjoy it,” that’s less motivation than saying “I enjoy it; it will help me have a good career; it will help me do work better; and it will help other people, too.”
Rediscovering value or finding it anew
It seems something of an irony that scholars come to view their work as meaningless when the basic work of the scholar is to understand and explain the world, and thus give meaning to the incomprehensible. In the abstract, isn’t knowledge of the world valuable? And, more practically, isn’t knowledge useful?
In my experience, the people who enter academia are generally interested in and motivated by a search for a truth that has some personal or external value (or both). People sometimes set out in academia motivated by curiosity, trying to find answers that are personally valuable. Many set out motivated by some altruistic desire to help people (e.g., to cure depression, or eliminate homelessness, etc.). Fame, fortune, and power are usually more common outside academia, so people who want them generally won’t end up in academia unless they also see positive value in academia.
If you’re struggling with anxiety related to doubt about the value of academia, it’s important to reconnect to your personal sense of purpose: what is important to you? What value can you find in academia if you momentarily set aside the myriad frustrations and look to the most hopeful possibilities? Consider the different personal and social benefits that could follow from your in the most optimistic outcomes. Look back to the reasons you entered academia and ask whether they still are important to you. It’s possible that you have changed and grown and that, therefore, some other choice of career might suit you better—it is possible to have a good life outside academia even after investing years. But, I think for most scholars facing the existential crisis, the initial motivations get obscured behind the many frustrating practical details of research.
Exercise: Why did you enter academia? What were your hopes and dreams then? Taking time to write about your original passions can help you reconnect with an early sense of purpose, and that sense of purpose can then provide support for developing and dealing with the practical limitations of academic research.
Narrowly focused projects
The well-known expression argues that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. In academia, good intentions generally pave the way to narrowly focused projects of small scope. (And such projects can come to feel like hell, especially if things go wrong.) It is likely that every decision that you made en route to your project was the best decision you could make with the best intention to produce the highest quality research. (Of course, you—like anyone—might have made some mistakes along the way, but your making a mistake is hardly a reason to think that academia is suddenly worthless (nor is it reason to think you’re not good enough). Making a mistake and having to fix it is frustrating—but that’s true in and out of academia, and you’re just as likely to make a mistake after you leave academia as you are while in it.)
Academia produces narrowly focused projects because, practically speaking, the best way to study things, especially to gather empirical evidence, is to focus narrowly. Without narrow focus, projects include too many dimensions and aspects for any sort of close analysis in any reasonable time. The world is vast and complicated, but scholars/researchers, as humans, have limited time. It is certainly more imaginatively powerful to do research that encompasses the whole scope of an issue—homelessness, mental health, market regulations, world hunger, Victorian literature, etc.—than to do something tightly focused—for example, an analysis of one specific market regulation and its effect on one specific product. But, pragmatically speaking, a close analysis of a specific data set using specific theories focusing on specific aspects of an issue takes time and effort both to execute and to explain to others (i.e., to write it up and publish). The larger the scope, the more time necessary. Scholars who want to contribute to a research community have to make a choice to limit the scope of their work so that they can finish.
For those worried about narrow focus, it’s valuable to remember that research is a community effort to which scholars usually contribute by adding little pieces of work. Only occasionally does a scholar completely redefine a field in the way that Einstein did for physics, and it is even more rare that the full scope of such a revolution is recognized in its time. For the most part, scholars work within theoretical schools that have been developed over previous years, and they contribute details to more fully understand the implications of the theories.
It is this process of many scholars contributing to a community process that has led to the many benefits of research in sciences, social sciences, and humanities. (I’m not going to try to argue that research does lead to benefits—one the one hand, I think it’s obvious, and on the other it leads into a mire of evaluation: what counts as a benefit?)
Focusing on details can lead to losing sight of larger context
If you become narrowly focused on details of the project you have chosen, it’s possible to lose sight of the context in which it was created.
Exercise: Reconnect your current project with the motivations that inspired it.
What were your initial motivations? What inspired you? Were you motivated by curiosity? Was there some specific problem that you wanted to address?
How far are you now from those previous motivations? Have you abandoned them? Or can you see how they led you to where you are now?
The size of your audience is not the only measure of value
One specific cause of distress for many scholars is the idea that their work is only read by a handful of people. Let’s acknowledge that it is often the case that work is only read by a few. Does that necessarily mean that the work is not valuable? Many philosophers have been rejected in their own time but appreciated by posterity. In the middle of the 20th century, some scientists started writing about climate change. Was their work unimportant simply because it was largely ignored?
The fact that only a small number of people might read your work may be disappointing, but it is not an accurate reflection of its value. (As I mentioned above, a dissertation can have a big impact on your career even if only read by a handful.) A small audience can have large influence.
Academia is not perfect, but that’s no reason to assume that it’s not valuable. New ideas are accepted only slowly. Good research often depends on precisely the sort of narrow focus that limits its scope, and limits the size of interested audiences. This does not mean, however, that the research is not a valuable contribution to a valuable communal exercise.
If you have lost sight of the purpose and value in your work, it can be hard to maintain motivation. It’s crucial to find again a sense of purpose. It’s possible that you won’t (in which case you should probably leave academia). But if you step back and think about your original purposes and the general aspirations of academia, I believe you can rediscover a sense of the value of research, and that sense of value can help you rediscover motivation.
Dealing with writer’s block, Tip 3: Learn to like writing
Yesterday, I saw an internet post from a writer saying, “I’m an early career, tenure-track professor, and I hate writing.” One commenter responded: “I like doing analysis, but I hate hate hate writing.” If you hate writing, that’s a big block. It drains motivation; it interferes with focus. It leads to procrastination. My preliminary response was to stress the value in recognizing and identifying the specific reasons that the person hates writing (see my previous posts in this blog). The original post author responded by noting a few different specific concerns that triggered the hatred of writing—feelings of inadequacy, fear of rejection—and another commenter added other specific concerns—uncertainty about how to proceed, technical difficulties with structure, emotional and technical difficulties with conventions. All of these specific concerns can contribute to make writing unpleasant, but none of them are the totality of writing.
In this post, I argue that you can learn to like writing, and if you do, that appreciation and positive emotion will help carry you through difficulties and frustrations related to writing. The diagnostic analysis of your writing process is useful in developing a practice that you can like, not only because you can identify and eliminate or reduce problems, but also because you can focus your attention on aspects of the process that are interesting and potentially enjoyable.
“I Hate Writing; Writing Sucks.”
Lots of people say this. The internet post I saw yesterday struck me because, to continue my series of recent posts about getting past writer’s block, I was already planning for my next post to look at the idea that writing sucks, because the general dislike of writing is an emotional writing block for many. The idea that writing generally sucks is a barrier that can be dispelled by using the diagnostic analysis that I have discussed previously: when you look at it closely, it’s not the writing, as a whole, that is unpleasant, but rather specific aspects of it, and specific responses to it. If you hate dealing with punctuation, for example, that is one specific aspect of writing you don’t like, but writing is not only punctuation. If you hate writing because you fear rejection, well, rejection isn’t part of writing itself, it’s something that happens after you’re done writing.
If you think that writing sucks or if you hate writing, and you also need to write for your career, it’s worth trying to translate that general “writing sucks” into a more specific diagnosis. But making a diagnosis and developing plans to addresses problems is only the negative half of the picture. To reduce or eliminate a general sense that writing sucks, it’s important to see a positive dimension, too. And, though you may doubt, there is a positive side to the task of writing.
Can Writing Be Pleasurable?
Writing may be hard, but that doesn’t mean it necessarily sucks. There are lots of things that are very difficult that are also pleasurable—hobbyists and amateurs work hard to excel at their chosen skill, not for financial or career rewards but rather because of the emotional reward. An amateur athlete will experience difficulty to excel in their sport and also enjoy the performance. An amateur musician will endure the frustrations of practice to enjoy the pleasure of performing music. Arts and crafts all involve some difficulties and frustrations, require significant investment of effort to be any good, but, in return, offer hours of positive activity as well as satisfaction from producing something beautiful. For all of these activities, it’s worth noting that the balance between frustration and pleasure shifts as skill increases: the beginner struggles to create something simple, while the skilled expert creates something of beauty with relative ease (emphasizing the word “relative”). Writing is an activity of the same sort: it is difficult and frustrating, but it can also offer the emotional rewards of creating something satisfactory (a written work that is well received by an audience) and the immediate rewards of engaging in a focused practice (being in the zone, as might be said colloquially, or being in “flow,” to use the idea of Csikszentmihalyi).
What Is Writing For?
You’ll struggle to find any pleasure in writing if the only reason you write is because someone told you you have to write. Many of us learn to write in school when writing is only an unpleasant task forced upon us, after which we are criticized harshly. If you don’t want to write, writing that “what I did on summer vacation” paper may be pretty miserable. And worse so in high school, if you’re called upon to write about books that you didn’t really want to read either. Personally, I hated writing in high school and in college. It was only in grad school that my feelings about writing shifted as my ability to write improved.
But writing in’t taught to torture school students; it’s taught because it’s a powerful tool. There are, as I see it, three main purposes for writing: to aid memory, to work out and develop ideas, and to communicate with others. Thinking about writing as serving at least one of these three purposes can shift your relationship with writing. Instead of just writing because of some outward obligation, you can use it as a tool to serve your own purposes.
Writing to aid memory—from writing a shopping list for the market, to taking notes in a lecture, to taking notes of research observations—doesn’t feel like writing for an assignment. Indeed, that kind of writing often isn’t what people think of as “writing,”—it’s “just” taking notes or something of the sort—but that kind of writing still exercises many of the same skills as more formal writing, especially the skill of putting ideas into words. And many people have enjoyed writing down memories—diaries, journals, blogs, and social media posts are all forms of writing used to preserve memories.
Development of Ideas
Writing as an aid to analysis and development of ideas—akin to a mathematician working through a problem on scratch paper, or an architect or artist drawing study sketches of a project—is sometimes overlooked, especially by those who think they hate writing. As I mentioned above, there was a comment that said “I like to analyze but I hate to write.” But if writing is a tool for analysis and you like analysis, isn’t there a place to like writing as part of the larger process of analysis (recognizing that writing to work out an idea—on “scratch paper,” so to speak—is not quite the same as writing something for to be submitted for review)?
The idea that “writing is thinking” is often expressed (I have seen it in multiple places, but the one I can remember offhand in the book The Craft of Research from University of Chicago Press), and many people enjoy thinking and exploring ideas. Of course, saying that writing is thinking gives a very different purpose to writing than writing to answer someone else’s questions. It also shifts the view of the process: some writing is just an exploration that is not meant to be the final work but rather a tool for learning more, like a painter making initial study sketches for a project.
Writing is a tool for communication and many people like communicating but hate writing. A lot of writers that I have worked with get stuck because instead of focusing on the task of communication—what ideas do you want to share?—they focus on the task of putting sentences and paragraphs together on a page, which fraught with all the possibility of error in spelling, punctuation, grammar, etc. Thinking about the technical difficulties interferes with thinking about the interesting stuff you want to share with people. You may be passionate to educate people about some topic, but if you’re worried about spelling, punctuation, etc., as well as the response of someone who might be hostile (a reviewer, a difficult professor), then it’s easy to lose sight of the underlying interest that drives a project.
Below, I offer an exercise comparing speaking with writing. It is instructive to compare speaking with writing because most people like speaking, or at least feel comfortable speaking, even if they dislike writing. Why do people like speaking? Among other reasons, it’s because speaking allows them to build connections with other people, to share ideas with other people, and to get other people to learn things that they care about. The process of writing takes on a very different emotional character when you’re focusing on sharing an idea with someone who will be interested, even enthusiastic about your work.
It’s reasonable to give some attention to possible criticism of your work, but that shouldn’t keep you from thinking about the positive response you want to create. Some writers get stuck thinking about all the people who would complain; others get motivated by thinking about people who would be interested in or even excited by their ideas. In the practice of writing, think about writing to someone who would be enthusiastic about your work, rather than thinking about writing to someone who will complain about your punctuation.
Exercise: Writing and Speaking
How do you feel about speaking? Do you hate to speak? Do you like to speak? In what situations do you like to speak, and what situations do you dislike it? Do you like writing less than you like speaking?
What are the differences between writing and speaking?
What are the similarities between writing and speaking?
Other Positive Dimensions of Writing
There’s more to like in writing than just these three purposes. I mentioned earlier how writing offers the challenge of becoming good at a skilled task, and of practicing that task at a high level, which can be satisfying or even pleasurable. According to the research of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, such challenges are at the heart of the “flow” experience, which, for many, offer the best moments of their lives. I will not discuss this potential here, however. In other posts, I have mentioned how writing can provide a certain refuge from other difficulties. I’m not arguing that writing is free from difficulties and frustrations, only that writing offers benefits, including emotional ones.
If you want to get past writer’s block, it’s important to keep in mind that writing, despite its difficulties and frustrations, is something that has enjoyable and engaging aspects. If you focus exclusively on the worst parts of writing, your aversion will be strengthened. Instead, focus on the best parts of writing—the ability to explore and share ideas, the challenges of developing skill—to get more positive motivation.
Writing for yourself; Writing for others
The other day I was talking with a scholar who said “all my career, I’ve been writing what other people want; I want to write about the things I think are important.” When writing feels like you are doing it for yourself—to share something about which you are passionate—there is a stronger positive motivation, which is good. By contrast, writing for someone else often deadens enthusiasm, even if that lack of enthusiasm is balanced against a strong negative motivation (like fear of failing to advance in your career as a scholar). But writing for yourself and writing for others need not be a pair of conflicting motivations, and being able to keep both of these motivations in balance can help focus your efforts and provide useful guidance in writing the work that you want to write.
In the early years of schooling, it’s easy and common (but not universal) to develop an adversarial relationship with writing: you write on topics chosen by others and submit your work to their criticism and their grading. But the relationship between writer and reader can be cooperative rather than competitive.
Writing for yourself
I’ve known artists—writers, musicians, painters, architects—who were primarily interested in creating art that matched their vision. Similarly, a philosopher or scholar may simply be seeking some understanding or truth without regard to educating others. There is nothing wrong with this; indeed, good work comes out of being motivated by the pursuit of your personal vision. A writer driven by their own interest is far less likely to struggle to stay motivated when the project hits a rough spot (as projects often do). And in such cases, it’s often true that others would also appreciate that same work, without concern for pleasing any audience.
Many writers, however, are not writing from such a personal motivation, at least in part because they have developed a responsive relationship with writing—they write when forced to please others—that keeps them from writing for themselves.
Writing, like speech, is a tool for communication. If you think of using writing for the same purposes as speech, it can facilitate a more cooperative view of writing. People often speak for cooperative purposes and enjoy it. If you and a friend are trying to decide how to spend some leisure time together, the aim is to find something that you both enjoy, and it’s entirely possible that both of you enjoy imagining the same possibilities. You might both, for example, enjoy making a choice between two different concerts to attend. It might be frustrating to be able to only attend one together, but for both, there is anticipatory enjoyment in imagining going to either concert.
If you’re writing poetry or fiction, it’s quite possible that you think of writing something that others will enjoy reading. If you’re writing an academic paper, the same possibility is true: you can write for people who might enjoy or at least appreciate your work. Although it may be that looking back on previous academic efforts, you feel like you’ve only written what others want to hear—a real possibility if you’ve been writing to satisfy professors—that does not preclude the possibility that wha you want to write is something that other people might want to read.
Academic writing is not always a bore
Many scholars struggling to write worry that no one will care about their work. There is always a danger that your work won’t interest others, of course, but those same writers have often been inspired by the work of other scholars. It may be hard to imagine your work inspiring others, but it is possible. In a way, the more you focus on your own ideas, the greater your chance of inspiring someone. If you only pursue ideas that don’t interest you, it’s harder to interest others. Enthusiasm is infectious. Your audience can often tell whether you are enthusiastic, and will follow that lead.
Compromise can be good
Some compromises are bad. Taking an evil job just to make good money is bad compromise (or at least, I think so). And you don’t necessarily want to write about the subject someone else asked you to write about (at least not if you’re an independent scholar seeking publication; it’s a different story with a journalist or other writer under contract to produce material for an employer).
By contrast, it can be a good compromise to write about the subject that interests you in a way that other people will find accessible. Indeed, I would argue that this is the scholarly writer’s ideal. A scholar doing innovative research has ideas and evidence that others (potential readers) do not. This difference between what you know and what your readers know is a gap you’re trying to bridge, and the way to bridge it is by writing about what you want to write about, but doing so in a way that is shaped to reach other people.
As a recent example of this, I was speaking with a writer who, based on a conference presentation, had been invited to contribute to a journal issue. Quite naturally, the writer wanted to pursue their own idea, but the journal issue was focused around the ideas and terminology developed by a different scholar, and the writer personally did not use that terminology. The journal issue editor requested a number of revisions to include more of the terminology used in the issue. The writer felt that this was an unacceptable compromise. I argued that it could be an acceptable compromise if the writer’s main ideas were retained, and the terminology was used only to help explicate those main ideas. The journal issue editor spoke a specific language, and as long as the revisions were viewed as an attempt to present the original ideas in this editor’s language, then it was not a compromise of principles, but rather one of translation. The point was not to change the ideas, but rather to frame them in a way that the editor would understand and appreciate.
Imagine your best possible audience
Some writers know what they want to write, and will write to that end, with no concern for audience whatsoever. If that works for you, then you should stick with it! But if you ever struggle with choosing what to write, or you feel that trying to write to a specific audience, consider as an exercise imagining your best possible audience: readers who are interested in the same subjects as you, and who would also benefit from the ideas that you want to express. You could imagine writing to a friend (one who is interested in your work for its own sake, not just because they’re your friend). What would help you communicate your enthusiasm to them?
Writing for others doesn’t mean you can’t also write for yourself
There may be times when you are required to write something that will please someone else, but even in such circumstances, you can try to imagine how to present your ideas in a way that will reach them. Try to write what you want to write. Use what you know about your audience to help you shape the presentation, but still try to convey your own ideas and voice.
Share your enthusiasm for your own ideas. And also try to acknowledge the ideas and language of the audience to whom you write. You’re not compromising yourself if you’re trying to convince people that you’re right.
A Guitar Lesson for My Sister, Or A Paean to Practice.
My sister asked me for tips on teaching herself to strum basic chords on guitar while she sings. Since I taught myself to strum basic chords while I sing, I’m a reasonable person to ask. The most simple answer—which I gave her, and which is hardly a surprise, I expect—is to practice. We were texting and she put her “sigh” into words.
But when I say “practice,” I want her to see that idea in the same light as I do—as something good. That’s why I’m writing a “paean”—a song of praise—though it’s not really a song, but an essay. And, I suppose, it’s not really to my sister, or not only to my sister, because these are the fundamental ideas that I think lie at the heart of good writing, or even, good living.
Practice, I must admit, is a central idea in how I approach life. It’s not a concern that rises to the level of obsession, but it is something that I think about and preach for. (And, naturally, I try to practice what I preach on this subject.) Practice, I believe, leads to a better life—not just for me but for people in general. But I don’t want to digress too much into talking about practice because this is ostensibly a guitar lesson for my sister.
Practice is difficult
If I were singing a song of praise for practice, it would be easier to ignore or leave aside the manifest difficulties of practice, but an essay making an argument for practice should deal with the complexities of the issue.
There are good reasons to sigh if someone tells you that you need to practice to accomplish your goal. Practice is difficult. It’s time consuming. It’s frustrating. It can be painful. To ignore these aspects of practice would be to ignore reality.
To practice the guitar as a beginner means making unmusical noises. It means fingers that hurt from pressing on fine, taut wires (nylon strings can make fingers sore; steel strings are worse). And it means the frustrations of trying to get untrained fingers to make precise motions. These frustrations may be exacerbated by the fact that for the beginner, it the less competent hand that requires the necessary fine motor control to properly fret the strings. (In the long run, this makes sense for the guitar, because it is the picking that is the more difficult part, which is why right-handed guitars put the fretboard in the left hand, and left-handed guitarists—Hendrix, McCartney, e.g.,—put the fret board in their right hand. This is, I think, counter=intuitive because the fretboard, with all the multiple frets and multiple strings, appears complicated, while the strumming/picking appears simpler—as just the sweeping of the pick across the strings.)
Failure is frustrating, and practice begins with a lot of failure. My sister, for all her musicality, and for all her manual dexterity, will probably do more noise making than music making in her practice, at least to start.
And even once she’s practiced enough that she spends more time making music than noise, there will still be difficulties. Practice tends to bump up against limitations.
Practice can be boring
To do something right—especially something musical—repetition helps. You want your fingers to go to the right strings and the right frets at the right speed? Repeat the motion, over and over, and you’ll get better.
Repetition gets boring, though. Boring and frustrating. When you switch between those two chords for the 100th time, you may well be bored. Bored and frustrated—it’s not out of the question that you get bored of the simple task you’re practicing even before you can do it well. That’s both boring and frustrating. Practices are like that. The habits/skills/abilities that support a strong, competent practice don’t develop without repetition. Trying to play a song? Keep working through it until you play it well. Trying to write a document? Keep writing and revising!
Practice is often frustrating
The anodyne to boredom is to try something new. But, in practice, trying something new means trying something that you haven’t practiced before, and that means that you’re likely to come up against your own limitations again.
Once you have mastered that first simple song—at which point you may well be sick of it from having played it so many times—you will be tempted to learn something new. But, since you won’t have practiced that new song, playing it will be difficult and frustrating, and may have a low reward/frustration ratio.
Practice tends to be like this, in whatever arena. To avoid boredom, we try new things, but those new things are difficult and frustrating, and the way to master them is to practice, which can wind back to boredom (while including a healthy dose of frustration).
The key, I think, is to find the balance between these two areas—where there is sufficient challenge that it’s not boring, and sufficient competence that it’s not too frustrating. If we can find that balance, we can possibly find some of the best moments of our lives.
Practice can be rewarding
Practice isn’t always unpleasant. It is not just a move from boredom to frustration and back. Practice is also exhilarating and often enjoyable. It carries rewards both in the long run and in the immediate present.
The long-run rewards of practice are, I think, the most obvious. The expectation is that the frustration and difficulty of practice will payoff with a long-term accomplishment. If you work hard enough, then you have he satisfaction of a job well done. To be sure, this is a very real and very worthy aspect of practice: there is a lot of long-term comfort in being able to look back at a job well done.
At the same time, there’s another kind of pleasure that can accompany practice, and this is the sense, in the moment, that you’re doing something well. This is distinct from retrospective pride, though it is certainly related. But the sense of pleasure in the moment of practice is not so much, I think, pride at an accomplishment, but rather a sense of personal power and ability. And it’s not just satisfaction with self, as it can be absorption into the act.
A very large part of why I learned to play guitar was because I love music, and although my musicianship isn’t nearly up to the standards of the recording stars whose work I love, it is enough to spark my own appreciation of music. I may not play that two-chord song as well as my heroes, but I can play it well enough that I enjoy the song. Similarly, there are times when I’m writing when I’m entirely caught up in an idea that I think is interesting, and the interest in the idea I’m trying to convey is itself a form a pleasure.
In short, I think practice offers three kinds of reward: the long-term accomplishments; the short-term sense of power/ability; and the absorption into something of interest.
My main point here, I suppose, is not so much to dispel negativity about practicing as to balance than negativity with the positive side, especially the positive aspect that gets overlooked: the pleasure in practice.
Yes, practice is difficult and frustrating. But that is not the only face of practice. Practice is also pleasurable and uplifting. There are times when practice is difficult, perhaps even painful. But in a good, healthy practice, there should also be times when you feel your strength and ability, and times when you can celebrate accomplishments.
Perhaps this is all a product of my personal experience: the best things in my life have grown out of practice and effort and working through problems. There are good things that I’ve enjoyed–movies, books, television–that didn’t require effort or investment. But those were small things compared to the satisfactions I’ve felt when my writing, or my music, were going well. And that is why, I write this paean to practice.
How to Become a Better Writer (3): Find Your Voice
Back at the beginning of September, when I started this series of posts, I had been triggered by a video discussing musical practice, and what makes a good musical practice. On the one hand, I thought that the video was generally right: everything it suggested would help if someone were to incorporate it into their practice. But I also felt that it was missing something crucial—something that has been central in my understanding of practice for a long time. That missing element, which I rarely see discussed, is the element of personal motivation and satisfaction—which, in this post, I’m going to link to the idea of finding your own voice.
To recap the somewhat wandering narrative of this series of posts: My starting place was the intention of exploring/discussing how to become a better writer, but I immediately got on the tangential question of what it means to say that someone is a good writer. There were, I argued in three posts, several different criteria for what counts as a good writer, suggesting consideration not only of the quality of writing produced (in the first post), but also the writer’s own perception of the process (in the second), and the long-term impacts of the writing process on the writer (in the third). By the time I got through these, I wrote a couple of more specific posts about practice that were responding to specific ideas that I had come across while working on the three “good writer” posts—one about approaching revision (whether to piece together drafts from fragments of old work—what I called “Frankenstein-ing” a draft—or to take the good ideas from old work but to try to find completely new expressions—what I called “growing a draft from the cloning vats”), and one about dealing with criticism, and particularly about moving on despite criticism. Because the narrative has started to wander, I may close the series with this post, especially because, in a way, the whole subject of my blog is how to become a better writer, so it doesn’t really make sense to dedicate a separate series of posts to that subject.
For this post, I want to focus on what is perhaps the most important tool in becoming a good writer: finding your own voice. By this, I am not referring to tone or style, but rather to discovering or recognizing your own values—what really matters to you—and your own sense of value in what you do. In this sense, I am linking the idea of finding your own voice with the idea that the process of writing can be rewarding at a personal level. This linkage is crucial and is what I think is missing from discussions of practice that focus on specific types of exercise or discipline.
Speaking and Writing
How many people do you know who prefer writing to speaking? How many people do you know who find it easier to write? How many people do you know who hate to write? And how many people do you know who hate to speak? Because of the difficulties of writing and also the context in which writing is usually learned, writing becomes something that many people hate to do, even if they love to speak.
But writing is just another tool to express ideas. People use writing for the same basic reasons they use speech, and it wouldn’t be surprising to find that people would use writing with the same enthusiasm they use speech—if only writing weren’t so darn difficult. And, actually, it turns out that people will use writing—a lot—if it feels easy and natural. The whole world of text messaging and social media shows that many people are perfectly happy, even enthusiastic about writing, given the right context.
Learning to write involves a lot of trial and error, and often a lot of correction. Writing in schools, where most people do most of their early writing, is often centered on assignments and grades and criticism/correction of the many errors that early writing projects entail. None of that is much fun to deal with—at least not for most people.
But if you get good enough, writing is less difficult, and more like speaking in the sense that the technical difficulties related to communicating become less significant, and it is easier to focus on the ideas being communicated. Which hopefully means getting to communicate about the things that are important to you.
Following your passion
Speaking of following one’s passion is something of a cliché of new age philosophies, and as such, it is often dismissed as being impractical—“woo woo” as the barista at my local coffee shop might put it. That is, however, a mistake. It’s taking the worst extremes of a suggestion as representing what is typical, and then rejecting the typical on the basis that it’s too extreme. Yes, sure, when considering the idea of following your passion, it’s easy to imagine people pursuing some artistic career with little ability and little chance of turning that pursuit into any practical means of supporting themselves. But because we can imagine such examples, doesn’t mean that we have to live them ourselves. It is entirely possible to be passionate about something important or lucrative or both. Many medical professionals are following their passion. Many teachers are following their passions. Most of my work is with scholars, many of whom have or aspire to the Doctor of Philosophy degree, and for many the search for knowledge is a passion, and also something of great value to wider society. The idea that philosophy is a pursuit of passion isn’t a new-age idea, though. It’s an idea that was present in Ancient Greek culture, in which the pursuit of knowledge was literally called “love” (philo-) of “wisdom” (sophos-).
If we consider a basic claim of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s theory of flow, that the best moments of people’s lives are when they are engaged in the difficult challenging activities that lead to the flow experience, then we can believe that following passion is not so much about pursuing some whim, but rather about trying to succeed in difficult and often valuable endeavors.
Most people care about real things. Even people engaged in activities that might be considered frivolous can be doing something valuable to multiple people. What might seem ridiculous to one person might, in fact, be extremely valuable to another. Just above, I offered the example of someone pursuing an artistic career with no hope of supporting themself, as if that were a frivolous thing, but that’s a problematic example. For one, it’s not sensitive to specifics of context that might matter to the individual—perhaps the artist gains a real and necessary personal therapeutic benefit from pursuing art. And, for two, it’s not hard to find examples of artists whose work was derided in their own time but are respected now.
Following your passion can sound impractical, but the realities of following passion are far different. People who follow their passions are often driven to become very good at what they do. Writing happens to be one thing that people can become passionate about.
Passion and Practice
People who are passionate about something, often work on that thing. They practice. And practice is the crucial factor in becoming good at something. This connection between passion and practice is another old idea. There is a quotation from Sir Philip Sidney’s “Apologie for Poetrie” on this point that I have long appreciated:
For suppose it be granted — that which I suppose with great reason may be denied — that the philosopher, in respect of his methodical proceeding, teach more perfectly than the poet, yet do I think that no man is so much [a lover of philosophy—“philo-philosophos”] as to compare the philosopher in moving with the poet. And that moving is of a higher degree than teaching, it may by this appear, that it is well nigh both the cause and the effect of teaching; for who will be taught, if he be not moved with desire to be taught?
(From Project Gutenberg: http://www.gutenberg.org/files/1962/1962-h/1962-h.htm; Project Gutenberg is an excellent resource. Please support it.)
Sidney highlights the importance of motivation—of the desire to accomplish something, in this case to learn—in the accomplishment of goals. The key assertion, which he phrases as a question, is that people who are motivated to learn will learn (and regardless of whether their teacher is the better or worse).
Passion leads to practice. Practice leads to skill. And skill leads to greater satisfaction in the activity, while also sparking enough dissatisfaction to continue to grow.
Do you want to become a better writer? Why? What ideas do you want to express? What stories do you want to share? What knowledge? What ideas? What is it that you really care about? What, to refer back to this post’s title, do you want your voice to be saying?
As you find your voice, and begin to understand what is important to you, it becomes easier to write because you have greater motivation to deal with the difficulties involved in expressing yourself clearly.