Thinking about how your work will be received by the audience can trigger anxiety. Instead, treat writing as a practice–an activity aimed at improving skill–to stay focused on your ideas and how to express them, rather then worrying about future rejection.
Video: Tips for Anxious Writers: Imagine a Positive Audience
Here’s another video tip for anxious writers. In this video, I discuss how actively imagining a positive audience can help reduce anxiety about rejection or receiving negative feedback.
Video: Tips for Anxious Writers: Exploratory Writing
An Interview on the New Books Network’s Scholarly Communications Podcast
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.
Conservation of Momentum
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.
Book review: Write More, Publish More, Stress Less!
Write More, Publish More, Stress Less! Five Key Principles for a Creative and Sustainable Scholarly Practice.
Dannelle D. Stevens
Stylus Publishing, 2019
I have often considered doing book reviews on my blog, or book recommendations on my website, but have not done so because I have trouble giving positive reviews. I’m critical. Even those books that I like best are limited enough that I can’t give a review without discussing negative stuff. In addition to being critical, I also want to respect the work of others: I don’t want to give someone a low score, so I generally don’t do reviews. (But if you the reader would be interested in seeing me review something, let me know!) In this case, however, I like this book so much that it’s very easy to recommend to scholars who are struggling to write.
Write More, Publish More, Stress Less! Five Key Principles for a Creative and Sustainable Scholarly Practice. shares many of the ideas I think crucial, and uses them and does a great job of developing them into guidance for scholars.
Just starting with the title, I was excited about this book. The subtitle’s phrase—“sustainable scholarly practice”—is one that I have used often in my own writing. A quick review of almost anything I have written about writing will show the importance I place on the view of writing as a practice. I usually talk about “healthy” and “positive” practice, but often use “sustainable,” too. More recently, I have been writing about dealing with anxiety-induced writing blocks, so the main title’s “Stress Less!” is also in line with my current interests. The idea that a scholarly practice is “creative” is also an idea I have discussed recently in this blog.
The book’s five key principles are:
- Know yourself as a writer
- Understand the genre of academic writing
- Be strategic to build a sustainable writing practice
- Be social
- Explore creative elements in academic writing
Each principle was accompanied with excellent, detailed practical suggestions that present scholarly writing as a practice that encompasses a wide range of different but related activities.
To single out one aspect among the many that I like: Stevens talks about scholarship as a conversation, which is a central perspective of my recent book, Literature Review and Research Design: A Guide to Effective Research Practice. She repeatedly cites another book that frames scholarly writing as a conversation—They Say/I Say by Graff and Birkenstein—which I also like.
Following the five main principles, the book dedicates several chapters to different kinds of writing projects—personal research journal, book reviews, conference proposals and presentations, journal articles, and books—all of which offer good advice. After those chapters is one of the chapters I like best: the chapter on handling a revise-and-resubmit (with first author Micki M. Caskey). Using feedback well is a crucial part of scholarly writing, but it’s also an area where emotions run high, and many people struggle. A harsh comment can trigger paralysis. Caskey and Stevens provide good perspectives on how to approach feedback, and excellent detailed suggestions for analyzing the feedback and planning a response. This is the best advice on using feedback I have seen, including what I have written on the subject in this blog and in my books.
This is an excellent book, and probably can help almost any scholar trying to get their writing going in the face of pressure to publish. It offers a detailed view into the many activities that scholars pursue in order to succeed in academia—a real sense of the fabric of a productive academic writing practice—which makes it an excellent long-term resource for graduate students thinking about academic careers.
Having said all that, I will offer a word of caution. I would hesitate to give this to someone struggling with anxiety. For some, I think it could be overwhelming. For me, at least, I would have found it overwhelming earlier in my career, and even now it triggers the social anxiety that was the main cause of my leaving academic institutions to work privately (with a relatively small number of people). There is great advice in here that, if followed, would definitely would lead to less stress in the long run, but if I were giving this to someone struggling with anxiety, I would be cautious to frame it as a toolbox—something from which to draw ideas when needed, without necessarily trying to use everything in it at once—to guard against getting overwhelmed by all the different suggestions.
Dealing with writer’s block, tip 14: Grab low-hanging fruit
When it’s time to write, what do you work on? My previous post considered different kinds of writing and their value to the writer, even if they are not directly contributing to the text of some draft that will be shared with others. I want to follow up on that idea about different ways to contribute to the process of writing, again in much the same vein as the previous: it is valuable to recognize all the actions that help in the creation of a written work, both those that directly impact the work and those that contribute indirectly. For anxious writers, fear that time is being misused can lead to vacillation about where to expend effort, as well as anxiety that time is being ill-spent. Ironically, such vacillation takes time and energy away from writing (“I don’t know what to do!”), and can contribute to future anxiety (“I didn’t get anything done because I was feeling lost, and now I’m even farther behind!”).
Let’s take it for granted that the ideal is for a writer to sit down, immediately focus on the most important project, and write productively. But what do you do, if you don’t match this ideal? Do you say “I need to try harder” or “I need more self-discipline” and then grit your teeth and try again tomorrow the same thing you did today? As I have suggested earlier, “try harder” isn’t always the right strategy, especially not for people who generally and regularly demonstrate self-discipline throughout most of their lives, but struggle with writing due to anxiety. In this post I am going to consider the choice between working on immediate productivity and working on long-term growth.
Immediate use vs. long-term growth
Speaking generally, in many skilled activities, there is a choice between applying the skill directly, and working on building the skill/ability. For example, consider a competitive runner: sometimes—at a track meet or race, for example—they directly apply their ability (i.e., they run a race); other times—during training—they engage in many different activities—weight-lifting, calisthenics, study of nutrition, etc.—that will help them when it is time to run. Or, for example, sometimes a musician performs to an audience, and sometimes they play scales, study music theory, etc. to build skill.
A writer, too, benefits from separating the performance from the practice. There are absolutely times when it’s most beneficial to try to add to a manuscript that you will give to someone else for review. But there are also times when you benefit from activities that don’t directly contribute to any manuscript but that do help you develop your ability as a writer. Seeing this potential benefit can free a writer from anxiety in making choices of where to work. A whole range of activities can help develop a better practice. Perhaps the most valuable is time spent writing to develop ideas and explore, but many other writing tasks can be helpful in the long term, especially if you start to view those activities as being part of writing practice.
All kinds of writing are writing
Writing, the skill, develops when it is used, and especially when it is challenged. This means that all writing can be an opportunity to become a better writer. Writing a text message to a friend, writing tweets, writing e-mail—these common activities are all writing, and they all contribute to your skill and ability as a writer. At a most basic level, this is neurologically inevitable: if you keep putting ideas into words on a page/screen, you reinforce the patterns that do that. This benefit may be small, but it is real, and just for this reason alone, it’s worth remembering that all writing contributes to your ability as a writer. There is a potential related emotional benefit: recognizing these simple and easy actions as writing, might counter the idea that writing is terrifying/terrible, peeling away at least one contributor to anxiety—you may still say “writing my scholarly work is terrible,” but at least you could say “not all writing is terrible,” or even, “I enjoy some kinds of writing; maybe I could learn to fear scholarly writing less.”
Obviously, not all types of writing contribute equally to your ability. Basically, the easier it is, the less growth you get from it. Writing “see you at 6” is going to improve your ability about as much as walking to the refrigerator will improve your long-distance running ability. In terms of building skill, the greater the challenge, the greater the potential growth. In terms of reducing anxiety, however, and building a long-term, positive practice of writing, the emotional dimension of those easy tasks is important. For the writer who has gotten overwhelmed by anxiety, it can be calming to have experiences with writing that do not cause anxiety. If you struggle with writing anxiety, remember that all kinds of writing are writing and are part of your writing practice and can help you develop a better relationship with writing. For the long-distance runner, walking to the fridge offers little benefit, but for the person recovering from an injury, that walk to the fridge can be an indicator of potential future growth.
To even think about the “most beneficial” course of action raises the difficult question of how to measure value. One particular issue is the question of the time frame in which to maximize that value. Loosely speaking, are we measuring benefit over a short time or over a long time?
Consider, as a thought experiment, a writer who has to submit writing every day, and whose work is entirely judged by word count. Let us assume that this writer currently produces 1,000 words/day. And further, let’s assume that, instead of producing any writing for submission, the writer can spend a day doing skill-building exercises, that will increase future productivity by 20%. If we judge this writer over a time frame of only one day, obviously it’s better to write 1,000 words than to do exercises and produce nothing. Similarly, over two days, the writer who writes both days produces 2,000 words, while the writer who takes one day for exercises and one day to write produces only 1,200 words. In this example, the break-even point for doing the exercises is on day 6, after which the writer who did no exercises and the writer who did exercises on day 1 have both produced 6,000 words. In this example, the writer who took a day off for exercises is more productive over any period longer than six days.
This example demonstrates the fundamental potential in investing time and effort into improving your ability to write. The precise numbers in the example are simplistic, but the principle is important: actions that help you develop a better writing practice are increasingly valuable over longer time frames. If you’re just thinking about the next week, you have less incentive to step away from your manuscript to do some writing exercise than if you’re thinking about the next year.
It’s overly simplistic to measure writing output in terms of word counts, but it’s also useful for this discussion, because it allows us to focus on issues of writing practice rather than on evaluation of writing quality. We can think of word count as an indicator of anxiety level. Let’s hypothesize that a writer with no anxiety produces 1,000 words/day, and that the greater the anxiety, the fewer the words produced, and that there are some writers so anxious that they produce 0 words/day. For writers who are overwhelmed with anxiety, any slight reduction in anxiety corresponds with relatively large improvements in productivity: going from 0 words/day to 5 words/day is significant, and should not be scorned just because 5 words/day is small in absolute terms. In emotional terms, it’s the difference between utter paralysis and beginning to act in the face of fear!
This is worth stressing, because so many people struggling with writer’s block will dismiss real progress because it’s not enough progress. I’ve worked with many writers who, though they have been unable to write for months, get frustrated that they “only” wrote a few sentences. Yes, it’s true that you’re not going to build a prolific writing practice on the basis of one sentence a day. And yes, it’s frustrating to perform at a level far below expectations. But if you’re thinking about building a healthy practice, you have to be practical enough to value real improvement. Moving from 1 word/day to 2 words/day is real growth to be valued, even if it’s not what you’d like.
In dealing with anxiety-related writing blocks, you want to find every little thing to celebrate, and try to peel away as many layers of anxiety as possible. Focusing on growth keeps you from focusing on low productivity (at current).
Grab the low-hanging fruit
Beating your head against the most difficult tasks is not necessarily the best choice. Don’t scorn activities that you can accomplish and even celebrate in a small way. Free writing, email, and other small tasks may not directly and immediately address your current projects, but if they can help you reduce anxiety and stress, they may contribute to your overall productivity. Of course, for them to reduce anxiety and stress, you can’t beat yourself up for doing them.
Small tasks that are easily completed—low-hanging fruit—can help you remember what it feels like to succeed as a writer, even if it is only small success, and even if it’s not what you hoped for.
In the long run, you want to develop a writing practice where your efforts are rewarded with the manuscripts you need. If you battle with anxiety, that might seem inpossible, but with the right practice and perspective, you can reduce anxiety and improve productivity. There are many different activities that can help you improve your writing practice but that don’t immediately or directly help with your current manuscript. Remember the long-term goal of healthy practice when deciding where to put your efforts: sometimes it’s worth investing your time in some exercise that won’t help immediately. Maybe that’s some free writing that doesn’t lead anywhere, maybe it’s writing an e-mail that has been nagging at you but has nothing to do with your main project, or maybe it’s even some debate in social media. Such activities can help you reduce anxiety and develop a more positive relationship with writing, even if they don’t help with your current project. That social media argument doesn’t contribute to your manuscript, but it does practice your skill in presenting arguments—a skill needed by scholars. That e-mail can be an experience in writing despite anxiety, providing a model for the experience of writing despite anxiety. The free writing helps bring many new ideas into sight, and some gems might be found amongst the dross.
In short, sometimes it makes sense to work on relatively easy tasks that do not directly help you move your difficult task forward, but that do help you develop a better writing practice and relationship with writing.
Dealing with writer’s block, tip 13: See the value in different kinds of writing
One reason people struggle with anxiety about writing is that they think about other people reading their work. If someone else is going to read what you’re writing—even a friendly audience—the emotional stakes are higher. To build a healthy writing practice, it’s important to recognize that a lot of the practice of writing does not focus on communicating with others. If you can focus your efforts on the other purposes of writing—especially the exploratory purpose (which I have discussed previously)—you can appreciate your own efforts more, and possibly feel less anxiety.
A writer with whom I work recently expressed regret that they hadn’t gotten any writing done, and also said that they had made some notes about what they were going to work on once they did start writing. Thinking about the need to add material to a finished draft, they felt that they didn’t work on writing and were saddened by it (adding a potential emotional barrier). But from the perspective of developing a piece of writing, and from the perspective of developing a writing practice, they did real work, and they should celebrate that effort and the progress they made.
Writing is not just communication
There are at least three good reasons to write that are not focused on communicating: to build skill, to remember, and to learn/work out ideas. There may be purposes that don’t fit into these three basic categories—some people might write for the pleasure of the activity, for example—but on the whole, most purposes for writing can be fit into these three categories, learning, memory, and communication. (If you’re one of those people who have fun writing, keep doing what you’re doing!)
Recognizing these different purposes can help writers develop a more effective writing practice and healthier relationship with writing. While I have expressed these ideas in a few places in the past, I have not made them a focus of any single essay.
For many writers, especially those struggling to write, it’s particularly important to remember the second purpose—writing to learn/develop ideas—and not to focus on the third—writing to communicate. Focusing on communication can distract from trying to work out ideas, and can also trigger a lot of anxiety, because writing for communication involves the possibility of rejection.
Writing to build skill
Like any skill, the ability to write can be developed through practice. And basically the only way to build the skill is to write. But there are many different ways to build writing skill because writing is a skill of many dimensions that includes the ability to develop ideas, the ability to find good words, the ability to write flowing sentences and coherent paragraphs, and the ability to sequence the presentation of ideas and examples. All of these skills develop when you engage in almost any challenging writing task. (Writing something easy—a shopping list, a text to a friend to set a time to meet—won’t do much to develop your skill as a writer.)
From the skill-building perspective, we can see much of what you write as helping you become a better writer, and thus helping indirectly with your most pressing projects, even if not helping directly. That time you spend writing your novel doesn’t directly help you finish your scholarly monograph (dissertation or book), and may contribute to avoiding the monograph, but it does help you write better, and thus provides indirect support.
The idea of building skill can be an avoidance tool—“I’ll start my real writing once I’ve gotten better at writing in general”—which is obviously not desirable. But if you have a lot of anxiety about writing, then working on a skill-building task—free writing, notes about what you’re writing, etc.—might be better than simply avoiding all writing entirely. Even the social media thread to which you contributed might help build some skill. If you are trying to reduce anxiety, viewing these activities as skill-building exercises can help reduce negative emotions that follow: the lament, “I wasted the whole day on social media,” can become, “at least I was able to write something and build a little skill.” If you put effort into arguing for something on social media, you are developing writing skill with structure and presentation of arguments. That skill can then be used writing in other contexts, too.
Again, I want to emphasize that, of course, it would probably be best to work on your top-priority project, but if you are struggling due to anxiety, don’t overlook the value that comes from practicing other sorts of writing. If you are struggling due to anxiety, you can get a small emotional boost from thinking about how different tasks do contribute to your writing skill, and thus indirectly to your most important writing projects. Don’t turn your hours of social media writing into an extra emotional burden; instead remind yourself that it’s another form of writing and presenting arguments, and if you can do social media, you can also do your other writing.
Writing to remember
Writing is obviously useful as an aid to memory. If you’re writing to remember, however, it’s not so much about communicating all of an idea—though you could say you are communicating to your future self—it’s more about creating an anchor for your memory. But I’m not very much interested in this dimension of writing as part of a writing practice. Writing for memory can help development of writing skill, but when I’m interested in “writing,” I’m really concerned with not just the process of putting words on the page so much as I am in the process of creating things worth reading at least in part because of their originality. And I don’t really have a lot to say beyond observing that it can be helpful to take notes to remember ideas. (Maybe I’ll give this issue some more consideration in another post.)
Writing to learn and develop ideas
This is a kind of writing that I really want to emphasize (I have touched on it repeatedly in this series). Writing can be a tool to develop ideas about both the intellectual foundations and the presentation of your arguments. Many writers struggle because they think they have to work all the ideas out before they start writing. One common block is to say “I can’t start writing; I still have x sources to read,” as if writing were only done to record what has already been learned. But writing leads to learning, too.
Writing forces reflection and reconsideration. When you have an idea in your head, it’s easy for that idea to remain unexamined, even unconscious. When you try to write the idea down, however, the attempt to find words and the reflection forced by seeing those words on the page both bring into consciousness aspects that were more easily taken for granted. In this process, it is common to find problems that were previously unobserved.
To use writing in this way requires a different perspective on writing than writing for communication. In this exploratory kind of writing, the idea is to get something on the page as quickly as possible, in order to get a sense of how the whole package works. It is to provide quick reflection on plans. Because it is not meant for others, it doesn’t need the polish that would be required of a draft that someone else might read. It can be notes, fragments, single words, lists, diagrams—anything that helps you figure out what you’re trying to say. Strictly speaking, it’s not writing if it’s not words, but as a tool for exploring ideas, writing can be almost anything you put down on a page.
Writing for idea development is analogous to:
- a student using scratch paper on a mathematics exam to work out ideas
- a musician’s experimentation with phrasing and dynamics while working through a new piece of music
- a composer’s playing through melodic, harmonic, or rhythmic variations of a musical idea
- an athlete experimenting with new skills during practice
- a painter making study sketches, prior to work on a canvas
- an architect making study sketches prior to committing to a design
There are a lot of activities that will help you develop a productive writing practice and finish important writing projects, and many of them do not involve working on a draft that you will ultimately share with others. As part of building a healthy writing practice, it’s valuable to recognize these less obvious contributions. If you’re struggling with anxiety and self-criticism, it’s particularly important to recognize this value. Instead of berating yourself for the limits of what you did (“I worked on an artistic shopping list, not my book!”), look for the value of your efforts not just with respect to your current project, but as helping you develop as a writer, and perhaps most importantly, helping you develop a better emotional relationship with writing.
Writing successfully means doing all sorts of writing that does not directly contribute to the production of a draft that gets shared with others. Most importantly, in my view, is using writing as a tool to explore ideas. People engaged in all skilled practices benefit from exercises that develop skill or explore possibilities. Writing is a skilled practice, too. The exercises that you do—writing experiments, writing not directly related to your main project—can help you develop healthier writing practice. And the healthier your writing practice, the more productive you will be.
Imagination and Analysis: Refining a research question (part 2)
In the previous post, I was trying to illustrate how I approached a question, trying to detail my ideas and the process through which my thinking developed. The purpose was to highlight the importance of using one’s own imagination and judgement in developing a research question. Many graduate students with whom I have worked, have struggled because they didn’t develop their own ideas, but rather tried to follow the ideas of other people. To contribute to research in a field, however, requires the confidence to challenge old ideas and develop or refine theories. As I have argued elsewhere, it doesn’t take vast brilliance, just willingness to use natural basic abilities with care and attention to detail. The example of reasoning presented in these two posts is offered as an illustration of the way someone (me) who is naive in a subject (politics), can develop a complex, detailed range of issues that are potential subjects of research as I try to answer a fairly simple question (simple in the sense that it came from my initial, offhand intuition/curiosity, not any detailed analysis), and complexity arose as I imagined possibilities.
One intellectual exercise for a scholar is to try to imagine what other possibilities could be added to those lists of possible issues affecting voting results. In this area, imagination is the key factor. This imagination of possibilities could also be called “generation of hypotheses,” if I wanted to frame it in more formal (and perhaps intimidating) terms.
It can be useful to suspend reason and logic to help imagination flow: for example, I can imagine that maybe ballots are being improperly counted because extra-terrestrials are tampering with the ballots. That’s kind of ridiculous, but it is an explanation, and maybe there are even a few people who would believe it. Maybe there are some Satan-worshipping pedophiles who are working to actively miscount. That also seems ridiculous, though in this case, it seems likely that many people would believe it. Or maybe the election system has been tampered with by the Russians. This seems less ridiculous, given what is known about Russian cyberactivity, or, for that matter, hostile cyberactivity from a range of sources. To research the possibility of cyberattacks affecting the vote counts, we would want to understand Georgia’s election protocols: at what point could hostile actors affect the vote counts? Does Georgia use electronic voting machines where individual votes can be changed (e.g., I click on “Ossoff,” but the machine registers “Loeffler”)? Does Georgia have a centralized computer tally that could be hacked and altered? Diving deeper, we could ask about technologies used by different groups of potential attackers—maybe Russian cyberattacks use different techniques than Chinese cyberattacks. (And maybe there’s a nefarious actor who pretends to be the friend of the US but also carries out cyberattacks?) Not only could we dive down those technical holes of whether and how the voting system could be compromised, we also are led to ask why: why would someone want to help Perdue but not Loeffler, or help Warnock but not Ossoff?
Anyway, my general point is that as I ask questions—sometimes ridiculous questions—it’s possible for new ideas to arise that might be worth some investigation. Generating ideas for what could be researched—research hypotheses—is an act of the imagination. Therefore it’s useful for imagination to operate freely, to be able to propose the absurd as well as the “reasonable,” in order to generate hypotheses for investigation.
Yet more possibilities
So far, all the questions I have been asking were generated from looking for an explanation that allowed me to retain the assumption that people would not split-tickets in this election. Once I start to entertain the notion that people might split tickets, a variety of new questions arise: who would do so, and why? (Also note that these considerations do not rule out any of the previous considerations—in addition to ballot errors and tampering, people could also split their ticket—the observed vote totals could be influenced by all of these factors.)
And just in asking this, I realize that there are multiple ways to “split” a ticket: you could vote for one R and one D, or you could vote for one R (or one D) but not vote at all for the other, or you could vote for one R (or one D) and a third-party candidate (well, actually not in this election because it was a run-off with only two candidates, but if that weren’t true, you could get people saying, e.g., “I’m not voting for Ossoff because he’s not progressive enough, so I voted Green party”).
Now, again, it’s necessary to start to use imagination: why would people split the ticket and cross party lines? Maybe:
- 1. Democratic women (or feminists) crossed party lines to vote for Loeffler (a woman).
- 2. Black Republicans (or anti-racist Republicans) crossed party lines to vote for Warnock.
- 3. Democrats who voted for Warnock didn’t vote for Ossoff because
- he’s not progressive enough
- he’s a white man
- he’s too young
- he holds a specific position on a specific issue to which they object (I don’t know a ton about his campaign, so…)
- he was the kid they hated most in elementary school (I’m reaching for the absurd here—we wouldn’t expect this kind of explanation to affect large numbers of people, but it is a possible, if silly, reason that someone might choose not to vote for Ossoff—again, I’m exercising my imagination)
- 4. Republicans who voted for Perdue didn’t vote for Loeffler because
- she’s too much/too little like Trump
- they didn’t like her for some position on some specific issue.
Again, these lists are probably not exhaustive—there are probably many other reasons that Dems might vote for Warnock but not Ossoff (and vice versa) and that Reps might vote for Perdue but not Loefller (and vice versa).
How does imagination match up with the real world?
As I start to lay out these different possibilities, it raises questions of how these hypotheses might be reflected in the data.
If, for example, the differences are caused by damaged or incomplete ballots, what kind of data patterns would we see? To answer this question, we can look for old empirical data: what does previous election data show, with respect to damaged/incomplete ballots? Given the standards set by the historical data, we could compare to see if the damaged/incomplete data would predict the data that we’re seeing—would we see the kinds of discrepancies we see, on the basis of that kind of problem? Have past elections had enough damaged ballots that we could see the differences that we see in this election? Alternatively, we can use imagination—what would we expect if there were a lot of damaged ballots? Would we expect them the ballot errors to be distributed evenly across all candidates (i.e., the number of votes lost by Warnock due to damaged ballots would be equal to the number of ballots lost by Ossoff)? What if damaged ballots were coming from one specific location, because of a damaged machine, perhaps, and perhaps that machine was damaged so it failed to read both elections and only read one of the two? (We would expect an error like this to be quickly discovered in checking ballots—someone at the precinct would notice that they weren’t getting votes for a single candidate.)
Even simple questions get complicated very quickly
I’ve gone through all this detail to show 1) how imagination plays a key role in finding hypotheses for research, and 2) how quickly a question can branch out into many questions—even this brief, informal analysis identified a number of different concerns that could lead to further research. I didn’t even begin to ask questions about how I might gather any supplemental data that could support inferences about the vote totals.
My final steps with the voting question
I’m not researching the question of why Warnock got more votes in any formal way. It was mostly a passing curiosity, but I wouldn’t be able to the put an answer to use in any way. So I didn’t go far, but I’m going to briefly mention my final steps in my “research,” just to give an angle on yet more details that crop up in research.
Before I decided to start working on this blog post, here’s what I did: I compared the number of votes received by Warnock and Ossoff—Warnock received about 19,000 more votes when I looked. And I compared the difference between the votes received by Perdue and Loeffler—Perdue had about 19,000 more. This similarity of numbers was highly suggestive of people splitting their ticket because each person who splits their ticket, voting for Warnock and Perdue, adds one to both their totals and takes one away from Ossoff and Loeffler—a mirroring. The similarity in numbers could be coincidence, of course (it would require further analysis to study), but it is suggestive of a group of about 19,000 people who split their ticket, voting D for Warnock and R for Perdue. If the difference was caused by errors in reading or filling ballots, or by people voting for Warnock while leaving the other vote blank, we wouldn’t expect that mirroring. Again, my interpretation of these basic numbers requires imagining how different voting patterns would be reflected in numbers. <y imagination may be wrong, but having written out my premises, I can begin to test them, and other people can check me and, if necessary, correct me.
Why did Warnock get more votes that Ossoff?
Here’s my guess at a simple explanation for those numbers: there is one group that seems most likely to explain people splitting a ticket between Warnock and Perdue: Black Republicans. It seems plausible that some Black Republicans would cross party lines to vote for a fellow Black person. Doing some rough numbers just as estimates: about 5,000,000 votes cast in the GA election; GA is roughly one-third Black–estimate that as roughly 1,500,000 Black voters—roughly 12% of Black voters in GA are Republican (according to Pew Research Center), so that’s roughly 180,000 Black Republicans in GA—far more than the 19,000 in the Warnock/Ossofff difference. If one in ten Black Republicans decided to cross party lines for Warnock, that would explain the observed difference. It’s also worth noting that because the Democrats needed to win both seats to win control of the Senate, it’s possible that a Republican voter might think that voting for Perdue would be their step to preserve control of the senate (“As long as Perdue wins, we keep control, so I can vote for Warnock”). Let me reiterate that this is a simplistic conclusion that probably misses real world truth, but at least offers an easily understood explanation. (Real world explanations might include differences in specific policy positions held by Warnock and Ossoff, but I have not studied them closely enough to do any analysis based on their policy recommendations.)
Another group might also explain the same pattern of data: misogynist Republicans, who might vote for Perdue but against Loeffler because she is a woman. This seems less likely, just on the basis of how many women have previously been elected by GOP voters. (Continuing down the path of imagination, we can conjure up a group of racist Democrats who vote for Ossoff but not Warnock, or feminist Democrats who vote for Loeffler over Ossoff because she is a woman. But these groups would give more votes to Ossoff than Warnock, so don’t help explain the observed data.)
On many levels, what I have offered above is simplistic analysis. Despite my performing a quick analysis, the various considerations and possible questions proliferated. I didn’t do any research beyond looking up the numbers of votes cast. I could have looked more deeply. I could have looked at different details (what if I had looked at county-by-county breakdowns? Those might provide some counter to the ideas I used above).
Dealing with writer’s block, tip 12: Celebrate your successes, don’t focus on your failures
Over the past several months, I have been trying to post to my blog at least once a week. In the past week or so, however, I have failed to do so, as I have not been satisfied with what I have written. To stave off my own writing anxieties, I am focusing on the writing that I have accomplished, rather than on the goals I have not. As a writer who struggles with anxiety, I know from experience how helpful it is to focus on my (limited) successes, rather than on my failures. If you suffer from writing-related anxiety, there’s a good chance that you, too, can benefit from focusing on the things that you have done, not the things that you haven’t.
Often, accomplishments have two faces: one face smiles on what we accomplish, while the other frowns on our failures. Frequently writers tell me that they have not accomplished what they planned or they have not achieved their goals, and while doing so, they push any accomplishments into the background. This creates an anxiety-inducing image that exaggerates problems and minimizes successes. If you commonly take such a view, and lose sight of you progress (however small), try to cultivate a focus on the successes, however small, to help boost emotion and motivation.
If you have writer’s block—i.e., if, due to anxiety, you’re struggling to write——the question is how to engage with writing with less anxiety, allowing you to use your efforts more effectively. Making an effort to focus on success can help.[ In one light, a piece of writing can be a success, while in another, a failure. So, for example, my blog has not had a new post this past week (a failure), but I have developed some ideas that could become posts (a success). Or, for example, your dissertation can be completed and accepted (a success), while at the same time you recognize numerous shortcomings (failures). Or your book can be published (a success), but not get good reviews (a failure). If you’re struggling with anxiety-related writing blocks, it’s valuable to focus on the success, however limited, more than on the shortcomings.]
Success and failure of practice
The success of a writer need not be measured in terms of the words on a page; it can also be measured in terms of the experience of writing. Throughout my series on dealing with writer’s block, I have emphasized the value of approaching writing as a practice and trying to develop a good practice, at least in part because thinking about the practice allows a focus on something other than the stuff that other people can reject. Anxiety about how your readers will respond can be sidestepped, for example, by thinking “I’m just writing notes for myself to organize my thoughts.”
With respect to this question of looking for and focusing on successes, it can be worth remembering that some successes are successes of practice. A good practice session—where you work hard, where you learn new things—can be a success, even if you end it thinking “I have to throw away most of what I just wrote.” From the perspective of producing a work to share with others—a final draft—it’s very frustrating to write for a while and then throw most of that writing away. But from the perspective of building a writing practice, that time spent is something of a success: not only does it meet the goal of practicing diligently and productively, it also sets you up for future success by helping you learn what doesn’t work.
If you’re struggling to write, focusing on the practice, and the successes in practice can help avoid anxiety. In the long run, there will be plenty of forces drawing your attention to external goals like publication. To meet those demands, it really helps if you can, in the short run, close off those voices and focus on developing your own healthy voice to guide your practice. If you are struggling with writer’s block—if you’re getting little done due to anxiety—focusing on the approaching due date on your project raises anxiety and the emotional barrier to writing. The work may be due in x weeks, but does focusing on that due date help? What can help is focusing on your practice, and especially on the small gains as steps to building that practice, even if those steps seem small in comparison to what you hope to accomplish.
Standards of evaluation: the half-full/half-empty glass
Partly, this post arose from a writer struggling with severe anxiety who said to me, “I only wrote for seven minutes, not fifteen.” This writer has demonstrated the ability to break through anxiety to finish projects, but at other times is nearly paralyzed with anxiety. This comment came after they had previously planned to spend 15 minutes writing immediately before our meeting, but, to their chagrin, only wrote seven.
From one perspective, it’s obvious that they did not accomplish what they set out to do. But from another perspective—the perspective of someone who has been struggling to write—seven minutes of writing that produce a sentence is a much better outcome than complete avoidance. The question is whether to evaluate that effort with respect to (a) the hoped-for goal (in which case it is too little), or (b) with respect to recent practice (in which case the seven minutes is an improvement).
Consider the famous glass half full/half empty. From the perspective of the person dying of thirst, that half glass is precious—even a single mouthful would be precious. The parched person might want more, but what would be most on their minds—at least for a moment—is the appreciation for the little water they did get. The writer struggling to write is not at death’s door, perhaps, so writing a little doesn’t give quite as much reward as a sip of water to the parched. But compared to nothing, writing a little is a huge change.
The writer who has not been writing due to anxiety has an empty glass. If they manage to get even a drop of water into it (i.e., working productively for a few minutes), that drop should be celebrated, at least for a moment. It should be celebrated not only for the drop of writing that adds to what you had, but also for demonstrating that you can create those drops of water.
Choosing a focus
The case of the half-full/half-empty glass is typically used to distinguish the optimist from the pessimist—the one sees it as (partly) full, and the other as (partly) empty. In that view, the character of the person leads to their perspective.
But this is also a matter of conscious choice: do I focus on the things that I do have (the water in the glass), or on the things that I don’t (the unfilled portion of the glass)? Even the pessimist can make a conscious choice to focus on the positive. The seven-minute work session might not be what you hoped for, but it is something real. Focusing on those small successes as successes can trigger other emotions than anxiety.
There is a connection between expressing gratitude and mental health, and focusing on the good thing that you have is a form of gratitude. Taking time to appreciate and recognize the value in your efforts can shift your emotional state and reduce anxiety.
If you’re struggling to make progress, appreciate the progress that you do make, rather than berating yourself for all that you have not done.
One could argue that it’s unreasonable to entirely focus on small victories when a larger defeat is taking place. When your deadline is looming, celebrating that seven-minute work session may feel crazy because you need more than seven minutes to hit the deadline. But context matters, and realistic plans matter. That seven-minute work session might be the best you have to offer on that day, and demanding more might lead to more harm than good. Knowing the best course of action is difficult.
Pressuring yourself to work harder and push through anxiety might help you meet a short-term goal, but it might also contribute to additional long-term anxiety. If your modus operandi for finishing projects is to get into a frenzy of furious writing at the last minute, that can create an uncomfortable experience that contributes to future anxiety. Lots of people have found themselves making desperate progress immediately before a deadline.
But lots of people have also missed deadlines entirely because of their anxiety. Plenty of people have simply failed to turn in any work when it was due because writing-related anxiety had become so severe. You have to be realistic: how much can you accomplish? And at what cost? What is going to help you work productively? What will maximize your productivity in the short run? And what will maximize your productivity in the long run? Maybe celebrating minor successes today doesn’t lead to finishing your current project on time, but does contribute to finishing more projects on time in the future. And maybe pushing yourself through an ordeal of last-minute writing does help you finish your current project, but also contributes to writing-related anxiety in the future.
Success and completion
Perfectionism delays many writers. They say, “not good enough.” In the short run, being able to celebrate successes could come in the form of saying “I’ve done enough on that section,” which allows you to move on no matter its condition, rather than getting stuck doubting your work and trying to revise.
Don’t shame yourself
If you are struggling with writing-related anxiety, don’t shame yourself for what you haven’t done; it won’t help reduce your anxiety, but may increase it.
Too often, in too many cases, writers find reasons to tell themselves they are not good enough and they shouldn’t be proud. Thinking that you aren’t good enough is likely to induce anxiety, so it can trigger a negative feedback loop.
If you’re struggling with anxiety that impedes writing, it’s important to focus on the kind of thing that will reduce anxiety (small successes, supportive audiences) and keep yourself from thinking about the things that trigger more anxiety (hostile audiences, heavy workloads). If your long-term goal is to write productively, it’s crucial to give yourself positive reinforcement by celebrating even the small successes.
If you’re trying to build a healthy practice and make progress on writing projects, don’t compare yourself to what you want to be when everything is working well (or where you were at your most productive in the past), compare yourself to where you were yesterday or to your worst days. If you didn’t write yesterday, then every minute that you write today is a small victory worth celebrating. Every small victory lets you say, “I accomplished that small thing (and it wasn’t even that painful/I survived it!). I can do it again or more, today.” Each small victory lays a foundation for future growth. Value your accomplishments to help provide motivation to move forward.