Expressing your voice and motivation

Talking with a scholar yesterday, I was emphasizing the importance of finding one’s own voice.  I was thinking about that point in a very specific sense with respect to the writing she had shown me—especially with respect to the importance of making clear reasons to care—why did the author care? Why should anyone else care? Even a scholar who is trying to present objective research can show us why she/he chose to pursue that particular course of research—presumably because the findings would have some value. When scholars make their motivations and purposes clear in their writing, it helps the reader connect that work to larger ideas.

I was going to write my weekly blog post with respect to those issues, but this morning as I was checking headlines, I saw an article on motivation and advice that connects to these issues from a somewhat different angle—the angle of motivation as opposed to purpose.  When we think about purposes, we can think of them as a form of motivation—“I did X because I wanted Y”—but now I’m thinking more of motivation in a more primal/emotional sense—a sense of willingness to act, and a drive to take action, rather than some specific goal to be reached (some goal is needed for the motivation, but the focus now is on the drive to act abstracted from the desired ends of the action).

The article on motivation and advice reports on a series of studies that showed that people found motivation when they gave advice.  The common presumption is that people who are struggling to accomplish something should seek advice—that by seeking advice, people will be more able and likely to succeed.  The study suggested, instead, that people already had important useful knowledge, and that taking action was the crucial missing element in success.  In the study, giving advice led to the advice-givers feeling more confident about their own knowledge and ability, and thus were more likely to take action.  In one of their studies, done with students at a middle school, “Advice givers spent 38% more time on their homework than the advice receivers spent over the month following the intervention.”

The authors of the study consider a number of reasons that giving advice helps with motivation which I will roughly summarize as the power of focusing on the assets (knowledge) one does have.  When one gives advice, one “conduct[s] a biased memory search by considering one’s past successful behaviors in order to generate advice for others.” When giving advice, the focus goes to strengths and successes (the bias, from the flip side, being that one does not focus on failures).

This basic dynamic of focusing on strengths as providing motivation is related to another study I once read about (but cannot cite), which suggested that optimists were more likely to succeed than pessimists for the precise reason that they overestimated their abilities/performance and thus were more likely to persist in their efforts.  The pessimists might have been more accurate in their assessment of their abilities and performance on the small scale, but that accuracy seems to have worked against them in the long run.  Of course, when giving advice, one is not misrepresenting things (or at least…well, here’s a matter for speculation, actually: to what extent do advice givers simplify problems, thus creating an unrealistic assessment, parallel to the optimists?), but merely focusing on past successes.

Winding this back to the scholarly writer who is presenting work in a neutral, abstracted way: if what you write is scrubbed clean of your motivations and the knowledge that you have, it takes your attention away from the strengths of your own work, and frames everything in a neutral light that avoids focusing on exactly that which is most important to you.

If you are trying to write a dissertation, your work is supposed to be original. So what makes work original? What makes work original is the thing that you have observed that others have not. From one direction, we could say that “the thing you have seen that others have not” is a purely objective thing, for example, you were the first to see the moons of Jupiter (well, that’s attributed to Galileo, but the first to observe some object or phenomenon).  That objective angle might be all there is to your originality.  But chances are that part of your originality was deciding to look for that thing in the first place, or in seeing some significance that others did not observe (indeed, seeing some potential significance that others did not observe is often part of the decision to look at something that others have not examined in the first place).

In expressing your voice, you focus your attention the depth and detail of what you know about the subject. In the studies mentioned above, the advice-givers worked more after giving advice because that focused on what they did know.  This is a reasonable attitude for the scholar to take, too. After all, what is an academic text but a form of educational work? Even the highest-level scholarly works written for other high-level scholars are educational in the sense that they attempt to educate people about things that they did not know. If you are writing a doctoral dissertation, master’s thesis, or other work of independent research, you are doing original research, and so you should be giving “advice” in the sense that you are educating others.  Focusing on what you have to teach others is important from the point of view of the content of your written work.  And, if we think of that same expression of your voice as a form of giving advice, then these studies of advice giving suggest that expressing your voice will also help motivate you. 

Explicitly Stating Intentions

In some ways, this blog is merely a continuation of a project of ten years or so, but switching it to a new URL is a beginning of sorts, and it can be useful to state intentions.

My general intentions for the blog are to post weekly, generally on a subject related to the process of writing, especially, but not exclusively, academic writing. My hope is that reflection on issues of the process will help writers find insight into their own processes. I often try to blend abstract reflection on ideas with specific practical suggestions, but I have been known to get absorbed in philosophy to the neglect of practical concerns. My hope is also that by presenting useful information about the writing process, I provide potential clients with evidence that my services are valuable. (I’ll risk the danger that my blog posts are so helpful that people who read them never need help again!)  Thus, to summarize, my intentions are multiple: 1. to blog with a certain regularity; 2. to cover a certain subject; 3. to help writers; and 4. to promote my business.

But those are only my intentions for the blog generally.  My intentions for this specific post are to describe my intentions for the blog, and to talk (well, write, actually, but…) about why I want to set my intentions, and, more generally, about the value I see in setting intentions/expectations/goals/what-have-you.

As a writer there are a few reasons that setting intentions/expectations/goals can be helpful. While I don’t think any of these reasons are rocket science or deep hidden secrets, I do think it worth trying to make them explicit as part of a program of convincing writers of the value of setting intentions.

Firstly, clearly stating intentions gives your readers a reason to read. By clearly stating that my intention is to help writers, potential readers who are interested in their writing process might be motivated to read. Admittedly, stating my intention also sends away potential readers who are not interested in writing, but that’s okay because I can’t really help people who aren’t writers. It’s not entirely out of the question that someone might enjoy my writing style, or might read my blog for a personal reason (like that they’re my friend), but on the whole, what I have to offer is help for writers. It’s not that I wouldn’t like to offer something that everyone wants—that’s got to be good for a business, right?—but rather that what I do have to offer is of value to only some people. By stating my intentions, I can create a connection with my readers.

A separate level of value in setting intentions is its value for my writing process. In this respect, setting intentions can be a two-edged sword: if intentions are poorly stated, disappointment can follow, and disappointment does not help a writer keep writing. At the same time, though, I believe that the other side of the dynamic is also operative: not only is there a danger of being disappointed after clearly setting intentions, but there is also a danger in not setting intentions, and not setting them clearly and realistically. Without setting intentions, you can spend a lot of time and at the end feel like you’ve got nothing to show for it (that may not be true—spending a lot of time writing, even if without clear intentions, can certainly help improve skill as a writer).

Setting intentions will help you focus efforts: if you say “I want to write a blog post”, that defines parameters. If you say “I want to write a blog post to help writers,” or “I want to write a blog post about setting intentions that will help writers,” all of these statements help me focus my efforts.  Having set an intention, I have a focus for my writing that guides me when interesting but tangential ideas occur to me, or ones that are interesting and completely unrelated. My intentions help keep me from getting distracted.

It can be frightening to set intentions—by saying “I want to get published,” a standard is defined that can be violated, thus leading to disappointment or frustration.  If I say (as I have), “I want to post a blog post each week,” then if I fail to post, I am disappointed. Multiple failures to post might even lead to sufficient disappointment in my ability to post that I start to think that I can’t live up to that standard. If I say I want to get published and I don’t get published, that is obviously disappointing.

But if we’re concerned with the psychology, isn’t it also worth noting that, because setting intentions is frightening—because saying “I want to get published” is intimidating—we might harbor the ambition without admitting it?  A creative writer might say “Oh, I’m just writing for the fun of it,” when, in fact, he or she wants to be published but is concerned about setting a goal and then failing to reach it.

It might be worth it to state ambitious intentions and then be OK with not quite achieving them. After all, if you fail to achieve a goal on a first effort, that doesn’t mean you can’t achieve it on the second. Indeed, often the first failure is crucial in providing guidance as to how to move forward. 

I’m going to wrap up even though I’ve got more to say. One of my general intentions for this blog—one on which I was pretty clear, but which I did not state earlier—was to write posts of about 1,000 words in length, and I’m getting right up to that now.  There’s more that I could say about setting intentions and the benefit in setting intentions, but I’m not going to cover it all.

Going forward, I want this blog to help writers. I want to provide guidance that helps people develop effective and productive writing processes and practices. My subjects and discussion will be skewed towards talking about academic writing, and especially common dissertation problems, because that’s where I’ve done most of my work, but a lot of writing issues are true for all writers.