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
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.
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.
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 ideasand 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.
On January 10, 2021, Jean-Pierre Protzen passed away due to complications with COVID-19, two days after he lost his wife to the same cause. JP was my dissertation advisor, and one of the most positive and supportive people in my life.
JP is best known for his work on Inca architecture and masonry, but our relationship was based on his role leading the design theories and methods (DTM) program in Berkeley’s Architecture Department, which he had taken over following the 1989 death of Horst Rittel, whom JP referred to as a mentor.
It is almost 30 years now since I first met JP, as he was often called by those who knew him. In the fall of 1991, I applied to the Design Theories and Methods program in Architecture, despite knowing little about architecture. I was working as a software designer with a student of Horst Rittel and JP, and in discussing software design, he often brought up theories he had learned in his program, and those theories seemed very much in tune with my intellectual concerns.
When I applied to the program, JP took a chance on accepting me. He continued to believe in me for the rest of his life. He was always supportive and appreciative of my work. He was also accepting of my personal limitations—I struggle with self-doubt and anxiety—and encouraged and showed patience, which I badly needed. I cannot overstate the value of his support. I struggled with my dissertation, and JP supported me.
At UC Berkeley, where world-renowned scholars are common, JP belonged. Despite his intellect, he, like too few others, was intellectually humble. He listened, understood, analyzed, and criticized without trying to impose his agenda or ideas. To me, his analyses and insights were sound. To be sure, many of those he credited to Rittel or others, but it takes great intelligence combined with humility to competently weave together myriad sources into a coherent story and then give the credit to others. The feedback he gave me on my work was on-target, and consistently helped me move forward and improve my own work.
In the years I worked with him, I never noticed JP trying to promote himself. He pursued ideas that interested him, rather than advertising his own place; his motivation was interest, not self-interest. With me, this manifested as a focus on the work we did together, and not the work for which he was best known. I hardly ever remember him talking about the Inca while I was a student. There were maybe a couple of years that he used an Inca example in the Architecture 130 course that I helped him teach, but he did it to illustrate concepts in Design Theories and Methods. Later, I helped him edit the archived notebooks of archaeologist Max Uhle’s work on Inca sites in Peru’s Pisco Valley, but aside from that, when he was working with me, he was always focused on the work that I did, and never on the Inca work that was truly his greatest interest and enthusiasm (at least at that point in his life).
I will not try to write a biography of JP; others can do that better. I just want to express my deep gratitude and appreciation.
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 touchedon it repeatedlyin 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.
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).
A lot of dissertation writers with whom I have worked struggled to generate their own research, not because they weren’t smart enough or hard working enough, but because, due to self-doubt or humility, they didn’t rely on their own ability to think—they did not work to develop their own theoretical vision or scholarly voice, but rather tried to adhere to the ideas of others. They would get bogged down in debates of theory and method, not because they failed to understand theory or method, but because they didn’t trust themselves to question, examine, or doubt the theories and methods they read in the literature. They didn’t trust themselves to make choices based on their own speculation.
I have previously written about the role of confidence, as well as about the ways in which analysis causes proliferation of details and considerations. In this two-post series, I offer a sort of case study of how I approached a question about which I knew little, to show a process of questioning, how that questioning required my judgement and my imagination to shape the direction of my research, and how that approach naturally opened up several different courses of potential investigation. It’s offered as a view into ways of thinking about questions, and about all the places where imagination can enter. It’s not scholarly, and so it doesn’t incorporate dealing with scholarly literature, which is an important part of actual academic research. But I hope that the detail might encourage self-doubting scholars to engage their own judgement and imagination.
The need for imagination and judgement
Research is complicated, and there’s lots of doubt involved: if we knew the answers, we wouldn’t need to do research. Because of this difficulty, and because of how smart some researchers appear, lots of people get intimidated, and they look to others for answers without developing their own ideas. I have often worked with scholars desperately looking for answers outside themselves without first developing their own thinking. Basically, one of the key skills of a researcher is to develop your own theories—your own ideas about how the world works. Too many scholars struggle because they don’t trust or develop their own ideas or sense of critical judgment.
Key to the work of the researcher is imagination and story-telling. The researcher gathers data from the world, of course, but the researcher also tries to create a coherent story of how something in the world works. To be a scholar or researcher requires being able to address an unknown, make hypotheses about possible explanations, and then look for evidence that might support or counter those hypotheses. Some research is more exploratory and descriptive—Grounded Theory, for example—but even then the goal is to develop explanations and stories—to take pieces of evidence and start to move towards a coherent story. The researcher uses imagination to help build an explanatory and descriptive story of the world.
An additional role for imagination, for critical judgment, and also for natural analysis (see my previous posts), is the process of developing general questions and turning them into questions that could drive actual research projects. In this post, I develop an example that shows both the repeated role for imagination, the rapid proliferation of different questions that can overwhelm some researchers, and the need to make choices about which possibilities to pursue.
The example I have chosen came from the political news, and it’s not in an area that I have explicitly studied, so I lack the sophistication that a researcher in politics would have. That lack of sophistication, however, is useful when speaking about how someone might develop a research project or question from a starting place of relative naiveté. The post below tries to reflect both my initial thinking and the extra details that cropped up as I wrote about it. (Writing is a useful tool for developing ideas—I learn as I write. But a discussion of that dynamic is outside the scope of this post.)
The question that sparked this
On the morning of January 6, I noticed that in the Georgia special election, Warnock’s win was called early, but Ossoff’s was not. My first reaction was: “Who would vote for Warnock but not Ossoff? Why wouldn’t they both get the same votes? Who would split their votes between R and D?” My strong assumption was that, given the context—with control of the US Senate hanging in the balance—everyone who wanted Warnock would naturally want Ossoff.
Beginning the process of exploration and analysis
Just starting to think through that, however, forced me to shift: as soon as I seriously started thinking about large groups of people, I had to abandon the silly idea that all people will behave similarly. It’s pretty safe to assume that if you have a group of millions, there will be significant variety among them. And it also occurred to me that the discrepancy in votes might not be because of the behavior of voters, but due to some other factor.
My question became: What is the explanation for the difference in votes? I have not explicitly studied politics or voting behavior, so what follows is just my naive attempt to think through the issues at hand—what are possibilities? What are different dimensions of the issue?
I started using my imagination: what are possible causes of the difference? One potential cause was that people might split the ticket—they might vote for one D and one R—but this seemed so unlikely to me that I wondered about whether there might be other explanations. Were there people who voted for only one candidate but not the other? Were there ballots that were damaged in some way so that only one vote was readable?
These are pretty much first-level hypotheses/analyses, in which I try to imagine different potential causes. This is where research really starts: it starts with a question about hw things might work, ad some ideas about how things might work.
I wondered whether there were factors that might explain the vote differences while allowing me to retain my “everyone who votes for one D (or R) will also vote for the other D (or R)” hypothesis. As mentioned above, I hypothesized that some ballots would have been damaged so that only one vote tallied, and as I write about it now, I realize a second, related possibility: improperly completed ballots (i.e., with the vote entered properly for one candidate, but not for the other).
Imagining possibilities; proliferation of possibilities
Notice the crucial role of imagination, how it aids me as a researcher by generating hypotheses that could be studied, but also adds complexity. I started with a question about something I saw in the world (Warnock getting more votes than Ossoff) that contradicted what I would have assumed (people would vote for both candidates of the same party). And then, I started making stuff up. And as I started making stuff up, the complexity of the question grew.
To have a coherent story, I would need an explanation for why voters in this election would not split their ticket, even though split-ticket voting is not historically all that unusual. And my general assumption along those lines is that voting has become so polarized in America that split-ticket voting is far less common than previously, and that it would be especially crucial in this election where control of the senate rested in the balance.
To recap so far:
1. I saw the discrepancy in votes and wondered why
2. I expected no split-ticket voting in this election
despite the fact that split-ticket voting was not rare in the past
the stakes of this specific election
3. I sought explanations to allow me to retain the no-split-ticket hypothesis
improperly completed ballots
Each individual line in that little list above potentially leads to questions and research angles—information that would help me answer my question or understand the situation better. I could look for information on:
1. split-ticket voting over time (historical data)
2. potential causes of non-split-ticket voting (generation of explanatory hypotheses for voter behavior)
political context (in this case because control of the senate hangs in the balance)
3. potential causes that ballots might not be counted correctly (generation of explanatory hypotheses for non-voter causes)
damage to ballot
improper completion of ballot
Already there are several different issues that can usefully contribute to the examination of the question at hand, but I’m really just getting started because I haven’t answered any question or found any reason to accept or reject any of the stories I have imagined so far. And, it should also be noted that while I have listed potential causes for split-ticket voting or mis-counted ballots, those are hardly exhaustive lists—it’s entirely possible that there are factors that I have not considered. In the lists above, I could add “other” lines to emphasize the likelihood that the list is not complete.
Conclusion (Part 1)
This discussion will be continued in a following post. I’m going to break here to keep this from getting too long, and also to reiterate my main aims for this post and the one that follows: to offer an example of how imagination plays a role in the development of research questions. In particular, it emphasizes the ability to look at some event in the world, to imagine a variety of different stories that explain the situation, and then to try to explore those different possibilities in order to judge which might be most likely.
To briefly recap: I saw a question of interest (why does Warnock have more votes than Ossoff?), sparked by an assumption (that they would have the same amount of votes), and I started imagining possible explanations for the observed discrepancy, and I split those explanations into two groups: those that would allow me to retain my original assumption (e.g., ballot-reading errors caused the discrepancy, not split-ticket voting) and those that would force me to reject my original idea.
In the next post, I will continue my illustration of this process, showing yet more use of imagination and more proliferation of complexity.
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.
Back in October, I started writing a series of tips for dealing with writer’s block. In this post, I want to summarize what I’ve done so far. For the prospective reader, I offer this summary as an attempt to capture the big ideas in a brief and clear form. For myself, as a matter of both intellectual exploration and writing practice, the attempt to write a summary will help me clarify and refine my message. Additionally, it might suggest new tips that could be added to the list.
In this series of posts, I have been looking at writer’s block, generally speaking, as any sort of emotional/intellectual barrier that prevents a previously successful writer from writing. Writer’s block is the experience of a writer making time to write but, for emotional and/or intellectual reasons, being unable to write productively in the time allotted.
I use the term emotional/intellectual to highlight that these barriers are not primarily physiological in nature (acknowledging the interconnection between emotion/intellect and physiology). Physical injury or disease that prevent writing are not writer’s blocks, even if they are barriers to writing. When writing triggers significant anxiety, depression, or despair—emotional states that interfere with writing—that complex of responses is what I am considering “writer’s block” in these posts. There may be a physiological element—emotions have physiological manifestations—but what I hope my tips for dealing with writer’s block to address are intellectual and emotional triggers—ideas that leads to emotional responses.
In this definition, I use the term “successful” in a generous sense to encompasses almost any perception of writing success. People who get writer’s block have written before, and believed in their ability as a writer to accept new writing challenges. The grad student stuck on a dissertation and the junior faculty struggling to publish have both had significant previous success, at least as measured by both their choice to pursue an academic degree or career, and their ability to advance to the point they have reached. A graduate student who has advanced to candidacy has decided to pursue a thesis or dissertation, at least partly based on previous success writing course papers, not to mention administrative correspondence, including, perhaps, fellowship or grant applications. Such past successes are not to be dismissed as irrelevant for being less than current challenges, but rather ought to be viewed as the natural steps leading up to those current challenges.
These past successes are important in clarifying that writer’s block is not lack of self-discipline. I’ve read plenty of advice that dismisses the idea of writer’s block and says, basically, “work harder.” But, in my view, you can’t get writer’s block unless you have demonstrable, evident self-discipline. Yes, there are lazy people in this world who need to be pushed harder, but there are people who have regularly demonstrated self-discipline over many years—who has written, who has met departmental requirements, who has taught courses, who may be doubling with another career, not to mention familial responsibilities, etc.—and then get stuck on a writing project. I have worked with many such people. While it’s true that “try harder” is a viable approach, it’s an unsubtle, ungentle response. Instead, I look for causes that the self-discipline that prevails in most of a person’s life has stopped working when it’s time to write. The tips that I offer are based in developing an effective perspective on the process of writing.
Causes of writer’s block
There are any number of different ideas that can trigger anxiety. There is fear of rejection. There is disillusionment with the project. There is dislike (or even fear) of writing. And there are also ideas about writing that can interfere with productivity and thereby create anxiety, for example, perfectionism in any of its many guises.
Obvious and hidden writer’s block
Sometimes writer’s block is obvious—you stare at the blank screen. Other times it is less so: you make a new outline, do some reading or start again from scratch. In both cases, it takes an adjustment of perspective to throw off the delaying concerns.
I argued that understanding the causes of writer’s block was important in relieving it. There are many different ideas that can contribute to writing blocks, and the better you can distinguish those ideas and identify which are affecting you, the better you can deal with those that are significant and ignore those that are worth ignoring.
If you develop a better relationship with writing, many of the emotional blocks will fall away. Indeed, one emotional block that some experience is the idea that writing itself is a painful activity. It’s true that writing is difficult and often frustrating, but it is also true that, with practice, you can learn to like writing.
The fear of rejection offers a significant obstacle for many. While some fear of rejection is not unreasonable, there is a lot of writing that can be done outside the draft that you send to someone. Writing is a tool for learning as well as for communication. Sometimes you want to write for learning—to develop your ideas. Sometimes you write for communication. Separating these two kinds of writing can reduce some of the fear of rejection.
The third tip focused on the importance of believing that writing could be a positive and healthy practice. The fifth and sixth followed up on that idea by suggesting a few principles around which to build a healthy practice, most particularly focusing on finding the right motivations and applying the right amount of persistence and self-discipline. A healthy practice grows out of work that pursues a passion while also keeping the work in balance with other commitments. The sixth tip specifically looked at situations in which “try harder” is not always the best advice for writers facing writer’s blocks.
focused on dealing with uncertainty. To some extent, the advice was a little too close to “it’s unavoidable; deal with it.” But when it comes to dealing with uncertainty, it is important to recognize that logical certainty is elusive. People who act certain may be emotionally certain, but they are not logically certain (at least not in any empirical study).
If you don’t have certainty, what do you have? One thing a writer has is a chance to revise and rewrite. There is plenty of opportunity to put something down on the page just to see how it looks. It’s a good learning experience and the results can be eliminated if not promising. The willingness to experiment and rewrite reduces the emotional stakes during the process: you needn’t worry about pleasing others. Experimentation gives space for exploring and developing your own ideas and your own voice.
A lot of writers get hung up thinking about the negative responses their work has received in the past. While it is important to learn from the negative feedback you receive, that’s not the most motivating perspective, and doesn’t provide great insight into how to reach the people who would be most interested in your work. Writing to convince a hostile audience is a very different thing than writing for a friendly audience, both in terms of emotions while writing and in terms of what you put on the page. Write for a friendly audience.
If you don’t believe you’re smart enough to do the work, then it’s really hard to move forward. You’ll get blocked by doubt at every decision. But if you’re trying to write, chances are good that you already have the intelligence you need. There are two sides of this argument. One side is that academic work doesn’t require vast brilliance—most scholars are not Einstein-level brilliant, they’re just reasonably smart people, and most scholarship is just careful development of previous work done in the field. The other side is that people who have advanced in academia to graduate school or beyond usually have sufficient intelligence to do the work or they wouldn’t have advanced. (In a related essay, I discussed the basics of analysis and why it’s something that almost everyone can do with a little attention and care.)
This is the most recent in the series to date. Writers can come to doubt that they have something worth saying. There are several potential dimensions to this (another one of which—the sense that one’s subject matter is worthless or pointless or at least would only appeal to a tiny audience—might be worth future discussion). In this tip, I discuss the problem of having too many things to say. Lots of writers have experienced a blankness as they face the page. But realistically, most people have a lot to say—often writers have so many different things to say that when they try to write, the different ideas compete and interfere, and it feels like they have nothing worth saying because they’re trying to say too many things at once.
At one point, I was calling this series “Tips for anxious writers.” Although I have shifted to calling this “Tips for dealing with writer’s block,” the general purpose and scope have remained the same, as I defined writer’s block as largely consisting of anxiety or other emotions that interfere with the writing process. Over the years, combining my own internal dialogue as I struggle to write with comments from other writers also struggling to write, I identified many different ideas that have a negative impact on the writing process and that despite some elements of truth, lead writers astray.
Writing is hard and often frustrating, but that doesn’t mean it’s an ordeal or lacking its pleasures and rewards. Like many other difficult endeavors, writing can be personally and professionally rewarding if you approach it right. This series of tips aimed at replacing ideas that interfere with ideas that help. The approaches suggested do not eliminate work or even frustration, but they can improve your relationship with writing and reduce writing-related anxieties and doubts.
Some writers cry in despair, “I have nothing to say.” I have worked with more than one writer experiencing this distress. This doubt is a close relative of the doubt about whether or not you are intelligent (which I discussed in my previous tip for dealing with writer’s block), and is accurate about as often (which is to say, almost never). If you are even considering writing as part of your career, it’s almost certain that you have something to say—so much to say, indeed, that if you’re like many writers who think they have nothing to say, you probably have problems managing all your different ideas.
A writer once told me that she experienced a traffic jam of ideas, and I think that’s a vivid description of something that I have experienced, and a metaphor that resonates with other writers, as well. You can only write one idea at a time, and if you have lots of ideas, they will compete for attention, with each blocking the way of others. To deal with the traffic jam of ideas, sort: first, separate out all the different ideas, then choose which are most worth the effort.
You have something to say
Is it possible that you have nothing to say? It seems unlikely. Do you never speak to your friends and family? Do you have no ideas about subjects that interest you? Nothing to say about that movie you watched, that meal you ate, that book you read? Everyone has something to say. As a scholar, of course, you’re not engaging in casual conversation, so you might say that you have nothing to say that is scholarly. But you probably have something to say about that article you read or that lecture you saw. You probably have a lot of things to say about that article or book, though you may not want to discuss them all (for example, if the editor at the journal just said your article needs to mention Dr. X, you probably don’t want to say “Dr. X is a clown and their book is trash,” even if you think it).
Reasons not to speak
There are plenty of reasons not to speak that have nothing to do with what could be said. Courtesy and politics are significant considerations (that deserve their own discussion, but not here).There is the difficult question about what is worth saying (writing). There are, after all, people who say things that are not worth saying, and who wants to be one of them? (Ironically, people with the self-critical eye that prevents writing trash often also struggle with writing anxiety and related writing blocks, whereas it is the person with no self-critical filter and high self-opinion that blithely produces volumes of polished and banal work.)
In this post, I want to focus on the specific problem of having too many things to say, which can lead to the sense of having nothing to say.
Often, “I have nothing to say,” actually means something like “every time I try to write, what comes out is banal, trite, and not worth writing.” That is something very different from having nothing to say. There can be a number of causes of thinking that everything you write is banal or worthless. I want to focus on one very common contributor to this experience: the problem of having too many things to say.
When you have many things to say, there are two intertwined problems: the first is that it is hard to write well and clearly, so a first draft of a great idea can sound banal. The second problems is that it can be difficult to sort out the most valuable statements from those of less value, especially when the writing is rough.
The long-term solution to these problems is to develop your voice, and to write enough different things that you can feel like you’ve at least touched on some of the many things that will interest you (and, yes, I will take it for granted that many things interest you; if not, there may be better advice than I offer here). In the short term, the place to start is with writing exercises that can help sort out the banal from the nuggets of value.
Exercises to sort things out
Exercises help separate the experience of writing from the product that can be criticized. An exercise is an exploration: it doesn’t matter whether the thing you write during the exercise is valuable; the value lies in the exploration or experimentation. As with all forms of exploration or experimentation, the results are inconsistent: sometimes things work out, and sometimes they don’t. But in the process of experimentation or exploration, you learn and often develop new insights. A writing exercise can simultaneously produce bad writing and a good idea. Exercises develop both your reasoning and your ability to express ideas: even if the result is a lousy piece of writing, in the process of creation and self-criticism, you gain insight into what went wrong, and what you could do differently.
Writing exercises can also help sort the good ideas from the bad. If you’re telling yourself you have nothing worth saying, then write some of that valueless stuff down. You might find a nugget of value among the dross. A place to start is writing exercises, in which it’s OK to write poorly, because the exercise is to learn.
Exercise 1: Say (write) anything
If you’re feeling stuck writing, feeling like you don’t have anything worth writing, it’s important to start by giving yourself the opportunity to write stuff that’s not worth writing. Write in a context where you don’t need to say anything coherent, much less impressive or profound. Write nonsense. Write “I have nothing to write about” a few times until you feel like writing something else (like “this is boring”). Begin putting ideas into words on the page with the focus on developing a practice, not on producing a great result.
Start by clearing away some of the thoughts that are stopping you from writing. If you sit staring at the page telling yourself, “I have nothing worth saying,” it’s going to make it hard to say anything else. Put that on the page. Does that lead anywhere? If you’re worried you’re not smart enough, write that down, and look for something else to write. If you’re worried that some single person will criticize or mock you, write that down.
Don’t just write about obstacles, though. What other ideas are intruding? Write about things you want or need. Write about the weather. Write about your friends. Write about anything at all, but write. Put words on the page. You can write sentences or phrases if you want, but don’t worry about making sentences or phrases. It’s an exercise for the sake of practice, like a musician playing scales or a tennis player returning shots from a machine. What you write doesn’t really matter, just that you write. First, get the words and ideas flowing. The more you practice, the more consistently you will be able to write. Free writing is a useful tool, but it’s not really where you want to stop, just like musicians want to move past playing scales.
Exercise 2: Focus on your work
Once you’ve started putting words on the page, start focusing a bit. Try to write about your project or your work. You’re still trying to get a flow of ideas—still trying to break the traffic jam, not yet trying to produce a solid draft—so give yourself space to write about the project from all dimensions, including writing about both your hopes and your fears.
Start by writing about the project generally: what is it? What is the subject? What is the context in which you work? Just getting a start here is likely to bring up both hopes and fears.
Exercise 3: Remember your foundations
Projects don’t spring out of nothing.Write down what your early hopes for your project were. How did you get to this project? What inspired you to get here? Focus your attention on the positive motivations that guided you here (if problems come up, write about those, too—see below—but try to focus on the hopes). Writing about your hopes for your project can give an emotional boost. Remember: this is an exercise to get ideas moving and to remind yourself of all the things that interest you, and that you would say if your audience were a younger version of yourself.
Exercise 4: What are the problems?
This is an area that can be emotionally fraught—it is, indeed the very core of writing blocks. People who have trouble writing for work still do fine writing emails to friends, for example. If there are significant doubts interfering with your writing, you need to deal with them.
If you have concerns, make a list: what are all the things that are already wrong with your project? And what are the things that could go wrong? Approach this exercise with caution: it takes some emotional strength to list potentially negative aspects of your work or doubts about it. But it can be valuable to make such a list, too. Firstly, having written down a problem, it may seem unreasonable or unlikely. Secondly, if a problem does seem reasonable or likely, you can start to think about ways to address it, which is more proactive and can give an emotional boost. Thirdly, sometimes writing something down to be addressed later can help clear it from the front of your mind, allowing your focus to shift elsewhere (hopefully to something more productive).
You want to get the negative ideas out of the way, somehow, so other ideas can flow. Some negative ideas can be included in scholarly work (reflective discussions of limitations and problems with research are common), so there might be something there worth writing. But get the negative ideas on the page and out of the traffic jam of ideas.
Exercise 5: Consider your interlocutors
If you’re a scholar or researcher, you’ve come to where you are at least partly through reading scholars in your field. Think about the ways in which you relate to the work of others in your field. What works are similar? In what ways similar? What were the positive influences—the works whose ideas you’ve incorporated? In what ways is your work similar, and in what ways different? What would you say to the authors of those works if speaking with them? Are there any significant negative influences—works that seemed wrong to you and that you wanted to correct? In what ways is your work similar or different? What would you say to those authors?
Remember that these are exercises and explorations. Feel free to write “You’re so brilliant, I want to get it on with you,” to authors you respect and “you’re an idiot,” to those you don’t. (It’s an exercise where grammar and spelling don’t matter, so “Dr. X, your a moron,” works, too.)
Exercise 6: Imagine your futures
What are the different projects in which you could engage? Instead of thinking about how you can get all your ideas into one project—“My book/dissertation needs to cover everything I’ve worked on these last five years!”—think about how many different projects could be made. Could you write an article about your methodological choices and what you’ve learned? Could you write multiple articles about different aspects of your project? If you’re doubting the value of your work, this may seem unlikely, but it’s common for scholars to start envisioning a short work that expands as they look at it more closely, and this expansion is one of the causes of the traffic jam of ideas.
There’s a lot of writing that could go into these preceding exercises, but if you’re feeling blocked and feeling pressure to produce, what have you got to lose? (OK, actually, you could spend your time on a fruitless endeavor, but if you’re not having success writing, doesn’t it make sense to at least give these exercises a chance?) The more you work through them, the greater your chance of finding something of interest.
Of course, you can’t be too critical of yourself: you have to take the chance of being wrong. Write ideas until you find something that does seem worth working on, then work on that idea. Explore and experiment. Think about what other scholars have done and how you might do something different but built on their precedent. Remember: it does not need to be earth shaking innovation to be worthwhile. There is a lot of value in doing simple work—both to build your own skills and to provide foundations on which you and other scholars can build.
Develop your voice; develop your ideas. Explore, experiment, and produce a lot of stuff. Then look for the few most valuable nuggets.
Everyone has something to say. Scholars generally have many worthwhile things to say, but they also have some things that probably aren’t worth saying. They have to sort out those many different things so that ideas don’t interfere with each other, and so that the best ideas can be developed enough that their value can be recognized.
In the first of this pair of posts, I discussed how detailed outlines can lead to distractions, and argued for using simple outlines to help guide the writing process. In this post, I want to follow up with some thoughts on some of the reasons outlines can lead into difficulty, especially related to the way that outlines promise clarity and direction that they do not entirely deliver, as well as to discuss ways of dealing with these problems.
Ideas are neither linear nor hierarchical
The biggest problem with outlines (and, indeed, expository writing more generally), from a theoretical perspective, is that many or most ideas are not linear or hierarchical, and outlines are necessarily both. Some ideas and/or aspects of ideas are linear and/or hierarchical, but plenty of ideas are connected interdependently: they cannot meaningfully be explained or understood outside a context of related ideas.
For the writer, constrained to linear discussion, this can be a tremendous difficulty. It’s common that one aspect of a large theory cannot be explained meaningfully without also explaining one or more other aspects of that same theory, which makes it very hard to start: each possible starting place is problematic because it cannot be understood without other related ideas, none of which obviously comes first or stands outside the larger structure of reasoning. In such a situation, there is no clear starting place. If describing A requires describing B, and describing B requires describing A, where do you start?
For a written work, there must be a starting place. That starting place may be an imperfect compromise, but as a matter of practice, compromises are necessary despite being frustrating and difficult. Difficulty accepting such compromises leads to the common problem of rewriting the outline, and starting a new, “better” draft, which usually delays completing a work.
Competing outlines and the limits of vision
I have been emphasizing the importance of having a vision of the larger purpose and arc of the presentation, and to settle on a basic, overall outline. But, as I have argued, no outline will be perfect, and the more detail included, the greater the chance of seeing weaknesses in the outline, and therefore thinking that some other outline will be better.
A writer, starting with a new outline, often begins with a sense of confidence—a sense that the outline will do a good job of guiding them through the writing, as well as a good job in presenting the ideas to future readers. The confidence provides invaluable motivation for pressing ahead: it’s hard to keep working if you don’t have some hope for what you can accomplish.
Inevitably, the writer reaches a moment where it’s necessary to negotiate the problems built in to the current outline due to prior compromises (or when unanticipated problems arise). At such moments, it often becomes tempting to consider a new, different outline: “If I had ordered it differently,” the writer thinks, “I wouldn’t have the problems I’m negotiating now.” This is true but it omits the reality that they would be exchanging one set of problems for another: the new outline will have problems, too.
Outlines are like many other plans or expectations: they seem great when you start out, but along the way, you discover difficulties that you had not anticipated. Both for finishing each individual project more quickly, and for building skill as a writer, it’s valuable to stick with flawed outlines and figure out how to negotiate the problems.
Resolving outline difficulties: finish a complete draft before rewriting
A writer must learn the skill of managing the problems within an outline: instead of starting anew and discarding a partial draft to adopt a different structure, the writer wants to finish drafts and projects. There may be cases in which rewriting with a new structure is absolutely worth the effort, but until you’re regularly completing drafts of different projects, try to stick with one outline for a complete draft before switching. The experience gained in finishing an imperfect draft is so valuable that temptation to change an outline should be resisted before a draft is complete. This is not a strict rule but rather a guiding principle. Basically, you don’t want to start rewriting stuff you’ve already written before you’ve completed a draft. If you’re working on a first draft of the introduction and you decide to swap the order of chapters, that’s ok, because it doesn’t require re-writing. If you’re on your first day of writing, you can change the outline all you want, with little loss (though at some point, you have to commit and stop debating alternatives). But if you’ve written two chapters, and decide that a different organization would be better, and that requires scrapping the two chapters you’ve already written? That’s can be a huge danger for less productive writers. If you’re pumping out a book and three articles a year, and you think rewriting is the way to go, then trust your experience. If you’re struggling to finish one project, then stick with one outline until you complete a draft.
If you think a complete revision of structure is worth the effort, consider the possibility of having two separate projects, one that reflects your original views, and one that details your developments. You would not be the first scholar to publish work that they would later replace or reject.
It’s necessary to find the right balance between holding on to old drafts and old structures and willingness to rewrite. Generally, it’s valuable for writers to be willing to rewrite, to feel relaxed and confident in their ability to produce new work, and not to hold too tightly to old drafts that reflect old ideas. Writers should believe that creating a new draft isn’t too hard, and can be done in a reasonable time. But people who are having trouble finishing a complete draft, and who keep working on outlines, or constantly revising outlines, it’s important to finish a draft using one outline.
Resolving outline difficulties: writing
Part of the writer’s response to outline problems is finding the language to acknowledge and accommodate the weaknesses of the structure, by explaining how the structural issues relate to theoretical issues. A lot of this is done with simple phrases that imply the relationship between structure of text and structure of ideas. For example, the reader can be referred to a different part of the work: “This will be discussed further in chapter/section x,” or “as previously discussed in chapter y.” Explicit efforts to show a reader how parts of a manuscript relate will also help the reader understand how the work as a whole holds together. Telling a reader “the discussion branches here, and we will discuss the other branch(es) later,” is not only a statement about the text, but also, implicitly, an indication about the relationship among the ideas that you’re trying to discuss. Showing that you, the writer, made a choice to proceed in one way, implies that the ideas are not ordered even though the manuscript presents them in an order. It is a nod to the alternate outlines that could have structured the work.
Write more than you outline
Once you have a general sense of where you’re going and a rough one-level outline, it’s time to write sentences and paragraphs and try to make that into a coherent flow. In that effort, you will learn a good deal about your project. Early in a project, armed with a rough outline, you start to make notes toward that outline. Ideally that writing will manifest as flowing prose, but even if it’s just fragmentary notes, it’s a good start; it will help move the project forward more than another run through an outline. Outlining is a useful tool, but it doesn’t produce essays, articles, or books. Nor does it produce as deep insight as trying to explain a coherent argument in writing. You can learn a lot about a project by outlining details, but you learn more by writing.