Reflections On Writing Blog: Thoughts, Tips, and Suggestions

Dealing with writer’s block, tip 13: See the value in different kinds of writing

One reason people struggle with anxiety about writing is that they think about other people reading their work. If someone else is going to read what you’re writing—even a friendly audience—the emotional stakes are higher. To build a healthy writing practice, it’s important to recognize that a lot of the practice of writing does not focus on communicating with others.  If you can focus your efforts on the other purposes of writing—especially the exploratory purpose (which I have discussed previously)—you can appreciate your own efforts more, and possibly feel less anxiety. 

A writer with whom I work recently expressed regret that they hadn’t gotten any writing done, and also said that they had made some notes about what they were going to work on once they did start writing.  Thinking about the need to add material to a finished draft, they felt that they didn’t work on writing and were saddened by it (adding a potential emotional barrier). But from the perspective of developing a piece of writing, and from the perspective of developing a writing practice, they did real work, and they should celebrate that effort and the progress they made.

Writing is not just communication

There are at least three good reasons to write that are not focused on communicating: to build skill, to remember, and to learn/work out ideas. There may be purposes that don’t fit into these three basic categories—some people might write for the pleasure of the activity, for example—but on the whole, most purposes for writing can be fit into these three categories, learning, memory, and communication. (If you’re one of those people who have fun writing, keep doing what you’re doing!)

Recognizing these different purposes can help writers develop a more effective writing practice and healthier relationship with writing.  While I have expressed these ideas in a few places in the past, I have not made them a focus of any single essay.

For many writers, especially those struggling to write, it’s particularly important to remember the second purpose—writing to learn/develop ideas—and not to focus on the third—writing to communicate.  Focusing on communication can distract from trying to work out ideas, and can also trigger a lot of anxiety, because writing for communication involves the possibility of rejection.

Writing to build skill

Like any skill, the ability to write can be developed through practice. And basically the only way to build the skill is to write. But there are many different ways to build writing skill because writing is a skill of many dimensions that includes the ability to develop ideas, the ability to find good words, the ability to write flowing sentences and coherent paragraphs, and the ability to sequence the presentation of ideas and examples. All of these skills develop when you engage in almost any challenging writing task. (Writing something easy—a shopping list, a text to a friend to set a time to meet—won’t do much to develop your skill as a writer.)

From the skill-building perspective, we can see much of what you write as helping you become a better writer, and thus helping indirectly with your most pressing projects, even if not helping directly. That time you spend writing your novel doesn’t directly help you finish your scholarly monograph (dissertation or book), and may contribute to avoiding the monograph, but it does help you write better, and thus provides indirect support.

The idea of building skill can be an avoidance tool—“I’ll start my real writing once I’ve gotten better at writing in general”—which is obviously not desirable.  But if you have a lot of anxiety about writing, then working on a skill-building task—free writing, notes about what you’re writing, etc.—might be better than simply avoiding all writing entirely.  Even the social media thread to which you contributed might help build some skill. If you are trying to reduce anxiety, viewing these activities as skill-building exercises can help reduce negative emotions that follow: the lament, “I wasted the whole day on social media,” can become, “at least I was able to write something and build a little skill.” If you put effort into arguing for something on social media, you are developing writing skill with structure and presentation of arguments. That skill can then be used writing in other contexts, too.  

Again, I want to emphasize that, of course, it would probably be best to work on your top-priority project, but if you are struggling due to anxiety, don’t overlook the value that comes from practicing other sorts of writing. If you are struggling due to anxiety, you can get a small emotional boost from thinking about how different tasks do contribute to your writing skill, and thus indirectly to your most important writing projects. Don’t turn your hours of social media writing into an extra emotional burden; instead remind yourself that it’s another form of writing and presenting arguments, and if you can do social media, you can also do your other writing.

Writing to remember

Writing is obviously useful as an aid to memory.  If you’re writing to remember, however, it’s not so much about communicating all of an idea—though you could say you are communicating to your future self—it’s more about creating an anchor for your memory.  But I’m not very much interested in this dimension of writing as part of a writing practice. Writing for memory can help development of writing skill, but when I’m interested in “writing,” I’m really concerned with not just the process of putting words on the page so much as I am in the process of creating things worth reading at least in part because of their originality. And I don’t really have a lot to say beyond observing that it can be helpful to take notes to remember ideas. (Maybe I’ll give this issue some more consideration in another post.)

Writing to learn and develop ideas

This is a kind of writing that I really want to emphasize (I have touched on it repeatedly in this series). Writing can be a tool to develop ideas about both the intellectual foundations and the presentation of your arguments. Many writers struggle because they think they have to work all the ideas out before they start writing. One common block is to say “I can’t start writing; I still have x sources to read,” as if writing were only done to record what has already been learned. But writing leads to learning, too.

Writing forces reflection and reconsideration.  When you have an idea in your head, it’s easy for that idea to remain unexamined, even unconscious.  When you try to write the idea down, however, the attempt to find words and the reflection forced by seeing those words on the page both bring into consciousness aspects that were more easily taken for granted. In this process, it is common to find problems that were previously unobserved.  

To use writing in this way requires a different perspective on writing than writing for communication.  In this exploratory kind of writing, the idea is to get something on the page as quickly as possible, in order to get a sense of how the whole package works. It is to provide quick reflection on plans.  Because it is not meant for others, it doesn’t need the polish that would be required of a draft that someone else might read. It can be notes, fragments, single words, lists, diagrams—anything that helps you figure out what you’re trying to say.  Strictly speaking, it’s not writing if it’s not words, but as a tool for exploring ideas, writing can be almost anything you put down on a page.

Writing for idea development is analogous to: 

  • a student using scratch paper on a mathematics exam to work out ideas
  • a musician’s experimentation with phrasing and dynamics while working through a new piece of music
  • a composer’s playing through melodic, harmonic, or rhythmic variations of a musical idea
  • an athlete experimenting with new skills during practice
  • a painter making study sketches, prior to work on a canvas
  • an architect making study sketches prior to committing to a design

Conclusion

There are a lot of activities that will help you develop a productive writing practice and finish important writing projects, and many of them do not involve working on a draft that you will ultimately share with others. As part of building a healthy writing practice, it’s valuable to recognize these less obvious contributions.  If you’re struggling with anxiety and self-criticism, it’s particularly important to recognize this value. Instead of berating yourself for the limits of what you did (“I worked on an artistic shopping list, not my book!”), look for the value of your efforts not just with respect to your current project, but as helping you develop as a writer, and perhaps most importantly, helping you develop a better emotional relationship with writing.  

Writing successfully means doing all sorts of writing that does not directly contribute to the production of a draft that gets shared with others. Most importantly, in my view, is using writing as a tool to explore ideas. People engaged in all skilled practices benefit from exercises that develop skill or explore possibilities. Writing is a skilled practice, too. The exercises that you do—writing experiments, writing not directly related to your main project—can help you develop healthier writing practice.  And the healthier your writing practice, the more productive you will be.

Imagination and Analysis: Refining a research question (part 2)

In the previous post, I was trying to illustrate how I approached a question, trying to detail my ideas and the process through which my thinking developed.  The purpose was to highlight the importance of using one’s own imagination and judgement in developing a research question. Many graduate students with whom I have worked, have struggled because they didn’t develop their own ideas, but rather tried to follow the ideas of other people. To contribute to research in a field, however, requires the confidence to challenge old ideas and develop or refine theories. As I have argued elsewhere, it doesn’t take vast brilliance, just willingness to use natural basic abilities with care and attention to detail.  The example of reasoning presented in these two posts is offered as an illustration of the way someone (me) who is naive in a subject (politics), can develop a complex, detailed range of issues that are potential subjects of research as I try to answer a fairly simple question (simple in the sense that it came from my initial, offhand intuition/curiosity, not any detailed analysis), and complexity arose as I imagined possibilities.

Wild imagining

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.)

Conclusion

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). 

Imagination and Analysis: Refining a research question (part 1)

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?

Proliferating questions

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
    • increased polarization
    • the stakes of this specific election
  • 3. I sought explanations to allow me to retain the no-split-ticket hypothesis
    • damaged ballots
    • 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)
    • polarization
    • 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.

Dealing with writer’s block, tip 12: Celebrate your successes, don’t focus on your failures

Over the past several months, I have been trying to post to my blog at least once a week. In the past week or so, however, I have failed to do so, as I have not been satisfied with what I have written. To stave off my own writing anxieties, I am focusing on the writing that I have accomplished, rather than on the goals I have not. As a writer who struggles with anxiety, I know from experience how helpful it is to focus on my (limited) successes, rather than on my failures. If you suffer from writing-related anxiety, there’s a good chance that you, too, can benefit from focusing on the things that you have done, not the things that you haven’t.

Often, accomplishments have two faces: one face smiles on what we accomplish, while the other frowns on our failures. Frequently writers tell me that they have not accomplished what they planned or they have not achieved their goals, and while doing so, they push any accomplishments into the background. This creates an anxiety-inducing image that exaggerates problems and minimizes successes. If you commonly take such a view, and lose sight of you progress (however small), try to cultivate a focus on the successes, however small, to help boost emotion and motivation.

If you have writer’s block—i.e., if, due to anxiety, you’re struggling to write——the question is how to engage with writing with less anxiety, allowing you to use your efforts more effectively. Making an effort to focus on success can help.[ In one light, a piece of writing can be a success, while in another, a failure. So, for example, my blog has not had a new post this past week (a failure), but I have developed some ideas that could become posts (a success). Or, for example, your dissertation can be completed and accepted (a success), while at the same time you recognize numerous shortcomings (failures). Or your book can be published (a success), but not get good reviews (a failure). If you’re struggling with anxiety-related writing blocks, it’s valuable to focus on the success, however limited, more than on the shortcomings.]

Success and failure of practice

The success of a writer need not be measured in terms of the words on a page; it can also be measured in terms of the experience of writing.  Throughout my series on dealing with writer’s block, I have emphasized the value of approaching writing as a practice and trying to develop a good practice, at least in part because thinking about the practice allows a focus on something other than the stuff that other people can reject. Anxiety about how your readers will respond can be sidestepped, for example, by thinking “I’m just writing notes for myself to organize my thoughts.”

With respect to this question of looking for and focusing on successes, it can be worth remembering that some successes are successes of practice.  A good practice session—where you work hard, where you learn new things—can be a success, even if you end it thinking “I have to throw away most of what I just wrote.”  From the perspective of producing a work to share with others—a final draft—it’s very frustrating to write for a while and then throw most of that writing away. But from the perspective of building a writing practice, that time spent is something of a success: not only does it meet the goal of practicing diligently and productively, it also sets you up for future success by helping you learn what doesn’t work. 

If you’re struggling to write, focusing on the practice, and the successes in practice can help avoid anxiety.  In the long run, there will be plenty of forces drawing your attention to external goals like publication. To meet those demands, it really helps if you can, in the short run, close off those voices and focus on developing your own healthy voice to guide your practice. If you are struggling with writer’s block—if you’re getting little done due to anxiety—focusing on the approaching due date on your project raises anxiety and the emotional barrier to writing. The work may be due in x weeks, but does focusing on that due date help? What can help is focusing on your practice, and especially on the small gains as steps to building that practice, even if those steps seem small in comparison to what you hope to accomplish.

Standards of evaluation: the half-full/half-empty glass

Partly, this post arose from a writer struggling with severe anxiety who said to me, “I only wrote for seven minutes, not fifteen.” This writer has demonstrated the ability to break through anxiety to finish projects, but at other times is nearly paralyzed with anxiety. This comment came after they had previously planned to spend 15 minutes writing immediately before our meeting, but, to their chagrin, only wrote seven.

From one perspective, it’s obvious that they did not accomplish what they set out to do.  But from another perspective—the perspective of someone who has been struggling to write—seven minutes of writing that produce a sentence is a much better outcome than complete avoidance. The question is whether to evaluate that effort with respect to (a) the hoped-for goal (in which case it is too little), or (b) with respect to recent practice (in which case the seven minutes is an improvement).

Half-full glass
Half-full glass (By Derek Jensen (Tysto) – Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=454125)

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.

Realism

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. 

Conclusion

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. 

Tips for dealing with writer’s block: Summary

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.

What is writer’s block?

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.

First and second tips: Understand the process of writing and identify writing blocks

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.

Third tip: Develop a healthy and positive practice of writing 

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.

Fourth tip: Write for learning, not for communication (especially in the early stages of a project) 

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.

Fifth and sixth tips: Principles for a healthy practice 

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.

Seventh tip: Accept (or even embrace) uncertainty 

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).

Eighth tip: Experiment in writing  

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.

Ninth tip: Imagine writing to a friendly audience  

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.

Tenth tip: Believe in your own intelligence and ability 

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.)

Eleventh tip: You have something worth saying

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.

Conclusion

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.

Dealing with writers block, tip 11: You have something worth saying

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.

The many ideas in your head get caught as the highway of imagination narrows down to the bottleneck of words on the page.

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.

Conclusion

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.

Outlines in the writing process, part 2

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.  

Which comes first?

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.

Outlines in the writing process, part 1

Outlines are extremely useful for a writer.  But they are a limited tool.  

Recently, I got email from a philosopher with whom I’m working, which said, approximately (I’ve paraphrased a good deal): 

I’m having a hard time writing due to lack of formal organization of the theory and how the writing should reflect it, especially since recent changes in my plans, so I’m reworking my outline! Just started this today and it’s already taken me from frustrated to optimistic and excited about engaging these ideas. . . . My eventual goal is to establish a more detailed ToC before tackling the main content so that I can write with greater ease and efficiency instead of anxiously winging it.

What this writer expressed here reflects a general pattern that I have seen in other writers, and personally experienced, many times. It indicates the advantages of outlining—clarity of concepts and how to present them—and also hints at some of the problems: redoing an outline means changing plans that you laid earlier. In this post, I’m going to discuss outlines and the benefits and dangers of working with them.

Outlines are good

Outlines are excellent for trying to get a vision of the whole project, and having a vision of the whole project is really valuable for a writer: the better your sense of purpose for the whole, the easier it is to see the purpose of each part. And the easier it is to see the purpose of each part, the easier it is to write it effectively. If you see the large scale, then you can see how the pieces work together.  Without that large vision, it’s hard to write individual pieces that mesh with and support the rest of the work.  

Outlining is such a good tool for exploring that larger vision because it is something that can be done so easily: it only takes a few minutes to write down a sketchy outline of the main sections of a work.  A sketchy outline can be written and rewritten many times in the course of 15 minutes.  Admittedly, you can’t get into lots of details in a detail that you rewrite several times in 15 minutes, but, that’s just as well, in a way, because an outline’s help clarifying the larger vision and the flow of ideas is possibly the most valuable aspect of outlines. 

Outlines become multi-level hierarchies

In planning any large written work (at least of non-fiction), there is a pretty clear hierarchy of at least two levels that governs the work: there are the chapter divisions, and each chapter itself has some internal divisions (and the internal divisions might have internal divisions).  An overall outline of a work therefore, can be described with a detailed two-level outline along these lines:

Having a detailed outline like this is useful in that it gives a sense of the scope of overall work, and a road map to follow. However, while this much detail is good for a table of contents, it may not necessarily be good for a writer in the process of writing because I think the detail can be distracting, especially in the early drafts. If you’re trying to get an overall sense of some project, it’s easier if there aren’t too many parts to keep in mind.

Do one-level outlines

Instead of making a full, multi-level outline, I like to think in terms of working on multiple one-level outlines, each suited to and created for the piece of the project on which you’re working at the moment. You do a high-level main outline of the whole work, showing division into chapters and giving a clear sense of the work as a whole and how the chapters relate to each other. At a different time time, you work on the outline for a single chapter in which you look at the purpose of the chapter and you think about how each part contributes to the chapter’s purpose (which was earlier defined, of course, by the overall outline which identified the chapter’s place in the larger work).  Then, if you’re working on a major section of the chapter, you can do a one-level outline of the section to see its purpose and the main parts of the section.

This process of making different one-level outlines will produce a multi-level outline—as you nest each one-level outline, you generate a multi-level hierarchy. But it is psychologically different because your focus is generally turned towards the main purpose of the work (or the chapter, or section of the chapter) rather than to trying to manage all the details of the large work at once. Making one-level outlines, there are fewer distracting details, allowing greater focus on the sense of purpose for the main point of each section. Each new one-level outline is just a few pieces, which means they can all be kept in your head (short-term memory is commonly considered to hold about 5 to 7 items).

As you work with each one-level outline, you’re continually focusing on the main point (for either the whole work, or the part of the work), and the main sense of purpose, which should drive the work. This can help maintain motivation: when you get drowned in detail, in addition to the danger of being overwhelmed, there is the danger that the larger motivation is lost. Scholars who think of their work as too narrowly focused, or as too small/limited, often start doubting the value of their work, while those who see the larger purpose that motivated the work see value in it, even if it is highly specific in some way. This sense of motivation is true at all levels of detail: it’s motivating to see the sense of purpose of each piece of writing, so it’s valuable to work in a way so that every piece of writing is given purpose by its larger context.

Are detailed, multi-level outlines ever useful?

In this post so far, I have focused on how the attempt to produce a detailed outline can hinder writing, both by demanding an investment of energy, and by getting a writer bogged down in detail before the writing has even been done. (Well, that’s not quite fair: an outline is a form of writing, but it’s not a book or an essay, and for someone who is planning to write an essay or longer piece of narrative writing, an outline is not the goal.)  In order to start writing, you need a sense of direction, a few landmarks along the way, and willingness to start, but you don’t need a complete, detailed outline of chapter X unless you’re working on chapter X (and even then, a clear and strong sense of purpose is more important than a good detailed outline).

As a work develops and matures, a detailed outline can be very useful as a reflection of the current state of the text or a plan for revision. It’s an excellent tool for when you’re trying to review and revise a completed, or nearly completed whole.  It’s for later drafts and later in the process, when the issue is keeping myriad details in order, rather than early in the process, when the task is to get the big, important ideas into order.

Outlines and confidence

Early in the process a detailed outline can be a tool of avoidance and an expression of lack of confidence. If you’re not feeling sure of where you’re going, and you’re not feeling confident in your ability as a writer, an outline can feel like a great way of proceeding (“I’ll know where I’m going”), which it is until the outline becomes detailed enough to bog down the large-scale thinking.

Outlines don’t guarantee confidence, however.  An outline can provide a sense of direction and confidence, but the best, most detailed outline in the world won’t prevent self-doubt from creeping in.  Sometimes a detailed outline can cause doubt when a new insight suggests a different approach (and therefore a different structure/outline for the writing).  The more details an outline includes, the greater the chance for new insights to suggest an alternative—and, as long as you can learn, you’ll get new insights as you write. A sparse one-level outline, by contrast, offers space for improvisation and revision of details while retaining focus on the big issues and main arc of the narrative.  

Conclusion

Outlines can be helpful, but they can also provide a distraction.  My recommendation for writers near the beginning of writing—especially those who have not yet written a complete draft—is to stick to writing one-level outlines of parts of the work, allowing focus on how a few parts relate to a larger whole.  Don’t try to capture all the details in an early outline; do use a simple outline to help keep focused on the main purpose of your writing.

I had planned only a single post on outlines, but as I wrote, I kelp finding more that I wanted to say, so I’m going to follow this with a second post that discusses outlines further: it discusses some of the limits of outlines (which are linear and hierarchical, unlike the ideas a writer tries to express) and how to try to write about non-linear ideas.

For sufferers of imposter syndrome: Trust your natural analytical abilities

Last spring, I wrote a series of posts about analysis. In this post, I take a different approach to the same ideas.  Two threads contributed to this essay, one sprang from my series of posts on writer’s block, and the other from a conversation with a professor whose students weren’t enthusiastic abut analyzing a text. This post focuses on the question of analysis with respect to writer’s block caused by self-doubt.

In my series on dealing with writing blocks, I most recently wrote a post related to the anxiety-causing doubt about having sufficient intelligence (a primary aspect of what is called “impostor syndrome”).  The basic argument there is that scholars should focus on using and developing the skills that got them where they are, rather than worrying about whether they have enough innate ability.

While I was working on that post, I had a conversation with a professor who felt uncomfortable explaining to her students the value of analyzing a text, and that drove me down a tangent of thinking about analysis, and it seemed to me that for both intimidated scholars and uncaring/unenthusiastic students, the general problem was the same: the task seems either intimidating or unimportant because they think what is needed is something special and wildly unusual, rather than commonplace and everyday. For both the scholar experiencing anxiety due to imposter syndrome and the student doubting the value of analysis, some doubts can be eliminated with an appropriate perspective on the nature of analysis. For both the self-doubting scholar and the uninterested/unconvinced student, part of the problem lies in the language more than in the actual difficulty or value of the task. To say you’re going to “analyze” something, gives an intimidating appearance of formality to what is, in fact, a basic skill. If I ask you to “analyze” something, and you’re not entirely sure what “analyze” means, then, naturally, you’ll have some doubt about whether you can do it and whether it’s worth it to try. Understanding analysis, makes it easier to see its value and believe you can do it. 

What is analysis?

Analysis is, at its heart, a basic, everyday ability possessed by all humans. It is something we all do automatically.  Of course, “analysis” is also something done by highly educated, highly specialized experts using complex and abstruse systems.  The word “analysis” covers a lot of territory.

Basically, “analysis” is examination to understand something better, particularly characterized by distinguishing different issues, aspects, contexts, or perspectives relevant to some main idea. (For example, Psychoanalysis identifies different symptoms and causal factors in a patient; DNA analysis identifies different genes within a DNA strand; Chemical analysis something identifies different ingredients.)

Etymologically, “analysis” means “separate” or “unloose;” it can be viewed as a process of intellectually breaking larger wholes into component parts.   Such thinking is something humans naturally do all the time. Our visual system separates the colors, detects edges, and otherwise divides our visual input into meaningful groups. Our sense of smell (floral vs. fetid, etc.), taste (sweet vs. sour, etc.), touch (smooth vs. rough, etc.), and hearing (high pitch vs. low pitch, etc.) all discriminate. Our experiences and education teach us to discriminate in countless ways to guide us through the world. We “separate” the world into different categories, a process reflected in language, with different words for different aspects of the world and our experiences in it. In short, we all do analysis all the time. 

People analyze for decision making.

Analysis is a basic aspect of learning about the world and decision making. A child eating dinner analyzes, separating things they like from those they don’t. That child might “analyze” a meal, physically separating foods they like from those they don’t on their plate. They might analyze a specific food, distinguishing flavor from texture: “I don’t like okra because it’s slimy. It tastes ok, but it’s still gross!” We wouldn’t expect a child to offer a sophisticated analysis, but they do analyze in a meaningful way.

Decisions rely on basic analysis. If you’re trying to decide what movie or show to watch, you might consider the genre (drama, comedy, action, etc.), run time (do I want to watch for 45 minutes or 90 or 180, etc.?), actors (who do you like or dislike?), director/producer (did you like their other work?), and more.

If you’re trying to decide where to eat dinner, you might consider cost, atmosphere, quality of food, quality of service, etc. If you’re trying to buy a car, you consider cost, gas mileage, comfort, room, power, handling, etc.

We naturally analyze to understand better: we look at the different aspects of the issue in question, trying to get a better understanding of the issue at hand.

Analysis is a skill that can be developed

Analysis is also task that we can learn to do better. It is a skill that can be developed, improved, and refined. The child’s analysis of okra imagined earlier is a simple analogue to the gourmet’s refined critique of a meal based on a trained and discriminating palate. The difference between the two is largely a matter of experience: the gourmet has a larger vocabulary and ability to make finer distinctions than the child largely because the gourmet has eaten more different foods and given a lot of thought and interest to foods. The child eating okra for the first time has limited context in which to judge the experience. The gourmet who has eaten okra many times, on the other hand, has extensive experience for making comparisons: one okra dish is overcooked, another undercooked, one over-spiced, another under-spiced, etc. 

A scholar beginning study of some specific subject may fail to notice issues that they would notice with more experience.  If you’re performing your first close analysis of a [Dickens/Melville/DeLillo/etc.] novel using [psychoanalytic/Marxist/queer] critical theory, you may not notice the same issues as if you had previously analyzed other works by the same author or using the same theory.  These differences in what you notice might be entirely caused by lack of experience rather than any lack of innate ability.

Imagine a pair of identical twins. One takes a job in a wine bar, and the other takes a job in a bookstore. Their innate abilities are presumably identical, but the one working in a wine bar learns to distinguish different flavors and aromas, while the one working in a book store learns about marketing books and issues that affect the marketing of books.  If the two are asked to taste (and analyze) a wine, the one will provide a detailed, complex assessment, while the other will offer a much more simplistic analysis. And if the two are asked to read a book, the one might just respond to the story, while the other would provide a more sophisticated analysis that includes not only the story itself, but the book design, and issues of context in the book market. Each sibling might be surprised at the detail noticed (or not noticed) by the other, but those differences would be entirely explained in terms of experience, not ability.

The scholar doubting their own ability needs to trust that their own abilities will grow with practice.

Specialized analyses

In academic (and professional) settings, analysis becomes formalized because the scholar or professional needs to be able to explain their decisions. The formality involved in academic settings makes the process appear unfamiliar and intimidating, but, in fact, much of the formal detail of academic analyses is the product of persistent, careful attention rather than any specical innate ability of discernment.  Simply put, if you study something, you learn more about it.   The gourmet is able to make sophisticated culinary judgements in part as a result of having eaten many different foods and many of those foods many times. Someone who has tasted 100 different wines and carefully attended to the characteristics of wines and who has cared enough to learn the language of wines will produce a more detailed analysis of a wine than someone who has not—the difference has little to do with any innate ability, and a great deal to do with the time invested. Complex scholarly analyses arise out of careful attention to detail more than out of any innate brilliance in a scholar.

For those doubting their intelligence, it’s important to remember what’s at stake when dealing with some complicated analysis: it’s just a more complex approach to doing something that everyone does.  Inability to use one system of analysis does not preclude using other systems of analysis to good effect. Not every scholar will be able to use every specialized analytical system, but a careful and attentive scholar will pretty naturally develop increasingly sophisticated analyses on subjects of interest.

Conclusion

Analysis is something that we do naturally.  It’s at the heart of what academia does, and although academic analyses are often highly formalized, the basic mechanics are still the natural process of distinguishing differences. For those who worry that they’re not smart enough, it’s important to remember that although academic analyses can become complex, they do not necessarily demand more “intelligence” than other analyses, but rather more attention to detail.  

It would be foolish and naive to ignore the reality of intellectual differences: not everyone has the same perceptual, intellectual, and imaginative abilities.  Most of us are not going to get groundbreaking insights on a par with Einstein’s development of relativity, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t do good, important work. Indeed, the vast majority of published scholarship doesn’t include groundbreaking insights. The vast majority of scholarship, however, does make a positive contribution. If you are doubting your ability, it’s ok to admit that you might not be an Einstein, but don’t forget or make light of the abilities that you do have.  If you are in graduate school or have already completed an advanced degree, trust the abilities that you do have and look to build them through careful work.

Dealing with writer’s block, tip 10: You are smart enough

One common source of doubt for scholar is the general lament, “I’m not smart enough,” or the corresponding question, “am I smart enough?” This is one version of the common problem known as “imposter syndrome” (a different version is to say “I don’t work hard enough”).  If you doubt you have the intelligence to do your work, then you’ll anticipate failure, which can certainly trigger anxiety. But chances are that you do have enough or more than enough intelligence.  A rational eye towards the actual standards of academia is useful when doubts about your intelligence step in and interfere with writing.  I cannot prove that you—unknown reader—are smart enough, but a lot of people who are smart enough (at least as judged by their careers) have also doubted themselves, it is possible, even likely, that you might be another.

What does it mean to be smart, anyway?

To know whether you are “smart enough,” it helps to know what it means to “be smart” and to have some sense of how to quantify or measure “smart,” but “smart” is hard to define, and hard to measure.  Any number of standardized tests have been developed for measuring intelligence. But is a score on a test an accurate measure of usable intelligence? 

Universities are placing less and less emphasis on standardized tests in their admissions, which suggests that they don’t think tests offer valuable insight into ability.  Of course, universities have historically used such tests, so if you happen to be in academia, you probably scored high enough on the test to satisfy the admissions committee, which is an indication that, at least according to the test, you are smart enough.

I don’t want to go down a rabbit hole of trying to define “smart” or “smart enough,” but, if you’re worrying that you’re not smart enough, it is worth thinking about “smart” critically: What makes someone smart? Ability to do logic puzzles? Large vocabulary? Good memory? What about “emotional intelligence” or kinds of intelligence? There are probably many different things that the average person would consider “smart.” So, whatever “being smart enough” means, it’s a complex multidimensional thing.  

Pragmatic measures

Instead of asking whether you’re smart enough, ask whether you can achieve the goals you set for yourself, and what you would need to accomplish those goals. If you take this pragmatic perspective, it doesn’t really matter how much innate talent or “smartness” you have, what matters is what you do with your abilities.

Pragmatic measures are relevant because they give you empirical evidence regarding your ability to meet successive challenges and grow. Each step you take provides some evidence about how you can deal with the next step.  If you did well in undergraduate studies, you have evidence that you could do well in graduate studies, and you can ask what more you might need for that next step.  If you have done well in graduate studies, you have evidence that you can write a graduate thesis, and you can ask what more do you need to take the next step. If you have written a graduate thesis, you have evidence that you can get published, and you can ask what more you need to do.

The evidence you gather at each step is not conclusive—success at one level of competence doesn’t guarantee success at the next, a high school athletic star won’t necessarily be a university athletic star—but it is suggestive.  Universities are pretty good at identifying students who have the ability to finish degrees (even in the case of doctoral students, who only receive a degree about 50% of the time: of the students who don’t finish, many could have finished if not for life circumstances).

Believe in the empirical evidence of your past successes, rather than in your doubts about moving to the next level. And trust the skills that got you where are.

Intelligence and self-confidence

In many ways, success in academia is as much dependent on self-confidence than on any innate “intelligence.” The arrogant fool pushes ahead, blind to their own failings and the weaknesses in their own work. They produce and share work, and then proclaim its greatness. And others accept that claim. Meanwhile, the insightful, discriminating and self-doubting scholar keeps working trying to eliminate problems, rather than sharing it. As a result, no one can find it interesting because no one knows it exists. The arrogant fool can end up publishing many times when the careful scholar is still working on a single piece.

Ideally, a scholar balances the discerning self-doubt/self-criticism needed to maintain quality with the self-confidence to share work despite imperfections. It’s easier to maintain that balance if you remember the inevitable uncertainty in research and the crucial role that confidence plays in proceeding despite uncertainty. As I have argued elsewhere, research, at best, offers strong and convincing evidence; it does not offer certainty. To proceed in the face of these uncertainties, a scholar needs confidence. Your confidence can be supported by remembering that uncertainty springs up in research no matter how smart you are. Heisenberg was plenty smart, but he’s still known for his uncertainty principle.  Accepting the uncertainty in research can support the confidence to discuss the limits of your work: if you expect to experience limits, and you know other scholars in your field also struggle with limits, it’s much easier to discuss and examine those limits as product of the difficulties of research rather than a reflection of any lack of intelligence.

Writing and the critical eye

There are a lot of people who, when trying to write, think “I’m not smart enough for this,” but who, when they’re reading, think “this work could be better; the author(s) ought to have considered XYZ,” or, when they’re talking with colleagues/peers in informal settings, feel confident enough to criticize the work or the theories of others.  This is, I think, partly the product of the general ability to criticize: when someone presents their work to you, you have a chance to find problems with it. This is useful when reading other people’s work—the ability to criticize is a crucial tool for finding the proverbial “gap in the literature,” to which scholars respond.  However, when you write, suddenly it’s your own words and ideas that are on the page ready to be criticized. Too often, writers take that opportunity to criticize themselves into paralysis.

You know your own work better and in greater detail than you know the work of others, and when you’re writing about your own work, there is no rhetorical device that can head off your own criticisms.  This perspective makes your own work look weak, and in the moment of writing it’s likely that you’re focused on your own work, not on the weaknesses of other people’s work (despite the fact that the motivating force behind most research is some sort of weakness or “gap” in previously published literature).

What abilities do you need to be a scholar?

Good research and scholarship do not require brilliance. Mostly, scholarship requires careful attention to detail, reasonable ability to discriminate, a decent memory, and a little imagination. You can’t be an idiot to be a scholar, but you don’t have to be a genius.  

Scholarship mostly depends on doing careful conscientious work. It doesn’t take great intelligence to identify a “gap in the literature”—i.e., an unanswered question—it just takes enough intelligence to understand publications in the field, along with the persistence to read a bunch of them. Questions abound: lots of scholarship leaves questions that could be asked in the future, sometimes formalized as “suggestions for future research.”  

Once you’ve identified something to study, it might take some imagination to figure out how to make a research study out of an idea, but mostly what’s needed is attention to detail to flesh out the research plan and enough confidence to accept imperfect plans. 

Good analysis of data can be difficult, but often it merely requires following a prescribed method. It’s worth keeping in mind, too, that a lot of good analysis happens implicitly: if you think something is important, that’s analysis; if you think there’s a problem, that’s analysis.  Insights that seem dreadfully obvious to you are not necessarily obvious to others.

There are many moments in the scholarly process where imagination is valuable—coming up with interesting questions, novel hypotheses or methods, or insightful analyses of data—but a lot of scholarship requires only careful pursuit of questions and methods for answering questions. Focus, discrimination, persistence, and careful attention are absolutely required for research, but once-in-a-generation brilliance is not.

Conclusion

Doubting your own intelligence can trigger anxiety, but asking whether you’re smart enough is the wrong question to ask.  Ask what you can do with the abilities you have. Focus on the abilities you have used in the past, and try to expand them a little at a time. If you have ever had success in academics, those successes suggest that you have enough intelligence to continue moving forward. Look for ways to build on past successes and trust the abilities that got you there.  Your limits may keep you from pursuing certain projects, but it’s most likely that the limits you face will be practical, not intellectual.

Note

Although I’m convinced that this is a subject worth discussing, I’m not very happy with this essay I’ve written. Nonetheless, I’m sharing it with you in part because I want to demonstrate my willingness to proceed in the face of doubt.