When I started this series, my plan was to offer suggestions for dealing with specific anxieties, such as the fear of rejection, or the belief that writing is inherently unpleasant. Such specific anxieties deserve attention: approaching them in the right way can reduce their negative emotional impact and thus reduce barriers to writing. However, I realized that such suggestions need to be part of a framework that offers a larger vision of a positive writing practice, not only some sense of how to deal with the negatives. This realization led to my third tip, in which I argued that writing is a process that can be enjoyable, despite its frustrations, in the same way that other skilled activities are also enjoyable, despite their frustrations, difficulties, and demands. In this post, I consider the overarching concern for a writer struggling with a writing block, which is to generate a good relationship with the work.
The search for a positive writing practice
I can’t fit all the ideas I have about a positive writing practice into one post. There are many different issues to consider. Here, I look at some of the basic principles that guide positive writing practices, starting with the basic principle that it is possible to have a positive writing practice.
Find something that you care about
Part of the answer to having a positive writing practice is to do something that you care about. For a scholar or academic, the desire to understand things better and to answer questions provides a strong motivation (at least for those who pursue research questions that interest them). If you care, that provides motivation to help deal with the inevitable difficulties.
Many scholars, especially early in their career, come to believe the common critiques of academia that research is disconnected from the real world, and that because the audience for the work is small, therefore the work is unimportant. A full refutation of these critiques might be an essay in itself. Here, I will argue, on the one hand, that the relevance and importance of a work are not always obvious to a large audience, and that the value of work is not measured only by the size of the audience.
If you don’t care about your work—if you don’t think it’s interesting or important—that’s a heavy burden that may well contribute to writing blocks. Many scholars who have come to doubt the value of their work have also lost sight of the motivations that initially inspired them, so if you suffer from such doubt, it can be valuable to look back to your initial motivations. But dealing with this specific problem—loss of interest in your work—is one of the writing blocks that I hope to address individually. Here, I only want to emphasize that having positive motivation is central to positive practice.
Care for your health, both physical and mental
Part of developing a practice that is healthy and sustainable is to remember that the practice should be positive, healthy, and sustainable. What is fun is not always healthy and sustainable, and what is healthy and sustainable is not always enjoyable, but the ideal sweet spot for a writing practice (or any practice) is to be both healthy and enjoyable. A positive practice will reinforce itself over time by delivering positive rewards greater than the investment of effort and difficulty necessary to maintain the practice.
Practice takes effort and persistence
It takes effort to be a good writer, just as it takes effort to excel in any skilled activity. The work of a writer may not be too physically demanding, but the intellectual demands are large, both in developing ideas that are worth expressing, and in expressing those ideas. A scholarly analysis of some question or body of evidence takes time and effort, both to execute planned steps of analysis and to attempt to deal with any surprises that may come up. And writing out a description of the research and its conclusions so that others can understand is also difficult. (Effort invested in writing about research often helps develop thinking about he research, so the analysis and the writing are not entirely independent.)
Persistence is needed to keep going in the face of difficulties, which inevitably arise. A good practice is not free from difficulties—indeed, one characteristic of positive practice experiences is the element of challenge and the possibility of failure (based on Csikszentmihalyi’s idea of flow). One aspect of a healthy practice, however, is that difficulties are not always unpleasant to deal with.
Practice involves activities that might seem boring to an outsider
Often practice demands activities that individually dull, but because of the interest in the overall outcome, these efforts do not seem overly onerous, even if sometimes tedious. In the best circumstances, dealing with tedious issues feels rewarding because of the progress towards a desired goal. An athlete in training may find individual drills or exercises tedious, but will enthusiastically engage for their role in developing skill and ability. A musician might find playing scales and arpeggios boring, but will enthusiastically engage because those tasks will facilitate the more enjoyable goals of playing much-loved music. A scholarly writer may dislike the work of matching specific style guidelines, but that work facilitates publication.
Imagine a hypothetical Scrabble player who wants to be competitive at a high level. In order to win games, they start practicing. One element of that practice, of course, is playing games of Scrabble against opponents (friends on social media, for example). Presumably, this hypothetical Scrabble competitor enjoys playing Scrabble, but despite any general enjoyment, playing many practice games takes time that might be spent doing other things, and the more games played, the better the chance that some are frustrating (bad luck drawing tiles), or boring (a slow opponent, or one who is no challenge). Beyond playing games, our hypothetical player might also choose to spend time studying a Scrabble dictionary or other lists of words. To me, studying a Scrabble dictionary seems tedious and dull, but to the enthusiastic player, the motivation to succeed might turn the study into an activity in which they engage enthusiastically.
In my own experience as a writer and editor, I definitely do things that many people would find boring (beyond writing itself, of course), such as studying style manuals and references on grammar, or, as part of the process of writing, rewriting and revising the same sentence or phrase several times with slight variations in word choice or structure. At times, I find these things tedious or boring, too, but I persist because I want to get better as a writer and editor and these skills are at the heart of my professional work. This occasional tedium, however, is not constant because I enjoy the challenges of writing well and helping others write well.
A healthy practice built on positive motivations will have its difficulties and frustrations, but many aspects of that practice that seem boring or unpleasant, will not seem nearly as boring if they are part of a healthy and positive practice. Often that which seems boring to the outsider is calming and comforting to the practitioner who is absorbed in the task.
Practice is regular
Part of the emotional reward of a regular practice is the sense of engaging in something that is comfortable through familiarity. For me, writing has that comfort: despite all the frustrations I often feel when writing, I know from experience that I can become absorbed in the work and have an hour or two pass with my attention entirely focused on the exploration of some idea and ways to express that idea for others. The hour doesn’t really pass enjoyably—when things are going well, it’s more an excitement or exhilaration or hope than fun—but it is a positive experience. When things are going well, as a writer, I also feel like I’m doing something worthwhile, in the sense that I’m working to forward my career, and that I’m doing something that might help other people have more success in their lives. These remembered emotions flavor all my work as a writer, making it a task that offers some emotional comfort despite the necessary effort.
This comfort grows with regularity. If I stop writing for a while—even a few days—the comfort is reduced as difficult questions of where to focus my efforts arise.
Practices are not only a matter of the intellect or behavior—they are also matters of physiology and neurophysiology: practice shapes our physical manifestation as we build physiological structures (including neurological structures) that support the behavior. If we write by hand or type on a keyboard, our body builds structures that make writing/typing easier. If we use our imagination around some topic, the neurological system that supports that activity is used and enhanced as a result of use. Regular use of a physiological system builds it; lack of use lets the system decay.
Good practice is disciplined and persistent but also gentle: It pushes just hard enough
A good practice pushes to the limits of the practitioner in one way or another. As mentioned above, it takes effort. A practice doesn’t build to success without seriously pushing. Writing isn’t ever going to be very easy, though there may be some writing tasks that come relatively easily. On the large scale, if you’re trying to get better as a writer, that means trying things that are difficult and/or unfamiliar in order to build your skill set—even if “unfamiliar” only means trying to find a better way to phrase things than your last draft.
But at the same time that it needs to firmly push forward, a practice needs to be sufficiently gentle that you can go back to it with a sense of comfort. There is a world of difference between thinking “last time I wrote, I got a bit frustrated,” and “last time I wrote, it was painful.” If writing is consistently painful to you, that’s naturally going to build emotional resistance. For a good practice, it’s important to keep healthy, and that means respecting limits, both emotional and physical.
To write well and to have a good experience as a writer, it’s valuable to develop a healthy practice—a practice that calls upon you for regular effort. The practice helps you develop written works and also helps you develop your skill and comfort working as a writer. A healthy practice pushes at your limits but not so far as to cause long-term harm. It pushes enough to promote growth without pushing so far as to cause damage. A careful balance needs to be maintained at the edge of your ability, so that you can gain the benefit of a flow activity without suffering traumatizing injury (whether emotional or physical). For writers dealing with emotional writing blocks, a healthy practice builds gently by accepting current limits and trying to expand areas of comfort. If you are dealing with emotional writing blocks, you can help ourself by focusing on the goal of creating a healthy and postive writing practice.