Why is writing hard, and how can we make it easier?

Image © Sasquatch I via flickr.com, CC BY 2.0

This is a guest post by Katie Grogan.  Her Twitter thread on this topic got lots of traction, but Twitter threads are a bit ephemeral, so I invited her to share her experience and advice here.


Disclaimer: These opinions are my [Katie’s] own, garnered from research and experience. But people aren’t the same, and what works for me may be the worst strategy for you. Remember that as you read.

A few weeks ago, inspired by graduate students struggling to write, I shared some hard-won writing experience in a Twitter thread.  A week later, it was still accumulating likes (>2.7k) and retweets (>1k); and I received >100 requests to join the Writing Support Slack group I mentioned. Apparently, a LOT of graduate students, postdocs, and faculty identified with how HARD it is to write. And that’s the truth – academic writing is incredibly difficult. Anyone who seems able to dive into a manuscript without anxiety, stress-eating, procrasti-cleaning, or hand wringing is either lying or a survivor of an earlier, stress-ridden period in their writing lives that you missed seeing. So here’s that thread in blogpost form, for all of us who struggle. May it start you on the path to writing marathons.

 

Why is academic writing so hard? 

At the start of writing my dissertation, I spent a lot of time frustrated with myself because “WHY couldn’t I do this???” I felt completely incompetent. Except, as it turns out, it wasn’t because I was a failure; it was because writing is hard! Understanding why writing was hard for me helped me overcome my frustration and feelings of failure.

Writing a manuscript or dissertation is hard because, as this post about an illustration by Matt Might explains, no one has ever before been where you are in the realm of knowledge; no one has ever explored these data in exactly this way. You’re literally at the edge of our collective knowledge or else you wouldn’t be writing what you’re writing.

Also, there isn’t one right way to write – just worse and better ways that vary by person. We all want quick answers, but in fact what works for me may not work for you. The good news: your training as a scientist can really help you! You read multiple methods sections and instruction manuals before settling on a protocol, so apply those skills to writing. Collect advice from many sources, try different tactics, retain what works and discard what doesn’t. I did that while writing my dissertation and using my scientist skills that way let me put together this set of tips and tricks.

 

How can we make writing easier?

 

(1) Treat writing like any other skill.

When you start upon the writing path and see more experienced people blithely typing away, far ahead of you, it may seem like writing is an innate talent. It’s not. It’s a skill you have to develop and then practice. It helps me to think of writing as a sport or hobby you want to master. Consider running. You’d never do some shopping from the couch one day and try to run a half-marathon as soon as your shoes arrive. Not unless you want a serious injury and to Uber home after a few miles! Similarly, you can’t sit down at a blank document for the first time in your life and write a 150-page dissertation. As with running, it helped me to follow a training plan, building up to the pace/word count I wanted. That’s especially true of the actual act of writing: when you write, how often, what you focus on*. Understanding that writing is a learned skill helped me stop being frustrated and angry about my early inability to sit down and write. I wasn’t mad that I couldn’t run 5 miles when I first started running, so why was I so mad I couldn’t write 1000 words when I first started writing? Thus, the beginning of the ‘writing training plan’ to address issues I could identify.

 

(2) Generate content or copy-edit, but don’t do both at once.

The first problem I diagnosed with my writing habits was that I was trying to generate content and copy-edit at the same time. This post by The Serial Mentor, Claus Wilke, explains the difference – briefly, content generation is getting words on the page without worrying about word choice or flow, whereas copy-editing is polishing the text you’ve written. This post by Katherine Firth at Research Degree Insiders explains what happens when you try to content generate and copy-edit at the same time: you get stuck in the “Perfect Sentence Vortex, a never ending cycle of incremental improvements that means you write excruciatingly slowly, and are never satisfied with what you write.  Stuck in the PSV, I’d work for hours to write 100 words that stunk anyway. What a great way to generate stress and feelings of failure, and to feel awful about writing in general and my writing in particular! So I got comfortable with the idea of The Shitty First Draft. First, I’d look at the outline of points I wanted to make. Then, to get into the mindset of content generation, I’d warm up before each writing session with 8 minutes of free-writing (inspired by this post also by the Serial Mentor). A free-write warm-up means writing for >5 minutes without stopping. Write anything – any thought that comes into your head, even if it’s just “I don’t know what I’m doing why am I doing this this is so stupid” over and over again. This gets you into the habit of typing your thoughts without worrying about editing. After my warm-up, I’d switch immediately to my dissertation and usually bang out content for 30-45 minutes. It’s amazing how quickly words come when you’re not worried about copy-editing them!

 

(3) Use positive reinforcement.

The second problem I diagnosed was that I tended to start writing in a negative place. I’d start with a scary blank page, or worse, in a place where I’d gotten stuck before and walked away. For me, sitting down to write a new paper or returning to a half-finished one requires positive reinforcement. I exercise my writing muscles much more easily when I feel confident in my ability to write, because I remember doing it successfully the day before. Stopping when I’m stuck, or as Stephen calls it, when I’m in the Chasm of Despair, is exactly the wrong thing for me – yet I (and based on Twitter reaction, MANY others) would do it all the time. To quote Stephen:

Early in my career, when I entered the Chasm of Despair, I’d stop writing…It felt awful to sit there…the only nice thing about the Chasm of Despair in writing is that you can leave it at any time – you only need to stand up and step away. So I’d take a break & do something else–something less painful–with the intent of coming back to my writing when I was in a better mood…or when I’d had some other kind of magical intervention from the writing fairies. But guess what? Usually, when I came back to the writing, I found myself…back in the same spot in the same Chasm. I’ve since realized: I was doing things exactly wrong. You can’t cross the Chasm by leaving it. There’s only one way out of the Chasm, and that’s to write your way out.

When you stop writing in the Chasm of Despair, returning to the document later is so much harder! (Also, the writing fairies will never rescue you.) Now I make sure to trudge at least partway out of the Chasm, so I can stop in a place where I’ve made good progress.  Then I’m excited about writing the next part, rather than dreading it.

 

(4) Set concrete goals that are ‘enough’.

My third problem: I would set vague goals: I’m going to write for a few hours, I’m going to work on the introduction, I’m going to analyze these data. The problem with vague goals is that you never know when you’ve done enough to stop for the day! If I set out on a run without a mileage or time goal and just a vague route, I always finish my run feeling vaguely dissatisfied, like maybe I stopped too early. But if I set a specific goal and accomplish it, I can stop and be proud of myself. Same with writing! Now I set concrete writing goals: I’ll write 500 words today, I’ll edit 4 pages. If I want to do more, I certainly can; but by setting specific goals, I give myself permission to stop for the day feeling accomplished and proud of my progress! That helps fight the nagging voice that tells us academics that we should be working all the time. I was amazed at the difference this made to my feelings about writing, and how walking away feeling good made it much easier to write the next day.

 

(5) Know your own habits and style.

I’ve learned to know my limits and work within them. I know I can’t suddenly add several miles to a run and then run the same distance the next day. Same with writing! I know I can’t sustainably generate content for more than 4 or 5 hours a day. I just run out of creative energy; if I write for 10 hours one day, I need to take the next day, or even two, off. I know that after ~2 hours, I need an hour’s break. Find your limits. Working within mine helps me maintain writing productivity over time, rather than working in bursts and busts.

 

(6) Peer Pressure can be your friend.

Finally: your grad-student, postdoc, and faculty friends are all struggling to write too! You can leverage this to help everyone with peer pressure and accountability. Organize a #ShutUpAndWrite session (explained here by The Thesis Whisperer, Inger Mewburn). Briefly, that’s a 2-3 hour meet-up to sit down and write together. I started doing them during my first postdoctoral fellowship and loved the results. My current lab does #ShutUpAndWrite every Tuesday for 2 hours, using the Pomodoro technique to stay on track (the Pomodoro technique cycles through 25 minute working sessions followed by 5 minute breaks). Join an online Slack groups for writing (like Grad Write Slack or Academic Writing Support Slack) – there are almost always academics on Slack writing together virtually. Start a 12 Week Writing Challenge with your friends: everyone commits to a weekly number of writing hours and logs them publicly. I recommend starting with a modest commitment, perhaps ~2.5 hours a week, so you can build the habit and feel great about how successful you’ve been! A secret trick: because you can’t make up for lost time if you don’t complete a week, you’re forced to work ahead and won’t find yourself trying to do 30 hours of writing in the last week. After a month, if you’ve been able to keep it up, you can increase your goal to 4 or 5 hours a week.

 

Five years into Training

When I began writing my dissertation, I was paralyzed with anxiety and tears whenever I sat down to write. Five years later, I’ve written two >10,000-word manuscripts in the last 12 months with only a few tears. I wrote for nearly 35% of my working hours in 2018 and…I enjoyed it. I rarely begin with a free-write anymore, and usually work longer than a single 25-minute pomodoro, but I still do the Writing Challenge with my friends and get on the Writing Support Slack at least weekly. Writing was, and sometimes still is, hard for me – but it doesn’t always have to be. For the most part now, I’m excited to sit down and start typing. It’s a skill and a feeling about your writing you can absolutely develop.

Get Writing, and Good Luck!

© Katie Grogan, August 6 2019

Interested in perspectives like this on learning to write? Here’s one from JC Cahill; here’s one from Joe Drake; here’s one from Rob Johns; and here’s one with a musical twist, from Greg Crowther.


*^Similarly, if you take a long break from writing routinely, just like running, it may take a while to dust off those skills and find the previous output level.

3 thoughts on “Why is writing hard, and how can we make it easier?

  1. mobze

    Very interesting and very pragmatic! Thanks a lot for this post! Recently I read Darwin’s Autobiography and found (in one of your paragraphs titled “[2] Generate content or copy-edit, but don’t do both at once”) a similar tip: “There seems to be a sort of fatality in my [C. Darwin] mind leading me to put at first my statement or proposition in a wrong or awkward form. Formerly I used to think about my sentences before writing them down; but for several years I have found that it saves time to scribble in a vile hand whole pages as quickly as I possibly can, contracting half the words; and then correct deliberately. Sentences thus scribbled down are often better ones than I could have written deliberately.”—Darwin, C. 2009. The Autobiography of Charles Darwin. The Floating Press. p. 140 in the edition I have.

    Also, for the “(1) Treat writing like any other skill.” I started to write a “note” on my computer where I started to dump all the ideas I have on it. It actually helped me to “develop” my ideas. Otherwise, they would stick in my head and never “growth” or “refine.”

    I like the “writing fairies.” How do you invoke it? Hahaha!

    The other point I found very interesting is “run out of creative energy.” How do you get “creative energy?” I think this is a major point as to “have something to write about.” Otherwise, I would be writing something, but not necessarily scientific writing. Thus learning to get creative and nourishing a “creative environment” is one of the most fundamental things in our jobs. Right? Cultivating an environment where ideas are shared openly, but positively criticized is, at least for me, one of the most important things that change the way I see the demon of writing.

    Thanks again for this very nice blog post!

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  2. jeffollerton

    Great post Katie, lots of very sound advice here. I’d add something to “Know your own habits and style” which is to work out when in the week and when in the day you are at your most creative and able to think/write most clearly. And keep those days/times free of meetings and other commitments. For me it’s Tuesday and Wednesday morning from early morning to lunchtime. But again this will vary hugely between people and may change as you get older: as a student I used to write best at between midnight and 2am, but not any more!

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  3. John J Pastor

    Writing well is hard. Period. It doesn’t get easier. You have to do a lot of it all the time. Even writers like John McPhee always (ALWAYS) find it hard – read his recent book Draft No. 4, which is his memoir about the writing life. For that matter, read what many other good writers such as Vern Klinkenborg, Annie Dillard, and Barry Lopez say about writing. THEY ALL SAY IT IS HARD.

    My experience with grad students over my career is that they all say: I’ve done my field work and experiments and analyzed the data, now all I have to do is write it up. (I said this myself as a grad student many years ago). The problem is the phrase “all I have to do”. You are only half done at this point, if you are lucky.

    Start writing and keep writing. If you run into a block, do what William Stafford advised: Lower your standards until you can meet them. Then start to raise them little by little. This means that even if you have to start with Roses are red, violets are blue, my data is in shambles, and I am too. The important point is to write something down, anything. Then go on. Later you can throw away the bad stuff.

    Finally, stay away from Twitter and other social media (except for personal blogs like Scientist Sees Squirrel) – they only sap your creative energy. Read good authors instead of social media. Osmosis works great if you read a lot of good stuff.

    Good luck with your writing life.

    John Pastor
    http://www.theclevermoose.com/

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