“Writing is to academia what sex was to nineteenth-century Vienna: everybody does it and nobody talks about it.” (Wendy Laura Belcher)
This is the first sentence of Wendy Laura Belcher’s workbook, Writing Your Journal Article in 12 Weeks. And it’s right on.
As a graduate student, I was encouraged to publish by my professors, and yet, rarely (if ever?) did we have meta conversations about the writing process or how to get work published in an academic journal. And we certainly didn’t talk about overcoming writing stalls. Not in an environment where individualism is the key to success, which means that you are often charged with figuring things out for yourself.
This has led to lots of trial and error when learning to deal with writing obstacles. Just because I’m a “smart woman writer” and I currently write as part of my living doesn’t mean that the writing process has always been an easy one. Depending on how the writing is going, such projects can be both exhilarating and exhausting. (Even as I wrote this blog post, I labored over how I could put into words exactly what I wanted to say without sounding too uninformed or too self-centered.) This challenge is an exciting exercise, until it takes longer than expected … and then the nail-biting ensues.
And so, at the end of this summer, I started to feel a bit anxious after I slipped into a writing lull (as I was starting my supposedly “fun” summer writing project). This was when I realized that I’d rarely ever had conversations with others about the general writing process. So I decided to consult some literature. I grabbed a couple books, started working with a writing partner, and closely examined my own writing process. It just so happened that all the authors who spoke on this subject happened to be women. And here is what I found out from these smart, brave women writers.
(1.) Know that it’s not just you. Everyone experiences writing obstacles.
From the first page, Wendy Laura Belcher’s workbook was a salve. Belcher is a professor of African literature at Princeton University, and is a prolific writer, so I assumed she would know the ropes of academic publishing. She lets her readers know right off the bat that writing dysfunction is actually quite common in academia, though it rarely gets talked about:
“A recent survey of over 40,000 U.S. faculty revealed that 26 percent of professors spent zero hours a week writing, and almost 27 percent had never published a peer-reviewed journal article. In addition, 43 percent had not published any piece of writing in the past two years” (1; Belcher sources the study done by Lindholm et al. 2005).
And then she lays down the law. To start having a positive writing experience, you must actually sit down and write.
“[S]uccessful academic writers do not wait for inspiration. … They make a plan for writing every day and they stick to it” (5-6).
Belcher spends the rest of the workbook providing you with the keys to creating and fulfilling that writing plan, including how to select a journal, refine your argument, review the related literature, and closely edit sentences. So far, working through her book has been really helpful in giving me very clear steps to push along an article that has been a root of frustration.
Another key piece of advice …
(2.) Write. every. day.
In order to avoid crippling under the increasing weight of guilt spurred by procrastination and feelings of incompetence, you must actually sit down and write––even if it’s just for a few minutes. I have committed to writing between 15 minutes to 3 hours a day, five days out of the week. Having kept to this commitment for more than 5 weeks, I feel much more satisfied with and confident about my work. Getting into a writing rhythm has made it easier to sit down again the next day after having successfully tapped away at the keys the day before.
Belcher gives this advice, but I’ve encountered similar counsel in a recently published (and wonderful) book: Joli Jensen’s Write No Matter What: Advice for Academics (2017). Another therapeutic read, this book helped me to reorganize my daily writing schedule. Jensen leads the faculty writing program at the University of Tulsa, where she is also Professor of Media Studies. On her website, she admits: “It took me years to figure out how to write happily and productively as a scholar.” These revealing facts and gutsy confessions from both Belcher and Jensen were exactly what I had been needing to hear.
Working from the knowledge that “academic writing life is not writing-supportive,” Jensen aims to provide that much-much-needed support. To maintain a daily writing schedule, I have implemented into my writing process some of the critical advice that she provides early in the book. I’m offering some of it to you here as a helpful tool––and a teaser (you can get some of these tools from the Google book preview, but I absolutely encourage you to go buy this book if you are an academic looking for writing counsel):
Follow the “three taming techniques:”
- Create a project box. Keep all elements of your projects, big and small, in one place. This helps to easily start up and shut down what you are working on. It also prevents notes, drafts, and revisions from sprawling into every corner of iCloud, Google Drive, your hard drive, etc. I am currently using Scrivener as my virtual “project box” and have found it to be quite efficient and user-friendly. And now I don’t have to waste time pulling up scattered parts of a project before I start my writing timer—it’s all there, ready to go.
- Use a ventilation file. Writing brings out all of the feelings. Belcher and Jensen flag this in their first chapters and encourage readers to process those emotions in order to move on and have a successful writing career. Both authors suggest actually putting those emotions on paper. Per Jensen’s suggestion, this activity is part of my project box. I have a file within Scrivener titled “Ventilation file” and use it occasionally when I’m feeling stuck or frustrated about my project. Usually, these venting sessions end up with some productive thought or, at the very least, help me get my emotions out so that I feel a little better the next time I sit down to write.
- Write at least 15 minutes every day. This may sound ridiculous, especially when we are all facing long-form projects that require hours upon hours of work. And yet, the weight of a looming project can lead to total evasion. If we tell ourselves that we only have to write for 15 minutes, we are much likely to sit down and actually do it…and might even get motivated to write more. Belcher gives the same advice, and I trust these smart women writers, so I’ve made this a golden rule. Though, important to note, I give myself weekends off; this gives my brain time to relax, reboot, and see the project(s) anew on Monday. To pace my writing sessions, I’ve adopted the Pomodoro method (with this timer). I work 25 minutes on, 5 minutes off. This motivates me to stay focused for the 25 minutes (no email, no internet browsing, no texting), and instead of breaking to work when the writing has become exhausting or frustrating, I break when I’m in the middle of a thought…which leaves me more excited to come back and continue work on it.
(3.) Organize writing time wisely. Have a plan, and follow it (as best you can).
Another big takeaway from Jensen’s book is her suggestion to secure sacred writing time using the “ABC system.” Organize your activities by the amount of energy they require: “A” activities require the most energy, “B” less, and “C” the least. For instance, if writing takes the most energy, then it is an “A” activity, and you should write at the time of day when you feel most energized. For me, that means writing in the early morning. Over the past couple months, I have learned that I need to wake up early, write in the morning, and try my best to stay away from the internet (including email) until mid-day when I hit my “B” and “C” energy zones.
To track your productivity, habits, and energy levels, keep a reverse day calendar. This means that instead of planning out your day, or in addition to that plan, write down exactly what you do throughout the day in order to see where you actually spend your time. Then, review that day planner at the end of the week to decide how to approach and revise next week’s schedule. I’ve discovered that I can spend lots of time procrastinating in the morning by doing the dishes, reading, and going on long, leisurely walks. None of these things are inherently bad (all are, in fact, necessary), but if my goal is to use my “A-time,” creative energy to write, then I need to get to my desk as quickly as possible.
(4.) Don’t fall prey to excuses.
Jensen also dedicates whole chapters to major writing myths –– like the “magnum opus myth” (my work must be a sublime masterpiece that changes my field), “the cleared-deck fantasy” (I’ll start writing when I finally get everything else done), and the “one more source” myth (I just need to read one more book before I start writing) –– that keep us from putting pen to paper. Knowing that these myths exist, and that they are indeed excuses that prevent productivity, can help writers figure out how to move past them. My favorite quote from Jensen’s book is in her chapter on the imposter syndrome:
“Productive writing involves an ability to focus on our project rather than ourselves. It requires that we focus on what needs to be said, rather than on the image we want to project or the effect we want to have.” (53)
Jensen displaces ego to make room for the important message of the project. She insists that academic writers are always “apprentices,” and by “adopting a craftsman attitude” we can stop suffering from the idea that our writing isn’t good enough, and from equating ourselves with our work. Our work does not determine our value. And we will always be honing our craft and should make consistent efforts to make those refinements.
Here’s what I’ve learned about myself:
Even though I’ve been writing for, well, most my life, I am just now starting to figure out my writing process––thanks in part to these women.
For instance, now that I am devoting more time to writing, I am realizing that I always aim to determine beforehand exactly what I want to say so that I can create a rigid outline, sit down at my laptop, and tap away until it is all down and I can move forward to celebrating my small victory … or to the next project. But I’ve found that what I actually need, is a sh*tty first draft (or drafts). I first heard this advice from author Anne Lamott in Bird by Bird, and then remembered it recently after listening to a Google talk by Judith Thurman. (Confession: I am envious of this formidable woman. Thurman is a staff writer for the New Yorker, has written an award-winning biography of Colette (a fabulously scandalous early 20th-century French female author) and has received the venerable French award, Chevalier of the Order of Arts and Letters for her contribution to French intellectual life.) Thurman admitted to once writing 28 drafts over a 3-week period in order to find the right approach to her topic (which was Japanese tofu, apparently). It’s not until she spends a lot of time sitting down with and writing the subject that she discovers exactly what she wants to say. And then it clicked: this is my process, too. In the past, I always experienced guilt trips over this labyrinthian writing process, but now I realize that this is not an uncommon method. I write draft after draft, and then usually find my thesis statement somewhere at the end…and then have to pick up and start over again, with the thesis at the beginning. And in fact, this is exactly what happened with this blog post. I sat down to write about helpful digital tools that aid the writing process. And look what I ended up with.
Now that I’ve heard about others’ writing practices, gotten some invaluable tips, and made writing social by choosing a writing partner, I have been able to (mostly, and for now) overcome my writing stalls. Now I can spend less time stressing about the amount of time it takes to arrive at and refine my argument, and more time actually enjoying the writing and knowing that the project will ultimately get to where it needs to be, as long as I dedicate at least 15 minutes a day to it.