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Academic Writer’s Block: A Matter of Form?
March 12, 2013 - 9:20pm

I had some writer’s block recently, a particular kind of writer’s block: I was trying to revise a short section of my dissertation to present at a conference. I spent the whole month of February and part of March thinking about it, but it wasn't until the conference was a week away, that I realized that I have a case of academic writer’s block.

Readers, you may have recognize the feeling: you think about the task nonstop, and so you spend your days in a perpetual state of nervousness. When you finally sit down to write, you find other things to do before opening that document. Somehow, checking Twitter feels like a pressing matter that must be tended to immediately. Eventually, you realize you’ve been staring at your feed (or email inbox or Facebook feed) waiting for something new to pop up, something new to click on and read, and you close the browser window with a hint of disappointment. “You have failed me, Twitter feed. FAIL.” Then you finally open up the document on your desktop, sort of read through it, and remember why you were dreading it in the first place: you don’t know what to do or where to start.

I may be making a mistake by posting this online for all to see, considering I am a writing specialist for graduate students and a writing coach. However, recently I was talking to a group of students about how often in academia we don’t know what the writing process of others looks like, as we often receive academic writing in the shape of polished published pieces. So this post is my attempt to make that messy writing process visible. (I want to take this moment to give a shout out Michelle Moravec’s project Writing In Public, where she works online in real time on her writing projects, because she got me thinking about this issue of visibility in the first place.)

On the other hand, I’ve been blogging more lately. In fact, when I am blogging I feel better about my abilities as a writer than when I am writing an academic paper. Blogging comes easy to me; academic writing is hard. “Hard” should not be a deterrent for not doing something or a signal that we’re not good at something, like Junot Diaz points out. So I reminded myself why I wanted to share this paper; it is part of a big project I have worked on for so long—and I remembered about how excited I was about having the opportunity to talk with others about my dissertation research and where to go from here.

Blogging comes naturally. The lack of deadlines helps, of course. I blog when I feel like it. However, imposing my own deadlines is not the only reason I’m attracted to blogging (I blog here and at Sounding Out!, in addition to writing guest posts for other blogs, so I do know how to work around blogging deadlines). I usually write about subjects I am interested in, and blogging allows me to either talk about them in general or zoom in on a very narrow aspect of a particular subject. Blogging, for me, is no excuse to not do research, so I try to add links to sources that influence my analysis and thoughts. However, I find the form of blogging comforting: it allows me to speak about subjects in media res—in the middle of my thought process—and to get an immediate response to my writing. Although I know that when I click “Publish” the post is out there for all to see, I have gotten to a point in my blogging where I don’t stress about whether my ideas have slightly changed from an earlier blog post to now. It’s okay if my ideas change; I can write another blog post. They can also be less than 500 words or more than 1000 (posts for Sounding Out! run the gamut of 1200 to 2000 words, whereas here at U Venus we try to stay around 750), but word limits are a challenge instead of an obstacle.  

I don’t feel as comfortable with academic writing. In fact, I’ve always been a little self-conscious about my academic writing. I think part of that stems from what I’ve heard about academic writing (needs to be absolutely polished, needs to be incredibly well-researched, needs to be argumentatively tight as a drum) and my limited experience in traditional academic writing. I’ve written a lot of papers but so far I have stayed away from sending stuff out for publication. I feel I have much writing and thinking to do before I can send something out—a symptom of imposter syndrome.

Perhaps these feelings are remnants from graduate school. Perhaps they arise because academic writing is hard. Perhaps it's my status as an alternative academic: I don't have the time to ruminate and work on my writing and research like I used to, whereas I still want to develop my identity as a scholar, as a researcher.

Perhaps my writer’s block was a matter of form instead of content. I find myself blogging more and more, and writing shorter thought pieces. I feel more comfortable in that genre. Perhaps blessays (penned by Dan Cohen) are more my speed. Maybe my academic voice lies in that kind of writing. Or maybe I am making the move to public intellectual more so than academic. Maybe my writing is scholarly more so than academic. Maybe it's neither...maybe it's something different altogether.

Kansas City, Kansas in the US.

Liana is an Associate Editor at University of Venus. Follow her on Twitter @literarychica.

 

 

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