Deidra Faye Jackson is a Ph.D. candidate in Higher Education at the University of Mississippi. You can find her on Twitter at @DeidraJackson11.
"You should be writing!"
This popular tongue-in-cheek rebuke has been a humorous, if not a durable universal higher educational meme, familiar among graduate student researchers, academic faculty, and other writers. It softly shames us for engaging in activities unrelated to advancing and publishing our research–namely, the laborious and intensive writing part. Oh, the indignity of us partaking in something other than our scholarly writing!
While, maybe, we should be writing, it's easier for some of us to take the comical scolding to heart. During a writing drought and after we've chosen to play pick-up volleyball with friends, spend quality time with family, or read non-academic books for pleasure, we may punish ourselves in the quiet aftermath for not working on our research scholarship. Shame, an outgrowth of the imposter syndrome, which GradHackers have extensively discussed here and here, can embed in us as firmly as our visceral reactions to feeling publicly humiliated.
In reality, we pack our bags for impending guilt trips when blocks and other distractions momentarily prevent us from writing effortlessly. In an interview with Inside Higher Ed Editor Scott Jaschik, Joli Jensen, the Hazel Rogers Professor of Communication at the University of Tulsa, says the unnecessary mystification of academic writing leads "many of us to feel shame and fear when our writing doesn't go smoothly."
It can be even more challenging in the face of looming deadlines, when deep feelings of guilt and embarrassment triggered by writing slumps render us immobile. Before long, we're stuck, and our scholarship has stalled. Sadly, building disengagement can give way to academic writing paralysis.
The voice in our heads scolds us.
"You should be writing!"
You can quell the inner turmoil that exists amid the need to meet timely writing targets and the call to enrich one's emotional self with some intentional actions:
Read, read, and read some more. When you're blocked, and you have yet to transform your own words, computations, and analyses into productive writing, you can at least expand your literature review as a prep for your continuing work. Research shows we learn to write by reading. Academic researchers who argue that only writing–and not reading–advances writing, have it halfway right. Why kick fellow academics when they're down? Broadening one's reading proficiency, as we're compelled to do through lit reviews, inspires graduate researchers to make progress–and write more. This, from writer Mike Elgan: “When you are thinking about what you’ll write, you’re actually engaged in the craft of writing—you’re doing the most important part of writing.”
Write something, anything related to your scholarship. Author Steven Pressfield would call it "making a start." His book, The War of Art, aims to help writers break through all sorts of writing blocks. Ruminating on the words and related meanings connected to your research brings you that much closer to beating the resistance to write.
Get a little help from your friends. Discuss your reading and writing plans with colleagues and friends. Sharing a dialogue with them is good; you starting the conversation is even better for you and your writing progress. GradHacker Brady Krien in a recent article suggests some innovative ways for graduate scholars to communicate their research to the public.
Stop looking for large chunks of time to write. Unless you've been blessed with scholarly serendipity, which could certainly be the case, and you have loads of free time, the luxury of routine lengthy writing sessions is probably unrealistic. Think of your writing episodes as extended series of short piecemeal gains, as opposed to long and unvarying periods of writing.
Recommit yourself to the purpose of your research. Do you remember why you chose your original research topic? Recall your intention to pick that particular subject, to want to dive into the literature, and to discover the truths wrought by your own experimentation in the area. Reclaim your commitment to seeing your study through to the end. And know that you'll need to begin writing (again) to make that a reality.
How are you dealing with scholarly paralysis? How have you overcome academic writing blocks? Share your thoughts with us in the comments or on Twitter, @GradHacker.